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Church Plants – Are They ‘Relevant’?

The furore surrounding Angela Tilby’s Church Times article ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical Takeover’ (Church Times 27th April, 2018) has given rise to what many people probably see as a very large storm occurring, once again, in a very small teacup. They are right insofar as it can be felt as a more compact, and therefore more intense, re-working of the murderous Church differences that prevailed in this country and on the continent in the sixteenth century, and thereafter in other guises. But they would be wrong to see them as another reason for dismissing the Church, and the Christian faith to which it witnesses, as ‘irrelevant’.

Irrelevance is what Christianity is often accused of when there is nothing else left to blame for suffering and injustice, including the injustices perpetrated by the Church. But blame, merited or not, has never brought renewed life or hope, and the Church, with all its internecine conflicts, is badly in need of both new life and hope. It could even be said that the Church of England, in its more traditional form, has dropped below the critical mass needed for its very survival. It is for this reason that the idea of a takeover – Evangelical or otherwise, is frightening.

‘Takeover’ is really another word for conquest, and conquerors usually succeed in obliterating whoever they have conquered. ‘Takeover’ also resonates with the crude competitiveness of the market place, that whoever can occupy a coveted commercial space most quickly and efficiently is entitled to it. The church plant is legitimized in being quick and efficient. It appears to produce almost instantaneous results, so it is apparently worth a small amount of collateral damage in the shape of the people it displaces. By virtue of its success, the relevance, or irrelevance, of the plant takeover is no longer up for discussion.

But these two words are also deeply misleading. The idea of irrelevance is not an accurate description of the ways in which the Church can be found wanting. If the Church is seen to be irrelevant it is likely to be because the way that it goes about doing evangelism fails to connect with what matters to people, what we are all really yearning for, and which many people find it hard to give voice to. In other words, some way of naming, or giving meaning to, the concept of God.

The response to a perceived ‘takeover’ of the Church by Evangelicals is really an objection to the way one group appears to be taking it upon itself to name the unnameable for everyone else. Here, it has to be said that not all Evangelicals are sympathetic to church plants. There is also a sense of pressure and competitive hype driving certain kinds of worship and teaching which leaves some people feeling patronized, often to the point of exclusion. If you cannot join in the hymn or song, with its music, or with the theology it is expressing, you experience a sense of disconnect and exclusion and you are further disempowered in your desire to name and know the God whom you so deeply need.

This sense of disconnection and exclusion contributes to what Angela Tilby calls “existential distress.” Existential distress is the result of religious alienation. In the context of public worship, alienation is experienced as an inability to identify with those around you. The words being said or sung by a particular church do not express or connect with the fears and loneliness of the individual who may come from a different church background, or no church at all. They may even exacerbate them. This suggests that what is needed in all worshipping contexts is space in which to name our fears and own our loneliness, together and before God. At the more Catholic end of Anglican life, this is done implicitly through liturgy which draws the worshippers together into God. In Evangelical contexts a less formally defined and open way of praying does the same work, but more explicitly, so it requires greater self discipline in regard to how it affects others.

To this end, those who lead church worship must facilitate an encounter. They must enable those they serve to give shape to their need for God, as Jesus does with all those who ask the questions that really matter to them. A theologian visits him at night because he wants to know the real meaning of new life in the spirit. A woman is honoured in her genuine quest for truth as it is to be known in worship. Others, like Peter and Mary Magdalen, have few if any words for what is being revealed to them in a moment of profound understanding and relatedness with God. They simply “worship him”, as Peter did, or utter the name by which they know him best, as Mary Magdalene did in the garden of the Resurrection.

This is the relevance of connection with God that the Church of England, in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations, so badly needs to have for the times we live in.

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