Flying with two wings (Michael Moynagh)

Monday, 9 June, 2014

Michael Moynagh asks why the church is flying with only one wing.

The church has been flying with one wing when it comes to making disciples. It is high time it flew with two.

Withdrawal

The traditional wing has involved withdrawing from the world for short periods. Believers have withdrawn into God's family in Sunday worship, small groups, conferences and retreats to be immersed in the Christian story. With their faith deepened and invigorated, they have re-entered the world to serve God.

This model has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Indeed, it's what Jesus did. At times he withdrew from the crowds and instructed his disciples privately, as in Matthew 13.36-43. Christians need special times together to be formed in the faith.

But what happens if the church flies with this withdrawal wing alone? Christians gather to be spiritually nourished, but then they scatter to live out their faith as individuals. Practising the faith on your own can be difficult.

Engaged

Alongside the withdrawal model of making disciples, fresh expressions of church are showing how believers can take the church with them when they engage with the world. As they join fellow Christians in serving others in a segment of their lives, they learn discipleship where life happens.

Discipleship through communities that are engaged with life makes sense for all sorts of reasons. Here are just three of them:

  • it is what Jesus did. Jesus taught his followers not only in private, but in public – at the frontiers of life. In Luke 6.20, for example, he deliberately turned to his disciples to teach them, even though a large crowd was standing by (verse 17);
  • relying solely on the withdrawal model ignores how personal identities are shaped by families, networks, neighbourhoods, workplaces and other relationships outside the church. These identities frequently come to the fore at the expense of our Christian identities. Belonging to a Christian group in the midst of life can remind us that, important though these other identities are, our supreme identity is in Christ. This will affect how we live;
  • withdrawal into the church brings together Christians from a variety of backgrounds – a big plus – but often churchgoers do not fully understand one another's everyday lives. 'Their situation is so different to mine' someone might think. So it becomes difficult to help each person apply the faith to the specifics of their context. Application tends to focus on principles rather than 'how to' in a particular situation. By contrast, Christian communities in life contain people from the same setting. Individuals are better placed to support each other in applying the faith to their shared circumstances.

A challenge

One danger for fresh expressions is that they lapse back into the inherited mode of flying with one wing.

A community formed in a café might witness effectively to the café's hinterland. People discover Jesus. They turn to the community for teaching, worship and other resources that will deepen their faith.

Relying on a withdrawal model of Christian formation, the community gradually evolves into an ordinary 'church' that happens to meet in a café.

To avoid this, new believers can be encouraged where possible to join with one or two other Christians and start further communities among their friends and contacts. Through these new communities they can learn how to engage in faithful Christian practice in another part of their lives. At the same time, they might periodically withdraw into the café community to be soaked in God's story.

They would fly with two wings, which must be better than one!

About the author: 

Michael Moynagh is Director of Research for Fresh Expressions. His new book, Being Church, Doing Life: Creating gospel communities where life happens is published on 20th June 2014 and is available to pre-order now.

Comments

I thoroughly recommend the new book by Les Isaac spelling out the principles of Street Pastors and allied ministries which chimes well with what Mike has written. Faith on the Streets by Ros Davies and Les Isaac.

One reason we fail to engage the world is that we teach people to be passive when we meet. There only role is to sit and listen. So they leave Christian meetings with that model and they are passive in the world. So one wing is frozen and the other wing is broken. Hard to fly like that! Perhaps we church meetings should be spontaneous and Spirit-led rather than choreographed by human effort.

Lesslie Newbigin explained the same idea in another way, one wing being an event, something that happens, and the other wing being the explanation of what happened. His critique of the church is there is a lot of explanation but as nothing is happening, no one really understands the explanations. For the last eight years I was involved in student ministry and focused on the first wing at the beginning, with little result. It wasn't until I developed the second wing and made it the context for teaching, that I began to see students making commitments to follow Jesus, which included unchurched students, and significant growth taking place in students. I discovered that people learn more in doing life in community with believers, than through hundreds of hours of Bible study.

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