In what is seen as the 'coming of age' book for fresh expressions, Rev Dr Michael Moynagh examines the theology and methodology of fresh expressions and church planting. In Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice, Michael explores many of the key issues surrounding the movement - including the legitimacy of culture-specific churches. Here he draws on his findings to ask, 'Do we need different churches for different cultures?'
Archbishop Rowan Williams has made fresh expressions of church one of his top priorities. These new and different forms of church are shaped to fit the people they serve. Often they are focused on a specific group – individuals of a similar age, or who share an interest or come from the same background.
The idea is that churches within a specific culture can better serve that culture. But this makes many people nervous. How do culture-specific churches, they ask, square with St Paul’s vision of church bringing different people together? Instead of church tearing down ethnic and other social barriers, don’t different churches for different groups cement these divides?
This is one of the most common arguments against fresh expressions of church. It is also the argument that many people find most convincing. So how should we respond? Let's take a look at three views:
1. Some agree with Donald McGavran, the church growth specialist, who over half a century ago formulated the homogeneous unit principle.
McGavran famously declared that people
like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.
Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 1980
Human beings are born into thousands of different social groupings. They are helped to become Christians if they are discipled within the group they already belong to.
But this view is out of fashion among mission theologians, who point to the effects of religious segregation in apartheid South Africa and strife-torn Northern Ireland, for example. Different churches for different cultures can heighten rather than reduce social conflict.
2. Lesslie Newbigin - in a 1977 article - thought that homogeneous congregations could be a necessary first step in mission, but should not be the last one.
Where the context requires separate congregations, separation must never be final. Regional and national structures should draw the different gatherings together. Culturally-based congregations are regrettable and should be bridged wherever possible.
Yet was Newbigin right to be so downbeat? As Peter Wagner asked in Church Growth and the Whole Gospel (1981), in the coming kingdom will Peter still be a Jew? Will the eunuch still be an Ethiopian? Will Cornelius still be a Gentile? Or will group identity be wiped out?
3. A third view is contained in For the Parish (2010), a vehement attack on fresh expressions.
Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank speak for many when they call for the creation of heterogeneous congregations.
They argue that culturally-mixed churches are part of the very nature of church. In its earliest days, the church was perhaps the only place in the Roman Empire where slaves mixed equally with the freeborn, men with women, the old with the young, the educated with the uneducated and the poor with the rich.
A local church can have different interest groups, such as a sewing circle or a young parents group. But these groups must meet together in a worshipping community that reflects the social diversity of its locality. Only then will today's church be consistent with its New Testament foundations.
Yet this overlooks the social dynamics at work in the local church. Like any group, a congregation will be diverse to a significant extent. Delve beneath the surface, however, and you will find that certain cultural traits draw the congregation together. They may include common values, such as a liberal or conservative theology, similar educational background, a shared cultural preference - for traditional liturgy for example - or common residence, such as, 'We come from this side of the village'. These commonalities give the congregation its identity, and identity by definition includes some people and excludes others. Some people will identify with the congregation and join it, but others won't.
The local church has tacitly accepted this for many years. In an Anglican church where I ministered, people claimed that - as late as the 1950s - the gentry came to church in the morning and working class people in the evening. The only time they met together was at the annual Harvest Supper, which apparently was a nightmare! Davison and Milbank romanticize the social diversity of the traditional congregation.
Focused and connected
Fortunately, we don't have to choose between these three views. There is a fourth. Focused-and-connected church happens when churches serve a specific culture but also connect up. Both are equally important. Homogeneity and heterogeneity can be held together, for instance:
- a local church might give birth to several culturally different congregations (perhaps 'missional communities'). The congregations would cluster together from time to time.
- culturally distinct churches might join with other churches in their locality to collaborate on mission and discipleship.
- churches from different backgrounds might come together in activities organised by a national network sharing a common spiritual tradition.
This focused-and-connected view differs from McGavran's by giving homogeneity and heterogeneity equal weight. It differs from Newbigin's by being more positive about homogeneous churches. And it's different from that of Davison and Milbank by allowing individual churches to be homogeneous rather than limiting homogeneity to groups within a church.
A biblical rationale
With focused-and-connected church, a culturally-specific congregation can draw people into more mixed gatherings. A feature of networks is that one group often leads to another. Perhaps someone is drawn into a church for young adults, and is then invited to a pilgrimage or Christian conference containing a range of age groups. If the person had not been attracted by the homogeneity of the age-based church, they would not have ended up in the more heterogeneous event.
This approach to church has strong biblical roots. In a 1977 article, Old Testament scholar Bernard Anderson argued that the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 describes God's intention that the whole world should be peopled from the sons of Noah. The people are one because they have a common origin. This unity was to be combined with their 'scattering' (9.19) through the multiplication of different language groups. God's will for creation is unity and diversity.
The Babel story in 11.1-9 describes how, contrary to God's will, human beings fear diversity and strive for a unity that minimizes difference. They build a tower to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered (verse 4b). But God refuses to let his will be thwarted. Twice, in verses 8 and 9, he insists on scattering them.
God confuses their language in verses 7 and 9 not because diversity is a bad thing – different languages are clearly a good thing in Chapter 10 – but because in their sinfulness human beings are resisting the call to diversify. The people's offence was to prioritize unity over diversity. Their punishment was to experience the thing they feared – the divisiveness of difference represented by confused languages.
God's intention – that humans both belong to specific cultural groups and be united – is not to be thwarted. Unity is to be combined with difference. Unity is not to be at the expense of cultural diversity, nor is diversity to prevent unity. Focused-and-connected churches express this ideal.
Focused-and-connected churches echo the dynamics of election, through which God chooses the particular to reach the universal. Abraham's descendants are to be the recipients of God's blessing in order that 'all peoples on earth' will be blessed (Genesis 12.2). These descendants are brought out of slavery as God's 'treasured possession' so that, as a nation of priests (Exodus 19.5–6), they can perform a ministerial function among the other nations. God chooses a specific entity, Israel, so that other social entities can benefit.
In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), Newbigin points out that election assumes inter-dependence. Israel depended on the Lord for blessing and other nations depended on Israel to share in that blessing. The Bible consistently sees human life in terms of mutual relationships. Dependence of one on another is not just part of the journey toward salvation, but is intrinsic to salvation itself.
Culture-specific churches follow this pattern of election. Having received the gospel from one culture, recipients use their social connections to carry the gospel to a different culture. Someone who comes to faith through church in a leisure centre, for example, might start church in a workplace. Salvation is transmitted through the relationships between cultures.
The New Testament church
The Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinthian and Ephesian churches combined house-based homogeneous gatherings, called church, with larger, probably town-wide assemblies (also called church), which drew these gatherings together.
In Jerusalem, for instance, the first Christians met together as one group in the temple courts while also breaking bread in their homes (Acts 2.46). In Paul's churches, believers met in separate house gatherings, which periodically met together as a single group.
In the concluding section of Romans, probably written in Corinth, Paul sends greeting from Gaius, whose hospitality 'the whole church here' enjoyed (Romans 16.23). New Testament scholar Robert Banks comments,
In the Greek Old Testament this expression consistently refers to an assembly of all Israel; thus it must be the totality of Christians in Corinth which is in view.
First-century cities were much like today. Distinct ethnic and income groups lived in different areas. So a house church that drew in members of the family and their networks would reflect a specific culture. These culturally focused churches then met together as 'the whole church' (1 Corinthians 14.23) from time to time. It was in these larger gatherings especially that social barriers were to be knocked down.
The new creation
Focused-and-connected churches anticipate the new creation. The one multitude of saints in Revelation 7.9 is drawn from a huge variety of cultures. Revelation 21.3 speaks of God dwelling with his 'peoples'. There is no one people of God chosen from among the nations. All peoples are now united in God, but still maintaining their individual identities.
Later, in verses 24 and 26, Revelation describes the nations (plural) bringing their accomplishments into the new city (singular). Unity and cultural diversity are again combined.
This future was anticipated at Pentecost. The Spirit enabled those present to understand the apostles not by obliterating language differences, but by hearing in their own languages (Acts 2.5–12). Unity of hearing was combined with diversity of speech. Those who responded were drawn into a single community, God's one family. Unity became possible alongside cultural variety. The church began to live out the new creation.
Serving specific cultures opens the church's doors
In established churches, existing members set the terms of church life – when it meets, where, in what style and so on. These terms inevitably reflect the interests of those who already belong. When the church emerges among people outside, however, the character of the church can be shaped by the newcomers.
The more culturally specific the church, the more it can respond to the needs of the people it serves, such as meeting at a time that fits in with shift work or in a convenient place. Serving specific cultures opens the church's doors. It helps the church both to attract and hold people. The Spirit can then convert individuals to the pursuit of heterogeneity.
In On the Verge (2011), Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson remark:
If we persist with the current status quo, we are in effect asking the nonbeliever to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church! Remember, we are the sent ones, not them.
Based at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Michael Moynagh is Director of Theological Research for Fresh Expressions.
Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice is published by SCM Press on 1 July 2012, priced £25.