Martin Robinson (National Director of Together in Mission) is sounding upbeat about the church in the UK and Europe. In a short video clip that can be found on the Roxburgh Missional Network site, he suggests that although churches still face considerable difficulties and challenges, there has emerged over the last few years a new confidence and purpose that give grounds for optimism. He points to three significant developments.
1. Church leaders are no longer asking ‘Can we survive?’ but ‘What would it look like if the church of Jesus Christ could actually make a difference to this nation?’ This brings a very different kind of imagination to the task of being church and connecting with the community.
2. He sees a new kind of ‘verve and ambition’ in the church, citing the recent decision by Holy Trinity Brompton in London to plant 20 churches every year for the next 20 years, and a similar commitment by St Aldates in Oxford to train 100 church-planting interns every year from across Europe.
3. He highlights the massive influx of Christian immigrants into Europe, arguing that this is part of God’s strategy for the continent. Up until now immigrant churches have been mostly full of… well, immigrants. But he sees encouraging signs of a new willingness to partner with indigenous churches in reaching Europeans.
I have mixed feelings about this. Just as we have learnt to be sceptical about excited claims from politicians that we are seeing the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery, it may be premature to imagine that we have here reliable and unequivocal indicators of spiritual recovery.
On the first point, I think Martin is right: there appears to have been a widespread shift from a survivalist mentality (manifested in both theology and praxis) to a missional mentality and a search for social relevance in one form or another. This is very encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that we no longer need to ask ourselves serious questions about whether the church has a future in Europe or what that future might look like. I think the survival question has brought a salutary humility and self-awareness that we cannot afford to lose at the moment.
This brings me to a second comment. I like Holy Trinity Brompton and I would not want to underestimate their capacity to achieve their ambitious objectives. But I was connected with a network of churches in London a few years ago that was still recovering from mass burn-out after seriously overestimating its capacity for planting new churches in the 1990s. There are probably greater momentum and greater resources behind HTB’s initiative, but the danger of over-confidence remains – or of over-confidence in one or two culturally and theologically limited models of church.
Martin’s point about a change of imagination implies that significant theological development has taken place in many churches, but I think the shift in theological outlook should be made explicit, for two reasons, one positive, one negative.
First, a reinvigoration of theological enquiry is likely to have been a major factor in the current renewal of missional confidence. The emerging theological conversation has no doubt generated a great amount of confusion and still falls a long way of short of a viable consensus – assuming that consensus is a desirable outcome. But in one way or another theological insecurity has been at the heart of the crisis of confidence, and the emerging conversation has provided an invaluable space in which to address that and explore new answers.
Secondly, I suspect that the reconstruction of theology that is currently in progress will sooner or later raise serious some hard questions about the second and third developments that Martin describes.
I wonder whether the HTB model will be sustainable in the long run. Will its Alpha course theology – a powerful fusion of classic evangelical certitude and charismatic fervour – remain forever impervious to postmodern or post-evangelical critique?
And I wonder whether immigrant Christianity will have the intellectual resources – indeed, the intellectual integrity – to answer post-Christian questions. There is an emerging African church that sees the shortcomings not only of the colonial church in Africa (in all its forms) but also of the diaspora African church. Undoubtedly, the immigrant church brings a spiritual earnestness and conviction that has gone missing from the indigenous European churches. But there must be some doubt as to whether this imported ‘faith’ will survive outside the protective hothouse environment of the African churches in Europe.