Introducing the mission and church planting seminar at the 20th Christian Resources Exhibition at Sandown Park on 12 May, George Lings, Research Director of the Church Army addressed the pressing need to reform the traditional church in order to bring back its spirituality.
From the statistical data of his research, forty percent of adults in England and Wales have left the church in their lifetime. Lings commented, “That is an extraordinary volume of water to lose out of the church bath. It looks distinctly careless. Yet, half of this de-churched group is open to return if we just find them and get our act together. Our call is to engage with a society moving away from - and out of touch with - church.”
Recognising the wide variety of exciting new churches emerging in Europe, for example, Café Church, Cell Church, Community development Church, Church for Networks, School church and Youth congregations, Lings shared his vision with the Christian leaders about how a future church should be. He introduced the idea of Mission-shaped church.
Making Mission to be the Centre
He described today’s church as entering a “Copernican revolution”. He said, “We are being forced to shift away from thinking that the Church is the centre of life to which we draw others, to realising the Son's mission – that’s SON OF GOD is the centre. Jesus’ ongoing mission is the centre.” It is quite reformative, just like Astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus proposed that the sun is the centre of the universe instead of the earth, while all the people at that age still believed in the wrong centre.
Lings reminded Christian leaders of the life of mission of Jesus Christ by referring to Philippians Chapter 2; he lowered himself to become a servant. Mission shapes what the people of God do and how they are. He challenged church leaders to wake up to the fact that traditional churches should not just expect people to come, they should become what the people around them need. This is what a Mission-shaped church is about.
Communication of Gospel in Cross-Cultural Context
Lings continued to explain the process of going out from the centre of mission. He used the analogy of planting a seed in the soil to show how to plant a church in a cross-cultural context. He refers to John 12, Jesus taught that the seed should DIE and be planted INTO the soil. Jesus saw his own life and ministry as a seed that would die, but through this it would lead to the creation of much fruit.
“The seed stands for the incoming church planting team, bearing in their bones the essence of the gospel and of the church. This seed dies to its previous identity. They have to be willing to set aside those preferences and likes, to find how to be a church and how to communicate gospel in the context to which God sends them. This is like Paul saying in 1 Cor 9 ‘to the Greeks I became as a Greek’. “
“This seed will become a body, a plant, that it was not before. The planting team [or seed] draws nourishment and resources from that environment as it sends out roots and then a shoot emerges. In church planting, the seed community becomes a new body of believers, as well as a body of new believers,” said Lings, explaining his church planting theory.
Holding In Tension the Church Tradition and Contemporary Culture
However, Lings emphasised that listening to both contemporary culture and to church traditions are vital. “If you only listen to culture then you will end up with syncretism – in which gospel and church are perverted and distorted by the culture. Only listen to the inherited tradition and the life and message of Jesus will not engage the culture and nothing is gained.” By so called “Double listening”, the church is able to hold in tension both a creative engagement with context and faithfulness to the good news in Jesus.
“Double listening” also means sifting the inherited tradition of both gospel and church and finding its essence, not its forms. Lings cited the example in Acts 17, Apostle Paul rejected circumcision as necessary for new Greek Christian believers when he was in Athens.
Defining the Church by Values Instead of Shape
The final point Lings put across was for the need to “grow churches that are defined by values but not by shapes.” There are four journeys- UP, IN, OUT, OF- that a mission-shaped church needs to go through. UP refers to “the expression of a church seeking to be holy”. Churches are to worship God in spirit and truth, but not only playing liturgical games. IN refers to “demonstration of the church seeking to express its being one.” Members in a church are not in “organisational artificial glue”, but the diversified bodies come together as one in unity because of the love in Christ.
OUT directs to the “manifestation of the church seeking to live out being apostolic”. Churches should engage in mission to fulfill the calling of Jesus to be apostles. OF means “the expression of being whole and interconnected”. None in the Body of Christ exist for themselves, or by themselves, each one are interdependent, just like Apostle Paul has urged in I Cor 12.
The Bishop of Dorchester, Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, shared the same views as George Ling, and added that “the emerging church has to be more strongly relational and rooted at the centre of communities if it is to be mission-shaped for the people who need it.”
The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Graham Cray, author of the Church of England’s mission-shaped church report supports the role of Church Army in helping things to change.