A while back a friend was going to address a large gathering of a historic denomination in another continent and called me on the phone for ideas as he was doing his preparation.
One of his questions was “What are the things that we observe that have most contributed to the beginnings of a “sea change” within the Church of England towards mission, Fresh Expressions and church planting?”
One of my answers was that we have been blessed with a whole generation of leaders at the grass roots who have been passionate about mission and change, but who have been totally committed to the inherited church they belong to and have worked for change from within. The term that came to my mind to describe these folk was “Loyal Radicals”. As I came up with this summary descriptive phrase, it seemed to take on a particular ring of significance.
Then a few months later, the friend gave me feedback that his conference address and input had gone really well and that the concept of “Loyal Radicals” had been particularly helpful. As it happened we were then on a visit to Germany, speaking and networking with leaders in the national church (EKD). In one of our sessions I was led to refer to the principle of loyal radicals as key agents for change in traditional historic denominations. Again this immediately struck a chord – and what is more it translated word for word into German – “Loyal Radikal”, but the really striking thing was how folk kept repeating the words and saying – they didn’t belong together, they seemed a contradiction! But they also said, that it was precisely for that reason that there was power in the concept. Everyone automatically assumed that radicals were rebels. To put together the two apparent opposites seemed to create a whole new way of thinking; an explosion of possibilities.
So what are some of the characteristics that we observe about these loyal radicals?
First, they really love the church they are a part of, even though they are passionate for change and often immensely frustrated by the built-in institutional resistance to change.
Secondly their commitment to missional transformation of the church is fired by a gift of faith that God is able to bring about change even where it seems impossible. This gift of faith leads them to believe that whatever the appearances, God must have a way through. This positive perspective is probably essential to sustain the love behind the loyalty in the face of apparent considerable inertia.
This faith is also usually combined with an attitude and a strategy. The attitude is to always expect to find the way round or through the obstacles and to press and press every aspect with an inner confidence that a way is there somewhere. This attitude is linked to a strategy that I describe as “looking for the slightest crack in the door, sticking your foot firmly in it and keep pressing it there as long as it takes to ease the door open.” This is all about careful and thorough review to identify the healthy creative pressure points.
Now mission innovation in historic denominations has two main challenges to address. Not only must it respond to the needs of the dramatically changed and diverse mission context. It must also engage with the inherited structural anatomy that would either limit the release of the mission energy and resources or cramp the ownership and incorporation of the developing church. So perhaps we could combine two other words that are unusual bedfellows and describe this as “benevolent subversion”.
Some loyal radicals have not only responded by pioneering new ways through to mission engagement, but have also served in the structural bodies and committees. A real sacrifice for pioneers who usually have little political ambition and for whom such roles appear “oh so slow and boring!”
Other strategies of the loyal radical will include the gathering of stories of good gospel fruit of the pioneering missional initiatives and then finding appropriate ways for their communication and dissemination. They have also developed networks of practitioners for learning and encouragement.
It is obvious that another essential quality for loyal radicalism, it lots of patience and forbearance, and this is where some in the emerging church movement may understandably part company and say that time is too short and the mission imperative too urgent. We fully understand and respect this response to what has often seemed predominantly unresponsive traditional denominational structures.
However, we have the suspicion that it is the steady persistence of more and more loyal radicals that makes the vision of a “mixed economy” possible. Archbishop Rowan’s mixed economy vision is built on honouring the inherited mode and encouraging it wherever it can still have missional effect and energetically developing fresh expressions that arise from engagement with cultures and contexts beyond the inherited mode. To be healthy this twin development requires that honouring of one another that is borne out of loyalty.