I’ve just re-read a fascinating little book by Alan Roxburgh called The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality. Not new (1997), not long (66 pages) but it packs quite a punch and speaks prophetically into the challenges facing the 21st western church. It’s well worth discussing as an introduction to missional church and Roxburgh’s work and I want to use this post to tee things up.
His book is relevant because Christianity as we’ve known it in Ireland is at a turning point. To put it mildly, it’s impossible to imagine the Catholic Church ever having the same relationship with Irish identity and culture that gave it unchallenged power and prestige. Protestant churches seem to be in decline. While evangelicals in Ireland have seen growth, they remain a tiny minority. In the UK there are denominational death dates – at current rates of change it can be predicted when many older established denominations will cease to exist. The wider culture has shifted, the future is uncertain. We are transitioning from a deeply Christendom culture [where the church was central and powerful and respected] to one where those holding a Christian faith are increasingly marginal, less influential and have far fewer resources than in the past.
As Roxburgh says, pastors feel vulnerable, confused and defensive. Denominational executives are like firemen, running from one crisis to another. Ministry roles are changing so quickly that many are just trying to survive. There is little space for deeper reflection about the massive changes sweeping through the culture. There is a recognition of the desperate need to move from ‘maintenance to mission’. Yet there appears little real sense of how this shift is going to happen. Structures seem wedded to the past. Within denominations, after half a century of discussion about moving beyond ‘one man ministry’, clericalism remains entrenched. The model of professional clergy ‘owing the experience necessary to dispense religious care and functions’ to a guaranteed membership belongs to a bygone era.
Visionaries and radicals tend to end up beating their heads against brick walls of inertia or old centralised bureaucratic systems. Where decline has rung alarm bells, responses tend to be ones that hope somehow to return to the past or cling on to a privileged place at the centre of culture. Neither option seems viable.
Missional church is all about the churches understanding this changed context. Especially in understanding themselves as missionary communities in a post-Christendom culture. These are the sorts of issues Roxburgh takes up and has developed at much more length in writings and ministry.
How do you see the challenges facing the church in post-Christendom Ireland ?