Some of the things I do and why I do them

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From my limited perspective (other limited perspectives are available), it appears that the church in the West is changing or being changed quite dramatically. It is adapting to a marginalised and diminished presence by re-imagining the manner of its engagement with the world around it. We are concerned less with the quantity of church community than with its quality. Boundaries have become more porous. There is more going out than coming in. We have rediscovered a preference for the poor and dysfunctional, in their various guises. Buildings are being reconfigured and repurposed; new forms of sacred space are taking shape. Mission has become an amorphous concept, flux rather than programme.

The mission organisation that I have been involved with over the last twenty years, Communitas International, started out with a seeker-sensitive, church growth methodology but now functions—in Western Europe, at least—much more like a missional order, supporting a range of mostly small scale, often collaborative projects, in which we are quite self-consciously making things up as we go along. And if that is not always or literally what is happening, things can easily be caricatured along those lines.

In any case, I think that the reinvention and experimentation are critical. My dear friend and colleague, the late Wes White, will be remembered for—among other things—his enthusiasm for the concept of the “missional laboratory.” It continues in the east end of Glasgow, and we are hoping to develop something similar at Westbourne Grove Church in west London over the next couple of years.

Mission organisations, it seems fair to say, are driven largely by the instincts and ambitions of practitioners, but it would be naive to think that there is not a hefty theological part to the readjustment. That means both content and method, belief and pedagogy, what we learn and how we learn it.

This blog and my other written stuff is mostly about biblical content. My view is that we can tell the biblical story much better as an engagement with history and learn from that how to narrate and make sense of our own historical experience. Scripture then becomes formative in a deep, challenging, and adaptive way, not as mere illustration and reinforcement of preconceived notions. There is a dynamism to narrative that is missing from more dogmatic or utilitarian approaches.

The other part is the development of communities of learning. Smaller churches allow for much more interactive, much more democratic, less top down, approaches to learning. I don’t much like the word “discipleship,” but if we have to use it, I would rather talk about discipling communities than individuals.

But for that to work well, I think it probably means raising the overall levels of corporate “theological” literacy, and that requires a serious commitment to mid-range biblical-theological education. This has to be seen as practically oriented, but not in the conventional sense of training for ministry. The challenge is to develop and deepen a shared, communal, missional imagination and culture that spills over into the many new relationships being nurtured through missional practice.

I don’t do a great deal of teaching, but I would like briefly to promote two UK-based organisations that I have been involved with.

King’s School of Theology runs a really good programme of flexible, part-time, church-oriented theological training. I teach a module on Jesus and the story of Israel and next year will add a class on Romans. They have a free taster session coming up July 6th.

I have worked on an online Masters programme in biblical interpretation at the London School of Theology for many years. That has recently been rewritten, modernised, and relaunched as an MA in Biblical Studies. I have contributed to modules on hermeneutics and Romans, so obviously I can enthusiastically recommend it. I also do occasional on campus teaching at undergraduate level.

I have to add a caveat: the views that I express in writing do not entirely coincide with the theological positions of these two institutions or of Communitas International. I think of myself as offering a “technology preview,” with no guarantee that features will be adopted by the mainstream. Still, I have found these to be stimulating, adventurous, and generous environments within which to press for an understanding of scripture that engages with the realities and challenges of historical experience.

There are, obviously, plenty of other very good academic bodies and mission organisations out there—recommendations welcomed in the comments. What I want to stress is that the church in the western context needs to meet the challenges of its precarious place on history, it needs to do so as local, outgoing communities, and it needs to do so with a provocative—let’s say also prophetic—theological intelligence. We are all struggling to understand what that means—the learning institutions and mission organisations included. So why not get with the programme?

I could agree more, Andrew, on several points. It seems to me that this is exactly what we need, not only for a better biblical understanding, but also at this point where churches and theological education are struggling in the West.