Last year as part of an ecumenical collaboration with church and denominational leaders working in rural contexts, I wrote a biblical reflection on apocalyptic evangelism. Unfortunately, in popular culture we find it hard to use the word apocalyptic or apocalypse without attaching it to the word zombie. Hence, we tend to think of it as something bizarre and probably involving the living dead. But the word apocalyptic essentially means ‘to uncover’ or ‘reveal.’ The pandemic, I think, has had an apocalyptic effect in that it has revealed how things really are. It has shown us how unequal our society is. It has revealed how vulnerable we are as human beings. How, fragile life and social relationships are. Although we have all been in the same storm, we have been able to ride it out in different boats – our experiences have been both paradoxically the same and yet very different.
We have come to appreciate workers at the front-line more than ever before. Not just the wonderful NHS staff who have worked tirelessly in difficult circumstances but other front-line workers. Those stocking our supermarket shelves, driving our buses and emptying our bins. We became aware of how sacred the ordinary and mundane can really be.
Churches too have had a mixed response. Many have done sterling jobs setting up a camera in their kitchen and broadcasting services on YouTube or Zoom. Others have struggled to adapt and feel the great loss of being able to gather as they once had. The collective trauma experienced by leaders from all sorts of church backgrounds continues.
Despite these challenges I was greatly encouraged as I gathered national leaders from a variety of denominations last week to hear the story of Fresh Expressions. Fresh Expressions I believe is one of the ecumenical success stories of the last 20 years in mission and evangelism. Of CTE’s 51 national Member Churches, only six are officially part of the Fresh Expressions movement in England. In partnership with Fresh Expressions UK, CTE offered a taster day for some of our member churches to find out more about the movement and how it may be an encouragement in thinking about sharing the Good News of Jesus in culturally appropriate ways. The theologian of the movement, Mike Moynagh, joined us to share the story and hear how other churches were facing the challenges of creating new worshipping communities.
For those who don’t know:
‘A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through the principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the Church and for its cultural context.’
Drawing together leaders from RCCG, Quaker, Congregational Federation, Catholic Bishop’s Conference, The diocese of Llandaff, Order of St Leonards and other backgrounds, it was fascinating to see that whilst churches have very different approaches to church planting they all face very similar challenges around connecting with younger generations and helping people become authentic disciples.
Director of mission for the Catholic Bishops conference, Father Jan Nowotnik, said that whilst he found the day challenging, in many ways the basic idea around creating communities of missionary disciples was at the heart of Pope Francis’ message during his tenure. “It is a challenge to all our historic denominations that we need to be better at speaking to the context. Too often in the Catholic church we have simply been baptising pagans when in fact we need to be making missionary disciples.”
Besides the euphoria of actually being in the room together what stood out for CTE Trustee James Laing was that what had been shared went way beyond templates for mission. “What struck me was foundational importance of relationships both internally within denominations but also ecumenically.”
If we are simply called to follow the missionary God into the world and respond to what God is already doing – the pandemic can only have re-revealed the most important task of all churches – to know God and to make the God story known – but in deeper cooperation with each other.