I spent last Friday morning at the truly remarkable and impressive Skainos project in East Belfast with Glenn Jordan and a bunch of others listening and engaging with Alan Roxburgh of the missional network on missional church and such. (For more see his books]
I’d read and really liked some of his stuff but hadn’t heard him in person and didn’t have any particular expectations. So his wit and sharp humour was a bonus on top of a plenty of thought provoking material on faith, culture and missional church.
As Hargaden is wont to point out, I’ve a particular obsession interest in consumerism and evangelicalism (and am in the middle to teaching a course on faith & contemporary culture). Roxburgh had plenty to say around that intersection and at times I found myself shouting ‘preach it brother’ (silently of course, I’m an introvert).
I thought it worth giving a flavour of the conversation under a couple of headings – and these are very much my headings and my take and are not quotes, apart from this one
“’Retire’ is a dirty word designed by modernity”
A big theme was his call for the local and contextual rather than an obsession with importing the abstract and contextless ‘model’ of church growth from elsewhere (Willow Creek got more than one mention).
Tracing development via Descartes, Kantian universalism and the Enlightenment, there is a modern love of the abstract, of universal principles. And this means that you cannot trust the everyday.
Focus on models and systems of ‘how to’ from elsewhere and in very different contexts really represents a distrust and lack of faith in the local community. It is saying ‘I don’t believe’ in the gospel, in the local, in the possibility that God can and does work through the everyday, in ways which are surprising and unexpected and most often through precisely his people’s lack of resources and power and control.
Looking for the new model to crack the problem of church planting or church growth is usually just males trying to prove they are in control. 😉 And isn’t it amazing and coincidental that such models are nearly always white, wealthy and American?
And if you want to look underneath that theology, have a look at the place where that person is speaking from. Most of American evangelicalism (80%) is wealthy and suburban with a theology that is shaped (accommodated?) around the needs and anxieties of suburban Amercianism.
Which leads on to discussion of gospel.
Fair to say he was pretty bluntly critical of a lot of contemporary expressions of evangelicalism. Yet he was also not saying ‘all the answers are over here’. Nor was he dismissing the presence of God within his flawed church.
Much of American evangelical gospel is offering a personal salve for anxiety to an individualistic and consumerist culture. Consumerism disengages people, it advances through abstraction, disconnects from relationships and creates superficial identity.
And what a lot of evangelicalism does is to provide spiritual prozac. ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ Such a gospel is designed as an escape from consumerism and anxiety.
The gospel is ebbing in the West primarily because the church has bought into modernity, hook line and sinker. The gospel is not about saving souls, it is about kingdom transformation within what is a hostile and fundamentally destructive late-capitalist culture.
Much evangelical gospelling says little or nothing about the call to discipleship within this hostile culture – it assumes a neutrality or even assumes capitalism and consumerism are obviously good things.
3. Missional Church and leadership
Church is fundamentally about embodiment – real people in relationship. So you get silly Christians writing books on ‘Liquid Church’ or electronic ‘network church’ and meeting in ‘Third Spaces’ and calling that church.
(Note to Sean Mullan !- what he saying was not applicable to a place like Third Space in Dublin which is quite a different idea if using the same name!)
He has little time for emerging church – come and gone.
Story here of a man choosing to meet others in a ‘third space’ in Starbucks as a form of Christian ‘community’. You can’t get much less of a neutral space than that highly commodified space. The man drives to this space in his own personal space (car), at a time of his own choosing, to a place that invites you in to spend money, to meet like-minded people, he can leave when he chooses, and the demands the ‘community’ makes on him are minimal. Such community is, at heart, selfish and individualistic.
Roxburgh’s call is to the local and to relationship. An invitation to re-form and re-imagine the gospel and the church. To spend much time listening to the Other; looking for narratives locally; spending time by living alongside; and then bring that local context into conversation with biblical narratives and discerning what does the gospel look like in this local context?
This is a form of doing local theology using local ingredients – to try to ‘wake up’ to how the powers and principalities are shaping the culture and to engage within the narrative of God kingdom come.
And in this process it is worth thinking of how stratified and divided society is. Rather than the standard middle-class answers of help to the poor, what is called for is something far harder – to build relationship, to eat together, to respect and include in community.
Rather than curse the suburbs or the city, the task is to try to re-imagine what the suburbs or city could be. (Just as Skainos has tried to re-imagine what inner-city East Belfast could be).
And so the call of missional leadership (5 posts on this here): to live and be in the neigbourhood. To be delivered from the need to be in control and to have models to implement. To be theologians of the ordinary and local. To be given permission to experiment. To be abbots inviting people into a rule of life. The use of liturgy and office gets beyond the evangelical lucky dip of what sort of service you are going to get in any particular church. To know the people – their own narratives and the narratives of their neighbourhoods.
In preaching, not to be therapeutic. He sees preaching much more as being given the task to mess with people’s minds rather than deliver neatly packaged answers. To provoke people to think what does it mean to follow Jesus in this world with its alternative narratives and values and telos? To make people think at the end. ‘This Bible is much weirder than I thought’.
This includes preparing sermons in a local coffee shop. Listening to the local. Making the links from text to life. And working against the idea that the sermon is ‘the main event’. Church is more than one event within a service, and is more a service – it is who and what people are in their community.
Comments, as ever, welcome.