STEFAN PAAS is a professor of missiology in Holland and faces squarely the way in which the Church has lost the confidence and interest of Western society, in which very often “people do not even bother to be atheists.” He offers a helpful critique of many of the agitated answers that we have thrown at the problem.
Instead, he offers the model of a priestly Church made up essentially of small Christian communities that don’t lament their size and lack of impact, but, rather, enjoy their distinctive identity, which they express in clear attention to worship, confident witness to the reality of God, and the building of positive relationships with the local community, welcoming those who are attracted to their life. These small Christian communities, set in a deeply secular culture, offer signs and foretastes of God’s future, but don’t seek to recreate Christendom.
The theological meat comes from the Old Testament themes of exile and diaspora, leading into the key missiological text of 1 Peter, where the outline of a priestly community, worshipping and serving on behalf of wider humanity, comes into focus. God deliberately led the people into exile, not to abandon them, but to give them new hope. Peter’s audience are aliens and exiles but thoroughly within the prevailing culture, worshipping, witnessing, and serving, but not trying to create a whole Christendom culture.
So, as someone who has been ordained for several decades, I’m off the hook, then? The worshipping Church may have shrunk by half, but I shouldn’t beat myself up? Relax: small is beautiful.
I am not entirely convinced. The strengths of the thesis are clear. Paas offers an attractive missional vision for small Christian communities in a secular culture. It is rooted in scripture and anchored in worship of God and service of neighbourhoods. But is that vision sufficient?
Jesus’s emphasis suggests that the goal of the Church should include the permeation of society with the values of the Kingdom of God. It is why Anglicans take seriously speaking truth to power, and a prophetic as well as pastoral relationship with the wider community. We would be loathe to give that up and retreat to being a joyful circle of believers.
Nevertheless, this is a stimulating and valuable exploration of contemporary mission. Its readable style and plethora of insights into biblical, theological, and spiritual sources, together with its sharp analysis of our current situation, make it a book to keep on the shelves.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford.
Pilgrims and Priests: Christian mission in a post-Christian society
SCM Press £25
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