Ecclesial Futures: Local Christian Communities in Mission

Aim and Focus

Ecclesial Futures: Local Christian Communities in Mission study group understand local Christian communities as; a) the hermeneutic of the gospel and; b) meeting God’s future as it comes towards us in the shape of the reign of God within the particular time and place that each finds itself. This requires these communities to be in a constant level of change as they orient themselves towards God’s preferred and promised future for them in a rapidly changing world. We believe study and research in how local churches change to be increasingly faithful in their everyday apostolicity is urgently needed.

We understand local Christian communities broadly to include traditional ‘parish’ churches and independent local churches, religious communities and congregations, new church plants, so-called ‘fresh expressions’ of church and ‘new monastic’ communities.

The sources of this work theologically are threefold at least;

  1. The missio Dei – we believe the missio Dei to be axiomatic for ecclesiology. A large proportion, possibly worldwide, of local Christian communities and the systems that support them were formed in modernity and therefore with the culture and norms of modernity, Christendom and colonialism (although see later discussion on the limits of this assumption). If adopting the stance of the missio Dei is indeed a paradigm shift as Bosch (1991) claims then it is no surprise that there is deep resistance to the implications of this ‘about face’ within such communities and the systems that support them. Researching how and why Christian communities may make this paradigm shift such that they might embody the missio Dei will be vital work.
  2. Andrew Walls’ (2002) has clearly shown that the history of the waxing and waning of Christianity over the centuries demonstrates that local Christian communities can both flourish and they can die, never to be seen again. For example there is no Christian Community in North Africa contiguous with that of the one present at the time of Augustine of Hippo. Thus while we appreciate the contribution of congregational studies, ecclesiology and ethnography and will need to draw on all these fields in our own work we do not believe they are sufficient in themselves for the situation local Christian communities find themselves in, in many places worldwide. Rather we require an orientation to the future of how God is both calling and sending the Church in our time and place.
  3. The ‘missional church’ movement, arising from the work of Lesslie Newbigin and later the “Gospel and our Culture Network” (GOCN) has been working on these questions for ten to fifteen years, particularly amongst Protestant mainline denominations in USA and elsewhere. While this movement has no monopoly on these questions this group will need to stay in critical contact with developments in ‘missional church’ and broaden the concerns across the spectrum of denominations represented in IAMS. There is a large amount of literature published over almost two decades, too large to cite here. A recent example might Van Gelder and Zscheile (2011).

Further implications of local Christian communities taking mission seriously and areas of contestation in this field (which may prove fruitful areas of research) are;

  1. The return of the locus in which theology is generated to the local church.
  2. The relationship between ordained and lay leadership in local Christian communities.
  3. How and where leaders are identified, discerned and theologically educated for mission.
  4. The relationship between a local church and its ‘world’ or context. Issues of contextualisation or as some prefer cultural negotiation require urgent attention.
  5. The place of local churches formed outside of Christendom and modernity in this debate – we add a further paragraph regarding this here, especially in relation to “missional church”;

This is an issue important for the global church. A lot of existing research is emerging out of the challenges of mission in the western world, but many practitioners and theologians in the non-western world are also passionately interested in the mission of the local church and reimagining ecclesial futures. (cf. Bolger 2012)  In order to discuss ‘ecclesial futures’ in the non-western world, we need to develop a missiological approach which seeks to contextualize the missional church debate in non-western churches. This is because the western and non-western Christianities did not always share the same historical background. This implies that while Newbigin’s critique of the western churches and the subsequent discussion about the missional church among his followers (GOCN) emerged out of the new historical background of post-Christendom in the west, some non-western Christian churches did not share such an experience of Christendom and post-Christendom. Thus, when we talk about the ecclesial futures in non-western churches there is a whole new task of listening, research, analysis and theorising.

History

Ecclesial futures began by a group of 16 interested IAMS members and delegates  at the 2016 Assembly in Korea. These members represented Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations and included Rev Canon Dr Nigel Rooms, Rev Prof Darren Cronshaw, Rev Dr Seong Sik Heo, Prof. Nelus Niemandt, Rev. Dr. Cristian Sebastian Sonea, Prof. Sr Marie-Hélène Robert,and Dr. Timothy van Aarde. The group was officially accepted as an IAMS study group in June 2016.

We hope in due course to generate an international ecumenical peer-reviewed journal to publish research in the field and a proposal is being made to Routledge Taylor & Francis for this purpose.

 

Conveners

Rev Canon Dr Nigel Rooms, Leader – Partnership for Missional Church UK

nigel.rooms[@]cms-uk.org