In my first article (‘Getting the Church to be a real Body’, Healthy Church, Spring 2004) I suggested that the quality of the corporate life of the Christian community is the key to its health and witness.
It is how we treat each other and those around us that either honours or betrays the Gospel message which calls us together and sends us out. Seek God’s face first, says Jesus, and the rest will fall into place (though not always in the way we plan it).
Fair enough. But what are the signs of churchly health understood in these terms? How do we develop ‘tools for the job’ when the job is about who we are and how we are, not just about what we do?
These were among the questions that led to the setting up of Building Bridges of Hope (BBH) in 1996.
BBH today is a network of mission-shaped churches from many different traditions – Anglican, Free Church, Catholic, Evangelical and beyond. Together they are discovering how the support of an outside accompanier, a critical friend, can help them to re-think what they stand for and what they are about.
BBH accompaniers make use of seven learning indicators developed out of extensive research across Britain and Ireland. These aren’t ‘levers to instant success’. They’re pointers (signs) of the kind of things that will be seen when a church is conscious of its vocation, and won’t be seen (blunders) when it isn’t.
The first indicator is focussing vision. The idea is not to add up all we’re doing and turn it into an inspiring slogan, but to ask whose are we, and therefore who and what God might enable us to be. That could involve affirming our current directions; or it might mean a huge turn around in priorities.
One active parish with big programmes found it needed to face a tough question: ‘If we didn’t have all these successful projects, what would be left?’ It begun to see that its activism masked a desire for control (and a fear of losing it), and that this could only be changed by learning again how to pray.
Another struggling chapel realised that, in spite of its lack of worldly resources, it had a tremendous gift for hospitality. That became the basis of an unexpected mission: showing Christ’s welcome in a suspicious and divided community.
The thing to notice is that vision is the starting point. What we need is not better plans and organisation for their own sake, but a fresh picture of what our church and community might look like if God’s love really was the defining reality.
Of course at a certain point the issue of translating a sense of God’s calling into integrated strategies for community engagement, mature spiritual life, enabling leadership and appropriate structure becomes very important. But without inspiration the perspiration will be so much sweat.
Next comes building local partnerships. The grace at the heart of the Gospel reminds us that we are not alone, that God is always at work ahead of us. This is the true significance of seeking and forming links to those with similar (or complementary) concerns in the wider community, both inside and outside the church.
The reign of God is a seed-spreading reality. Put another way, it happens not through empires but through networks. Many churches are discovering that self-sufficiency is neither desirable nor possible.
Again, the key is relationships. If ‘community involvement’ is only about projects and service-delivery it becomes a source of exhaustion rather than renewal.
In the Bradford Inner Ring Group churches of different traditions are pooling resources for common witness and service. The tough bit is how to make structures serve mission, rather than the other way round!
All this involves sharing faith and values – a commitment to respectful and creative ways of telling and showing the Gospel story.
This is something most churches involved in Building Bridges of Hope name as a priority, but which in practice they find difficult.
We increasingly live in a culture where church is no longer normal, the basics of the Christian message are not known, and the church as institution is suspected and ignored.
This post-Christendom context need not be a problem. It could be an opportunity to move beyond the mistakes of the past (preaching at people from a position of power, rather than building relationships in which Christ may surprise us all.)
In his new book Unofficial God, Bishop Brian Castle quotes a seeker as saying, ‘We are fed up with looking for God in your hiding places.’ The Gospel is about the redemption of the world, not building gated communities of the pious.
Like Jesus we are invited to meet those on the edges, often in difficult places, to let them experience how God both affirms and changes us so that we can receive a new quality of life – one the Gospel calls eternal.
Churches can only do this when they are nourishing daily living, by relating biblical faith to personal life, work and culture in society today. This entails prayer, entering the dialogue by which we discover God’s life in us; and worship, by which we allow our priorities to be re-ordered through God’s story.
For one church involved in BBH, the growth point was not new ‘mission activities’ but re-entering just such a life of prayer so that both the faith and attractiveness of the Body was restored.
This quality-based approach to Christian mission inevitably involves developing shared leadership – the importance of being team players, animated by one another and able to pool skills and knowledge.
The shared leadership environment is one that enables our gifts to be spread and used effectively. It is also an ethos that helps create trust in working with others, both inside and outside the church. Churches in Plymouth working on neighbourhood renewal testify to this.
The evidence of BBH is also that as inherited church structures struggle over resources, and as emergent church communities grow up, paid ministers need to be animators of others not collectors of roles and tasks.
In this changing environment churches are therefore becoming communities of learning: places where the lessons about how to be ‘bridge builders’ can be developed, consolidated and extended.
Last but not least it is the willingness to be accompanied, the ability to receive a critical friend from outside who will help us to see ourselves with fresh eyes, which is the catalyst for faith change. Not just change for its own sake.
These Building Bridges of Hope indicators are qualitative, not quantitative. They enable us both to learn from our blunders and to generate new signs of the Body working and witnessing in the world.
They are a source of encouragement and hope, not ‘measurement’. For hope is what churchly health means: not that we are always well (sometimes we aren’t), but that in all we do we are connected to the true Source of well-being.