Posted by: Rowland | December 8, 2007

Missional Church – What kind of Church?

Prepared people are initially more important (see previous post), but the question, (Is. 66) ‘What kind of house/church?’ remains and is the centre of much concern, imagination, prayer, etc. Sitting by a swimming pool in the 1960’s at an evangelical Christian holiday/conference centre I realised that whilst evangelical Christians insisted on scriptural doctrine they differed on the relevance of scripture to church structure, either searching for the only biblical model or considering that if something was not forbidden then it was allowable i.e. there was room for development of preferences over the centuries in the structure of church.

Two things at the time convinced me that scriptural precedents were perhaps more significant: the longer survival of the ‘underground’ house churches in the very recent communist takeover of China (Watchman Nee’s writings etc.) and the charismatic movement illustrating the virtue of the small group gatherings indicated in 1 Corinthians 14: 26. The pulpit/pew, clergy/laity settings just didn’t ‘cut it’ any more for me.

But later c. 1980 I came across two articles by Graham Pulkingham on ‘The Shape of the Church to Come’ in a small book, ‘Renewal, an emerging pattern’ and the following are excerpts:

I think, in large measure, the working model for the church in every age must be a secular one, which is to say, not a religious one. I do not mean that the church should imitate the secular world, or that it should follow its example. I see a difference between example and model. By model I mean an historic, concrete reference point.

… the world in which God’s people live must provide them with models for the shape, structure and forms of life. I see no other possibility for an incarnational faith.

As we are sensitive to the shape of the world and obedient to the Spirit of God, we will determine the shape of the church…

At the time Graham, an American Episcopal priest, was Provost of the Cathedral of the Isles (Great Cumbrae) and other books reveal his interest in developing Communities. It’s also interesting to me that the Fisherfolk Community, as they were known, should be based on an island off the Scottish mainland – echoes of Iona, Lindisfarne etc.

Fascinating too that this Episcopal priest should grasp and put into practice this more ‘hidden’, scriptural insight into the church of the New Testament, that is the subject of so much welcome attention today and which escaped my evangelical friends by the pool.

As for the church of today ‘one size does not fit all’ and there is room for the love of God to be expressed in many truly scriptural, creative ways. A new, sensitive generation must break out of the mould yet incorporate much that is good from the past as they determine the shape of the church.


  1. Rowley,

    Pardon my sharing a few of my own thoughts on this, on the strength of that double-edged “gift,” insomnia power.

    My own eye-opening experience on church was maybe 15 years later than yours, when I went, in obedience to God, to UWI Mona campus to attend university, and took up residence in Irvine Hall.

    There, and in the wider circles of the then emerging Charismatic Renewal in Jamaica, I met a shockingly but refreshingly different approach to “doing” church, based on cellular, networked structures and exploiting existing facilities — homes, hotels, meeting facilities, retreat centres, Academic Campuses, etc — to advance the Kingdom.

    (Hitherto, my experience had been largely that of the Evangelical, four-walls, meetings plus Sunday School and associated groups and special events model. I had also had some “osmotic” exposure to Catholic Missional communities as a student first at St Francis Primary then at Campion College in Jamaica, both of which served as monastic bases, the former being the attached teaching school for the Catholic St Josephs Teacher’s College, with a nunnery attached. The latter was in effect an “uptown” outpost of the St George’s College, and had in it a Rectory for the Boston Jesuit priests and a few monastic brothers. Now that I think of it, I guess this has been lurking int he background all along! BTW, too, one of the surviving priests, Fr Ryan, gave me some excellent advice when I ran into him, in a wheelchair in his 90’s but still razor-sharp in mind, in the Norman Manley Airport in Jamaica on my last visit in 2005.)

    The resulting collision of ideas and models was painful, exhilarating, puzzling, inspiring and challenging all at once.

    It took me the better part of a decade to begin to sort it out and form up a coherent view. The heart of that view was of course the Fulness theme of Eph 1 and 4 etc, especially:

    >>( . . . [Jesus] who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe [panta – all things].) It was he who gave some to be apostles . . . prophets . . . evangelists . . . pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ [“the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” 1:22 – 23] may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [Eph. 4:9 – 13.]>>

    Pulling out just a few of many themes:

    1] God is acting in Christ in these Last Days, utterly transforming and filling the world through the church anointed by the Spirit. Thus, the key point of “the last days” is not the waves of demonic chaos but the tidal wave of cosmic renewal through the gospel and the Spirit acting through the church in light of the Word of God. (Contrast our tendency to view Matt 24 rather pessimistically and fatalistically!)

    2] God’s missional purpose is to fill all things, uniting them under the headship of our risen Lord, who came, descending, serving, loving, healing, liberating, dying for us, rising and ascending “in order to” fill — thus bless and transform for the good through grace — all things. (Thus, to define the mission to any thing, see what it looks like now, and what it would be if filled with and transformed through Christ — the resulting tension defines the long-term mission of the church to that thing.)

    3] In so doing, Jesus first has called out, equipped and sent people equipped to serve as gifts to the church and world, who engage us in the human situation at times of kairos — turning-points of history, e.g Athens AD 50 in Ac 17. So, we (as church and as community and culture) must be open to the servant-leading of such people sent and authenticated by God into our own times and places, with a God-sent, Scripture anchored [though in cases this may be more implicit than explicit in their presentations, cf. again Paul at Mars Hill] message of repentance, renewal, revival and reformation.

    4] In sending these gracious gifts to us, God is calling out a- people- of- the- eternal- future- in- the- temporal- present, i.e a people of the foretaste of the already and not yet [Cf Eph 1:13 – 14], who are equipped to carry forth the works of God’s service that cumulatively fill, bless and transform communities, their institutions and especially the individuals in those cultural structures; from family on out to nation and world, through the grace of God.

    5] As we compare the Ac and epistles for exemplars/models of how this may be, we see the role of the individual in her/his relationship with God. We see the importance of friendships filled with God’s grace — in dyads [pairs] and in threesomes or even small groups and networks. We see the role of large groups, meetings and didactic or celebratory assemblies, and we see the role of small groups of encounter with God, of nurture in God, and of ministry through focussed service in the locality or on a trans-local missionary [especially church planting but also church renewing or even reforming] basis. We also note the importance of networking though letters and other documents circulated, read, reflected on and used, even treasured as a precious deposit of the ministry of some of those sent to us as gifts. (Primitive, samizdat-style publishing and a precursor to the potential of the Internet and associated new digital media technologies!)

    6] This suggests an interesting paradigm for organisation:

    –> Not so much the hierarchical, pyramid-like bureaucracy familiar to us from the recent history of the Industrial revolution, or even:

    –> the classic state and its institutions within which “the rulers of the gentiles lord it over the peoples of the nations,” but instead:

    –> a more organic model: body, and family and friendships under God, from whom all Fatherhood draws its name and nature.

    –> Supported through exchanges of information using networking technologies ranging from postal services to publishing houses to the internet to the other media now available to us, and on to the classic [university or apprenticeship style as appropriate] course of study that leads us through systematic reading, discussion and project based applications in a structured framework to competency as a member of a fraternity of expert praxis.

    7] This brings us back to the classic caves- commons- networks organisational architecture. That is . . .

    –> We have caves where individuals and small groups can “nest” and act within the institutions and frameworks of society, from a home to an office to a park bench or whatever. Functional and flexible — and all but impossible to penetrate, subvert or stamp out. (It is no accident that terrorist organisations and spy agencies have copied and twisted the biblical cell model for their own operations.)

    –> Let us note too, the power of the small work group as has been discussed by the Tavistock Institute [Cf on sociotechnical systems theory . . .], and of course that of the classic university tutorial of dyads, threesomes or small groups.

    –> Nor should we forget that, as Keith Hale was fond of reminding me when we used to meet over in New Kingston Mall informally in the early 2000’s, “a conversation can change a life.”

    –> We have common spaces and places and times, where larger groups can come together for the various things that are conveniently done in large groups, starting with general instruction and inspiration through prophetically inspired public speaking or performing.

    –> And, we have networks, not only physical but now digital. On this theme, Rowley can tell us much as one deeply and richly experienced inthe emerging network model for church life and cooperative ventures.

    –> But also, I have in mind the creation of a cyber campus that can be available regionally and globally through not just web access but also a network of micro-campus centres based in church facilities and community facilities such as even just a cyber-cafe! (Thus, we can equip the people of God for effective service in the region and wider world, from secondary level through to graduate/professional level.)

    –> I also have in mind the renewal and reformation theme that was addressed in a 1999 – 2000 series of articles in Caribbean Challenge which has been turned into a bit of a course workbook and reader on reformation and transformation, here.

    –> And beyond that, I have in mind the MVAT vision for mobilisation of the people of God in the region for serious reformation and missionary ventures across the world . . .

    8] For that, why not reflect on the point that there are credibly at least 8 million Bible-believing Christians in our region. If we take out 1% as a reasonable figure for so-called “full-time” work in the mission in the region and the wider world, we see 80,000; an army that can help galvanise the transformation of our region, if we are not taken up in the trap of the tyranny of the urgent that tempts us to compromise efforts towards the truly important.

    But there is more.

    Tithe that number to the global mission field [as the Chinese church has discussed under their resurgent Back to Jerusalem Vision, originally dating to the 1930’s – 40’s], and we see that we are looking at a global missionary expeditionary force of division strength, 8,000 or so.

    As Paul and other early strategic level missionary leaders showed [BTW, one way of functionally translating “Apostle” into the present is just that — we need to get away from the problem of monarchical Popes and petty-popes and merely titular or hierarchical views of authority], a force of mere dozens can transform a culture through the power of the gospel.

    So, now: why not here? Why not now? Why not us?


  2. Thanks, Gordon, for adding your contribution to the story of our times: God at work in hungry hearts wherever he finds them and with a discernable theme.
    Indeed: why not here? Why not now? Why not us?

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