Church Actually: Recovering Our Story Again

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In the third part of our serialisation, Gerard Kelly looks at where the Church in the West has lost it place engaging with culture and the need to recover the story of God again in the 21st century.

Story wars

Inward-looking reflections will not make the cut - it will be at the edges of the church where healing will be found

The significance of these four "brilliant ideas" (see God's brilliant ideas) does not arise purely and simply because they are present in the Bible. It arises also from their relevance to our present situation. They are not a description of the church as it is theoretically described, but as it is actually called to be.

As such they are a response to the very real crisis in which the Western church finds itself. A culture is shaped by hope and aspiration, defined by the stories it tells of itself, and the West has walked away from the church because the church's narrative no longer inspires. A monochrome story fails to catch the breath of those who hear it. For millions of people across Europe the Christian churches have been archived in memory and history: they form part of our past but not of our future and have no power to fuel our dreams today.

No culture on earth has been post-Christian in quite the way Europe is. We have been through the years of Christendom and come out the other side. Contemporary Christians are minoritized and marginalized, small in number and forced to the edges of the culture. The story that shaped the art and institutions of the West over centuries no longer does so. The Christian adventure has lost its capacity to inspire the heart and ignite the human imagination. For some, this is cause for great rejoicing, as the era of Christendom – a world-dominating Eurocentric faith marrying political and spiritual powers – is once and for all declared dead.

But leaving behind the baggage of an imperial faith is one thing. Leaving behind the very story that has shaped us is a deeper loss altogether. Where we go next has global ramifications. "We're fighting a new kind of war: a Story War", Leonard Sweet has suggested. "Who ultimately wins? The one who out-narrates the opposition, who tells the better story."

Is there a faith-story to inspire again the hearts and minds of the West? Can we escape the monochrome narratives of modernity to recover the richer colours of God's story? To do so will require us to confront three questions currently surfacing in the emerging generations.

Unless we find again a full-colour vision of God's church we will lose, again and againNo automatic transmission

The first is the vital question of faith transmission.

Passing on the faith is not an option, it is a biblical imperative. Psalm 78 expresses this in the ancient commitment to "tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord"

For me, this has meant wrestling over three decades with the challenge of evangelism and youth ministry in Europe. Living and working in the UK, France and the Netherlands and engaging with local churches across Europe, I have seen at first hand the uncontrolled "spillage" of faith, as congregation after congregation, denomination after denomination, singularly fails to capture the imagination of the rising generations. Youth ministry is not only about young people, it is about the future of the church; about the transmission of a faith that, without radical change, will die with the current generation. The need to rediscover the brilliance of God's plan for the church becomes urgent when set against the needs of faith transmission. Unless we find again a full-colour vision of God's church we will lose, again and again, the hearts and allegiance of God's children.

Time to go vs. status quo

The second question is that of the missional church.
For many in the rising generations this question, of the recovery of a truly missional understanding of the life of faith, has become a make-or-break issue. Our young leaders are asking not just that the church should "do" mission, as if programmes and activities could fill the void, but that the church should "be" missional, to its very core: calibrated not to service its members but to serve a world in need.

This quest has found expression in recent years in a whole range of experiments loosely collected under the banner of "emerging church" or "alternative worship" and flowing into mainline denominations in movements such as Fresh Expressions. The missional movement seeks to turn the church away from its inward-focused and maintenance-based agenda to an outward-looking perspective; fostering engagement with the wider culture and a genuine encounter with unchurched and de-churched populations.

But this is a movement in its early stages, and a minority one at that. It is still not clear whether the new missional churches have the capacity to displace outmoded models of church or popular conceptions of the faith. For every book or resource representing the longing for a more missional church there are hundreds, if not thousands, that do not: and the average church experience – for visitors and for adherents – remains tragically unmoving. There is a deathly sense of "business as usual" hanging over much of the Christian world, especially in resources that are produced not for missional specialists but for the "ordinary" Christian. Many of those seeking a deeper missional understanding of the church share a feeling – a deep- down hunch articulated in many different ways but remarkably consistent across the divergent cultures and denominations of the West – that there is something dangerously wrong in the loss of contact between church and culture.

If our churches are ever to be vibrant and healthy again they will need to recover their dynamic dialogue with their host cultures. Inward-looking reflections will not make the cut – it will be at the edges of the church, where the life of faith meets the wider life of society, that healing will be found. What resources will help us find once again, at the meeting-points of church and culture, the energy of a missional faith? Can we move from doing mission as an application of our creeds to living mission as the essence of our faith? What dreams do we need to dream to fund our greater engagement with God's mission in the world?

Taken from Church Actually by Gerard Kelly, published by Monarch Books. Buy Church Actually now at Eden.co.uk.

21st March

March 21st, 2012 - Posted & Written by The Editor

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