They were standing on the street corner handing out leaflets, and ‘preaching’ to passers-by. Their dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties made them easily identifiable. I went over to speak to them. Declining the offer of a tract, I assured them that I was already a Christian and had just come over to say hello. I told them the name of my church and they told me they were with a local Brethren congregation.
“Have you been involved in some of the city-wide inter-church initiatives?” I asked, already knowing the answer I was likely to get. They hadn’t heard of it and looked puzzled at the idea that there should be any initiative beyond that of their own church.
A friend had a similar experience in the city. Seeing someone handing out Christian literature he, like me, went over for a chat. The man had come to the city from a Brethren congregation in the south of England.
“Are you working alongside the Brethren churches in the city?” my friend asked.
“Are there Brethren churches here?” was the response. In other words, these two groups, both from the same denomination and tradition, apparently knew nothing of each other’s existence. You might say this is typical of these particular believers and there is, indeed, an unhealthy exclusivity about Brethren churches. But this failure to acknowledge other churches is not, by any means, confined to them.
One of the questions that come up in conversation with my Christian friends is, why do groups come into our city to establish churches where we already have so many? Why don’t they go to areas outside the city that desperately need churches? And why do these incomers target the areas of our city that are already well served by established and, it may be said, well-heeled congregations? Why don’t they go to the areas where the need is greatest?
It might be argued that there is something symbiotic about the whole business.Go where the success is and you will be more likely to succeed. It certainly can cause bad feeling, leading to charges of ‘sheep-stealing’ as a new congregation benefits in part from the disaffection felt by some in an established church. It also encourages church-hopping, where those who find the long-term challenges of being part of a Christian community too much, and the attraction of a new start irresistible.
So why do ‘incomers’ take it for granted that the place to be is where everybody else is already established? Is it simply laziness? Is there a conscious attempt to begin by plundering the congregations of other churches? I think it is more basic and more troubling still. There is an attitude prevalent across Evangelical and Charismatic churches that says God is moving in our day, but he is only moving in and through us, through me and mine.
There has been, in my almost thirty years as a Christian, a catchphrase trotted out every time any innovation is introduced and challenged in the church, from guitars in Sunday services, to exercising the more spectacular spiritual gifts, to claims of prophetic anointing; ‘God is doing a new thing.’ It has become a trope in some circles, even a test of orthodoxy. In light of it almost anything may be instituted as from God, and Christians dare not question the new thing God is doing at pain of being regarded as dead in their tradition.
It is this attitude, this high-handed approach, I suggest, that motivates the churches that seek to establish themselves where there is ample Christian activity. Its not that they don’t see other churches, nor that they don’t appreciate the need outside and in other parts of the city. Its that they perceive a need where churches are already established because they judge these churches as somehow falling short, of not being the answer the new church is just bound to be because, in them, God is doing a new thing.
With this attitude they fall back on that other old saw, ‘We must get back to first century church!’ It is a model of church that is more real in their imagination than ever it was in this world, but its what they are determined to achieve anyway. It as though they have never read the New Testament and never seen the problems prevalent even in the first century. I am reminded of the saying that ‘the good old days,’ when they were happening, were known as ‘these trying times.’
Having decided that the rich, actually well-served, area of the city is in need of saving from itself, they view it as virgin territory, a mission field. They convince themselves that everyone there should be pleased that this group of pioneer Christians should choose to turn up here, pitch their tent among us and bless us with the message they bring, and with the innovations they insist are better than our bad habits and dead traditions.
There is a naivety about the whole business, certainly, but we must not be sentimental about it. It is damaging to the body of Christ, a threat to the unity in the Spirit that Paul calls for, and it creates and perpetuates bad feeling between churches. Because, make no mistake, if this ‘new thing’ survives, becomes established, especially if it moves from community centres to a permanent building,from a mission-minded group to a mature Christian congregation, others will come after them and despise them as much as they once despised others, seeing in the now established church dead tradition. They will, one day, find themselves asking the questions addressed here and perhaps fail to see the irony.
Paul writes to the troubled Corinthian church, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor.11:19)
Factions are regrettable, deplorable, but they do serve to test us and distinguish those who are faithful to God’s purposes. This is not, however, an endorsement of factions in the church. In his letter to the Philippian church Paul writes of the view mature Christians should take of things, going on to say, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)
The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against laying foundations where they are already laid (Hebrews 6:1) and Paul writes:
‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”’ (Ro.15:20-21)
There is a troubling trend in the 21st century church that sees Christians despise anything and everything that is ‘established’ and go off to follow their own Christian way. ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ they insist. But you do! Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but to ‘be a Christian’ you have to be part of the wider Christian community, be churched, part of a growing group of believers. This individualism is singularly unbiblical, spiritually unhealthy, largely uncalled for, but all-too-often encouraged by churches that set themselves up over and against established churches in the name of innovation, novelty, and some ‘new thing’ they imagine they alone have got hold of.
If you are coming to our city you are most welcome, but don’t seek to establish what is already here. Rather, put your weight behind what is already established. If you do see a need then have the courteously to meet and share your vision with other church leaders in the city. Maybe you can work together with them, benefit from their experience, gain strength from their support. Best of all, go where the need is greatest, where the Word of God is not well established. There is a mission field outside our large conurbations, as well as in the poorer areas within them. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.