Penguins and Polar Bears
Why don't Polar Bears eat Penguins?
We know the answer. Because they live at opposite ends of the planet.
The Arctic and the Antarctic are entirely different places, with very different eco-systems. They are not to be conflated.
However in discourse around mission strategy in the Church of England there is a lot of conflation. Resource Church, Pioneer, Fresh Expressions, Hub, Minster - people are aware of these terms even if they are not entirely sure of what they mean. People wonder, in this bizarre mixed ecology, where the parish sits, or even if there is space for it at all. Parish becomes one pole, perhaps the penguin inhabited one, whilst everything else becomes an invasive polar bear.
The danger is that we misidentify the polar bears and the penguins completely.
The polar opposite approaches to contemporary mission are the attractional/gathered model and the missional/contextual model. The language and emphasis vary in different theological traditions, but the tension is not new.
In the modern era there has been a shift away from church embedded in a place, towards people choosing a church that best suits their preferences, needs or culture. Both Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic movements have at times thrived with this model. In some cases a parish church has simply become a local attractional church - drawing a congregation from a wider area with a strong tradition, whilst offering pastoral offices locally.
In Luke 10 Jesus sends out the 70 with the instructions to remain in a place sharing the message of the Kingdom.
As the seventy dwell, work, eat, talk and heal with and among the people’s of these towns the kingdom comes among them. ... The locale of God’s activity is clear – in towns, in homes, around tables, in the fields at work, in the meeting places of the everyday life of ordinary people. (Alan Roxburgh)
It is a foundation of discipleship upon which church rests throughout history. Yes there is pilgrimage and sodality of various forms, but Christians have lived, worshipped and witnessed alongside their neighbours for centuries. Even in an era (which may well be passing) where many have worked away from where they live, place still exists and thrives: in schooling, in recreation, in simply having somewhere to live next to someone else. Mission thrives when church is part of this local portfolio. And that church thrives when it participates in God's mission in the place it is called to remain.
Fresh expressions / pioneering and parish ministry can share this contextual approach. Where fresh expressions challenges an inherited model is in a wider understanding of what can be church or be freed to develop into church, and a more open perspective on place. Missiological thinking around Place includes Oldenburg's theory of (1st, 2nd) Third Place and wider thinking about about the Sociology of Space
This is not new either - the church school and the care home are both places where a parish church would have an expression of church that was other than the Sunday gathering or parish mass. Rather, the extreme emphasis on funnelling people into that one gathered space is a symptom of attractional thinking.
Other markers of the attractional in the parish are all those things that people talk about that a church ought to have to be really church. Not word, sacrament and the cure of souls, but rather things. "It's not really church if it doesn't have" ... "an organ" or "a worship team", even "fresh flowers" or "kids groups". The attractional has so shaped Christian discipleship that churched people will often choose a church based on things rather than how a church remains in a place. Parish boundaries and geography are not always the best indicators of place, but if a parish church has significantly more than 25% of its congregation outside of walking distance serious questions need to be asked about how healthy it is, in itself, or for wider mission. Which brings us to a more pressing question.
If polar bears could eat penguins would they?
Fond as I am of the increasingly endangered hypercarnivores I suspect that they would. Mixing eco-systems can be disastrous.
For many of us rooted in missional/contextual approach we have seen polar bears eating penguins for 50 years. In this field research is never definitive but the suspicion is that the success of the attractional/gathered with the churched undermines the missional/contextual.
Can polar bears and penguins co-exist?
Under ++Rowan with the fresh expressions project the missional/contextual received a significant boost. It was an opportunity for the parish model to be revitalised and challenged to move beyond an inherited attractional model. This challenge has not gone away. We need to re-discover Jesus' call to remain in place, and communicate this as an essential part of discipleship and mission.