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Church in Life: Innovation, mission and ecclesiology by Michael Moynagh

18 May 2018

Paul Avis considers a call for unfettered new ecclesial communities

THIS book is the most impressive apologia yet for Fresh Expressions. Encyclopaedic in scope, it provides an advanced handbook for all who plan, lead, or study them.

The undisputed challenge that it addresses is the absence of the Church, both physically and culturally, from much contemporary British society. The remedy that it proposes is “church multiplication”: the creation of “new ecclesial communities” generated mainly among the unchurched, and regarded as already being or becoming churches, not as stepping stones to parish churches. The pathway to the creation of ecclesial communities is innovation and entrepreneurship.

The book ambitiously brings together insights from missiology, the social sciences, and business and leadership theory. The large bibliography covers these fields.

Moynagh speaks from, and to, the heart of the current Evangelical hegemony in the Church of England. But he is critical of the Evangelical mindset, deploring its tendencies to theological rationalism and spiritual individualism. His approach privileges the imaginative path to truth, and the relational, communal basis of human life, including the Church. The conceptual models that he advocates are organic, making space for complexity and change, and have a narrative structure that is self-involving.

The strategy for establishing new ecclesial communities is a “serving-first journey” into the heart of a segment of society, sharing its concerns and joys, offering friendship, and building community on the way to making new disciples. The first stage is not injecting a worshipping community into a new context, as in many church-plants, but building relationships of trust and rapport by individual entrepreneurs, and contributing to the needs and aspirations of people in a particular context. The Church must draw near to people where they are, especially in their networks of leisure and lifestyle.

This tactic involves Moynagh in reprising the “homogeneous principle” of the doyen of the church-growth movement, Donald McGavran, which was much criticised for class and race bias, and re-branding homogeneity as the “affinity principle”. Moynagh attempts to turn the charge that intentionally homogeneous congregations contradict the catholicity of the church, as a place of welcome for all sorts and conditions, into a virtue as a mission tactic — provided that such communities are linked to the wider Church.

On the topical question of leadership, Moynagh’s advice is sound. Among the “new ecclesial communities”, leaders are to be entrepreneurs, breaking new ground, rather than managers, keeping the ship afloat, though the opposition is not absolute. Such leadership is dispersed among the community: leaders are not “heroes”, but “hosts”, who give hospitality to fresh ideas and talents.

Leadership in the form of centralised control is lethal because it reduces reflexivity (self-critical, exploratory thinking) and flexibility (rapid response to changes in the environment). What leaders offer must be “ethically meaningful”, to promote discernment and win support.

Three things are troubling. First, Moynagh envisages a free market in setting up new ecclesial communities: “Almost anyone can do it!” There is little concern for the Church’s visible unity. In an image drawn from the eucharistic breaking of the bread, he writes: “the Spirit keeps breaking off new communities and offering them as gifts to people on the outside.” Fragmentation is not a problem.

Second, issues of right belief, right practice, and safeguarding are omitted. New ecclesial communities are uncritically celebrated, and are presented as an unmitigated good, but the reality will be a mixed blessing.

Third, the utopian vision of ecclesial communities’ springing up like mushrooms throughout the land and reversing church decline is underwritten by ascribing it to the Holy Spirit (even the arguments of the book: “the Spirit is starting to signpost some simple frameworks. . .”). New ecclesial communities are “foretastes of the kingdom . . . through the Spirit by means of innovation”. Little hope is offered for the “traditional church”, when what is clearly needed is the revitalisation of parish ministry alongside new initiatives. To claim the authority of the Holy Spirit for one’s thesis, not only in general but in detail, is spiritually presumptuous.

Potential readers should not be deterred, however. This remains a thoroughly researched, clearly presented, and generally useful work, and a significant contribution to facing the challenge of mission in our time — but is to be quarried with discrimination.

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is honorary professor in the Department of Theology and Religion in the University of Durham, and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion in the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

Church in Life: Innovation, mission and ecclesiology
Michael Moynagh
SCM Press £35
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