Posted by: stpowen | November 1, 2012

FIEC Leaders’ Conference 2012 & ‘Missional’ Churches

FIEC Leaders’ Conference 2012:  ‘Aliens & Strangers.’

Matt. 28:18-20.  “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit;  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Early in OctoberI went once again to the FIEC Leaders’ Conference at the Hayes Centre in Derbyshire.  Once again the event was very well supported; so much so that in order to satisfy demand next year the conference will be moving to a larger venue out on the Norfolk coast.  It is hard to object to this if it will allow more people to attend, but, sad to say, I may not be one of them as a 400 mile round trip to Derbyshire will become one of 720 or so miles to Norfolk.  We’ll see.

The title of the conference was ‘Aliens & Strangers; Missional Living in a Hostile Society.’  I must confess that I had not realised the extent to which ‘Missional’ has become a buzz word among many churches, but more of that later.  The first part of the title is surely a rather accurate description of Christians in today’s society, though 1 Peter 2:11 reminds us that things have not changed very much in the last 2,000 years.

Since last year, the Fellowship has said goodbye to about 20 churches; one or two through closure, a few more because they disagree with the FIEC policy on women’s ministry, but most of them because they wanted to remain part of the Churches Together movement.  Although it is never pleasant to see friends part, I have to say that I consider this departure as entirely positive.  I consider Churches Together as an entirely baneful influence on the U.K. Christian scene and wholly incompatible with the conservative evangelical position which the FIEC seeks to take.

The financial position of the Fellowship is now quite strong, thanks to the increases in affiliation fees voted through last year and also because of some very generous gifts from wealthy Christian supporters.  Some of the money will be spent on training a new generation of church leaders; the rest on church planting, with an aim to ensure that every town in Britain will have a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church in the not too distant future.

The conference followed its successful policy of not engaging ‘guest speakers’ for its teaching sessions but instead relying upon speakers from its own ranks.  This year the National Director of FIEC , John Stevens, in three excellent talks, drew lessons from the early chapters of Daniel.  We saw how Daniel and his friends, despite coming to Babylon in a position of great weakness, were able, without compromise, to influence the nation and bring the claims of God before three kings.  The subtitle of the talks might have been, ‘Those who honour Me, I will honour.’  The evening talks were given byAndrew Upton of Knighton Evangelical Free Church in Leicester.  These were on Ephesians 2 and were very blessed.  All these talks are now available to download from the FIEC website.

There was also a variety of seminars on various topics:  church leadership, missions, training, preaching, pastoral care, women’s ministry, youth work, theology and church management.  I went to the three seminars on church leadership, subtitled ‘Leading a Missional Church.’  Those who attended the other seminars spoke very highly of them.  However, I do have some concerns about the Leadership seminars as I shall relate.

I have heard the word ‘Missional’ several times before in the recent past, although my Oxford Concise Dictionary does not list it.  I had assumed that it meant simply “Involved with mission” as all churches and church leaders should surely be.  Instead there seems to be a particular style of churchmanship which is termed ‘missional.’

The seminars were lead by Steve Timmis, the Pastor of the Crowded House church in Sheffield and a director of ‘Acts 29,’ an international church-planting organization.  Crowded House has joined the FIEC in the past year.  The model of ‘missional’ church that Mr Timmis expounded was quite new to me.  Church services, which he called ‘gatherings’ are relatively few.  Most activity is devolved to House Groups- re-named ‘Mission Communities’- which also conduct baptisms and the Lord’s Supper.   These are strongly ‘family-friendly’ and members and visitors are encouraged to bring their small children along, put them to bed before the meeting and then wake them up at the end to take them home.  Whether this is ideal for children I leave to those who know more of child-care than I do.  The Mission Communities exist for the purpose of bringing new people in and as soon as the house in which one meets becomes too small, the ‘community’ splits and a new one is born.

I can certainly see that it might be more attractive for un-churched people to come along to a relaxed and informal meeting in a home than to a forbidding church building.  If these ‘Mission Communities’ really work I have no principled objection to them.  It is evident that the earliest Christians often met in homes (Rom 16:5; Philem. 2) doubtless because theysimply had nowhere else to meet.  It is also clear that the church in Corinth did not always meet as a church (1 Cor. 11:18-20), presumably because of large numbers.  However, it also seems probable that it was the fact that the whole congregation met together only occasionally which was the cause of the ‘divisions’ among the members and the misbehaviour at the Lord’s Table of which we read in the same chapter.   I do not see that the New Testament can be used to prove the Biblical authority of the Crowded House practices.

My greater concern is for the teaching that is going on in the ‘Mission Communities.’  In the Great Commission of Matt. 28, quoted at the start of this article, there are three instructions

1. ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations…..’

2.  ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…..’

 3. ‘Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’

It is the third of these commands that worries me about the Crowded House model.  If the church ‘gathers’ together only, say, once a month, where are the new disciples going to receive their teaching?  If it is answered, in the ‘Mission Communities,’ what training are the leaders of these ‘communities’ receiving to enable them to give that teaching?  Is the relaxed and informal atmosphere of a ‘Mission Community’ the right place for the teaching to be given?  These questions were asked of Mr. Timmis at one of the seminars and he did not give a clear answer.  I should confess at this point that I have not read any of Mr. Timmis’ books.  My observations are based upon his seminar talks and upon such of his blog posts as I have had time to read.

I do not wish to be rude to or dismissive of Mr. Timmis, but the image that comes to my mind when I consider the ‘Missional’ model that he put before the seminar, is that of a kind of ecclesiastical Ponzi Scheme.   People are being drawn into a movement and immediately sent out to recruit more members who in turn are sent out at once to recruit more members again.   Yet how many of the recruiters have a really clear knowledge of what they actually believe?  When one takes a trip by air, there is a safety presentation by the cabin crew.  Passengers are informed that in the event of a loss of air pressure, oxygen masks will come down from the ceiling.  They are then told to make sure that their own supply of oxygen is secure before they try to help anyone else.  So it is with Christians.  We need to be sure that we know what the true Gospel is, and its associated doctrines, before we try to pass the message on to others, for ‘If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch’ (Matt 15:14).

Way back in the 1670s, two well-known Puritan ministers in London, Thomas Watson and Stephen Charnock, became concerned that the new Christians who were being added to the churches did not really understand what they had professed to believe.  They therefore commenced a series of lectures on Lord’s Day afternoons in which they taught the basics of the Christian faith.  Watson later published his teaching schedule as A Body of Divinity {1}.  It is a wonderful synopsis of Christian truth and remains in print to this day.  At much the same time, another Puritan, Richard Baxter, was ministering in the town of Kidderminster.  Like Watson and Charnock, he became concerned at the lack of Christian knowledge of his parishioners.  To counter this ignorance, he set himself to visit every household in his parish and to catechise {2} the residents.  His methods are outlined in another book that has stood the test of time, The Reformed Pastor {3}.  I am not sure that his precise methods are either possible or necessary in this age of the internet, but his purpose is just as vital now as it was in the 17th Century.  Far too many Christians are quite unable to give a ‘Defense to everyone who asks you for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15), and I fear that Mr. Timmis’ ideas will exacerbate that problem rather than help to solve it.

In recent times, we have seen various schemes for church growth, including Power Evangelism (remember that?), Willow Creek and Purpose-driven Church.  They do seem to be genuinely successful in boosting church attendance, but less so in producing genuine Christians and after a while the numbers coming into the church by the front door are matched by those leaving by the back door.  Moreover, those who remain without being saved will tend to undermine their churches’ evangelical status by demanding shorter sermons and prayers and more singing, and drama to satisfy their secular, unconverted tastes.

Many churches in Britain and the USA have proved that it is possible, with God’s help, to build a large church without resorting to ‘Church Growth’ methods. {4}   It may be harder and take longer, but it can be done, and when it is done by the faithful preaching of the word (2 Tim 4:1-2), it will produce, God willing, a genuine harvest of new believers- fruit that will last.

Notes

{1} Published today by Banner of Truth. ISBN 0 85151 144 9 (hardback).

{2} That is, to teach by means of question and answer.  Examples are the Westminster Longer & Shorter Catechisms and the so-called ‘Keach’s’ Baptist catechism.  http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/keachcat.htm

{3} Available as a ‘Puritan paperback’ from Banner of Truth.

{4} Examples that come instantly to mind are John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in California and the Metropolitan tabernacle in London.  There are plenty of others.

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