…we started fresh…well, maybe?

vdonovanWe sometimes look around the world for ways of being church that are somehow better than what we have. An interesting article entitled Fresh Expressions of Church among the Massai? by John Bowen reveals that sometime when people are given an opportunity to start fresh they still choose to do it the old, sometimes less than helpful ways.

Vincent Donavon, a Catholic missionary to the Massai in Tanzania in the 60’s and 70’s was determined to allow them to define their own sense of being the church. This approach led to three “problems” from Donavon’s perspective:

  1. The people simply adopted the European way of doing church
  2. Very few Massai desired to be ordained or even trained as lay workers
  3. The national church hierarchy had little interest in including the culture of the people in their church

Bowen asks whether Donovan’s work was a failure and then answers his question this way:

“Failure” is a tricky word to use in the Christian life or in ministry. Just because things do not work out the way we expect does not mean that, in the economy of God, they have failed.In the case of Donovan, the way his ideas are being picked up in North America and Britain are encouraging. In particular, the three obstacles he encountered are likely to be less in this part of the world.

  • In the Fresh Expressions movement in Britain, there are certainly many non-traditional ways of being church which are attracting people with no Christian background. New people are not complaining that “this is not the way church ought to be.”
  • In terms of theological education, Wycliffe College is following the lead of seminaries in Britain and moving towards training ordinands for specifically pioneering types of ordained ministry.
  • And, as for bishops, my experience is that there is great openness among Canadian bishops to new forms of church and ministry. I spoke to one bishop after the Vital Church Planting conference in Februarys and asked him what he had learned. “That bishops have to be permission-givers,” he replied.

Starting fresh doesn’t always result in “fresh” ideas, especially when we carry the luggage of our past. so how can we carry forward the best of the past without also carrying the so-called “dirty laundry” that always trips us up and drags us back into those unhelpful patterns? Or does even our “dirty laundry” have a role to play in our journey of faith?

Still, it would be an interesting exercise to start from scratch and see what kind of church God might lead us to.


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