# 9 TRANSPLANT! … the church into the 21st century

May 5, 2002

HOPE.21, a pan-European congress with 1000 evangelical leaders from 38 European countries, has just finished in Budapest. The organisation of this event which aimed to promote networks across Europe, national strategies in each nation and a broader vision of hope for Europe, has fully absorbed the energies of the YWAM Europe staff over the past months. Reports of the congress can be read on www.hfe.org.

I am now resuming W e e k l y W o r d, with the 9th chapter of Part II of Brave New Europe.

Part I explains why Europe may be headed for a neo-pagan future as it jettisons its remaining “baggage” of Christendom.

Part II suggests 10 imperatives for God’s people to recover faith, hope and vision for the Prodigal Continent.

The first was to: ASK! … what is God’s will for Europe?
The second: REJECT! … the enemy’s disinformation
The third: REMEMBER! … what God has done in the past
The fourth: ADMIT! … honestly the sins and mistakes of the Church
The fifth: FACE UP! …to the truth about the present.
The sixth: LOOK! … what God is up to.
The seventh: RECOVER! … the Gospel of the Kingdom.
The eighth: EMBRACE! … our responsibility and role.

The ninth imperative is to:

Transplant! … the church into the 21st century

A large willow tree used to droop over the stream running down the side of our property. Where the trunk forked into two main branches, a split had been created by the storms of successive winters. Last winter gale force winds finally forced the split open and one branch lay with its leaves on the ground, the other end connected to an ugly open scar on the other branch.

That, I thought, was the end of the tree. I called the council men who came and cut off the trunk about one metre from the ground, and chopped up the branches for me to use as firewood. I expected them to return later to pull the stump out. As a student I had worked for garden contractors in holiday jobs, and had learnt to drill a hole in cut-off stumps, pour poison in and wait for the stump to rot away. To my surprise, the council men planned to do nothing about the stump. They told me it would simply grow its own new branches. I looked at the stump in disbelief, wondering how that sawn-off rump could produce new life.

However, as spring broke, lots of new whispy branches began to appear growing directly out of the stump, carrying green shoots and the promise of a new future. These new small branches looked nothing like the old majestic trunks. And the shape of the tree had been altered forever. But the spring green curly willow leaves unfurling on every square centimetre of these new branches were proof that new expressions of life were flowing out of the old stump.

That tree has become my backyard parable of hope concerning the 21st century church. A chorus of voices can be heard across Europe – from the mainstream to the margins – lamenting the current condition of the church, and its unreadiness for the challenges of the new century. Some critics of the church have gleefully predicted the slow death of this ‘anachronistic institution’, come the new millennium. And indeed, the church as we have known it in Europe for many centuries may well be in the throes of a long-drawn out terminal sickness.

But as we began to suggest back in chapter six, there are signs that new shoots are emerging, that new expressions of church life are flowing out of the old stump. The shape of the 21st century church may be very different from what has preceded – but let us not underestimate the power for renewal latent in the old stump.

At the end of the nineties, church leaders in Holland gathered to take an honest look at the growing gap between the church and the surrounding culture. In a brave effort to hear from those outside the church, a panel of well-known personalities was invited to share with the gathered leaders their views on the church in Holland. Panelists included a television newsreader, the spokesperson for the Amsterdam police, leftist and green politicians, and a prominent homosexual columnist who since recently entering politics has become one of Holland’s most controversial public figures, Pim Fortuyn. [As I send this out, news has come through that Fortuyn has just been murdered, one week before national elections.]

The atmosphere was electric as the three hundred almost totally male church leaders – from Reformed to pentecostal – listened in rapt silence to candid views on the church as seen from the outside. Several spoke of their own church backgrounds in their youth, and of the process by which they stopped ‘believing in Santa Claus’. For them, the church was simply irrelevant for life at the end of the twentieth century. Others expressed their wish that the church would be more open and inclusive, more integrated into the life of the community, more interested in what was going on in the rest of society.

I mischievously imagined the howls of derision that would have resulted had the chairperson asked the panelists’ reactions to Moltmann’s description of the church as ‘an arrow sent out into the world to point to the future’!

My wife (one of the few women present) and I sat there intrigued to be part of such a rare moment of honesty. As we broke into discussion groups, one minister in Romkje’s group responded to the analysis that the church was irrelevant, by suggesting that maybe he should simply close his church down. Yes, agreed another, but what else were they trained to do?

I am sure that that day was a watershed for many of those present. But, once back into daily routine, most will continue on with business as usual, in the hope that yesterday’s forms will suffice for tomorrow.

Former Baptist theology lecturer, Mike Riddell, is one however who has not been prepared to accept the status quo because he was not trained to do anything else. One of several voices from down-under calling for the reform of the church in the post-Christian west, Riddell believes the church itself to be the greatest barrier to the gospel in contemporary western culture.

The forms of the church, its life and pronouncements; these act to prevent people from hearing the liberating story of Jesus. In the early days of the church’s expansion through the Roman Empire, the cultural context was not unlike our own. Then, however, the church was regarded as new, fresh, exciting and revolutionary. Now, the church is seen as tired and reactionary.

Riddell teaches a university course on ‘Church and Society’ in which he asks his students to interview people with no connection to the church to share their impressions of it. ‘Boring’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘a naive and behind-the-times club, where you are not supposed to have problems or to ask questions…’ are typical responses the students regularly hear.

How have we allowed the community of Christ to gain such a reputation among onlookers? he asks.

Christianity has been smothered by churchianity, he answers, and before we can see what the new century should bring in terms of new expressions of life, we need to recognise the wretchedness and nakedness of our Laodicean churches today (Revelation 3:17):

‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realise that you are wretched , pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’

Only in recent years with the globalisation of the faith has it become apparent to western Christians how syncretised our church life has become, embracing many liberal western middle class values such as consumerism, individualism, careerism and security. Western Christianity, as viewed from those outside of the culture, is a Trojan horse, asserts Riddell.

Syncretism was always regarded as a problem for foreign mission fields, where traditional spiritual beliefs were interw

oven with Christian values. Yet Protestant churches, and especially evangelical churches, have in Riddell’s view
become captive of the moder
n mind, deferring to the age of science, and adopting a scientific methodology in the study of the Bible. Even the expositional style of preaching which has defined Evangelicalism attempts to objectivise the text as an item for examination, reflecting the historic bias toward the mind as supreme arbiter of reality.

Belief becomes a matter of mental assent, allowing us to go about our business in other areas of life, while resolutely claiming to be ‘Bible-believing Christians’.

John Drane of the University of Aberdeen is another who believes the church has become a bulwark of modernist culture.

Ironically, we Christians have talked and written more about the need for change and renewal during the second half of the twentieth century than at any other time in church history and, with one or two notable exceptions, it is hard to think of any previous comparable period when so little change has actually taken place. Our ways of being church at the start of the twenty-first century are virtually unchanged from what was going on in the nineteenth century.

Drane applies the term ‘McDonaldization’ to the contemporary western church – that is, the ‘destructive and dehumanizing effects of social rationalization under the influence of modernist thinking’.

If this is part of the problem, what might the solution be? What might a twenty-first century church look like, then, breaking out of the iron cage of modernity? To use another garden analogy, what will be involved in transplanting the church into the twenty-first century cultures of Europe?

To be honest, the picture is not yet really clear. But some contours are emerging. Whatever the case, it calls for radical change.

Does that mean throwing out all the old? Not necessarily. In a time of transition, the old and the new will often exist together. As a new road is under construction, traffic continues to flow along the old path.

Let’s examine this word, radical. From the Latin, radix, meaning root, radical implies returing to the roots. Radicality, as Riddell defines it, is the reclaiming and reinterpreting of tradition in such a way that it is consistent with the roots and yet adequate to the new situation. What is needed for the twenty-first century are churches that will be consistent with Biblical roots, yet adequate to the new cultural and social environment.

Howard Snyder explains that the shape a wineskin takes depends on two factors. One, the properties of the wine inside; two, the atmospheric pressure from the outside. Wineskins for the new century thus will be shaped by the quality of the life of the Spirit, and the cultural context – not the traditions formed by past times.

Here we should add a third factor: the suppleness of the leather itself. The question of appropriate structures flexible enough to respond to both the life of the Spirit and changes in the cultural environment is vital for the new century.

Let us finish this chapter by noting insights of several who are attempting to peer into the future to see what the Spirit may be leading us towards in this new century.

Britain has experienced in recent years a strong revival of interest in Celtic spirituality – both Christian and pagan. While this resurgence has not affected mainland Europe to the same degree, the lessons being drawn are highly relevant.

John Finney, the Anglican bishop responsible for his denomination’s Decade of Evangelisation in the nineties, wrote on the 1400th anniversary of the death of the Celtic saint Columba (d. 596), which coincided with the arrival of the Roman emissary Augustine of Canterbury. The merging of these two streams of Christianity gave birth to the mission movement which brought the gospel to the Germanic tribes in what is now the Netherlands and Germany.

Finney drew the parallel between the task of these pioneer missionaries among our pagan European ancestors and that of the church today. What did they do right then to attract a spiritually-aware polytheistic audience to faith in Jesus, God’s Son? What can we learn from them today?

Roger Ellis and Chris Seaton also draw from Celtic wellsprings as they too recognise “some amazing parallels between the state of the Celtic world and our own, between the mission of the Celtic church and the church as it approaches the third millennium.”

Finney, Ellis, Seaton and others point to the Celtic emphasis on community and relationships, mystery and symbolism, nature and environment, worship and creativity, lifestyle and celebration, mission and supernatural manifestations, as elements to be recycled in new expressions of the Christ movement.

The Celtic missionary movement was in some aspects a cell church movement. Bands of twelve would travel together to share the gospel and establish new communities. Whatever forms the future church must take, a return to a koinonia-centred expression of body life is essential.

William Beckham calls the cell church movement a Second Reformation in process. This involves a major paradigm shift, not simply a matter of reorganising the traditional church into small groups, but rather viewing the congregation as the gathered cells.

Others like Wolfgang Simson see the return to the house church, meeting in private houses, as the way forward in the new century.

Many of these elements fit well into models proposed by German church renewal advocate, Christian Schwartz who calls for yet a third reformation, following on from Luther’s Reformation and the second Reformation of Pietism, a reformation that applies in practice insights from the previous reformations. “The wonderful insights of Reformation and Pietism are largely smothered in the mire of unsuitable structures. In the third reformation we need to create structures which will be suitable vessels so that what the first two reformations demanded can be put into practice.”

James Thwaites, another voice from down-under, calls for a re-orientation from church-based activities and a focus on the congregation to a recognition that the daily work of the saints is the frontline of our engagement of postmodern society. These saints meet as church to be equipped for their daily task in the world.

Much remains hazy as to what will emerge from this historic transition phase we are living through. What is clear is that we must make room for radical experimentation. Our old ways will not carry us into the the new century. We must allow younger leaders the freedom to experiment and make mistakes – and breakthroughs. Much is already happening on this front, with extensive use of the internet to link fledgling youth congregation movements across the continent. We mentioned in chapter six the E-merge gathering in Frankfurt in 2001 of adherents of several such networks, an event that would have frustrated older leaders used to order, predictablility and centralisation, but may have been just the sort of happy chaos out of which new order can emerge.

Another area where we need radical experimentation relates to post-Christian spirituality. A Swiss pastor from Lucerne told me that fully one third of the local population are into New Age. So he surfed New Age websites to see what sort of subjects interested them. He organised events with titles like “Moments of Healing” and “Encounters with African Power”, advertised them on via New Age websites, and booked meeting rooms in a neutral hotel venue. Sure enough, the rooms were filled with spiritual seekers. The pastor’s African associate, dressed in colourful traditional robes, was an evangelist with a healing ministry. They shared a short inspirational word, then chatted conversationally with the audience and moved around the room to pray for individuals, occasionally speaking out messages from a ‘Higher Power’. At the initial stage no overt Chr

istian language was used. Healings were experienced and the seekers were powerfully aware of a Transce

ndent Presence. At a certain moment, the pastor explained that the source of this power being experiencing was none other than Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, and that He was present to meet those ready to do so. He invited people to respond then and there. He is now accompanying over a hundred New Agers on a journey towards a greater understanding of the One who is the Cosmic Centre of the Universe.

Does the Church have a future? Yes, but not without radical change – consistent with Biblical roots, yet adequate to the new cultural and social environment. And it will require a rediscovery of ‘body life’ on a large scale – or to use a term recently popularised in business circles, a rediscovery of ‘synergy’.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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