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Church growth the natural way

by
03 January 2014

Philip Welsh reads about local mission

As a Fire by Burning: Mission as the life of the local congregation
Roger Standing (with others)
SCM Press £35
(978-0-334-04370-6)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT440 )

THIS is not, thank goodness, another over-excited recipe for growth from those on "missiological steroids" (in the nice phrase of a contributor, Martyn Percy), but an intelligent analysis of mission as defined by the incarnate and Trinitarian nature of God, and by local and cultural context.

The slightly dated title originates in Emil Brunner's assertion that "The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning." The author insists that the Church's job is to recognise and join the mission of God, already at large in the world.

Roger Standing is Deputy Principal of Spurgeon's College, and is good at challenging the false antitheses between mission and pastoral care, or worship, or social concern, or maintenance. Half the book consists of 16 short accounts of particular mission initiatives, among them urban and rural, small-church and large-church, black-majority and commercial, church-planting, Street Pastors, and cathedral. The background of the contributors gives a rough indication of the book's perspective: eight Baptist, five Anglican, two Methodist, two independent, and none Roman Catholic.

In the second half of the book, Standing explores key themes at greater depth, among them contextualisation and culture (introducing us to "liquid modernity"), worship and evangelism (with the priceless neologism "proselitizee"), and discipleship and leadership and partnership (with non-church groups, too).

A surprising chapter on mission and Third-Agers commends the significance of the Baby Boom generation now entering late middle age, and likely in retirement to "return to the unfinished agendas of their youth and early adulthood". It almost had me digging out my psychedelic kipper tie.

A final chapter on mission and the occasional offices will hold few surprises for readers of Mission-shaped Church, whose publication Standing salutes as a "highly significant moment". The odd way he then simply stops after these two narrowly focused chapters, together with the way the second half of the book makes no reference to the case-studies of the first half, leaves some impression of a book that has been assembled from independent elements.

It is salutary to read a book on mission in which the Church of England is far from central, but it is a shame, given the contention that the Church is defined by mission, that almost no attention is given to the Roman Catholic Church; and I would have been glad of more consideration of mission in relation to issues of social justice. There seems also to be an unexamined assumption that we all agree about the gospel to be proclaimed; yet surely part of the contextualising of mission must be in conflicting understandings of what it means to be Christian.

The historical perspective largely jumps from the New Testament to 19th-century Nonconformity - though one contributor writes proudly of "moments in history that take your breath away" with reference to the first caféchurch in 2006. She does, though, remind us of the horrible truth that "The difficulty with caféchurch is that it requires us to have friends to invite, and this for Christians is often a problem."

There is much in Standing's investigation that is imaginative, open-minded, and challenging. It reminds us that "One of the most important things that Christians need to know about the Church is that the Church is not of ultimate importance" - a citation of two Roman Catholic theologians.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a recently retired priest living in London.

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