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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

is sustainability sustainable?...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

David Hayward posts 'here' about the vulnerability of the early church, in which he writes...

"Read the gospel of John, The Revelation and the three epistles and you pretty much witness the erosion of church communities. I don’t think because they didn’t have church growth or maintenance skills, but because there’s a gene present in any biblical community that prevents it from growing into some kind of tower of Babel. I think the healthiest communities do not have the guarantee of permanence."

Over the last few years I've been involved in numerous conversations regarding the 'maturing' of the emerging church - questions of when does an emerging church community 'grow up' (so to speak)? For some, the issue is financial, and I guess there is something valuable in a community being able to pay its own way and not be financially dependent on another institution. But the response that gets me most nervous is the 'sustainability' one - the view that a mature church, and by implication a 'successful' church, must be sustainable long-term. I suppose I get nervous about this, not because I don't think it's a good thing for a community to have a long life, but because once the 'sustainable' goal becomes the primary focus, a community is in danger of crossing the line between mission and maintenance. Not that I want to set up a false dichotomy here - effective mission may well lead to community growth and so 'maintain' its life for longer. The shift that I'm nervous of, though, is a subtle but potentially damaging one - it's when the primary motive for any activity becomes 'ensuring the future survival of the community', such that mission becomes a means to that end rather than about Kingdom ministry.

The Dream network, of which I'm a part, has been going for more than 5 years now, but along the way we've seen networked communities come and go. Some existed for a short time (less than a year) and engaged a small number of people for that time, and others have been going for the full 5 years. All of them have always been, and still are, vulnerable - if you were to ask me which Dream communities will still be going in 2 years time, I'm not sure I could give an answer (I could guess but I'd probably be proved wrong!) What's important to notice though is that some of the groups that are no more have still reached and helped people along the journey of faith, some of whom are now involved in other Dream groups or church communities. None of the time was wasted; none of the communities, no matter how transient, were pointless. And maybe the key to realising this is to recognise that each group is part of something bigger (the Dream network), which is itself part of something bigger (the 'Church'), which is itself part of something bigger (the Kingdom of God) - it's this final 'bigger' that we're truly members of and it's this that will surely endure without any need for a sustainability strategy!

The words from David's post that most resonate with me are, "there’s a gene present in any biblical community that prevents it from growing into some kind of tower of Babel. I think the healthiest communities do not have the guarantee of permanence." Maybe this is to enable us to keep our focus on the Kingdom of God and on God's mission of which we're a part, rather than getting caught up in maintenance strategies or empire building.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:01 AM


Good post Malcolm.

In fact surely something that is endlessly sustainable is also by definition dead! i.e one sign of being alive is that we will die.

One biological definition of maturity would simply be the ability to reproduce, and to my mind that's a much healthier form of maturity to be aiming for (of course reproduction need not mean cloning).

Mission history suggests though that to see that sort of maturty we also need to aim for whatever we start to be self-funded and self-governed. (the three self principle self-funding, self governing and self-reproducing)

There's a huge danger in the current fresh-expressions/emerging wave of repeating the mistakes colonial missionaries made for centuries. Good missiology has made great progress in these areas but we're in danger of ignoring that or leaving it only to oversees/foreign 'missionaries' while back at home we once again create dependant and at best adolescent communities.

The challenge for true maturity is both a releasing of the children by "mother" but also a willingness to "grow up" in the children. This is perhaps made more difficult in a culture where people seem to want to live the adolescent life and avoid the challenges of responsibilities into middle-age!

commented by Anonymous richard white, 1:53 PM  


thanks for these comments - really helpful! Yes, I think the ability to reproduce is important, and the beauty of this biological analogy is that it allows for (even expects) the 'dying' of communities that have (or maybe have not) reproduced, without seeing this as a failure.

I do have a slight nervousness that runs alongside this though (nothing is ever straight forward with me!) - even though I regard the cell-church movement to have offered many valuable insights and challenges to church structure and mission, it did at times have a guilt-inducing tendency for those groups that didn't manage to multiply, as if they had failed in some way as a community. In some churches I've encountered, this tendency was made explicit as policy, and multiplication shifted from an ideal to a compulsory and necessary sign of obedient faith! I remember chatting to one fairly prominent writer on church and culture (who shall remain anonymous) who used the words 'social engineering' to describe this characteristic of cell church.

I'd be keen to avoid this pressure on communities that can, if handled badly, amount to a form of spiritual abuse. However, that said, I do still warm to your suggestion that the ability to reproduce is "a much healthier form of maturity to be aiming for".

I also agree with your comments regarding the dangers of 'adolescent' dependency, and the need to establish an independence in maturity, which of course carries financial implications. I didn't want to get into this in the original post as I had another agenda (!) Thankfully, after your lucid comments which pretty much say what needs to be said, I don't need to!!

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 2:35 PM  

well said!

(as you can see I'm avoiding the work I should be doing by blog lurking)

Social engineering (like biological engineering) tends to produce sterility, the exact opposite of the reproduction it was trying to manufacture! Cell church leaders need to note that there are too many "dolly the sheep" cells out there and far too many who have been innoculated against the idea of reproduction through their awful experience of this kind of engineering.

So I absolutely agree, and was not suggesting a "multiply (which usually means divide!) or die" policy.

Of course if we apply the "self-governing" principle then it can't be engineered from above anyway.

All that can be aimed for is the kind of climate that encourages and nurtures communities giving birth to new life and sometimes new communities. Celebrating this form of maturity seems far more in tune with Jesus' pictures of the kingdom than notions of permanence and sustainability (your original point finally retunred to!)

commented by Anonymous richard, 3:29 PM  

Great post Malcolm. Someone spoke recently about a continual need for pruning and reevaluation.

commented by Anonymous Richard L, 6:22 PM  

I love the way this debate is starting to use evolution as a creative metaphor. I came across (was it via Jonny's Blog?) a link to a church service called 'Beyond the Selfish Gene' recently - doing the same sort of thing.

Out of a need for a shot of tangibility I've left off reading about postmodernism for a while, and turned my attention to evolutionary psychology. The recent pro-atheist bestsellers by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Lewis Wolpert are all grounded in this work. For a bracing shot of the latest research, without obvious axe-grinding, I heartily recommend "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker.

What they point to is the possibility that who we are - certainly, how we know and relate to the world (which includes one another, and therefore church) - is entirely explicable in evolutionary terms. That is, that churches are evolutionary phenomena is not just a metaphor, but how we really function.

I think of Christ coming to fulfil religion, and I think of evolution as a religion which Christ fulfils - how? By being disarmingly human. In turn we could do a lot worse than appreciating individual churches as the groups of human animals that they are - no less - before we try to engineer them according to models which belong to a simpler age.

It's not so much that "there’s a gene present in any biblical community that prevents it from growing into some kind of tower of Babel" but that this gene is present in every human community. After all, the point of the tower of Babel is that, just like our impermanent churches, for whatever reason it was never completed either.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 1:00 PM  

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