Following the missionary Spirit: Martyn Atkins

Tuesday, 27 November, 2012

Watch Martyn Atkins' address from the Following the missionary Spirit event in London on 22nd November 2012.

Duration: 16:15   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


Martyn Atkins: It's great to be here, what an encouragement we are to one another, and I remember that day well when I went into that bastion of post-denominationalism, Lambeth Palace, and talked with Archbishop Rowan and pushed at an open door and I think we'll ever be grateful for that.

What I want to do (and there's sort of a brief PowerPoint behind me – a sort of aide memoire really) is perhaps not to do what I've been asked to do but I hope you'll see how it fits in. And that is to express some deep thankfulnesses leading us to some heightened awarenesses in what I’m calling a hinge point in time.

Number one, I'm really thankful that fresh expressions are helping to renew what I think many people consider to be a rather tired, western or northern Christianity. At a grass roots level I live in Chesterfield - when I'm there! The visiting of small causes, like we saw in the DVD, where suddenly after many years of telling one another that the only way is down and out; you get small communities of people - men, women, young, old - beginning to tell a different story about themselves and how energising that is for them and how that becomes contagious.

And I'm grateful that the fresh expressions movement/initiative - whatever we might describe it as being - has had that effect upon so many people. And it reminds me of the oft-repeated phrase of some more radical secularists to us – that they tell us that everything is already lost, we're like a chicken that's lost its head; it's just we've not stopped running yet.

They're wrong. There is - in this varied, wonderful, brash and bewildered sea of souls that we live in - those things that still instinctively respond positively to Kingdom values; to deep altruistic love; to sacrifice; to authentic attempts at goodness; and the persistent attractiveness of those who want to live their lives modelled on Jesus Christ. And it's those modellings and those articulations that are at the heart of so much that encourages me about fresh expressions.

I'm grateful too that fresh expressions have rescued the church in numerical decline and finding itself in so many ways; constantly rescues it from the introspection and the desperation that comes about from that. I don't buy the narrative that fresh expressions is simply a kneejerk reaction to finding out how you get more bums on seats. Rather I see it as an impulse of the missionary Spirit that really rescues us from the introspection of certain kinds of ecclesial thinking and puts us, in the words of Archbishop Rowan, back in the direction when a hand has been tapped on our shoulders.

So it's a reminder to the whole church of who we are and why we're here. But I'm aware of the need for a critical balance continuing by which we lean over and speak to this pluriform culture in such a way that we are able to listen and hear and speak close to and the crucial difference between leaning over and falling in. There will always be the dilemma for those of us who are called to live on the edge of anything but that's very often where the Spirit of God is most cogently and powerfully encountered.

The second thing I'm thankful for is that fresh expressions has demonstrated time and again the power and the potential of what I'm calling permission giving. There's something deep in my sort of egalitarian heart as the leader of a church that wants to feel that my words are as flat as anybody else's or as evocative as anybody else's but the reality is that if certain people say certain things; other people take heart and find the courage to do them which is why fresh expressions is right to express its deep gratitude to the permission giving that has come by having a leader like Archbishop Rowan repeatedly saying, in a sensible way, this is all right.

Permission to take holy risks. I was in Germany last week and I was interested to hear this comment here and I was sat with a number of Methodists in Stuttgart and they told me how wonderful the Fresh Expressions event had been earlier in the year and then they told me of several hundred people who have gone through a church planting programme. And I said, 'that's terrific' and their face fell and they said, 'Yes, but the only problem is we haven't planted any churches yet'. And I said, 'Why's that?' They said, 'Because we haven't been given the permission through the licences to do it'. The real rub. But how wonderful it is when the fresh expressions movement has been able to articulate in all sorts of ways, 'It's all right'. It's all right to try it, it's all right to risk it; it's all right to fail, and it's all right to succeed and press on.

Trustees, you see, are gatekeepers, and it's true and right that all institutions, organisations and even organisms have trustees. But the primary task of a trustee is to hold in trust that which is entrusted to them; that which they represent. And the reality is as we meet here in 2012 - in a time of cutbacks and recessions, the recent votes of the Baptist Union and no doubt many others coming along the way – is that holding trust will be critical and giving permission in times of extremis will become ever more important. That's what I'm aware of.

And it is of course in the situations of increasing extremis that Christian history would suggest that the Spirit of God is actually most powerfully active. So leaders particularly must realise the responsibility that they have to permit and encourage holy risk taking but let's not underestimate also the effect of one normal group of ordinary people in Chesterfield or South Wales or wherever illustrating to another group of ordinary people just what is possible when you change your mindset from 'can't' to 'can', from 'shouldn't' to 'must'. Because the Spirit of God is the seal of God's 'yes'.

The third thing I'm thankful that fresh expressions has done and is doing is the gathering different people groups within and beyond inherited and - even what we used to call - new churches. In other words I thank God as I look back for the galvanising effect of the fresh expressions movement/initiative/call it what you will.

I believe that the homogeneous unit principle of common identity and think-alikeness is often the starting place for the Spirit doing something but I have to tell you I think it's rarely the finishing place of where the Spirit is leading. The vision and commitment to fresh expressions of church is the meeting place, increasingly not only for the disaffected radical of a few years ago in the alt worship movement but is also the meeting place for the bemused regular who has kept this show alive and thought and been told systematically by church leaders and local people that that was the sum total of what it meant to be a Christian and belong to church. And suddenly there's a meeting place where the agenda is bigger, the vision is greater and the energy between the two is held.

I read Jonny [Baker]'s blog the other day; he's absolute right that there is a gathering together and a galvanising which is depressive and reductionist; that is that we all agree and therefore there's no spark. And the energy that comes from having people, not who just bloody-mindedly disagree with everything for the sake of it but actually are the people who say, 'Yes but what if? And if that rule wasn't in place what would happen? And if that wasn't the case here what would we do?'

And fresh expressions at its best has been the place and remains the place where there's space in which that kind of community and discourse can take place. And while that takes place there's always hope.

I'm reminded of Paul Tillich, I always find myself pinching myself as a sort of dyed in the wool, broad evangelical quoting Paul Tillich but never mind, I always remember Paul Tillich writing, 'People cry out to God when the ground under their feet is shaking only to discover it's God who is shaking it'. And that seems to be the space that we increasingly occupy.

[But I'm fully aware that Fresh Expressions will not fully be analysed in certain ways. Sorry let me just move back a bit...]

Fourthly I'm thankful for those involved in Fresh Expressions, for inhabiting a whole range of historic theologies and ecclesiologies. There's beginnings of research, Jonny reminded us of that; there's lots of books but I am aware that fresh expressions will not be fully analysed, nor valued, nor critiqued, by older models of theological discourse. In fact I'm really increasingly convinced that because theology is a living discourse, we can't use all the old tools of analysis because we'll be creating new tools as we go along. And therefore some of what we're reading is trying to peel a banana with a can opener and we've got to find the theological discourses that match what it is that we are doing.

If I have a cri de coeur and it sounds like a grumpy old Methodist then I apologise but we must move in the future at a level of proper theological engagement from the approach of some people that the whole of inherited church is all right to be defended without question and anything that seems, in their eyes, to detract from that needs to be held up to the light every five minutes or uprooted every two years to see whether or not it's growing or indeed to be knocked around the head and then asked whether it can still stand up straight. I think we do need an evolving and a real theological narrative.

The fifth thing is that it has modelled for me in recent years a vital and new energetic form of ecumenism. We've mentioned the value, and Archbishop Rowan has mentioned the value, of us being in this together but in historical churches we are still trying to experiment and find the models of ecumenism that match a changing, post-denominational context. We've gone through different moods of ecumenism, I was with a group of ecumenical officers just yesterday, speaking with them, and the whole move of the meeting was about reciprocal ecumenism where we offer each other's gifts.

I venture to suggest that the galvanising round a recognition of the context you live in, the community that's round about you and asking the gospel question, 'What does God want me to be about here?' is as good an ecumenical agenda to start off with as any and therefore we find increasingly that that active contextual ability to be together is the one which keeps alive, ignites and is taking us forward just as surely as some of the older models of slow but sure engagement which are equally important but they are not the whole show on the road.

I must close. Embodying a key expression of the mixed economy (sorry Rowan!) ecology, constituency, environment. It does seem to me, particularly as the second phase of the fresh expressions initiative moves towards its close, to ask those hard, acid questions. How do we harvest the learning of what we've got? And where is the strategy about where we want to go in order to implement what we've learned? And as a person who's a leader in a church that is trying to train ministers for tomorrow, trying to establish a mindset in a church that is geared towards others rather than ourselves, then what I need is a way in which the input and the learning and the energy of a fresh expressions initiative begins to pervade everything rather than run the risk of creating another para-denomination or an alternative way of being a church in such a way that the gap…becomes so wide that the spark plug cannot ignite and create the energy that's needed.

I close. The image of the Spirit of God in the Acts of the Apostles is not one of a parent shooing children out of the door and then retiring into the kitchen to sit down for a cup of tea. The image of the Spirit of God in the Acts of the Apostles is one who opens wide the door, puts on the scarf and ushers and accompanies, walks and even runs with the children to the places and the experiences that the new day brings. The Acts of the Apostles is the book where the Spirit leads first and drags the church as the people of God ever onwards.  And the Scriptures tell us that we can resist the Spirit, quench the Spirit and grieve the Spirit or we can walk in the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, and be filled by the Spirit.  On this day, whatever may come and it will be various, wonderful and grieving let's choose to be led by the Spirit of mission in faith and obedience, hold faith with each other and see where we're led.

Thank you.


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