Graham Tomlin: Alpha and the Holistic Vision of Church

August 13, 2012

 Alpha and the Holistic Vision of Church 

Written by The Revd Dr Graham Tomlin – Dean of St Mellitus College and

Principal of St Paul’s Theological Centre, Holy Trinity Brompton

The Alpha Course has proved a remarkable gift to the church. It has given millions of people across the world the opportunity to ask the big questions of life in a Christian setting. It has been one of the main methods of evangelisation in the church worldwide over the past decade. Yet perhaps its potential is only just beginning to be realised. Many churches have found that running an Alpha course and bringing people to faith is one thing, integrating them into the church is another. Sometimes people wonder if their Alpha Course ought to be made a little more like church so the shock is not too great when guests eventually do start coming regularly on Sundays. Instead perhaps another question needs to be asked: might the church need to become a little more like Alpha, so the gap is bridged the other way?

If Alpha is run in a struggling church and yet the church remains exactly as it always has been, then however often Alpha is run, it is unlikely to make much difference. The questions around the church need to come up sooner or later. Why is it important that people are integrated into the church? What might that church look like? What is church for anyway? What does a truly ‘Mission-Shaped’ church look like?

This brief article outlines a map for thinking about the church that begins to answer these questions. It also tries to give a theological rationale for what church is about, and how a programme like Alpha fits into the overall pattern of what church is and does.[1] It also illustrates this with a glance at how this works out in Holy Trinity Brompton, an example of a church that has been working on these things for many years.

The Big Picture

The story of the church begins, as does the Bible, with Creation. In creation, God creates a world that is different from him. He gives it space, freedom to grow and develop, an existence independent of his own. It is a world not of independent entities, but of delicate balances and relationships. There are a series of relationships set up in the first chapters of Genesis between God, humanity his image bearers, the animate creation, the inanimate creation and much more. In short in could be said that we therefore live in God’s world in a set of vital relationships, with:

      • God
      • Other People
      • The wider Creation
      • Ourselves
      • The gift of Language

The creation is made perfect, but not complete, just as a human baby might be perfect as a baby yet not a complete human being – it has to grow to maturity. Likewise, creation is ‘good’, yet it still has to develop, to be ‘subdued’ and ordered, developed to reach its full potential, and this task is given to humanity (Gen 1.28; 2.15) as endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit who broods over creation (Gen 1.2). As the early church theologian Irenaeus puts it: “What could the visible fruit of the invisible Spirit be, if not to make flesh mature and receptive of imperishability… The Holy Spirit is sent to the entire universe, and since creation, has been transforming it, carrying it towards the final resurrection.”

Paradise Lost

For creation to reach its potential it needs these relationships to remain intact. Yet as the story of the Fall in Genesis 3-11 tells, those relationships have been damaged, fractured and broken through the entry into the world of disobedience, and a turning away of creation from God its Creator. This affects every one of these relationships:

  • GOD: Genesis 3.8 describes Adam and Eve, these symbolic figures for humanity, hiding in the garden from God. It depicts graphically the broken relationship between humanity and God hides from their maker. This, the most vital of relations, between God and his chosen image-bearer, the ones called to care for creation in his name, is tragic for the whole of the rest of creation, and spins off into a series of other breakdowns.
  • OTHERS: Genesis 3.12 shows the man blaming the woman for what has gone wrong. Blame enters human relationships, as conflict breaks out between the two constituent parts of humanity – male and female. Chapter 4 outlines the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Not only is the elemental male-female relationships broken, the relationships between brothers, those who come from the same womb is fractured as well.
  •  CREATION: In Genesis 3.14, we find enmity breaking out between humanity and the animal creation, represented by the serpent. Verse 17 goes further to show a fissure in the relationship between humanity and the very earth we walk on. The land which was meant to be fruitful and co-operative becomes the source of back-breaking hard labour. Work becomes difficult rather than joyful and the earth eventually swallows up human bodies. Chapter 9 has the flood – water, which was intended as a friend to support and sustain life becomes an enemy, threatening to wipe out human life once and for all.
  • OURSELVES: Genesis 3.7 shows shame entering human experience, the man and the women hide from each other, sewing fig-leaves to cover their shame. Self-conscious and embarrassed before each other, having lost the original delightful naivety that was there in the beginning, this is a picture of broken people, full of self-doubt, anxiety, fear.
  •  WORDS: Language is the most remarkable gifts given to humanity to enable it to order and develop the creation (2.19). Now however not only are words used to blame and accuse, human language itself is broken apart. Genesis 11 tells the story of Babel, where human understanding ceases and language is dissolved into myriad broken fragments. We no longer understand each other. Language often serves to divide rather than unite, to destroy rather than to create.

This is the tragic scene we are left with after Genesis 11. The task is now not only to enable creation to reach its potential, to sustain and develop it. It is also to undo the complicating effects of the Fall. It is like a child who contracts a disfiguring disease soon after birth. The doctor not only has to ensure the child grow into maturity, she also has to treat the distortion brought about by the disease, and the potential for that growth to be abnormal and inhibiting rather than straight and healthy.

Genesis 12 is the beginning of God’s response. He calls Abraham and his potential descendants to be the bearers of the message that he has not given up on his creation and that he will one day restore and renew it, and to embody his desire for creation – the values and way of life that he originally intended for humanity in relation to the created order.

Creation Healed

Eventually, from that very family of Abraham, comes Jesus. The Son of God, sent from the Father in the power of the Spirit, comes to heal creation, restore humanity to its true destiny, to die for the sins of the world and rise again as the forerunner of the new creation that will one day come into being. In the ministry of Christ we see all these relationships restored:

  • GOD – When people meet Jesus they become aware they are in the presence not of another rabbi, but of God himself. Lepers are healed and restored into relationship with God and his people. Peter falls down before him crying ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man’ (Luke 5.8). Thomas on seeing the risen Jesus says ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28). Jesus enables a genuine encounter with God.
  • OTHERS – In the twelve, Jesus creates a place where people can come together. Judas the Roman-hating revolutionary comes face to face with his polar opposite, Matthew the Roman collaborator. Women are in the travelling party along with men. The division between Israelite and Samaritan, Jew and Gentile begins to be broken down as he welcomes those on the edges.
  • CREATION – Jesus’ ministry touched not just the lives of individuals, but spoke of a renewed creation, a renovation of the created order fractured at the fall. Storms, symbols of chaos and disorder within the Old Testament, were stilled as Jesus the king uttered a word of command. Water which threatened to drown anyone who fell upon it, became supportive and co-operative as the Son of God stepped out of a boat. Food was multiplied so that the hungry could eat, be satisfied, and twelve baskets were left over. Malformed limbs straightened out, and lifelong illnesses vanished at a stroke. In the ministry of Jesus, disease and death were temporarily banished to the far corners of hell where they truly belonged.

The miracles of Jesus were not arbitrary demonstrations of his power, or even illustrations of his teaching. They were signs that God was now coming as king, and that his enemies were in retreat. Creation was being healed and signs of the final re-ordering of the world were visible: ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.’ (Matthew 4.23)

  • OURSELVES – Jesus makes people whole again. The schizophrenic bi-polar man with a fragmented personality disorder is made complete, ‘dressed and in his right mind’ (Mark 5.15). The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the bereaved are comforted, the fearful find courage. People become who they have the potential to be when they come into contact with Jesus.
  • WORDS – When put to the test, Peter’s words deny Jesus. After Jesus has died and raised to life, and when his Spirit comes, Peter’s words then become the instrument of invitation as he preaches to the crowd and three thousand people are added to the company of God’s people on the day of Pentecost. Jesus is the one who has the words of eternal life (John 6.68) not empty, facile words which sound good but mean nothing.

The ministry of Jesus is to heal creation and to enable humanity to be restored so we an play our God-given role of caring for, nurturing and developing the creation to reach its potential of beauty, harmony, and order. In other words, as he put it himself, it was to announce and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. As N.T. Wright puts it, in the ministry of Jesus, God was becoming king again of his world.

The Church and the New Creation

After Jesus’ Ascension, it is the church which is to continue his work, sent by the Father as Jesus was and endowed with his Spirit. The church is the ‘body of Christ’, the physical presence of Christ in the world, called to do what he did.  While it can never repeat the unrepeatable sacrifice for sin and life of total obedience to the Father, the church is called to continue his work, this work of the kingdom.

The church therefore does not exist for itself: it exists for the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of Jesus. It is meant to offer a taste of that Kingdom to anyone who comes near. It exists to point people to the new creation, and to enable people just to get a glimpse of what it might look and feel like. But what does that mean in practice? What does it mean for a church to be involved in God’s mission to heal and complete the creation? Well, it will mean being involved in all five of the areas mentioned above, which plays out in some key areas of the church’s life:

  • A new relationship with God – Adoration
  • A new relationship with Others – Belonging
  • A new relationship with Creation – Compassion
  • A new relationship with the Self – Discipleship
  • A new relationship with Words – Evangelism

 A New Relationship with God – Adoration

Jesus’ invited people into the Kingdom of God. And that meant learning to order their lives afresh under God’s rule. So, churches will need to be places which start by fostering a new relationship with God.

This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is for churches to miss this simple point. Churches can become consumed with the techniques of management, the demands of technology or even the minutiae of liturgical correctness, and somehow miss out on the cultivation of intimacy, awe and adoration of God. It’s possible to go to some churches for many years, gain a fine understanding of theology and church politics, but to be no closer to the God of Jesus Christ than you were at the start.

Many people in today’s world long for intimacy. Our culture’s obsession with constant communication by any means possible, whether email, text messages, mobile phones or chat rooms testifies to our inability to be alone, our desperate need to be in touch, to share secrets and share lives. Our fascination with sex also points to the same thing: as Douglas Coupland put it: ‘Starved for affection, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was really just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.’[2] Although there is a desperately sad side to this inability to be alone, at the same time it reflects a basic human need – for intimacy. Without it we shrivel and hide. And this desire for intimacy with each other is again a vague echo of our need for intimacy with God our creator:

…earnestly I seek you

my soul thirsts for you

my body longs for you

in a dry and weary land

where there is no water.[3]

One place where Christians have always looked to cultivate a closer, more fulfilled and intimate relationship to God, as well as a keen sense of awe has been in the act of worship. So the question of what a church does when it gathers together week by week has a large bearing upon its ability to usher people into a new relationship with God.

New Testament worship took a variety of forms, and it’s not always easy to figure out quite what it looked like. One of the best descriptions comes in an early letter in Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth:

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.[4]

One quality in particular stands out in this description: that Christian worship was dynamic. It’s interesting to note in passing that New Testament churches expected unbelieving visitors to drop in on their meetings, and one of the questions which governs what they do there is how such people will react. It’s clear from this passage that what these early Christians did together had a dramatic effect. An ordinary inquisitive Corinthian pagan is invited into the Christian meeting. While there, he is unable to escape the powerful sense that God is really and tangibly present, and exclaims, ‘God is really among you!’ Paul expects that as Christians meet together, God can be experienced as truly present, even by those who come in without any Christian faith at all!

The effect on this visitor of the experience of Christian worship is that ‘the secrets of his heart (are) laid bare’. Most Christians will recall times when a word in a sermon, a song, a ‘word of knowledge’ or prophetic word has penetrated right down to the depths of their being. This might be called ‘inspired communication’ which is perhaps a useful simple definition of prophecy. When it happens, it’s as if you are seen through, understood, and the secrets which no-one else knows are addressed and resolved by a word from someone who couldn’t possibly have known what was in your heart. It’s this kind of thing that Paul has in mind. Worship and preaching which addresses the ‘secrets of the heart’, that goes beyond the intellectual and rational, which has a numinous quality to it is the kind that brings a sense of the presence of the true God. It transforms the singing of hymns and the saying of prayers into acts of true adoration of the living God.

This kind of worship has that slightly dangerous, risky quality which we mentioned earlier as important for transformative churches. Paul expects worship to be provocative. No-one could leave a meeting of the Corinthian church remarking that it was boring or dull. When is the last time you sensed danger in going to church – that you were going to meet with the living God, to become acutely aware of his presence and power? It’s not surprising when this happens that people occasionally tremble, laugh, sing rapturously or even dance. When the secrets of the heart are gently exposed and quietly answered, all kinds of responses are possible. Yet so often church doesn’t feel like this. It’s a tragedy that at a time when many people in the west are searching for spiritual reality, churches are often the last place they would expect to find a genuinely spiritual encounter with the God of creation and redemption.

This kind of worship doesn’t necessarily have to be loud and dramatic. Quiet contemplative services, reverent ritual, or thoughtful, perceptive informal teaching can all do the same – the main thing is not so much the style but the spirit of expectancy for God’s reality and presence which it carries. This expectancy arises out of a life of prayer at other times in the week, a sense of anticipation that God will make himself known, and an understanding of worship that sees it primarily as response to God, not a performance for him.

Worship which carries this dynamic quality cannot fail to engender a deeper sense of the reality and holiness of God, a stronger sense of intimacy, awe and adoration, which are vital foundations for a life transformed under the rule of God. It cannot help but foster a richer spirituality out of which evangelism flows, as others are invited into the friendship with God which Christians have begun to know.

In HTB, this has meant a style of worship designed to enable young people in particular (those conspicuous by their absence in most UK churches) to encounter God. It mostly uses contemporary styles of music, although not always. One service every Sunday has a more classical style of music, but embodies the same value of seeking to be a vehicle through which people can encounter God. It has also led to the world-wide growth of Worship Central, a ministry designed to help churches develop exactly this kind of numinous, God-centred worship.

 A New Relationship with Others – Belonging

Jesus brought people into new relationship with others. There are strong indications in the gospels that he intended small communities of disciples, centred upon himself and the life of the Kingdom, to continue after his ascension. Paul subsequently envisaged churches in which the normal barriers in first century Graeco-Roman society (between Gentiles and Jews, women and men, free men and slaves) were simply irrelevant. A church modelled on the Kingdom of God will be able to draw people into new patterns of relationship with each other, based on an appreciation of the value of every person.

Personal and spiritual growth normally happens not in isolation but in relationship. We tend to change when we see a quality in someone else which we admire and would like to emulate, and we learn to exercise that quality as we see someone else live it out. Embodied truth is much more effective than disembodied concepts. So relationships are vital for transformation, and a transforming church needs to place a high premium on the quality of its relationships.

Corinthian worship was not only dynamic; it was also interactive. Like a large bring-and-share lunch, where the thing only works if everyone brings something slightly different to share with everyone else, each person was expected to bring their own special contribution to the gathering. No-one was passive, idle, simply a spectator. Instead, each had something to offer and to receive, whether ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation’.

In some churches, I sometimes wonder what would happen if the minister or priest didn’t turn up one morning. Imagine they forgot, or slept through the alarm. Many churches would simply panic. Without a minister, who will lead? Who will preach, or administer the sacraments, or give the notices? Some might just cancel the service, some might muddle through somehow; in many, church couldn’t function without a ‘minister’. Now this isn’t to denigrate the role of ordained ministers – they have a definite and vital role to play in church life. Yet it is to point up the level of dependency many churches have on those who lead the church. As a result, a visitor who had never been to church before would be forgiven for thinking those in the pews are expected to be passive recipients of sermons or sacraments, while those at the front do all the work – miles away from what Paul taught the Corinthians to do.

An example of churchly passivity is the traditional sermon. Did the early Christians preach sermons? Did Paul? On a visit to Troas, he spoke long into the night at a church meeting. The occasion caused a bit of a stir (it’s told in Acts 20) when one young Christian called Eutychus nodded off to sleep during the talk (evidence by the way that Paul wasn’t the most riveting of speakers & an encouragement to all preachers who have seen their congregations doze a little). The boy fell out of window and apparently died, yet was restored by God through Paul’s prayers. The narrative tells us that Paul ‘kept on talking until midnight’ (v7) and then after the incident with Eutychus, that he even kept talking until daylight (v11).

Does this mean Paul’s sermons lasted several hours? Yes and no. Luke the author of Acts uses two specific words for Paul’s speech as he tells the story. One is the Greek word dialegomai, which more accurately means ‘discuss’, and from which we get our word ‘dialogue’. It seems that in fact Paul was not speaking at them, but talking with them, discussing, answering questions and expecting interaction.

The impression is strengthened by the second word, used in v.11, homilēo, which means ‘talk with’. Earlier in his two-part narrative, when Luke told the story of the married couple discussing recent events in Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus after the first Easter weekend, he uses the same word to describe their conversation.[5] Again it is a word more at home in the context of dialogue rather than monologue. Paul’s teaching here at least, was interactive. He did not tend to give twenty-minute speeches before the final hymn.

Again, the purpose of this is not to recommend the abolition of the sermon. It is however to point out that the sermon is perhaps more of a cultural construct than we tend to think. Christian and biblical teaching is essential to a healthy church, as we shall see, yet the way it was delivered in the earliest churches was probably much more interactive than it is in most of ours.[6]

Members of churches in New Testament times were expected to be active participants, not passive recipients. They were places where each person was understood as having been gifted by God with something unique and valuable for the well-being of the whole church. The problems in Corinth seem to have stemmed in large measure from a group who felt that they were the only ones who were truly gifted or were worth listening to.[7] A church with a consumer mentality, where the laity are purely passive consumers of whatever is delivered from the front will rarely be an evangelistic church. However churches where members are brought into new relationships, where they are seen as gifted both to give and receive care, attention, forgiveness and love, just as they have received from God, will be an energising and attractive community. It will provoke questions, especially in a culture which has lost the power to create a shared life, one in which there is a little sense of commonality, but instead atomized individualism, and isolated and uninvolved lives.

From time to time, the church has recovered its true identity as community. For example, the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a reaction to a church dominated by clergy as the possessors and dispensers of everything that mattered. It was essentially a reaffirmation of the insight that every believer had the responsibility to stand in the place of Christ to offer counsel, reassurance and wisdom to everyone else in the church. The question this poses local churches is whether they see themselves primarily as institutions or communities, as programme-centred or people-centred. A church which reflects the life of the Kingdom will have a clear aim of bringing people into relationship with one another, where they can give and receive care and instruction, rather than maintaining the strongly hierarchical top-down structure that many of our churches have at present. Churches that are effective evangelistically are usually at the same time places where people can find new relationships where they are valued for what they bring as well as receiving care from others.

In HTB this is primarily done through Pastorates, groups of 20-30 people that meet weekly throughout London. In these groups, and the smaller sub-groups of 3-5 people that meet in alternate weeks, it is more possible to find this level of friendship, involvement ad mutual sharing than in a Sunday service of 900. Here, gifts of prayer, worship leading, speaking and pastoral wisdom are developed as Christians learning to follow Christ together can genuinely give and receive from each other.

 A New Relationship with Creation – Compassion

Jesus’ ministry was not just about individual salvation, but cosmic renewal. St Paul also understood this point, seeing the pain of the created order, longing for its final release:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope thatthe creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’[8]

A church which wants to be like Jesus and to reflect the life of his kingdom will therefore be involved in some way in the restoration of creation. Just as Jesus did, it will set up signs that one day God will restore order to this fractured world, and end creation’s bondage to decay.

When a church proclaims that Jesus is Lord, that God is in charge of his world, a likely response from anyone aware of the harsh realities of life is, to quote John McEnroe, ‘you cannot be serious!’ The world certainly doesn’t look much like a world under the control of a good and loving God. The difficult question is quite a reasonable one: ‘If your God is really in charge of this world, what is he doing about cancer, about the homeless, about AIDS or poverty?’ It is the age-old problem of suffering, and usually Christians have sprung to the defence of God with the science of Apologetics, mounting careful and sometimes thoughtful intellectual answers. Some of these convince, some don’t. And they often don’t in the context of real suffering. We’re back with our problem of disembodied truth, which doesn’t cut much ice either in postmodern culture or the experience of pain.

If a church is doing nothing about these things, then however cogent and clever its apologetic answers to the problem of suffering, they will all sound a little hollow and just a touch smug. It is vital that Christians can mount an explanation of the existence of suffering in a world that they claim to be basically good and under the rule of a thoroughly good God. Yet perhaps the most effective answer to the question of what God is doing about suffering is the answer Philip gave to Nathaniel: ‘Come and see!’[9]

What is God doing about pain in his world? He is calling people like you and me to be transformed into the kind of people who are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He is gathering a community of people who are involved in the healing of creation, who out of their joy at knowing a good God who has graced their lives, are busy gracing the lives of others, visiting those with cancer, touching those with AIDS, giving time and money to those who are poor, praying for the healing of those who are sick, cleaning up local landscapes ravaged by vandalism. Unlike Thor or Jupiter, the God of the Bible doesn’t send too many thunderbolts. He normally does his work through things, and especially through people. He worked the salvation of the world through Jesus, and he fights against evil and pain through people who live under his rule.

But of course this answer only has credibility if it is actually true, and you can point people to a local church community where it is happening! Commitment to acts of care and compassion are not optional extras for churches which want to be evangelistic, they are indispensable. A provocative church which reflects the kingdom of God will demonstrate what happens when Christ’s Lordship is enacted. Under God’s rule, the sick find healing, the suffering find comfort, and the lost find welcome.

If the ministry of Jesus pointed forward to the healing of creation, then a local church that wants to be in step with that will need to look carefully at its particular part of creation and ask ‘what needs healing here?’ Is it loneliness, homelessness, boredom, the environment, poverty or aimlessness? Naturally, few churches can address all the social problems surrounding them, but with prayer, discernment, a little research and energy, most churches can alight on some ministry in their local area which can become a powerful sign that God is concerned for his creation and has not given up on it.

In HTB, this means a local homeless project that turns the church into a centre for homeless people once a week, and a night shelter from time to time. It means a deep involvement with a local estate where immigrants from many countries and low-income families come together, offering English classes, debt advice or youth work. It means an extensive relationships ministry where family life is nurtured, marriages are prepared or put back together and good parenting skills are taught. It means courses for seeking a more integrated life at work, or for those suffering from various kinds of addiction. It means running Alpha in prisons, caring for ex-offenders leaving prison, it means Besom projects to clear wasteland, paint elderly people’s houses, remove graffiti. It means praying for healing and seeing bodies and minds put back together. In other words, playing a part in the healing of creation.

These things can be done not for effect or to impress, but just because they were the kind of things Jesus did. They are the kind of things which happen in the kingdom of God – creation is renewed, the thirsty are given water, the poor are given hope.  This kind of thing has its own integrity as a sign of God’s rule. Although not performed for evangelistic effect, the inevitable result is that when it comes to direct evangelism, such churches tend to find it works better. There is a clearer sense of what people are being invited into, and into the kind of life that Christian faith involves.

A New Relationship with Self – Discipleship

When people met Jesus, they were never quite the same again. Whether it was Zacchaeus’ radically new attitude to his wealth, the demon-possessed man from Gadara who was restored to sanity and belonging, or Peter, a fisherman who became a leader of the church in one of the centres of the empire, Jesus changed people, and they began to see themselves very differently. We have discussed already the need for churches to be communities which are capable of transforming people into the image of Christ. This however needs to be more than a pious aspiration.

Perhaps the main way in which Christians’ lives and minds are shaped in church life is through the regular diet of preaching and teaching which they receive. In transforming churches, teaching will aim to give people two things – a theological framework which gradually re-shapes their view of God, the world and themselves, and practical strategies to develop the kind of qualities of the person who lives under the rule of God. It will regularly return to the church’s main text for personal and communal transformation, the Bible itself as it describes life under the rule of God. It will encourage a careful reading of the Scriptures, the vision of life they give and the particular points at which that vision cuts against the surrounding culture.

In line with modern business practice, many churches now have Mission Statements. Very often these are so general and vague that they mean very little. Imagine however a church which had as its mission statement ‘to teach ordinary people how to love God and love their neighbour’. It’s not a bad description of life under the rule of God, and sets a very practical agenda for a local church. Dallas Willard writes:

Imagine if you can, discovering in your church newsletter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you… Or suppose the announced seminar was on how to live without purposely indulged lust or covetousness. Or how to quit condemning the people around you. Or how to be free of anger and all its complications. Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar, those who have done the prescribed studies and exercises will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them and so on… When you teach children or adults to ride a bicycle or swim, they actually do ride bikes or swim on appropriate occasions. You don’t just teach them that they ought to ride bicycles, or that it is good to ride bicycles, or that they should be ashamed if they don’t.[10]

However such a programme might work in practice, these imaginings highlight the need for practical help in developing a style of life in harmony with God’s rule. Churches of the kingdom will tend to measure success not necessarily by the numbers of people coming, or even converted, but by the level of change visible in the lives of those who belong. Disciples need disciplines. Not usually punitive or corrective discipline, but practical strategies of prayer, meditation, action and theology which in the long run produce change of character.

In HTB, this happens through various ways. Prayer Ministry is offered at the end of each service to give people a chance to address in a profound way, issues that lie deeply hidden within. In such prayer, complexes or fears can be raise to the surface in the presence of God and be gently prayed over, so that people are cleansed, restored to play a fulfilling part in God’s work in the world: the very thing they were made for. It happens through discipleship resources developed for Pastorates to use. It happens through the training of the mind in theological study, in HTB’s own theological college – the St Paul’s Theological Centre, which aims to help the church become a place of real theological and intellectual enquiry, in the context of faith, worship and ministry.

A New Relationship with Words – Evangelism

Finally, we come to evangelism itself. And we do so deliberately. Jesus did not simply perform signs of the coming kingdom, he explained them, and invited people to enter it. So far we have been thinking about growing churches which provoke questions. The other side of the coin is having the ability to answer them. The church on the day of Pentecost was provocative enough to make people ask ‘what does this mean?’ (Acts 2.12) It was also alert and astute enough to enable Peter to get up and explain. The confusion of language at Babel was reversed as people understood God’s invitation in their own tongue. Peter’s words themselves then became vehicles of invitation from God to kingdom life.

Few churches are growing today that do not have some kind of group for those enquiring about the Christian faith. There are exceptions, but most churches seem to need some forum where Christian faith can be explained in appropriate words, ask questions about it and hear some answers to those questions. Alpha is clearly the best known of these and has proved a brilliant vehicle for people of all backgrounds, nationalities and perspectives to explore answers to the questions they bring.

Alpha provides a context for conversation, in which answers to life’s big questions can be found. It puts the kingdom into words. Yet as we have seen, it need to be understood as part of a wider theology of the church and the kingdom rather than just being seen as the answer on its own to church growth. Many churches have found Alpha works really well. Some say that it doesn’t. The problem may lie less with the course, as with the church. Churches which already in some measure display the characteristics of the Kingdom outlined above will tend to find Alpha or another evangelistic course naturally producing new disciples of Christ. Churches where the worship is dull and uninviting, where there is little sense of mutual care, no discernible concern for the locality and no-one is experiencing personal transformation, may well find that Alpha courses do them little good. Words which correspond with reality are rich and fruitful; words which don’t are hollow.

Doing evangelism in a church, speaking the words of invitation to life under God’s rule, is a little bit like putting your foot on the accelerator of a car. Things happen, but what happens all depends on what gear you’re in. If a church is in fourth gear, so to speak – it’s a good healthy positive place to be with the kind of characteristics mentioned above – then an Alpha course will tend to reap quite a harvest. If it’s in first or second gear, with some of the above, but not all, and only in small measure, then it may see some growth, but not much. If it’s in reverse gear, with suspicion, jealousy, dissent and pride everywhere, then engaging in evangelism can sometimes make things worse not better.

Jesus brought people into new relationships with God, others, creation, with themselves and with words. These new relationships are characteristic of churches which live under the rule of God, churches which provoke the question and are evangelistic in their very being. This kind of agenda may require a radical rethink of a church’s programme and priorities. It is notoriously harder to close something down in church life than start it up.

One church held an annual meeting which they called the ‘Ichabod meeting’. Ichabod was the name of one of the sons of Phinehas, a priest in early Israel at the time when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant.[11]  His mother gave him this gloomy name, meaning ‘the glory of the Lord has departed’. The purpose of this meeting was to ask a straightforward question: ‘from which of our church’s activities has God’s glory departed?’ In other words, were there groups, activities, meetings or committees which no longer contributed to the church’s vision of where it was going? If there were, then hard decisions needed to be made, and resources re-arranged.

Churches are often far too busy doing far too many things, and as a result do few of them well. As this chapter closes, it may help to offer a number of key questions a church might ask itself to test its own relationship to the kingdom.

  • ADORATION – do regular members find that Sunday worship feeds their own spiritual life, enabling them to draw close to God and taste both intimacy and awe?
  • BELONGING – Is there a structure within which every member of the church can give and receive care? Do most people feel they have a contribution to make, or are they mainly passive recipients?
  • COMPASSION – Does the church do anything which expresses practical effective concern for its local community? Is it appropriate for the needs of that community and the resources of the church?
  • DISCIPLESHIP – Is there a structure which enables Christians to be accountable to each other for their Christian growth? Does teaching give practical strategies for developing life under God’s rule?
  • EVANGELISM – Does the church have a place for searchers to explore and ask questions, whether Alpha or something similar?

Building a church like this is not always easy. To build these characteristics into church life takes time, sensitivity, humility and not a little skill. Yet there are few things more exhilarating than being involved right at the heart of God’s plan to restore and complete creation – a new heaven and a new earth.


 

[1] This is adapted from chapter 8 of Graham Tomlin, (2008). The Provocative Church. London, SPCK. The ideas are explained in more detail in that book

[2] Coupland, Douglas. Life after God. London: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p285.

[3] Psalm 63:1

[4] 1 Corinthians 14:23-26

[5] Luke 24:14

[6] An interesting account of what early church meetings might have looked like is found in:  Banks, Robert. Going to Church in the First Century: An Eyewitness Account. Beaumont: Christian, 1990.

[7] For further reading on this wider point, see: Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, Studies of the New Testament and its World, ed. John Riches. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982, ch.s 2, 3 & 4; also Tomlin, Graham. The Power of the Cross: Theology and the Death of Christ in Paul, Luther and Pascal, Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999, part I.

[8] Romans 8:19-22

[9] John 1:46

[10] Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p344.

[11] 1 Samuel 4:21