Postcards from England: Partnership for Missional Church

While in Leicester (see the previous story!), we took the opportunity to sit down with Nigel Rooms of the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society (CMS) to hear about a project they’re running called the Partnership for Missional Church.

Now if you’ve hovering in church circles, you’ll have stumbled across this word ‘missional’ more than once or twice in the last few years.  It’s a conversation that has quite a head of steam as we continue to ask the question “what does it mean for a church to be shaped in response to its understanding of God’s mission” (or something like that).

CMS, through this program, are endeavouring to help local churches reflect on this kind of question, and to turn their attention to the notion that God is at work in their world, and the question of how to join in. These are, in a sense, the classic questions of the missional movement.

The program is a long-term one, taking three years to work through in a partnership between the local church and CMS (or the program’s original developers, the Church Innovation Institute in the USA) in three movements:

  • Year 1: Listening
  • Year 2: Experiment
  • Year 3: Focussing

It also incorporates a heavy emphasis on discipleship – through five practices: dwelling in the word, dwelling in the world, announcing the kingdom, hospitality (of which more in a moment), and corporate (collective) spiritual discernment. It all hangs on a range of ‘ologies’ including theology, sociology, missiology, ethnography and so on.

The process seems in some ways to be a carefully assisted change process. The community is introduced to the capacity to understand itself, it’s world, and it’s God in new ways, and then supported as it responds to those new understandings.

There were, once again, a few topics explored in the course of the afternoon that captured my attention.

The first was the mention of hospitality. At risk of being something of a broken record, this is a topic I’ve wondered about before – in particular the tendency in our world to put ourselves in the place of host when we think about hospitality – whereas the Jesus stories are filled with encounters in which Jesus is the guest rather than the host.  Learning to be guest in our communities, and to see God at work in the world and life of our host is a critical skill.

The second related to an observation from systems theory about the interplay between process and outcomes. The theory (as I heard it expressed) suggests that in a given situation we can either control the process, or the outcomes, but not both. In the Partnership for Missional Church exploration, the attempt is to manage the process – and to let the outcomes be whatever they may be (or whatever God may determine…to take a slightly more theological tone).  The PMC journey is a carefully managed process, but with not pre-determined, or even preferred outcome envisaged before it begins.  What will be, will be.  I’m drawn to that approach.

Thirdly, we heard that there is a body of research that suggests that local churches learn best from one another, than from professional trainers and consultants. As a kind-of-consultant, I of course rankled at this suggestion…but only for a moment. Of course there are times when insights from outside are helpful, but it does seem intuitively true that peer learning is a powerful tool – and that local churches (or their leadership teams) in conversation with one another can learn a great deal from one another’s experiences.  Which reinforces the importance of great relationships with neighbouring congregations. Let’s not be out there going it alone!

The next postcard is a few days away. We’re now gathered with teams from around the world in an International Learning Community on fresh expressions of church.  We’ve collectively agreed on a social media fast for the duration of the gathering (in terms of the gathering itself and the conversations we’re having here), so that we can be fully present to one another, and allow the full process of the gathering to work its way through out thinking.

I’ll tell you though that it’s been incredibly stimulating, and there are lots of thoughts and questions I’m wondering about.  I’ll be back to say more in the next postcard.

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