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Model ourselves on the business world?

28 March 2014

The Church is in need of a strategic rethink at all levels, says Mike Starkey

Creating the Future of the Church: A practical guide to addressing whole-system change
Keith Elford
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IN 1863, the great Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon delivered a rousing sermon in which he described the Church as "the hope of the world". And resonant biblical metaphors for the Church abound: bride and body of Christ, royal priesthood, an edifice on a firm foundation.

Viewed through a different window, however, the Church is a human institution like any other, made up of fallible human beings, helped or hindered by good and bad practice at the level of management and organisation. Keith Elford, an organisational consultant and minister in secular employment, states that "while the Church is more than an organisation it is not less than an organisation," and, therefore, it has much to learn from good practice in the corporate world.

His principal focus is on the Church of England. He describes the Church as an institution in crisis, struggling to adapt to a changing culture, in need of a fundamental and strategic rethinkat both "whole-system" and local level.

Elford's proposals draw on the work of Professor Stafford Beer, formerly of the Manchester Business School, who analysed how organisations, like human bodies, adapt and thrive in changing environments. The comparison with the Apostle Paul's metaphor of the Church as body is inescapable.

Beer proposed a Viable Systems Model in which any organisation must attend to three vital functions to be effective and sustainable: managing the present; nurturing identity; and creating the future.

He examines the Church in the light of this "trialogue", and finds it wanting - giving significant energy to managing the present, little to creating the future, and divided over its identity. The rest of the book attempts to apply the framework to current realities of the Church of England.

Sometimes the author's diagnosis is made with unhelpful generalisations that risk not ringing true in any given locality. He notes that most congregation members are aged "over 50 or even over 60". That may be the median age of worshippers nationally, but in my experience local congregations are far more polarised than that. In rural Wales, I regularly heard the 60-somethings described as "the youngsters"; in suburban west London, worshippers over 50 were a rare sighting. And the author's focus on whole-system change means that the book's insights might be more relevant at diocesan than local level.

But Elford's vision of the Church as a healthy and adaptable body isa compelling and practical one - which, incidentally, has striking similarities to the recent "missional" thinking of North American authors such as Alan Roxburgh.

The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutorfor Church Army, and a freelance writer.

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