Christians have always been faced with the critical issue of how the church is to relate to its surrounding culture and perhaps that question has never been more urgent than in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of what is now commonly called post-Christian Britain. A few months ago I published New World, New Church? with SCM Press which I hope contributes something to this important and ongoing debate. The book focuses on my PhD research which I completed at Kings College London, although people who have read it assure me it is accessible! I’m very grateful for the cover designed by my colleague at St Mellitus College, Mark Pape.
I first became interested in the subject of church and culture through my own involvement in mission activity in an Anglican church experiencing growth and change in Peckham, London. As I started reading and studying in this area the approach being advocated by the emerging church and primarily American voices such as Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins and Rob Bell seemed to be calling for the most radical change. They also seemed unafraid to challenge the settled assumptions of evangelicalism in order to explore the possibility of creative and alternative ways of being and doing church and that struck a chord with me.
There were things that intrigued me in these writings and resonated with me, but also ideas that unsettled me and I decided I wanted to write something that understood where the emerging church was coming from as a movement, and particularly what its protest was against, whilst also engaging critically and, I hope, fairly with it. This provocative phrase from Brian McLaren seemed to me to get to the heart of what this movement is all about.
‘You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church’
This statement raised questions for me: are we really in a new world? And if we are, does the church need to reimagine itself entirely? And what might a theology for that new church look like? As I continued exploring the emerging church I discovered that its protest was mainly against three areas of theology: eschatology, missiology and ecclesiology, and that it offered revision of its theology within these categories. The interrelation of these three disciplines seem to me to be most crucial in establishing the shape and future of the church in the world today and so they provide the main theological content of New World, New Church? It therefore covers a breadth of different issues from the left behind novels, participation, incarnational mission, preaching, liturgy and tradition – and even pirates! (yes, really) Students at St Mellitus recently inform me it has helped them write their essays on contextual mission, although I find it very strange seeing it as a footnote in an essay I am marking! *(I should perhaps add that students don’t get awarded extra marks for quoting it!)
The need to address the role and the shape of the church has perhaps never been a more urgent or challenging task than in the current cultural climate as depressing statistics of church decline in the West have become a common refrain in the media. The plethora of books and publications seeking to address this very subject make that undertaking all the more challenging, as we become increasingly pulled in different directions. Maybe New World, New Church? simply adds to the melee but I rather hope that it offers something that is a helpful and thought-provoking addition.
In Summary, I hope that New World, New Church? is a call to innovation and creativity whilst also being a call to be rooted in the tradition which both endures and brings life. My prayer is that it will encourage church practitioners, academics and all those with a heart for mission in our culture today to dream big dreams whilst also remaining deeply rooted in the tradition of the church and full of hope in the God who brings new life.