At the 1999 National Anglican Church Planting Conference, Graham Cray challenged the church planting movement to prioritise outreach towards the totally non-churched. Looking at emerging cultural trends, he suggested what he believes we need most for effective mission in the new millennium. (Read on for an abridged version of Graham’s plenary address)
I suggest that what we need most for a new millennium is a renewal of imagination about the form of church as the Church of England understands and practises it.
It used to be the thing to plant a church among the fringes of your congregation. My challenge is to prioritise your outreach towards the majority of people – the totally nonchurched. Third and fourth generation non-church attenders who tend to say they believe in God, but the God they are talking about has no real Christ shape. They have not been to Sunday School. They have learnt little, if anything, about the Christian faith at school.
You will need to go where they are, you will not get them to come to you. Plant churches that are shaped by their culture, but reflect Christ. The Christian distinctive stays, but otherwise the shape of the church is substantially decided by the actual lifestyle and circumstances of the people you are trying to reach. The very shape of church we are used to can be a stumbling block to the gospel. No one expression or shape of church life will fit the whole of our diverse culture. I suggest that to have in mind what a church plant will look like probably won’t work. We need a baptised imagination in the practice of mission, not just dreaming up what we think we are going to do under God as we begin.
The underlying theological principle beneath what I am saying is a conviction that when the seed called “gospel” is planted in a community, that seed has within it a corporate community of believers called church. We need a renewed confidence in the gospel to grow church without presuming upon its form at the time when we plant. Plant the gospel and see what kind of church grows. Don’t plan in advance what it is going to be.
Where are they?
Firstly, they are in consumer land. Consumerism is the only resource available to most people today to answer the most compelling questions. Every day it reinforces the sense of who you are, and for those who don’t have the wherewithal to shop, it reinforces the sense of who you are not. You can be anything you wannabe.
My sovereign right to make my consumer choices is the core value of consumerism. ‘My’ and ‘I’ live at the centre of that and therefore in one sense it is a contemporary form of sin. The only way you are going to be able to plant the gospel and plant a church among the non-churched is to go where the contemporary forms of sin are worked out and offer an alternative Consumerism has a spiritual power that is shaping people into polite hedonism as a lifestyle or aspiration. If we cannot offer a lived alternative to identity based on consumerism, we will become nothing more than another flavour on the consumer shelves with a bit of spirituality tacked on.
Secondly they are nomadic and tribal. Community is fragmented and split off from locality. People gather tribally around consumer choices, like brand names, football clubs and bands, as a temporary focus of common interest. But they are nomadic, so the tribes keep moving on. If you are going to be where the people on the move are, then you are going to be on the move. Even our ideas of church and place might need to change. It is critical that we understand that community is splitting from locality for many people, whether we like it or not. Communities where people have the same values and live next to one another are increasingly those who cannot get out due to age or poverty, rather than choice. The first stage of our strategy is to reach people where they are, in the form of community they actually live in, and not the ones we believe they ought to live in. You plant churches in networks, communities of people who do have a relationship with one another, not in streets of people who ought to have a relationship with one another.
Once the gospel begins to make an impact, the narrowness of the boundaries of people’s relationships is challenged. Offer an alternative to consumerism from within it. They are not consumers – we are consumers. Then, as soon as a group of people begins to respond to the gospel, establish discipleship groups as a matter of priority. In those groups look at the
key issues which according to David Lyons are currently answered by consumerism. “Who am I?”, “Where do I fit in?”, “What is worth living for?”. Win them, and then from within, begin to raise the issues that challenge consumerism at its roots.
Young people and young adults are on the cutting edge of our culture’s transition. What is happening to them now is not the latest youth trend but a foretaste of what will happen to the whole culture. To plant a church in an emerging cultural era, one has to begin with the young, whether or not it remains a youth congregation. But there will also be local communities of the trapped, and we must certainly sow the gospel there too. The elderly are the growing demographic group and we have tremendous opportunities to reach them. There is a great harvest to be won with the traditional resource of the church. We need at least a twin strategy, “as well as”, not “instead of”.
What does this strategy look like?
Firstly, don’t fool yourself about bridge projects – they don’t work. Soul Survivor Watford was planted as a bridge project. It became a youth targeted church plant. Youth got on the bridge and would not get off. The jump to the highly traditional form of Anglicanism at St Andrews, Chorleywood was hugely too far culturally!
Get the church into the shopping centres; consider an area or deanery youth congregation with the cells in local churches; put your resources together; identify initiatives with the elderly; and if you do all that stuff, effective mission must be allowed to create problems of unity. All that stuff about unity in the New Testament was because they planted churches among people not like them, called Gentiles, and then had problems about how they held together in the body of Christ. First do it, then sort out the glorious problem. Christian unity is not meant to be a spiritual form of birth control.
What does this imply for the Church of England?
The Declaration of Ascent at ordination calls the church to “proclaim afresh each generation the scriptural and credal faith which it affirms”. The ecclesiological implications of this commitment have not been grasped. What I long for, is that when you say the words “parish” or “St Peter’s”, the last thing that comes to your mind is the group of people who worship at 10.30 on Sunday morning, let alone the building. What comes to your mind is a whole combination of initiatives. We need a new understanding of a parish as a network of communities moving towards faith or deepening in faith. We need lots of new initiatives in real mutual servant relationship with one another, each feeling incomplete without the rest, but not all trying to do the same thing at the same time.
This article was originally produced for an ACPI circular called “News From”. This paper publication was (usually) published and distributed free to those on our mailing list twice a year between 1997 and 2001. Please bear in mind that the articles were written several years ago, and circumstances may have changed and people may have moved on.