The future of church is not a new form but a new ‘imaginary’

modern church roof evoking pyramid of ice or mountain, with cross on top against icy blue sky

We are obsessed by forms, but the church is always emerging… Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

Paul Bradbury

In these turbulent and unprecedented times for the church two questions, related to each other, have gained immense attention, writes Paul Bradbury. What is church? And, what is the future of church? 

As church buildings have been closed and people have debated the importance of gathering physically in an ecclesiastical space for worship, the conversation, whether about the Eucharist, or about sacred space, is really a variation of the one question – what is the church? Likewise as we have begun to see new forms of church form online, hybrid forms of church evolve as people find ways of gathering in gardens or public space while also connecting via Zoom, and as institutions start to forecast the financial impact of the virus on resourcing the church, the conversation is really a variation of the question – what is the future of church?

But in all these conversations I often feel we are starting from the wrong end of things. We tend to start start with forms. We start with the forms of church we are familiar with and then ask – can these new forms that are emerging legitimately be called church? Conversely, we see the old forms that are dying or restricted in their expression and ask, can church without these forms really be church?

“the church has no form that exists outside of its cultural context”

However, the church has never been about form – in the sense that you cannot define church by its form. The church has had as many forms as time and cultural context have fostered. Duerksen and Dyrness in their book Seeking Church explore the history of church and argue that every church form is really a product of the conversation between Scripture, tradition and context. So for example, the early church form, based around communities meeting in people’s homes, was shaped around the collegia, the voluntary associations that were a feature of Greco-Roman life, particularly in urban areas. Early Christians took that form and adapted it for their expression of church. Likewise the congregational model of church that is normative for the church in the west has deep roots in the social and political contexts of the Reformation, with varied levels of rejection of the political control of the church by the state and an emphasis on individual choice.

The church has no form that exists outside of its cultural context. The church is always provisional. The church is an emergent phenomenon in history.

In the West, we have inherited a dominant form of church which (while it covers a whole range of dissimilarities) you might describe as a congregation that meets in dedicated space and the range of expressions of Christian life oriented round it. The issue is that it’s hard for us to imagine anything different. And the problem is often that we turn what is really a longstanding cultural expression into something that acts like a benchmark for the very nature of the church.

“the Spirit continues to invite the church into new territories that do not immediately promise to deliver along the rubrics or metrics of the past”

We have what you might call an ‘ecclesial imaginary’1 – an internal and deeply embedded way of seeing ourselves as the church in the world. Our ecclesial imaginary is the unconscious, often unthinking way in which we live out our identity as the church in the world. And our ecclesial imaginary in the West is deeply influenced by the form of church that has emerged and evolved since the Reformation and in the era of modernity.

What I genuinely believe is that we are being invited to explore a new ecclesial imaginary for a new cultural era in the West. And we are being invited, by the Holy Spirit, to lay down our assumptions and prejudices about church forms in order to allow space for new forms to emerge from this imaginary. I have summarised how I see these ecclesial imaginaries in the diagram below:

Diagram showing contrasting models of forms of church: 1. show int he church as subset of the world, both going out into the world and inviting the world in; 2. the church joining the Missio Dei (Mission of God) in the world

What characterises this ecclesial imaginary more than anything else is the place of the church’s agency in the world. One of the key theological developments of the 20th century, the missio Dei, is coming into its own in the 21st. In this ecclesial imaginary the church is not seen as central to the mission of God in the world – rather it is God by his Holy Spirit who invites a more peripheral, or eccentric (that is ex-centric) church to participate in the flow of transforming, reconciling life in the world as the Kingdom comes into being.

As John V Taylor put it ‘our theology would improve if we saw the church being given to the Spirit rather than the other way round’.

On the differences between these two ecclesial imaginaries a great deal of our present debates and conflicts arise, particularly around the degree to which the dominant paradigm of the last 500 years should be resourced, while the Spirit continues to invite the church into new territories that do not immediately promise to deliver along the rubrics or metrics of the past. This is where the friction lies. And it is not a case of out with the old and in with the new – but a recognition, in our multivalent cultural context, that both these imaginaries must find a way of living together in a way that enriches the other, for the sake of the Kingdom.

1 ‘Ecclesial imaginary’ is a riff on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginary’ which he describes as ‘the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories and legends, etc.’ (The Secular Age, 2007)

This post was originally published on Paul’s blog, His Light Material, and is re-published here with his permission.

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