BY PAUL BRADBURY, PIONEER HUB COORDINATOR AT CMS
The problem with so much of our thinking about church renewal is that it starts with the church rather than renewal. It focuses on the institution, not on the God of renewal who has continually renewed and sustained his church for centuries.
Not far from where I live in Dorset there is a landmark, a 19th century tower, built on the cliff edge next to the sea. It is a beautiful and arresting piece of architecture. So much so that some years ago, with the building threatened by the rapidly eroding cliff, a group organised to prevent what would have been the inevitable destruction of the tower. Money was raised and with incredible dedication the whole structure was eventually moved brick by brick – 15,000 of them – some 20 metres or so inland.
The tower now continues to stand overlooking the sea, and right next to the encroaching cliff there is now a ring of stones that marks the tower’s previous location.
Yet, I have stood by this tower and wondered, “How many years does 20 metres of cliff actually buy you?” How much longer before these forces, of increasing power in this age of climate change, do what they were threatening to do? There is no more cliff to play with. Eventually the tower will fall into the sea.
I have come to see this tower as something of a metaphor for one way that we can think of church renewal. All our focus is on the tower and on saving it. So much so that, while the effort to restore its place and function is admirable, it does not necessarily solve the issue. And nor does it really pay sufficient attention to the changing context, global and local, which suggests that something more than restoration is required.
To think and act more creatively and imaginatively about renewal, and in a way that takes account of the changing context we are in, invites a different approach, one where the church is not our focus and God is.
I have found the biblical witness of the exile a fascinating and illuminating guide for this. There are insightful parallels between the exile and our situation as the church in the post-Christian West.
In exile Israel was acutely aware of what had been lost and sought restoration. Within this longing, different voices emerged. There were those arguing that God would come to their rescue and in time all would be restored. But the biblical witness of the exile brings to the fore the voices of those such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel who invite Israel into a new, more imaginative place.
Jeremiah argues that Israel can seek the shalom of God in exile (Jer 29:4–7). Ezekiel urges Israel to face up to the total destruction of any hope of restoration by military means. His prophecy invites Israel to focus on God for his own sake, not God for the sake of the restoration of the institution.
God will not be used. Ezekiel invites a participation in the wild, unpredictable presence of the Spirit, through which renewal will come, though perhaps not in the way Israel may have hoped (Ezekiel 37).
From my exploration of the literature of the exile I suggest a number of steps towards a more creative and imaginative vision of renewal for God’s church:
There is much to be hopeful about in today’s church: huge creativity, commitment, compassion – but that needs to be balanced with a realistic assessment of our place in the context of society.
Statistics continue to show decline. But it is not just about numbers, it is also a reality that the church, and the story and moral values it represents, are no longer an authority in our culture. Often the church must first subvert a negative or cynical view of itself before it can make its voice heard or make a contribution. In short, the church must recognise that the old world of Christendom with its reliable forms and privileged status has gone. A new world is emerging in which the church struggles to know where it fits. Facing up to this, rather than hearkening back to some nostalgic vision of what we have lost, is an important first step in renewal.
In Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones, God asks him a question: “Can these bones live?” To which Ezekiel replies, “Lord, you alone know” (Ezekiel 37:3). A debate raged among the exiles about whether restoration could, or would, happen.
The point here seems to be that Israel was looking in the wrong place. The answer lay in a relinquished attention to God. A submitted place of utter dependence on him, with all our own visions laid to one side. That is the beginning of renewal.
3. Resurrection in the Spirit
Renewal then becomes a process of resurrection – the inbreaking of a new reality that cannot be predetermined, but in which we can participate.
The vision of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel is to practise faithful presence and trust the power of God to bring about a new kind of faithful life in the midst of Babylon. No one could possibly have predicted this, or imagined what it could look like.
They were therefore invited to trust completely in the guiding and empowering presence of the Spirit of God.
Facing reality, relinquishing our own visions and seeking with all that we are to participate in the work of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead – these steps take us away from a narcissistic tendency to seek the restoration of a beloved Church. They take us towards a renewing movement in which a new kind of church for a new cultural context can be faithfully imagined.
Paul Bradbury explores these issues further in his recent book, Home By Another Route, published by BRF.
The Call in Action
To find out more about Pioneer Mission Leadership Training at CMS go to: pioneer.churchmissionsociety.org