Tuesday, 21 September 2010

A Word I Never Use

In life all people have words they never use, usually things like swear words which are deemed culturally offensive. However in church circles different types of churches have words they never use, or hardly ever.

For example some churches never use the word "convert", either as a noun or a verb. I guess the word carries with it the idea of a sudden change. As people we fear change, especially instant and dramatic ones. Perhaps such churches are afraid if they use the word "convert" they will put people off, or perhaps they fear they will not find the evidence of such a change in their own lives.

I am not really sure why they shy away from the word "convert", but I do know the word captures the essence of what happens when a person becomes a Christian: an immediate change in their status before God (justified); and a change in the disposition of their heart (new birth). If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. It needs a word like convert to do justice to that.

This is one of the reasons I use the word in my models, despite the inevitable objections each time I present my work, it reminds people that to be a Christian there must be a conversion. I should point out its use in the limited enthusiasm model simply means that people who were not classed as Christians are now classed as them. This could be because they start attending church, or because they have become a member of a church. There is no spiritual connotation implied in the model. But it is a good reminder to anyone looking at the modelling work that becoming a Christian is fundamentally supernatural, immediate and of enormous proportions. Oh that the word "convert" may be used more.

So what about the word I never use? I never use the word "journey". Often in church circles we hear someone say, "A Christian is someone who is on a journey", or "we are all on a journey together". At face value what is wrong with that? There is always a sense of progress in the Christian life, holy behaviour, knowledge of the scriptures and of God, responsibility in His service. This all sounds like a journey.

My problem is that it appears to fudge the region around the point a person becomes a Christian and thus undermine the idea of conversion. Now many Christians are not sure of the day they became a Christian, or the week, or even the month. Many appear to come into the kingdom gradually. However there was a point, a single point where they came in, and there then comes a point where they know they are in. That is they are convinced beyond doubt they are in a right relationship with God; they are sure they are saved. (Oops - another word many Christians do not like to use!).

Assurance is the birthright of the Christian, the most wonderful consequence of the gospel. We are no longer uncertain over where we stand, we know we are child of God. And we know it because salvation is given by God as a gift, not as something progressively attained on a journey. Once we are sure we have received this gift there is no fear of God, no fear of condemnation, an absolute certainty that He has converted us. This is black and white. Either we are right with God, or we are not. Either we are born again, or we are not. Either we have the Spirit, or we have not. Whatever our experience around the point that God converts us, and our uncertainty of WHEN it occurs, we can at some point be certain it HAS occurred.

So the word "convert" often appears in my models, but the word "journey" will not. Church growth models do not just reflect the social situation of church growth, but the underlying spiritual and ultimately more real growth of Christ's kingdom. The words are chosen to emphasise this.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Types of Church

For some months I have been helping to facilitate a church growth modelling workshop in Cardiff. The Church Growth Cafe has been set up though CICC, the Cymru Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and aims to produce a church growth model or models that will help inform growth strategies for churches in Wales. The real eye-opener for me has been the wide ranging views of what is meant by church! Even church leaders cannot agree on what a church is, let alone what constitutes growth.

This led me to try and identify the types of churches that they are talking about. Not wanting to generalise, I think I can get it down to three: those that want to change the individual outside church to bring them in, those that want to change the church itself to include those outside, and those that can sustain themselves without any new people outside of their own families. I have named them, conversionist, contextual and generationally sustainable respectively. Of course real churches are a mixture of all three and each raises other issues. But it is a start.

A conversionist church is one that sees the world and the church as clearly distinguished: unbelievers and believers, unsaved and saved, going to hell, or going to heaven. It will generally have a clear way of identifying itself, such as a main Sunday meeting that is a reasonable representation of who belongs to the church. It will also have additional activities that will clarify who are the committed and more spiritually mature members of the church. Conversion is mainly through an initial contact, maybe something like the Alpha Course, with subsequent stages to deepen the faith towards maturity.

The conversionist church's strategy is to see individuals outside the church converted. I.e. it works to change individuals to fit the church norm.


A contextual church is one that seeks to draw people in from a surrounding community through a sequence of phases, each of which could be an end in itself. These act as bridges between the context of society and the context of church. The idea for this came out of a route suggested to me that went from mums and toddlers to messy church, then to family service, then to full Sunday attendance, and finally Eucharist. However it could also represent situations common in emerging church where the definitions of what is meant by church is blurred as even the central core of church changes its context to fit society. For example the church in a pub or in a night club.

The difference between this type of church and the conversionist is that the phases are ends in themselves; they do not necessarily need to lead to the next stage. They could all be viewed as an expression of church in some way. Additionally it may not be clear to the participants that the church may be using one phase as a bridge to the next.

Seeker friendly churches may also come under this category, as do some of the attempts in Victorian times to "lure" people to church through gentle and more secular entertainment style meetings outside of church. A popular strategy even today - the barn dance as a way of bringing people to church!

The contextual church's strategy is to change church to fit the societal context with the intention that individuals are included immediately and will then gradually change.

A generationally sustainable church is one that can sustain itself over long periods purely through the physical offspring of the church members. This is more like church would have been in previous generations when there was less social mobility and may also reflect situations in some non-western cultures. If the birth rate is not less than the death rate and people do not leave then it must survive. Some groups such as Jews and Catholics could lose people and still grow because there were times when the birth rate exceeded the death rate by some way. Indeed this is the main way most subcultures last many generations.

A generationally sustainable church has no strategy other than to survive. It does not seek converts, or to change society, or change itself to include others.

That is where I have got to today. We will see what happens after tonight's meeting! Must post now - typos and all.

John