The New Shape of the Church in our Time
By Alan J Roxburgh.
Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw
The Missio Dei (the mission of God) is the most profound theological rediscovery of the church in the twentieth century. It reminds us that God is a missionary God, and that the church’s involvement with mission is because God sends the church and invites the church to participate in God’s mission. God is already working in the world. But the tricky question is how do we discern where and how God is working so we can cooperate? This is the key question for a new process for launching leaders for community development and social entrepreneurship in my tribe of churches, the Baptist Union of Victoria (BUV), but what we need are tools and practices for exploring and experimenting.
Alan Roxburgh is a Canadian pastor and professor who has consulted with churches and denominations around the Western world on congregational and system change. He founded the Missional Network for practitioners and academics considering how church needs to change for different contexts. He tells the stories of some of these experiments, and the principles and practices they have discovered that help, in this concise and accessible guidebook.
Part I outlines the struggle or “unraveling” of Euro-tribal churches in the West. A highlight is the insightful commentary on attempts to respond with calls for renewal, church growth and health, or more recently the emerging and missional church movements. Roxburgh’s big claim, however, is that responses have been misguided – largely because of default assumptions that the solution is up to us and our management, with a focus on churches and the role of ordained leaders. Roxburgh appeals instead to foreground the agency of God, and empowering whole people of God. He advocates moving on from anxiety about church survival and instead refocus on discerning what God’s Spirit is already doing in our neighbourhoods. The narrative does not leave the reader depressed as Roxburgh is hopeful about the opportunity within the crisis to see fresh ways God wants to work: “If you sit and listen to what’s happening under the hype about church growth or the lament about denominational decline, you can hear the music of the Spirit, sounding a chord many of us dreamed of but never imagined would happen.” (vii) The dominant note is an appeal for prayerful attentiveness as we stand on holy ground assuming God is at work.
Part II gets practical with an invitation to new rhythms to cultivate a missional imagination. Based on Luke 10 – and how the 72 disciples followed Jesus together, into the neighbourhood and travelling lightly – Roxburgh guides us through simple and concrete ways to process five practices.
1. Listening – to our neighbourhoods, one another and God. I especially appreciated the role of story-sharing and inviting God to speak to us through an exercise of “Dwelling in the Word” (different to Bible study).
2. Discerning – where God’s Spirit invites us to cooperate. I would particularly like to adopt his suggestions of using silence and the Lord’s Prayer.
3. Testing – engaging simple experiments, especially focused on being with people and receiving from, not just doing things for people.
4. Reflection – on what we are learning. John Dewey suggested it is only as we reflect on experiences that we will learn.
5. Deciding – how to proceed in joining God in our neighbourhoods.
Roxburgh illustrates the process with stories of churches and ordinary Christians giving these steps a go, and starting soup nights, book clubs or simple approaches to meeting and caring for neighbours. The practices are based on the conviction that God is active in the neighbourhood and does speak to ordinary people in our congregations as we dwell in the Word of God. They assume that the role of leaders is to cultivate space for this discernment journey as well as leading the way in doing mission themselves. Roxburgh identifies unhelpful defaults in church systems and reassures us that God is active, that God speaks through Scripture, that we can take risks, and that mission is not primarily about renovating church.
Roxburgh appeals particularly to churches to listen to younger voices about how to respond to a world where church is not at the centre of society (since this is the only world younger generations have ever known), and he bounces particularly off Luke 10 (which is also the basis for BUV’s Innovate vision). As well as the simple and accessible explanation of five missional practices, this is why I love the book and look forward to using it. More broadly it is an ideal handbook for churches and leaders to understand our changing times and explore new directions that are focused refreshingly on cooperating with what God is doing.
This review was originally published in Mission Studies 33 (2016) 111-112.