Multiplex church: Not an either/or but another both/and

I’ve been thinking a bit about the mission of a local church.  So I’ve jotted down these three ways that churches relate to culture:

  • ‘Attractional’ churches adopt a ‘you come to us’ approach. Their activities are designed to encourage people to journey into God’s love by joining the existing inherited church. If they are involved in the community, it may be partly in the hope that their presence will be a stepping stone into church on Sunday.
  • ‘Engaged’ churches are very active in their communities, working with them in all sorts of ways, largely as an end in itself. Social action is seen as a vital part of the gospel, requiring churches to be heavily engaged with their surrounding cultures. But when it comes to inviting people to journey into God’s love, the assumption is that the journey will occur as individuals are drawn into existing church.
  • ‘Incarnational’ churches are heavily involved with their surrounding cultures, but don’t share the assumption that people – if they are interested – will come to faith through established churches. They try to encourage church to grow within the cultures they are engaged with.

Now it doesn’t seem to me that we have to be one thing or the other.  Our communities are not uniform.  Our communities are complex and multicultural so we need to do all these things.  Our risky journey at GBC is to try and live in this mixed economy.

Rowan Williams refer to incarnational and ‘inherited’ forms of church existing alongside each other, within the same denomination, in relationships of mutual respect and support.  To apply that to our gathered church model means that a local expression of church might also be able to contain incarnational and inherited congregations or cells.

The idea of the mixed economy has strong theological roots. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have their own identities. They are distinct persons. But they are also totally involved with each other and mutually dependent on one another – so much so that they are a single entity.

Likewise, inherited and incarnational congregations can have their separate identities; they are different. But they too can be greatly involved with each as they share resources, pray for one another and rejoice in each other’s strengths. This will allow people outside the church to say, ‘They are one.’

If God’s intention for the human race is that difference and oneness should be combined, should this not have implications for our understanding of church? We will hold to a vision of one united church, but positively welcome a rich variety of expressions of church locally, nationally and across the world.

Francis and Richter [Gone for Good? (Epworth, 2007)] call for a ‘multiplex’ church. This allows followers of Christ to celebrate their participation in the kingdom of God in many different ways.

Breaking bread for communionIn the breaking of the bread at communion, we are invited to think about Christ body broken for us. Just as the pieces of broken bread – in their different shapes and sizes – belong to the one loaf, we see that in all our diversity we belong to each other because we each belong to the one body of Christ.

In John’s gospel, after the last supper Jesus prays for all who will believe in him. He prays not that they will be the same, but that they will be one as they are united to the God (John 17.21).

In the mixed economy, relationships of generosity between different expressions of church will enable us to draw together and celebrate communion with integrity.

In many ways, the Jerusalem church was like the inherited church today. Its origins were in a ‘you come to us’ approach to mission.  It was effective in reaching those within its hinterland, just as many inherited churches currently reach people who are within the orbit of church. It also had a fairly traditional mindset.

The Antioch church was more like a fresh expressions. It launched ‘we’ll go to you’ mission and reached people who were largely beyond the reach of the Jerusalem church, just as we pray that incarnational mission will increasingly reach those who are outside the orbit of inherited church now.

Despite fierce disagreements at times, Jerusalem and Antioch retained close ties, and there was mutual respect and support. They recognised that Peter was called to mission among the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles, and that one was not better than the other: God was blessing both.

For the mixed economy gathered church with multiplex congregations to be effective, Christians must learn to live – sometimes painfully – with their differences. Having encouraged and exhorted one another, there may even come a point when the differences between us cannot be bridged and perhaps remain profound.

In such circumstances, we may have to entrust our differences to the Spirit and stay in patient fellowship with each other, just as the Spirit keeps in fellowship with us.

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