Janet Sutton Webb asks whether 'church' is a negative term or a Kingdom force.
In emerging church circles, use of Kingdom language is common. But sometimes, in the past, there has been a reluctance to label what is emerging in the name of Jesus Christ as 'Church' at all.
So what is being implied by pioneers who reject the word Church or use it only in negative terms? Is it not saying less about the Church as a Kingdom force in the world and more about their personal experience of the Church? I would like to suggest that what emerges through fresh expressions is both authentically Church and Kingdom shaped.
What we mean when we use the term 'Church' is shaped at least in part by tradition and experience, elements of which we will either hold dear or rebel against in our attempts to reshape our ecclesial communities for today's world. These constants, as Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder label them; have provided the backbone of the Church through the ages. The way we define these constants will differ according to our context and may well change as we walk our path of faith alongside others. And if what emerges from our work is a version of Church which fires and inspires us, this contingency applies not only to us, but to that which results from our call to mission.
It is impossible to step entirely outside all our Church traditions as missioners; nor should we attempt to. How would we be accountable otherwise? Yet moving away from what Catholic theologian Avery Dulles would describe as an institutional model of Church towards that which is, in varying amounts, mystical communion, herald, servant, and sacrament is a recognition that the raison d'être of the Church is not the maintenance of structures or traditions, but to bring alive in people the reality of the faith, hope, joy and love that only a relationship with Christ can give.
This we can only really achieve through encounter: with real people in their everyday lives. Just as our Trinitarian God works creatively, incarnationally and powerfully beyond the realm of the institutional church, so should we who are the Church. In everything we do and say, in everyone whom we meet and every conversation we have, we should be prepared to see God at work. All of our encounters should be Kingdom encounters.
Following this principle has implications for how we do mission. In mid-Devon it has meant abandoning the idea of starting projects or communities of our own and falling into step with others as they begin theirs. We do not do Church, we are Church. We follow the way of Christ in everything and then allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
As Bishop Graham Cray would say, we listen to God and listen to our community. As we see God at work in others we join with those whose ideas they are, turning community encounters into Kingdom encounters. Which church model will eventually emerge from this context remains to be seen. One thing of which we are sure: it's going to be Church and it's going to be Kingdom shaped.