success stories

Taken from the John Mark Ministries web site

'Church renewal' is the process whereby church people, systems and structures receive new life, meaning and power. Or, to put it in more dramatic and dynamic terms, it is the 'formation of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness, so that the dominant community may be criticized and finally dismantled. It is the enabling of a new human beginning to be made'. (1)

Images of renewal are legion: death giving way to life, stones to bread, creeds to Word, legalism to love, clamour to concord, the static to the dynamic, overstanding to understanding, shadow to substance, price to value, exploiting to caring, lust to love, alienation to belonging, chaos to creativity. A preoccupation with security matures into a zest for adventure; maintaining wineskins into enjoying the wine; possibilities rather than precedents predominate. The fire is life-giving rather than life-destroying. Fear of cognitive dissonance is neutralized by an acceptance of ambiguity. Vested interests become accountable again. We relish the glory of the Mount of Transfiguration rather than wanting to build booths there. Prayer moves from 'wish-lists' to contemplation, worship from formalism to celebration, evangelism from preaching from a safe distance to 'sitting where they sit'. Church renewal is more than mere innovation, the creation of something different for the sake of change: that's moving the deck-chairs around on a sinking ship. Renewal is a deep work of God in the heart and life of the individual Christian and the Church.


If the Holy Spirit were removed from our churches, would their programs go on unhindered? Or, as J S Whale asks, 'If the churches were blotted out and their buildings turned into theatres, what, if anything, would ordinary people miss?' (2) What's the difference between church-people and others, apart from their habit of 'going to church?'

In one sense, the Church is impregnable: the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. But history warns that when particular churches lose their spiritual dynamic they may disappear. The church at Ephesus lost its first love; those at Pergamum and Thyatira tried to accommodate to the world instead of transforming it; the church at Sardis had a reputation for being 'alive' but there was uncleanness there; the Laodiceans were wealthy, and lukewarm. So 'lampstands were removed from their place' (Revelation 2 & 3). Love-lessness, secularism, immorality, complacency - these signs of death in the church are still with us.


Suppose the risen Christ walked in judgement among the churches of our nation, what would his verdict be? Which churches are alive, which dead? There are signs of life and death in the most unlikely places. Where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there - even if that congregation was once flourishing. On the other hand, congregations in the thousands may have a reputation for life, but be diseased. The world may know the statistics, but Christ alone knows whether a church is alive or dead.


Every human organization, including every church and denomination, goes through developmental stages in a 'life cycle'. These stages have been depicted as a birth-youth-maturity-death paradigm; (3) or as evolution (stable growth) - revolution (crisis) stages; (4) or as a social system maturing from 'storming to forming to norming to performing'. (5) The process by which religious truth and practice is passed on from one generation to another we call tradition. Tradition may be oral or written. Protestants (Calvinists more than Lutherans) have been leary of ecclesiastical traditions: they can easily become distortions of the gospel. However, even those denominations and churches claiming adherence to 'Scripture alone' develop traditions, sometimes very inflexible ones. Indeed, as Avery Dulles has pointed out, the Bible is always read in the light of tradition. Christianity recognizes only one absolute authority - that of God himself.(6) 'Renewal movements' are essentially attempts to get behind 'the encrustations of tradition' to the esse of the Christian faith; seeking to restore authentic personal experience of Christ through the Spirit, where this may have been lost in the tradition.

Religious tradition is an attempt to codify 'truth' and behaviour, organize ritual, and categorize experience. Over time, intellect interprets experience, which almost invariably hardens into doctrine or dogma. Doctrine ought to be the hand-maiden of experience, leading us back to it, but it can easily become 'doctrinaire'. Belief-systems become carved in stone; morals become legalisms; celebrations become ritualisms. Actually there are two dangers: religion becoming irreligious - forms and ceremonies get in the way of a relationship with God (ie 'idolatry' where forms replace the living God); or religion becoming too 'religious' - with 'spaced-out' mystics who won't come down from the mountain. The great saints - Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux and the others - were very practical people.

History is often deployed in defence of conservatism. But serious students of history know that the only constant thing in the past was change. Hopefully, as Francis Bacon wrote, 'Histories make us wise'. In any case, history teaches us that tradition is pluriform. (7) The defence 'It has always been done that way' is a function of fear, not of reality. We human beings invest an awful lot of energy avoiding reality. As T S Eliot puts it in 'Four Quartets', 'Humankind cannot bear too much reality'. In one of his apocryphal sayings Jesus says 'He who is near me is near the fire'. The reality is that while you have been reading this more bodies have died of hunger than could be fitted into your church sanctuary from the floor to the ceiling. We usually wait till it all makes sense before we commit ourselves. The truth is otherwise: it will only make sense once we are committed. Commitment precedes understanding. A monk said to St. Anthony, 'I live in my cell, say my prayers, read the Scriptures, and weave my mat - what else is there/" Anthony's response: 'How about becoming fire.'

Rituals are habitual behaviours associated with significant entities in one's existence. Every society has its rituals (eg politeness), and rites (eg marriage ceremonies) which, as Durkheim put it, 'regulate, maintain and transmit from one generation to another sentiments on which the constitution of the society depends'. (8) Ritual, according to Malinowski, transforms anxiety into confidence. Magic 'ritualizes optimism', while religion encourages people to 'do the biggest things they are capable of ... giving them peace and happiness, harmony and a sense of purpose... in an absolute form.' (9)

Every religion, every church, has its rituals. 'Habit formation and reformation is integral to the ordered life of the religious community'. (10) Rituals involve motor movements (eg. the extended arm in benediction, of the soldier's salute), and are measured, precise, stereotyped and often repetitive. Rhythm and number are important (the Lord's Supper is celebrated cyclically; we say 'holy, holy, holy' three times). Spontaneity is suspended in rituals. (11) Pagan rituals alleviate anxiety when dealing with the awesome and the sacred. Judeo-Christian rituals are meant to celebrate our encounter with God with joy and assurance. Religious rituals, like any other, can be pathological or healthy. The ritualization of worship may be a quasi-magical anxiety-reducing mechanism 'where the radical and redemptive nature of God's grace is not perceived or is not really trusted'. (12) Religious rituals can add dignity and spiritual meaning to 'rites of passage', which every community celebrates as individuals move from one stage in life to another. The French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep identifies three kinds of rituals - rites of separation (eg betrothal), transition (eg the Jewish Bar Mitzvah), incorporation (eg dedication of a home or church building). These sacred or secular rites enable individuals to separate from one station in life as they make the transition to another, and become securely incorporated in that new station in life. These rites may be territorial (moving from one place to another) or social (moving from one status, role, age group or position to another). There are recurrent themes in rites - death/rebirth, ablution/cleansing (eg baptism), clothing/investiture. (13) However, habit and ritual must always be counterpointed by spontaneity and freedom, otherwise grace is replaced by law. Ritual is the 'patterning' of experience, the reenactment of the great events of the religious community's past. But where there is no continuing experience of the living God rituals can be archaic or sterile. For the neophyte, socialization involves thorough catechizing, an initiation ceremony, then repeated explanations of the rituals, otherwise they may seem irrelevant or even ridiculous. As law is a tutor leading us to grace, so ritual is the structure enhancing beauty and order in worship.

In worship, cabalistic ritual (with secret, esoteric elements known only to the initiated few) becomes an end in itself, desensitizing the human spirit; a valid religious ritual is a means to the desired end of celebration of and encounter with the living God. Pathological rituals whether in worship or relationships or in work - have lost touch with their object or desired end, and become institutions in their own right.

Religious rituals - weddings, funerals etc., - relieve the anxiety and insecurity of separation. Rituals, in essence, are renewing: 'they cushion the blow of death, they sensitize the power of loneliness, and they provide ways of celebration....If we did not have these rituals, we would make some., People have always done this'. (14) So, in essence, rituals are the building-blocks of tradition. Both ritual and tradition are useful - even necessary - as means, but they must never be allowed to occupy the status of ends. Traditions and rituals must provide for their own continuous renewal: as Peter Drucker has pointed out, in a world buffeted by change, faced daily with new threats to its safety, the only way to conserve is by innovating. (15)


Karl Barth told a conference at the University of Chicago, 'Every Christian as such is ... called to be a theologian'. (16) 'A minister of Jesus Christ', wrote James D. Smart, 'in order tofulfil his (or her) ministry properly, must be a theologian .... To be a theologian is not, first and foremost, to have at our command all the theological learning of the ages; it is, rather, that part of our ministry in which we deliberately expose ourselves, our church, our preaching, to ruthless searching criticism, first in the light of the Scriptures and then in the light of what the church has said and done across the ages, that we may witgh greater confidence and integrity speak and act in days to come'. (17)

A renewed theology is God-centred rather than human-centred, based on knowledge of God rather than assumptions about the world, although if it is too esoteric to apply to the hum,an condition it is not good theology. A renewed theology is a theology of hope rather than of negation. It is wholistic, rather than being imprisoned in the latest fad. (Some pastors define their theology according to the latest theological tome they have read, and thereby become 'theological chameleons merely reflecting the varying colors of the theological spectrum'. (18) A renewed theology has a balance between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right behaviour). (19) When theology is renewed, it finds itself living in the creative tension between teachableness and certainty, doubt and affirmation. According to Paul, 'works of the flesh' include not only perversions of bodily desires (gluttony, sloth, lust, etc.)but all forms of self-confidence - pride of ancestry, parentage, race, religion, and righteousness (Philippians 3:3-6).


Churches come in many varieties: 'mainline', evangelical, fundamentalist, 'reformed', orthodox, pentecostal, charismatic, 'third wave', progressive, conservative, ethnic, confessional, conciliar, ecumenical. Church renewal is not a shift from one of these models to another. None of these categories represents a 'renewed' church per se, although all or most had their genesis in the renewal of a particular aspect of the church's life.

Essentially a renewed ecclesiology focuses on Christ rather than on the human institution we call the church; the church is subservient to him as its Lord and Head rather than pursuing its own goals and desires. The church is primarily viewed as a living organism rather than as an organization. So the passionate concern for church-members is to be holy, sanctified, cleansed, without spot or wrinkle, blamelss, truthful, righteous, peace-loving, faithful, protected from the evil one by the word of God and prayer (Ephesians 2:21, 5:26-7, 6:14-18), incarnating the loving character of Christ (4:15-16), growing towards maturity in Christ (4:13), preserving unity in the Body of Christ through loving tolerance (4:1-6), representing Christ authentically in their behaviour in the world (5:3-5). A renewed ecclesiology will affirm that the whole of the church is more than the sum of its individual parts. There are only four 'ends', for which a local church exists: worship, fellowship, formation and mission. Other church activities/structures/programs (eg money-raising, ministries to particular groups, music, buildings, constitutions, etc.) are means to facilitate those four ends.

A renewed ecclesiology will also take seriously the role of the laity in ministry. As the Whiteheads put it: 'A contemporary shift in ecclesiology, our understanding of the nature and structure of the church, has significantly influenced the shape of theological reflection in ministry. Previously we have been familiar with a church in which an individual authority (whether Catholic pope, Episcopal bishop, or Methodist pastor) reflected on and made decisions for the believing community. The emphasis today moves toward understanding the community of faith as the locus of theological and pastoral reflection. Pastoral insight and decision are not just received in the community but are generated there as well ... This shift requires new pastoral skills - group reflection, conflict resolution, and decision making - for the community and for its ministers'. (20)


The novel The Bridge on the River Kwai contains a most telling parable. British prisoners-of-war had to construct a bridge to facilitate the movement of enemy troops. The colonel, to heighten morale among his men, insisted they build a bridge they'll be proud of. But when a higher command decides to destroy the bridge, the colonel nearly frustrates the scheme: he had lost the whole purpose of the war in his obsession with building a particular physical structure.

That's easy for church-people to do too. They become so attached to the structures of the church - its constitutions, its buildings, its history and traditions - they lose the total perspective and become a hindrance to the work of the Kingdom. The survival of the institution becomes paramount, and blocks renewal. The New Testament is remarkably free from institutional prescriptions: the primitive ecclesia, as Emil Brunner maintained, is more a 'fellowship' than an institution.

'While the church is, in a broad sense, an institution, it is more fundamentally a charismatic community. That is, it exists by the grace (charis) of God and is built up by the gifts of grace (charismata) bestowed by the Spirit. (21) Churches, like all societies, need institutions. But, as we said earlier, the church's institutiional life is a means, not an end. The New Testament metaphor of the church as a 'new temple' (Acts 15:13-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1,Ephesians 2:20-22) where God dwells was borrowed from the Old Testament. However the former temples failed to be a place of meeting between God and his people; rather they became barriers to meeting. But now Christ lives in his church, so the church is the new temple of God - which is neither a material building, nor a religious shrine, nor a localized site. This metaphor carries four important meanings. The temple is God's house, and Jesus Christ is the corner stone. Second, every Christian is a 'living stone' added to the building (1 Peter 2:5). Third, it has structure. But fourth, these structures must be open to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and therefore be biblically valid, culturally viable, and temporally flexible). (22)


Mission is the meaning of the church. The church exists only insofar as it carries Christ to the world. The idea of church without mission is an absurdity. (23) Vincent Donovan, in his seminal book on mission, Christianity Rediscovered, notes that the temptation of the church in times of crisis is to 'react in an inturned way'; to be hooked by the fallacy 'be good and the world will come to you'. (24)

Tom Allen's The Face of My Parish hit Britain's mainline churches like a bombshell when it was first published in 1954. His central thesis: 'We are so caught up in the conventional pattern of the church's life, so busy keeping the wheels turning that we find it almost impossible to experiment with new forms of life within the church' .... Mission ought not to be 'a tip-and run affair ... an occasional or sporadic effort, but a continuous and coherent pattern of life within the church'. (25) Any church may degenerate from being a beacon to the world to becoming a social club with a bit of religion tacked on on Sunday mornings. When the late Bishop Berggrave of Norway commented on the busyness of the average American church he got the reply, 'Remember that churches here are also people's clubs.' When things slow down we develop a new programme or plan another mission, and settle back feeling we've done something. As with the church at Laodicea, the risen Christ stands knocking at the door, seeking entrance into the churches' sterile life that they may be born again and have fellowship with him in the banquet of the kingdom.

Part of the church's failure in mission is its propensity towards ghettoism and irrelevance, vis-a-vis the surrounding culture. The church of North Africa was a strong missionary church, producing many fine Christians (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine). But soon after Augustine, that great church withered away. The fourteenth century Nestorian Church stretched all the way from Baghdad through India, to China and Siberia, and at its height had no fewer than 200-250 metropolitans and bishops. A century later it had all but disappeared. Why? Both were persecuted, but other churches have survived worse. W A Visser t'Hooft says their basic flaw was their roreignness: neither church really belonged to the indigenous cultures. Each was a church 'largely linked to one particular class, one particular language, one particular culture'. (26)

Vincent Donovan lists these essentials of authentic cross-cultural mission: 'To approach each culture with the respect due to it as the very place wherein resides the possiblity of salvation and holiness and grace. 'To approach the people of any culture or nation, not as individuals, but as community.

'To plan to stay not one day longer than is necessary in any one place.

'To give the people nothing, literally nothing, but the unchanging, supraculutral, uninterpreted gospel before baptism.

'To enable them to pray as Christians.

'To leave them the Bible towards the day when they can read it and use it as a living letter in their lives.

'To insist that they themselves be their own future missionaries.

'To link them with the outside church in unity, and the outside world in charity and justice.

'To agree with them that baptism is indeed everything; that the reception of baptism is the acceptance of the total responsibility and the full, active sacramental power of the church, the eucharistic community with a mission.

'To encourage them to trust in the Spirit given at baptism, and to use the powers and gifts and charisms given to the community by the Spirit...

'The final missionary step as regards the people of any nation or culture, and the most important lesson we will ever teach them - is to leave them'. (27)

The church has a two-fold purpose: to be a holy priesthood for the world (1 Peter 2:5), and 'to proclaim the wonderful acts of God' (I Peter 2:9) to the world. 'When the joy, the certainty, the completeness, and the beauty of a Christian community is cultivated and communicated, evangelism is the glorious result.' (28)

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