Could a call to embrace gathered church be prophetic?

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Just a five minute TED-style presentation for when we meet on Monday…

That’s pretty much what the e-mail said.  And I know I wasn’t the only one to grimace, to wonder when on earth I’d find time or inspiration to put that little piece together.  But I concluded that it was a small price to pay for the privilege of being part of such an experienced group of leaders, passionate about seeing UK churches becoming serious about the task of equipping and releasing disciple-making disciples.

I’ve talked about the Imagine project before.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you really do need to click the link through to LICC’s webpage.  You also need to read Neil Hudson’s book (and, my only claim to fame, one of the commendations on the inside front page!).

But if you have heard about Imagine, then you’ll understand where it fits with my own interests as academic and practitioner.  You’ll know about the concept of gathered and scattered church, the idea that though the UK church may be good at ‘gathered’ expressions of church we perhaps have more to learn about being the ‘scattered’ church.  This idea will not be foreign to you, that each Christian is called not only to discipleship within the church walls, within the gathered expression of church, but also to discipleship outside, a discipleship we call ‘whole-life discipleship’.  (In the spirit of all good Christian terminology needing an acronym, you won’t be surprised to know that when we e-mail between ourselves about these ideas, this is known as WLD.)

It is fair to say that I believe LICC has made a significant move here, in choosing to engage with this issue.  For most of the UK churches currently, this is almost certainly the prophetic call: you are doing gathered church, now learn to be the scattered church.  I support wholeheartedly LICC’s commitment to helping the church across our nation to do just this, to release leaders who champion whole-life discipleship and recognise that gathered church times are not just about corporate worship but also about equipping the believers for mission as the scattered church.

But here was where I found the meat of said five minute TED-style presentation.  (And, no: there was no audience of several hundred, no YouTube videos of our talks with several million hits each, and no one paid crazy money just to get in and hear each of us speak.  Just us, the ten or so leaders sitting round a table in central London, drinking coffee and dreaming out loud.  We’ll save the TED conferences for next year!)

My basic thesis was this.

For most of the UK church, a call to embrace scattered church is the prophetic move.  For a new generation of Christians, the prophetic move will be a call to embrace gathered church.

My biggest concern in sharing this idea was that I might be misunderstood to be saying that the Imagine project has missed it.  I was not saying that and I’m pleased that nobody around that table assumed me to be saying that either.  But for clarity, I will say it again.  I believe that LICC’s work in this area is significant, on point, timely and I support it wholeheartedly with gratitude for all that I have learned from everyone associated with Imagine.

But I must also admit that I am in a context which is different from many.  90% under age 37-ish .  Most having come to faith in the last few years since we started the church.  Discipled by the culture and now, in a long slow battle to take back the ground, being discipled by the church in the ways of Christ.

So my TED-style talk was a wondering whether the prophetic move for churches like ours might not be towards scattered.  Or at least not in quite the same way.  Let me share with you some of the ideas I sought to communicate in my presentation that day…

Our whole church was built on this model of scattered and WLD back in the days when Imagine was just a pilot scheme and we were one of the pilot churches.  In those days when none of us at LifeGiving really had a clue what we were doing (we still don’t!), we somehow built a church which understood that discipleship was for the workplace and the home and the leisure contexts.  By some happy accident, we got the idea that discipleship is 24-7 and that wherever we are, we are the church.  We really get this scattered thing because it is part of our church DNA.

And that sounds great – and it really is!

Except that honesty requires me to admit that we’re probably better at being the church by ourselves than we are at being the church together.  We do scattered church quite well: we are, after all, the generation that has fully reaped the message of a personal Jesus, one who invites me into relationship with him and saves me from hell but never quite seems to expect me to enter into relationship with other believers.  Not only this, but we are the generation born on the cusp of modernism and postmodernism: hardened individualism and consumerism mix with the newfound freedom to determine our own metanarratives.  Never has there been a better time for being me-doing-my-thing without restraint.

Yet with that so-called freedom has come, I believe, a corruption of the concept of community.  Now if you listen to me, you’ll hear me say that I want community.  You’ll hear me tell you of my longing for connection, to be known and to know.

But listen between the lines a moment.

I tell you I want community but really I want community on my own terms, community which meets my needs as an individual.  I won’t call you because then I might inconvenience you by taking time you didn’t want to give right then or you might inconvenience me by going on too long about your needs.  So instead I’ll whatsapp you, tweet you, facebook or e-mail because then you can’t take so much of my time.  Non-real time communication means that I’m community with you without the irritating bit of actually having to give away my time to you when it doesn’t suit me.  I get to choose how I interact with you and when.  And I’m affording you the same courtesy so, really, what’s the problem?

Whilst I might come to a Sunday gathering of church (and the leadership at LifeGiving prepares weekly gatherings as regularly and faithfully as you do!), I equally well might not.  And, as for mid-week, what can I say?  We are (post-)moderns who have not been brought up in the church, children of our time for whom mid-week church meetings are not even on the radar.  Gathered church means little to me.  How can it when I have redefined community to such an extent that I now prefer to stream it on my own terms as I check my Facebook page, broadcast some whatsapp messages and fire out a few tweets or a blog post?  (Yes, I am well aware of the irony!)

Let me put it as clearly as I can: until someone disciples me out of the individualistic consumerism in which I have been immersed for as long as I can remember, I am only going to do gathered church if there’s something in it for me.  And, trust me, I shall expect to get whatever it is for free: if I don’t pay for my music downloads, why would I see any problem with consuming the ministry of the gathered church?

Friends, I know how flippant this sounds.  Perhaps in my frustration, I overstate the case.  I certainly do not intend to denigrate anyone through how I express myself here.  Indeed, whilst I’d like to think that I have been discipled out of what I describe so bluntly, I’m not sure that I have.  I am as much a child of Gen Y (just!) as any of the others.  Apart from Christ, I’m not especially moved to pay the price of community.  I know that, apart from Christ, I am predisposed to want to receive the community’s ministry without expectation that I might give back.  And with the brand of Christianity that I have inherited, I can see how I might believe that it’s all about ‘me and Jesus’; I understand why so many in my generation are leaving Christian community for some largely formless spirituality where my ‘personal relationship’* is all that counts.

So, please understand.  Even as I dare to hope that this longing of mine might be an echo, however faint, of what the Spirit is saying to the churches, I’m also writing as one enmired in all the anti-Jesus mess of this age and, but for him, I’d be giving up now.

For me and mine, then, I think scattered comes easily.  We spend most of our time outside of gathered church and we recognise that God calls us to walk out our discipleship in all of those contexts, that he might be honoured by our lives and that, God-willing, others might turn to his Son.  Our whole-life discipleship in these contexts is growing and we spend time praying that God would help us to live holy lives that will win others.  But the thing is, we can do that without ever being discipled out of our individualism, our consumerism or our belief that a ‘personal relationship’ is enough.  And, what is worse, we risk discipling new converts into this same deception in which we are trapped.

So it is that I think there is a new challenge, a call to take up the work of the Imagine project and extend it.  The Imagine work so far has been essential for calling churches in the UK to embrace the concept of scattered in order that they might be strong in both expressions of church, gathered and scattered.  But to my generation, the prophetic move is a new one in order that we might embrace the same end: that we might start to call the Gen Y believers back to the significance of gathered church, of genuine community, that we too might be strong in both expressions of church, gathered and scattered.  I long for this so deeply, though I am not naive as to its challenges, and I believe that to be part of this work could be one of the most significant things I might be privileged to do as academic and practitioner in the church in my generation.

But, MY GOODNESS, it looks hard!!!

* By the way, I really hate this term ‘personal relationship’ which I hear bandied around a lot by those who have been immersed in certain streams of writing, online materials or radio teaching!  Personal relationship with whom?  And if it is still Jesus we’re talking about, then surely my so-called personal relationship with him should still  radically affect every other relationship in my life?  (Rant over!)

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