on 24 July 2012
This is a serious, weighty and long (500 pages) treatment of the theology and practice of fresh expressions and emerging churches by an influential British church leader and missiologist (who is a member of the national Fresh Expressions Team). As such, it will prove essential reading for all interested in contemporary UK mission theology and practice.
The book is divided into four clear parts. The first provides a broad introduction and some background to the `fresh expressions' movement, with an overview of mission in the New Testament, a series of historical snapshots, an outline of recent church planting strategies, and a survey of some of the relevant debates in sociology as they touch upon religion, spirituality and church life.
In the second part of the book, Moynagh undertakes a deeper theological exploration of the rationale for fresh expressions, with a reflection on the purpose and nature of the church, the primacy of mission and its corporate character, an argument in favour of contextualisation, and a discussion of the homogenous unit principle.
In the third section, there is a helpful and detailed overview of a number of important theoretical and practical issues involved in `birthing' contextual churches, drawing on a wide range of theorists (Christian and secular) to explore the practices of gathering a mission community, researching opportunities, encouraging partners, and developing action-based learning and team awareness.
In the fourth section of the book, discipleship, worship, community and sustainability are explored as marks of ecclesial maturity, and Moynagh discusses ways of assessing and encouraging the growth and fuller development of contemporary fresh expressions of church. The book closes with the final chapter in which he attempts some brief responses to a number of the critics and sceptics of fresh expressions.
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the scope and ambition of Church in Every Context. Moynagh brings immense practical knowledge of the contemporary scene in the UK, together with evidence of wide theological and sociological reading, and all those interested in mission theology and practice will find much to learn from and ponder here. Although presented as a textbook (with regular summaries, questions for discussion, and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter), Church in Every Context will be heavy going for the average layperson or student beginning ministerial studies (and expensive at £25 !). But for practitioners, church leaders, and those with a bit of theological or ministerial training behind them, this book will be an invaluable contribution to contemporary debate and will rightly become a standard text for every training course on mission in Britain today.
But that is not to say that Moynagh convinces on all accounts - and those who are already sceptical or dubious about aspects of fresh expressions and emerging churches will find ample material here to confirm their suspicions. To raise just two of the more obvious areas of dispute:
The first of these concerns the extent to which fresh expressions of church are, in practice, the effective agents of mission or evangelisation they are held to be. The accusation from sceptics here is that too many fresh expressions are small unsustainable communities which cater mainly for the already `churched', or act as safety nets for the recently `de-churched', rather than actually reaching significant numbers of the genuinely `unchurched'. And if this suspicion is true, then much of the current attention given to fresh expressions is misguided or over hyped. By contrast, if we regard both numbers and sustainability as important criteria, a strong argument can be made that it is healthy churches `in the inherited mode' (to use the jargon) that are actually more effective than fresh expressions at reaching the `unchurched' in practice. Admittedly, we are in a period of experimentation and transition, and the jury may therefore still be out on this question. But it would have been good in a book of this length to have heard more of Moynagh's own provisional assessments to date, given his particular experience and involvements.
The second concern is a more substantial theological one, regarding the extent to which fresh expressions can really be considered `fully' church. If a couple of Christians meet in hostel with a group of homeless people to study the Gospel of Mark over fried chicken (to use an example from the book, on p.261), what are we to understand is going on ? Is this a fellowship group ? A form of evangelism ? An act of outreach or service ? Or (by contrast) should we see this as `Church', albeit in a new or fresh expression ?
This is of course one of the key issues in the whole debate regarding the Mission-Shaped Church report and fresh expressions movement, and Moynagh therefore spends much time discussing it. But his answers still won't satisfy all. For Moynagh, church is best understood as a series of relationships (with God, with the gathered group of believers, with the world, and with the universal church), rather than being defined by specific practices, doctrines, or structures. So Moynagh is resistant to any attempt to define church in terms of (for example) the four historic marks (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic) (p.109), the Lambeth Quadrilateral (p.371), the `three selfs' of 19th century mission theology (p.405), fixed liturgical texts or practices (p.109, p.370), specific doctrinal propositions or creeds (p.156), or fixed structures of authority or orders of ministry (p.396). In fact, any attempt to assess or evaluate a new contextual church using such criteria, according to Moynagh, `risks squeezing the initiative into a predetermined mould.' (p.403) Instead, for Moynagh, everything depends upon context, held together by relationships.
But the question is whether this is just too thin as an understanding of church ? If one pushed Moynagh to say whether, for instance, the practices of baptism or the eucharist, or the reading of the scriptures or preaching, are necessary and essential elements of church life, or whether they are simply desirable or beneficial, he appears to suggest the latter, to the extent that a group or gathering could drop them - and still be `Church' (see, for example, his discussions on pp.109-111, or pp.364-376). And you don't have to be an overly traditionalist Catholic or Evangelical to find the thinness of this ecclesiology unsatisfactory. There is just a little too much ammunition here for those who believe fresh expressions are indeed `church-lite'. As a result, as a priest and evangelist myself, whilst I want absolutely to welcome the huge number of creative initiatives undertaken under the fresh expressions banner, I can't help seeing them largely as innovative and dynamic forms of evangelism and outreach, rather than expressions of the fullness of `Church'. For me, `Church' is necessarily and essentially more than is on offer here.
But these observations should not detract from the immense value of this work. By laying out his views with such clarity, depth, and sophistication, Moynagh has made a highly important contribution to contemporary debate regarding mission in Britain today. Church for Every Context is an impressive work to be welcomed.