Only Martyn Percy could offer such an extended and telling comparison between Maoist China and the Church of England today, as he does in his blog post of 5 July. The so-called Myriad Initiative, reported in a recent Church Times article, to plant ten thousand new church congregations in ten years, is so breathtaking in its ambition as to invite comparisons with the failures and deceptions (not least self-deceptions) of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
And yet, its proponents have a case. As Martyn himself has pointed out in a much earlier post, BC and AC (Before and After Covid) may well prove to be two different epochs in the life of our society and certainly in the Church. So, why not a total reset in the Church’s mission, forgetting what lies behind and pressing on to what is ahead? If we instinctively recoil from such initiatives, we need to know why, and we need to have some good theology to justify our concerns. This post is humbly offered in dialogue with Martyn and others.
Lorraine Cavanagh, in a tweet following the Church Times and article, has reacted especially to the whole obsession with church planting, cutting across the Church’s existing pattern of parochial ministry, which, it seems, is shared by our Archbishop. She points out that Jesus told us to make disciples, not to plant churches. And in a way this parallels the distinction which Martyn frequently makes between the call to plant churches and the call to care for communities.
Now, actually, “planting and growing churches” and “making disciples” are not antithetical. They certainly were not for St. Paul, who after all was the greatest church-planter of all time, and for whom the individual and the corporate, even cosmic, dimensions of the Gospel always went together.
But maybe, in the very different circumstances of our own century, it depends in part what you mean by “disciples”? The church-planters and church-growers know exactly what they mean by this – full-on conversion and the works. If they were right, then planting churches in those parts of our culture where “the Gospel is not preached” and the churches have little or no effective presence would indeed be following Paul’s example and it is hard to argue against it. But if “discipleship” now has to be a more nuanced and complex thing, because most people in a secular society are unwilling, perhaps even psychologically unable, to respond to that particular call?
You could argue that some of the truest “disciples” today are people like NHS frontline staff and the followers of Greta Thunberg. Most of these would not owe explicit allegiance to Christ, but they may be realising Kingdom values in a way that the churches often fail to do. We as Christians may well argue that it would be better for them, and ultimately for us all, if they were to embrace the Christian story in its fullness, with the deeper liberation that that can bring. A few will, and they may have a vital spiritual role to play in our society. A few others may develop a personal spirituality which is at least a reflection, conscious or not, of the values of that story. Most won’t respond in a “spiritual” way at all – even if someone founds an allegedly “more accessible” church to reach out to them. All that this so-called Myriad Initiative will bring, in most places, is confusion.
I can’t inherently reject any and every claim of the church planting and church growth movements. They may well have positive effects here and there; I have even seen one or two. But my big objection, following all that Martyn has written over the years, is as follows. Humility is one of the most fundamental values of the Gospel. The fundamental value of these new initiatives, much of the time, seems to be a sort of imperialistic hubris. I confess I have not yet read Martyn’s latest book, The Humble Church, after Ann Morisy’s unexpected demolition of it in the Church Times. But that title alone is one of the best, with one of the clearest messages, that I have seen in some time. The way in which the Myriad Initiative folk, and those who support them, effectively denigrate the ongoing mission of thousands of churches up and down the country is sheer hubris, and that, above all, should be called out.
“After Covid” indeed seems likely to be a strange new world, and it may bring changes in society and Church that are needful. But “the ordinary things apply/as time goes by”, and the commandment to humility, and to charity towards the Church that already exists (and in some places is doing remarkable things) is surely one of those. And so far our leaders seem to be missing out on it.