An article from Healthy Church magazine, March-April 2004. Argues that ‘change processes’ and ‘health indicators’ can only help a church realise its mission when it knows in transformatory terms what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.
On one point the boomingly positive vicar was adamant: “What we need is something practical, not more theories.” That was what stuck with me as I prepared to meet a network of regional church leaders. They had invited me to present Building Bridges of Hope (BBH), an ecumenical project aiming to help inherited and emergent churches to realise their missionary vocation more fully.
What the group especially wanted to hear about was the ‘seven learning indicators’ for mission-shaped church which BBH has discovered through years of action-research. These concern the capacity to focus vision, build local partnerships, share faith and values, nourish daily life with prayer and worship, develop shared leadership, become ‘learning communities’, and (crucially) receive external accompaniment.
Fair enough, I thought. I believe in this stuff. I know it can ‘work’. Yet I still felt distinctly uneasy. What worries me about many aspirational Christian leaders, I guess, is the apparent ease with which they slip into the language and assumptions of ‘technocratic success’ – the belief that if only we can find the right techniques and press the right switches things will get better. Even prayer and worship are recast by this ideology, so that God becomes the über-arranger of our destiny, rather than the Sovereign disturber of our peace.
The fact is, we are called to be church in an impatient society. Our culture trains us to expect solutions, to value things we can measure or own, and to suspect introspection. Of course such pragmatism can be a virtue, just as ‘more theories’ can be a defence against the threat of actually doing something! But pragmatism can also be an excuse to avoid the truth that ‘being church’ well is necessarily messy and difficult. So, before we can make good use of change processes and indicators, we have to be prepared to face a really tough question we usually skip. Who are we, exactly? Or, what is this ‘church’ for whose health we strive?
In practice, there are many different ways of answering this question. One obvious (and underestimated) approach is to scrutinise the churches in your locality as objectively as you can. Then describe what you see. You’ll notice that they are large and small, ritualistic and non-ritualistic, tightly gathered and widely dispersed. Some are good at evangelism – or at least, they give it first priority, which may not be quite the same thing. Others stress social ministry and community engagement in the name of Christ. Some (fewer) do both, and some neither.
A number put huge emphasis on prayer, or worship, or the Bible, or teaching, or service, or the gifts of the church tradition out of which they came. Many blend a number of these attributes and more besides. There are churches which operate in relation to a catchment area and those who don’t. Those that galvanise particular kinds of people and those that attract an odd mix, and so on. Gifts, temperaments and preferences differ widely.
All this diversity makes measuring the health of any given church quite tricky. When I worked as a hands-on adviser for a large Anglican diocese I spent a fair bit of time talking to people about what churchly vitality means and how you encourage it. The variety of answers was huge, and multiplied exponentially when I met with non-denominational pastors, Orthodox priests, cell group leaders, Black-majority churches and so on. In my own Christian journey I have also worshipped with Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, Catholics, Copts and charismatics, among others. You could forgive me for being confused…
My point, however, is that how people measure the health of a church depends hugely on their particular Christian experience, so we need to spend some time thinking about the significance of this variety within the overall economy of God. Sometimes when I say that people tut-tut and tell me I’m starting in the wrong place. If we turn to the Bible, they say, we will discover clear guidelines about what a church is supposed to be and how you will know whether it’s in good shape.
Since the biblical witness is central to my faith I’d like to agree. But our simple affirmation of the Bible doesn’t abolish the differences I’ve pointed up. For a start I can’t help noticing that many of those who insist that their views are taken directly from the pages of Scripture disagree with each other the most. This also applies to their opinions about what constitutes an authentic, healthy church.
It is easy to put these disagreements down to obstinacy, blindness, stupidity, interpretative fallibility or (if we’re feeling generous) the simple mistakenness of the other person. More rarely do we notice that the Bible contains a mystery far greater than our fallible appropriation of it; or that, if you turn to the pages of the New Testament without firmly-fixed blinkers, you’ll find it hard not to notice a number of ‘models’ and ‘expressions’ of church, not one. On this basis the first few centuries of Christian endeavour sprouted church forms ranging from basic house fellowships to elaborate ritual communities – the roots of pretty well everything that we see today.
This ought to enable us to be a bit more relaxed with one another. After all, ‘being biblical’ is not about assuming that God only works in our way. It is about slowly learning how the Gospel story re-shapes and ‘re-narrates’ us. And as we experience that we begin to notice that this ‘us’ gets bigger. Yes, even that awful church down the road may have noticed something in the Gospel witness which we’ve missed, no matter how wrong they seem in other ways.
To recognise this is not soppy liberalism. It is opening ourselves to the unexpected workings of Word and Spirit in and beyond the messes we invariably make. It is also about suspending judgement in Christ, and then inviting Christ’s merciful judgement to overtake our self-interested variety. For, before all else, ‘church’ is a bunch of people who are in the process of being forgiven and remade in Jesus. This being so, we should find our own capacity to forgive and remake immeasurably enlarged – along with our commitment, lovingness, faithfulness and hopefulness.
So defining the essential ‘health’ of a church always means much more than looking at indicators. It means, in fact, ‘discerning the Body’. In spelling out one of his central metaphors for ekklesia (those ‘called out’, changed, then sent back into the world with a purpose), St Paul speaks of the Christian community as being established in two ways. First, through the invited presence of the Spirit and indwelling the Word, the church becomes an extension of the incarnation, the continuation of the crucified and risen Body of Christ in the world ( see 1 Corinthians 12). Second, it is a ragged Body whose unity is given by God as it participates in Christ’s life through word and action; yet it is remains comprised of parts that look and function remarkably differently. Think about this: it isn’t ‘theory’, it’s methodology – but rooted in theology, not the latest technical fix.
In these terms a healthy church is, quite straightforwardly, one that is seeking, in its own particular way, to offer Christly words and gestures to a fractured world – ones that present the reconciliation generated by God and show people just how radically new the world would look if it was understood as part of the broken and restored body of Jesus. Among other things, St Paul suggests, the Gospel is lived through the Body by finding hands-on ways of bearing pain (as well as joy) together, rather than dumping it on one another. Just imagine how different things could be if a few people took this seriously! This new way of life is what God offers in Christ. The healthy church, no matter how vulnerable, welcomes it. The unhealthy church, no matter how big, ‘sound’ and successful, refuses, avoid or denies it.
So that is what I decided to share with those church leaders, strange though some found it. Only as we discern what church means as a ‘body politic’ in the world will we know what it means to be made whole. Sure, health and fitness is a big industry right now. But what it mostly sells is external beauty, physical patch-ups and the postponement of death. I’m not knocking this out-of-hand, but it hardly constitutes the scale of transformation that becomes possible when we decide instead to unite our brokenness to that of the Crucified One so that we can be raised to a new dimension of life with him.
The church is no more or less than the community of persons who know themselves to be undergoing this difficult transformation. When we ‘get’ this we will recognise that accompaniment is an essential component of being part of the Body of Christ, not an add-on programme. Then we will appropriate good ‘health indicators’ (like those connected with Building Bridges of Hope) as ways of growing into Christ, not as trendy bits of organisational astrology.