Building a blueprint for church

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Following on from this post on 'blueprint church', I thought I'd post some more thoughts about this issue. In particular paraphasing the ideas of Nicholas Healy, who has explored this issue in some depth. (Warning long post, with some theological reflection, and audio version is here)

Healy sees a 5 stage process that has happened in church history as people have tried to respond to their context with new forms of church. I have use it in outline, trying to apply it with my own words to the context we are in today.

1. Metaphor: We pick one word, or a phrase that ecapsulates the model/idea of church we are trying to conceive of, and in church history this might have been, 'people of God', 'communion', 'herald', 'servant', and more recently we might add, 'cell', 'networked', 'emerging', 'fresh expressions' etc. As we seek to describe church we reach for these metaphors. Whilst these metaphors help us think about what church should be, and could be, it can so easily lead us to something unhelpful, the idealisation of church.

2. Idealisation: We begin to think of the church as existing int two parts/essences (bi-partite), there is the empirical church (the church we can see around us), then there is the better, truer church that we have conceived of (whether it exists or not, as yet). The dreams and aspirations we have for church can help us see the sinfulness of church, where it is failing to respond to our context, but this process can quickly lead us into a vision for church that is unable to deal with the realities of everday life. To do anything concrete immediately undermines the dream for the church. As soon as it connect with real people, the vision is polluted, corrupted, and we withdraw, or move onto the next conception of church.

3. Dogmatic Prescription:Then we might move on a stage further and become very prescriptive. If in our new model, the theory about church is X, then we must have X in our new forms of church, and if anything else happens, say Y, then we get rid of Y as it does not conform to our ideal, or we move onto to another model, or refine our model/ideas. We prescribe church in axiomatics, that our model is true and church must have certain things, and it must not have others. Whilst we do want to for good reasons exclude or include elements to our ideas of church, we can so easily end up with our models/ideas of church being reduced the the superficial measure of whether we have a sunday service or not (and I am not arguing for sunday services!).

4. Continued Reflection: The problem then becomes that we prescribe our idealism, and in reality the idealism never takes shape becuase the church is full of people, and we can end up living in an endless wish/dream of church, and give up trying to make the church concrete, and take action over our dreams. So we might stay at this point and continue reflecting, hoping that if we get our ideas, and dreams and aspirations about church clearer, if we pursuade people enough about them then maybe we'll be able to do them.

5. Continued Idealisation: And we finally get locked into a feedback loop from our reflection into continued indealisation, that feeds us back into reflection. We find more satisfaction in the wishing of church, desiring church, than we ever do in the action of church in the comsuming of the idea of church than the doing of church.

There has never been agreement about the model of church in church history, just a succession of developing models. There are four marks of the church in history, that is it one, holy, catholic and apostolic (see the Nicene Creed). The NT had a plurality of ways of talking about the church. In the early church, when horizons might have been similar there was still a huge variety of churches.

Models can say helpful things (and we used them to map domains of our experience), but they should be used to explore the plurality of church, not the harmonisation, there isn't one that is the 'supermodel' or 'exemplar'. Inherent in models it the perfect/idealised notion of church, which causes the models to be separated from the reality of everyday church life. It is the concrete church as we experience it that gives us the ability to chose the imagination of the model we land on, to start with and progress from. Yet too often our model can force an agenda for changing our context to fit the model.

Contrary to logic of models there is not a correct way, but a ‘multidirectional’ move by exploring models in the plurality of church. Our models cannot function as a normative principle but maybe in a weaker way, as a concept summarising proposals from a particular context/horizon. Our prophetic constructions should be to help us see where our ecclesiologies are not boasting soley in Jesus. Whereas too often our models of church boast in themselves, pathologically so at times, justifying their correctness by letting others know how they are not like other incorrect models of church.

Deep Church, the metaphor I am finding most helpful, is not about a better model, but a method for models, of sharing the horizons of the church in history and in the present, of going into the plurality of the experience of the church, so that we might connect people to Jesus in reality, in the real world in mission. That we will have the measure of our ideas of church, not as to whether they are different from forms of church we dislike, but that they bring others to know and follow Jesus as a way of life with others.

And even there, I am idealising and imaging a model of church, and how that takes root in a real context is the ongoing challenged and the subject of future posts. But I think it might have to do with some of these:

1. Agency: Despite the explosion of agency, of people being freed to participate, that the church has often resisted, this agancy remains superficial, and needs to go deeper, and be encouraged by the church much more.

2. Commodification: We need to unmask how commodification in consumerism had let us come to a place where church is so often an aesthetic, a style to consume, to mistake the abstraction and idealising of church, and the endless consuming of the 'being' and 'nature' of church, rather than enacting church in real life. Commodification trains the agency we have into aesthetic abstraction. The problem is that being trained as abstracting consumers means when we try to be agents of our religious traditions we end up doing so in a shallow and superficial manner, practicing ‘spirituality’, unable to embed it in any action and community and lived tradtion.

3. Plurality: We need to explore the internal plurality of church that has always existed, to help our superficial agency go deeper, to enage with the outside world and it's plurality. We can help the dissatisfied with church to explore the pluralism of our traditions instead of letting them default to the ‘spirituality model’ of consumerism that picks stuff in plurality, in an abstracted and disembodied fashion! Instead or pretending there is one correct way to do, and be church we throw open the vaults of church history and explore that together. --------

Audio Version of this post: