Last Saturday I went to a seminar on “The mission-shaped church” at the Dutch Reformed Church of Kameeldrif, not far from where we live. I didn’t have any great expectations, but thought it might be a way of catching up with some people I know. But it exceeded my expectations and was quite interesting, and even inspiring in a way.
The first speaker was Graham Cray, an Anglican bishop and leader of Fresh Expressions in the UK. What he said was mostly theoretical, about the need for the church to be missional in engaging people in their culture. In this there was little “fresh” about the expressions. I’ve heard people saying that kind of thing for most of my life. At one point he mentioned someone who had been trained for ministry in the UK 40 years ago, who remarked that they were trained for ministry in a world that no longer exists. I attended a theological college in the UK 45 years ago, and that world didn’t even exist back then. The theory is well known, and it is almost old hat. What is needed is some practical examples of how people have managed to actually apply the theory.
He did, however, give a couple of practical examples.
One was of a large Methodist Church in the centre of Liverpool, which because of the changing demographics lost its congregation. The building fell into disrepair, and eventually it was sold, and there was no Methodist ministry in the centre of the city. So the Methodists began to look at who was actually there, and found that a lot of the people living in the centre of the city were actually homeless. So the appointed a minister to simply walk the streets and meet homeless people, which she did for a year, and suddenly God told her that they should bake bread. So she organised the ovens and got some homeless people together and they baked bread. That made a marvellous change for people who were used to eating stale bread that they fished out of dustbins. This became a regular thing, and eventually a community formed, and next to the room where they baked the bread a prayer ministry developed.
There is much talk these days of narrative theology, and perhaps this is an instance of it. The narrative theology is far more effective in getting the point across than all the theoretical stuff. It provides the inspiration to “go and do likewise” — not trying to clone other people’s experience, but looking for ways to respond similarly to needs in one’s own context. In the academic world “anecdotal” tends to be a disparaging term, with the implication that something is not “scientific”, but narrative theology is anecdotal. It can’t be anything else.
Another thing that bishop Cray said was that the geographical parish system in the UK was leaving large chunks of the world unreached by the gospel. Many people did not interact with others in geographical neighbourhoods any more, but rather in networks that are largely non-geographical. But again, people were saying that back in the 1950s and 60s. Back then they talked mainly about the alternative as being in the workplace, where most people’s lives were spent. Networks are different today, because since the Reagan-Thatcher years the “workplace” is something real to a diminishing group of people. Yet the principle remains.
Willem Pretorius then spoke on an analysis of three Dutch Reformed communities – one suburban, one periurban, and one concentrated on students. The difficulty was in having mission-minded congregations, especially since the Dutch Reformed ethos had so long being that the church was an ethnic one, it was for the Afrikaner people, so the concept of mission, and possibly bringing in people of different cultures and ethnicities was difficult, and was perceived by some as a threat.
Marius Nel spoke on statistics. and saying that while most white Afrikaans-speaking members of the Dutch Reformed Churches appeared to think of mission as being mainly among black people, statistics showed that proportionally more black people in South Africa were Christians, and that Christianity had been in decline among white Afrikaners since 1985.
A group of Presbyterians from Malawi, whose church had been planted by Dutch Reformed missionaries from South Africa, spoke about how the Reformed Protestant tradition placed great emphasis on the Word, and the reading of scripture, but Africa tended to be an oral culture rather than one of the written word, and so people did not read the scriptures much. They overcame this by a programme of getting people to read and discuss the book of Acts in groups.
I found much food for thought in all this, and much to interest me as an Orthodox missiologist.
The story of the Methodist church in Liverpool, for example, reminded me of the Orthodox Cathedral of St Constantine and Helen in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. Most of the people who attend moved long ago to the suburbs, and the church has almost no influence on the neighbourhood, Joubert Park, Berea and Hillbrow, which is a very cosmopolitan area. And lots of homeless people too. The nearby synagogue, like the Methodist Church in Liverpool, has been sold, I think to a Neopentecostal church,and a new one has been built in Houghton, a formerly posh residential suburb, which is now, however gradually being transformed into office parks, so perhaps they’ll have to move again sooner than they think.
But it is interesting to see how the network/neighbourhood thing has been reversed. St Costa & Nellie is a network church, not a neighbourhood one. People are drawn to it from East, West, North and South by ethnicity and sentiment. But the neighbourhood is untouched. We have several clued-up and able Congolese church members who could walk the streets like the Methodist minister in Liverpool and get to know some of the communities of immigrants from Francophone Africa, and find out what their needs and concerns are. I once had some experience of doing that in a very different setting, in a small town in Zululand (see Makhalafukwe | Khanya, my own attempt at narrative theology). We have the resources, we are just not using them to do the right things.
However much the Orthodox Churches may differ from the Dutch Reformed Churches theologically, there are a lot of sociological (and hence missiological) similarities, and especially the problem of ethnicity in the church, which tends to inhibit mission awareness. And I was struck by how apt we were to make exactly the same mistakes, especially the temptation to be engaged in what the Orthodox call “philanthropic work” without being engaged with people as people, or with communities.