Editorial: Sustainability and mission

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Editorial: Sustainability and mission | ANVIL volume 38 issue 2

by James Butler

The articles for this edition of ANVIL all come from our Pioneer Conversations Day hosted in hybrid fashion, at CMS in Oxford, at the Northern Pioneer Centre in Penrith and online. Through a mixture of talks and workshops, we engaged with questions of thriving in sustainable ways. In the planning of the Conversations Day, the team of Cathy Ross, James Butler, Richard Passmore and Lori Passmore had in their sights some of the assumptions around growth that are embedded in some approaches to mission and church. Growth is often assumed to be a good to which we must aim, and yet the climate crisis is one of many clear examples of where an assumption of continual and uncontrolled growth has led somewhere hugely problematic. We wanted to ask how we could thrive in pioneering and mission in ways that were sustainable without having to automatically assume that things need to grow and expand. What do healthy and sustainable approaches to growth look like? What are the theologies and practices that might help us as we seek to thrive in sustainable ways?

In planning the Conversations Day, the problem we faced was how to promote it. Such is the societal and cultural commitment to growth that giving an event a title of “sustainability” does not really capture people’s attention. In fact, in terms of word association it is more likely to be related to words such as stagnation. We live in a society that expects things to be dynamic and fast moving rather than sustainable and stable. We landed on the title of “thriving” trying to maintain a sense of the dynamic without it immediately having to relate to growth.

The idea of growth as a response to decline is almost ubiquitous across the denominations. Everyone is looking for the means to turn decline into growth; churches that are declining are seen as the problem, and churches that are growing are assumed to hold the answers according to much of the literature. For example, quite a lot of writing around church growth warns church leaders about the period of stability because it is only one step away from decline, and all effort needs to be put in at this stage to moving it back to growth. But as Christians, we need to have a much more complex and theological engagement with these commitments to growth. Our hope is that the Conversations Day and this edition of ANVIL will do just that.

In his book Church Planting in the Secular West, Stefan Paas explores in depth the assumption of growth behind church growth theory and makes an important observation.

If indeed the purpose of mission is the numerical growth of the church, the logical consequence is that the world must become church. After all, as long as there is world outside the church, the church can grow. And as long as the church can grow, mission has not reached its purpose. So, we must conclude that the purpose of mission is to erase the world, namely to turn it into church.1

For Paas this understanding is deeply problematic. Two assumptions in this understanding are worth highlighting. First, it assumes that numerical growth is the normal and right mode of the church and secondly, it assumes that the world has nothing of value for the church. The articles in this edition of ANVIL challenge these assumptions. The article from Israel Olofinjana demonstrates how African indigenous perspectives have much to offer western Christianity in the conversation about sustainability, and Alison Webster shows how community organising, and particularly the work of Citizens UK, offers means for faithful Christian action in a multicultural society. While Jesus talks a lot about the growth of the kingdom in the Gospels, it is interesting to see how our own cultural assumptions have shaped the interpretation of the parables. While models of church growth see growth as natural, it is interesting to compare it with fourth-century bishop Basil the Great’s critique of usury – charging interest on loans – describing how “Everything that increases, when it reaches its proper size, stops increasing; but the money of avaricious men always increases progressively with time”.2 For Basil, growth in nature is about reaching the proper size, whereas interest has no limits and is therefore against nature. While we don’t need to get into the details of the argument here, the point is that our reading of growth risks being determined by our neoliberal society’s assumption without more complex engagement and reflection.

Throughout the Conversations Day our contributors drew on their practice, thinking and reading to help us to reflect on thriving in sustainable ways. There were three themes that we particularly want to highlight from the day that are also present in these articles. The first is relationships; the reflections were about the primacy of relationship and community as the basis for sustainable practices. The articles challenge individualism and offer communal ways of thinking, such as the African concept of ubuntu – I am because we are. Another key theme was justice; sustainability is deeply interwoven with justice. This is clearly seen in the climate crisis, where the effects will be most keenly experienced by the poor. The third theme was eschatology. How do we have a longer view that does not just hope for better but seeks a Christian vision of the world renewed through the coming of the kingdom?

This ANVIL edition is made up three longer articles based on the keynote talks from the Conversations Day, and some shorter, more practice-focused articles based on the workshops. The first of our longer articles comes from Israel Olofinjana, who critiques western notions of sustainability and offers a different model for climate justice. The second, from Alison Webster, offers community organising as a model of challenging and changing our neoliberal society. In the third, Janet Williams has a conversation with Richard Passmore about her book Seeking the God Beyond and how the apophatic tradition may hold resources that can help us to thrive in sustainable ways.

The shorter articles turn more clearly to practice and the specific concerns of mission practice, pioneer communities and churches. Tina Hodgett explains why she resists the impulse to measure outcomes in pioneering in the innovator space. Tina presented a session with Paul Bradbury, who explores the proper context of the idea of measurement and claims that measurement should act as a servant and not our master. Alison Boulton reflects on her own practice and experience of seeking to develop spiritual sustainability within a local community on a new housing estate over the past 14 years. Caroline Kennedy offers practices that help her to sustain her own personal spirituality and reflects on how to “find the gold” and helps others to find it too. Finally, Rosie Hopley recounts her own experience of entrepreneurship in social business, seeing how all can thrive: entrepreneurs, employees, trainees and wider community.

We believe that sustainability needs to be a word that we are much happier and able to engage with in mission, and one that needs clearer theological articulation and practices that help us to live sustainably day in, day out. We hope this edition of ANVIL might contribute some important insights and practices to that ongoing conversation.

James Butler

About the author

James Butler is pioneer MA lecturer and assistant coordinator for Pioneer Mission Training at Church Mission Society. He teaches in the areas of mission, ecclesiology and practical theology. His PhD explored how small missional communities sustain their social action. He also works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Roehampton, researching themes of learning, discipleship and social action.

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1 Stefan Paas, Church Planting in the Secular West (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2016), 115.

2 Basil the Great, quoted in B. L. Ihssen, “Basil and Gregory’s Sermons on Usury: Credit Where Credit Is Due,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 16, no. 3 (2008): 419.