The Church in the UK faces numerous challenges. These challenges are already urgent but will become even more significant in the years to come. The next few decades will bring us face to face with the consequences of climate change, rising inequality and a global refugee crisis. There will be further demographic shifts, technological innovations, ongoing culture change, and the risk of another pandemic. It is impossible for us to stay the same or act as if everything is fine – while the world is transformed around us. The Christian community will need to adapt to a changing context, while reaching out in love to those who are ignored while others prosper.
The Church of England has begun to explore a vision for the 2020s. This vision aims for a church which will be simpler, humbler and bolder. There is a desire to become a church that is younger and more diverse; a church where mixed ecology is the norm; a church of missionary disciples.
These are worthy aims, but they will not be achieved by starting a few projects or initiatives. Achieving these aims will require a shift in the way that the church operates, from the organisational culture of dioceses to the day-to-day life of parish churches. Achieving these aims will require a new focus and commitment from the entire institution.
When athletes train to break records or win competitions, they have to bring their entire life into the spotlight. They need to think about what they eat, when they rest, and how they spend their time. They need to train their mind as well as their body, so that their whole being is fit and healthy, and ready for the challenges ahead.
Christian discipleship requires a similar discipline – as the apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever” (1 Cor 9:24-25).
The challenges of the twenty-first century will require churches that are healthy and fit-for-purpose – churches that are ready to serve Christ in a changing world. Like the athletes who inspired St Paul, we will need to be healthy and focused, rather than complacent, apathetic or resigned to our fate.
Athletes work hard on their health and overall performance, not for the sake of personal fitness, but with a purpose – which is to win the race! Every athlete has a vision in their mind of what winning the race will feel like, and what winning the race will lead to. They are focused on the prize.
The church needs to be healthy in order to fulfill a purpose – in response to the love of God, the preaching of Jesus and the work of the Spirit. The Church cannot fulfill its purpose unless it is healthy.
As human beings, we need a healthy and balanced diet, which enables us to become fit and well. Churches also require a balance of life-giving activities which enable each of us to grow as disciples.
As the editors of this book, we believe that churches need a balanced diet of:
- Worship – loving relationship with God
- Fellowship – loving relationships which shape our common life in the Body of Christ
- Mission – loving relationship with the earth and all its people
Worship happens as we praise God and live lives of prayer. This can sometimes appear to be an individual act, but we always worship as part of a wider community – the Body of Christ which exists across time and space. We never really worship God alone.
Fellowship is the intentional process of building deep mutually supportive relationships. It is experienced as we build relationships of trust, commitment and mutual support. Fellowship happens as we minister to Christ in and through each other. In the New Testament the word koinonia is often translated in this way.
Mission means to share the love of God with others, so that strangers become friends of Jesus who find salvation both in this life and the next. Mission happens as we love the world in the service of the kingdom – bringing life and healing to our local communities and the wider world. Mission is about friendship, healing and justice for all. Our mission is to make the Earth more like heaven as we live out Our Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven”
We believe that churches will develop in a healthy way if they are active in each of these three areas. Christian Disciples will grow and flourish if they are engaged in worship, fellowship and mission – and will suffer if they are missing out in any one of them.
In this book, we are concerned primarily with “fellowship.” This is a crucial area of Christian life, which is often neglected in practice. We find it all too easy to focus on worship as an activity, or on mission as a series of projects, while we neglect the relationships that hold us together as a worshiping and missional community.
And yet, fellowship (koinonia) is a crucial theological concept which has a central place in Christian thought. The main focus of the miseo dei is to restore the broken relationships between God and creation. Christ prays that the disciples should be one – so that the World will know the love of God. The community of faith is the training ground within which disciples are nurtured, equipped and sent forth. We therefore neglect the practice of fellowship at our own peril.
Fellowship can be a problematic word. For some people it implies little more than social activities, light refreshments or some form of club. In this conversation, we are talking about something much deeper – linked to community, connection and belonging. It is usually used to translate the greek word koinonia in the New Testament which has implications of common identity or participation. In this project, we have found it helpful to talk about “relationality” – the manifold ways in which we are connected. Whether we talk about fellowship, koinonia, community or relationality, the key issue is the same. We live in a world of broken relationships but are called to unity in Christ.
One of the biggest problems for our society is the rise of individualism, which can be linked to loneliness, consumerism, inequality and abuse. The church exists as a sign that community is an essential aspect of God.
Jim Wallis says that:
…the greatest need of our time is not simply kerygma, the preaching of the gospel, nor for diakonia, service on behalf of justice, nor for charisma, the experience of the Spirit’s gifts, nor even for propheteia, the challenging of the king. The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call to simply be the church – to love one another, to offer our life for the sake of the world. The creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level is the foundation of all the other answers… It is the ongoing life of a community of faith that issues a basic challenge to the world as it is and offers a visible and concrete alternative.Sojourners 9:1, January 1980. p. 11. Quoted by Kenneth Leech, The Social God. 1981, p. 4
Jesus does not pray that his disciples may be one because this would be helpful for the work of the Church. He makes it clear that unity is both a means and a goal – and this must inform our way of working. When worship or mission are reduced to activities, projects or initiatives which are disconnected from fellowship, there is a tendency to see people as a problem to be dealt with, rather than the focus of God’s love.
The Church exists in relation to the Kingdom. It is the community of people who are following Jesus and seeking the Kingdom. Paul’s image of the body is really important. We are the body of Christ, not merely a human institution. As a church we are called to seek this new reality both within our own community and through our engagement with the world. Church as koinonia is both a sign of the Kingdom and an agent of change.
We should therefore resist the temptation to see the Church as a loose collection of individuals but as a single body constantly working to heal division, listen deeply and act lovingly. We recognise that this is not always the way we are, but this is the divine vision towards which we are heading.
If the churches of the UK are to address the challenges of the twenty-first century, we will need change in the way that we think and live. We will need to change our cultural assumptions.
Yes, we will need to become more missional, and yes, we will need to focus more attention on God, but this will require us to develop a more relational culture, because this is the secret ingredient which will transform us into communities of faith – in which disciples are welcomed, formed, trained, and supported.
The writers of this book are keen to encourage the Church to practice “fellowship” – but this does not mean coffee after services, or networks of people who think the same thing – it means the radical practice of loving each other as Christ loves us – respecting difference and committing to the wellbeing of others.
Scott Peck in his The Different Drum – Community-making and peace refers to the Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 1990). The washing of the disciples’ feet symbolically overturned the existing social order and gave us a new way of relating through the Last Supper. Through Jesus, the early Christians discovered the secret of community.
Have we lost the secret? Keith Millar in his book The Scent of Love (Waco, Texas, 1983) suggests that the success and appeal of the early Christians was not their charisms nor their doctrine, rather it was because they had discovered the secret of community. There was something about the way they spoke with each other, looked at each other, cried and laughed together that was strangely appealing. They gave off the scent of love, the fragrance of God – even a small hint was not just attractive but transformative. This is what fellowship is about – loving one another in such a way as to attract others to want to experience for themselves the secret of community.
We will need to reform and renew what it means to love another as Christ loves us. We will need to reform and renew what it means to be a community of disciples. Bonhoeffer clearly saw this future when he said “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it is a brief single encounter or a daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ” (Life Together, the classic exploration of Christian Community, Harper, 1954).
Fellowship means deeper listening, courageous disagreement, and a commitment to the common good. It is not an easy path, but it has the potential to transform our worshiping communities into schools of discipleship, which will prepare us for the further challenges ahead.
As it says in the Book of Hebrews:
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another . . .”Hebrews 10:24-25
The aim of this project is to refocus our attention as Anglicans on the importance of fellowship as a foundational principle which underpins our shared mission and corporate worship.
The writers who have contributed to this book come from a range of backgrounds and theological perspectives. We do not agree with each other on every issue, but we are united by a desire to encourage greater relational thinking in the Church of England. We see diversity as a strength not a weakness. We seek to be better disciples of Christ as we follow God together.
This book is intended as a discussion starter, not a discussion ender. This is a journey, not a conclusion. We merely hope to encourage further conversation and engagement with these issues, as we seek to become a simpler, humbler, and bolder Church.