Start-Up Church (Or ‘Proclaiming Afresh’)

I had coffee yesterday with a friend who works in the tech world. He had come from an interview with a ‘start-up’ company that is expanding rapidly. He specialises in the field of enabling start-ups to develop. However, his work is often very unstable – he can spend an enormous amount of time and energy working on a project, only to find that his clients have changed their mind about what they want, or have failed to raise funding so that he doesn’t get paid. He also had an interview for a more established company recently – it would be stable work with a good salary. But he told me he’d take the start-up job over the stable job any day! He enjoys the creativity of the start-ups – every if they’re financially more precarious.

My wife and I are wired differently in terms of our work preferences. Sara has always been self-employed, and only had brief ‘money jobs’ to help pay the rent. She has a strong preference for developing her own projects and being her own boss – even if there’s little financial reward or security in that approach. I on the other hand have pretty much always had paid employment since the age of 18. I like to know that I’ll be paid at the end of each month – especially now I have a family to provide for. However, there’s a paradox for me: as I have a strong preference for start-up rather than stable / maintenance models of work. And so it’s not surprising that I have spent all of my experience in Christian ministry has been in the church planting movement. The church where is currently serve is part of a church planting network, and I think of myself as a church planter or priestly entrepreneur.

Our church is not new. The building where we worship dates from 1826, but Christian worship in the British Isles dates back a whole lot further! I sat today in Waltham Abbey Church, and read an information sheet which told me that there is archaeological evidence of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon church on the same site.

The faith of our church goes back to the 1st century (and in one sense further still…) Our trust in the resurrected Jesus is not a new phenomenon. It has been handed from generation to generation in the stories of lives touched by God, transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In one sense, our church is not new – it’s just same old same old…

On the other hand, our local church, St John’s Hoxton, runs in start-up mode. What is start-up mode? Well, I suppose it’s characterised by a ‘no sacred cows’ approach to church – pretty much everything is up for discussion. We place an emphasise on innovating and evaluating. We are prepared to experiment with how we run our services – playing fast and loose with the prescribed liturgy if necessary. (Shh! Don’t tell the bishop!) In our approach to how we do mission (sharing our faith and trying to be good news in the neighbourhood) and how we do ministry (serving and caring for one another) we want to be open to changing things often. If we’re not scratching where we and other people are itching, then we’re going to scratch in a different place or in a different way.

Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we’re simply pragmatists with no central commitments. We don’t just do things because ‘they work’ – we try to do the things that are fruitful and beneficial to our church congregation and the wider neighbourhood. There are things we will keep doing because they’re the right things to do. But there are other things which have an Ichabod moment – their glory has departed and they need to be put to bed. After all, if we believe in resurrection we also have to believe in death.

One recent example was our decision to shut down our Friday morning toddler stay-and-play. Very few people were attending the session, and although we’re more interested in impact than numbers, it’s very hard to have an impact at all if no one is there! We’ll take stock, evaluate, research, dream and try something new in the autumn.

The preface to the Ordinal – the liturgy or ordination for Anglican clergy reminds us that we are to ‘proclaim afresh in each generation the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’. The love of God for every man, woman and child made in his image; the saving work of God in Christ – by his death and resurrection; the forgiveness of every repentant person who comes to him; the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit; the promise and hope of a new creation – these never change.

These are the core and peculiar (in the proper sense of the word!) doctrines of the Christian faith. However, how we express, explain and embody these timeless truths is always up for grabs. In God’s presence, his people are always being reformed and renewed. The culturally specific and time bound expressions of the faith of one generation may not always be appropriate for the next. We are an ‘Ecclesiastical semper reformanda’ as Karl Barth would say. We are always examining who we are and what we do in the light of the gospel.

Running church in ‘start-up’ mode is exhausting and energising in equal measure! We are constantly reminded that we are pilgrim people on a journey. We are wanderers (and wonderers!) in exile but headed for a promised land. As the landscape changes, so we must respond appropriately. To continue the metaphor, if we begin to claim a mountain we’ll need to put on our walking boots; if we reach a beach we may change to flip-flops.

Our worship services, our outreach projects, our pastoral groups, our communications – all these must take account of the various different people they seek to reach, and be age and culturally appropriate. So we experiment and we evaluate. We innovate and we interrogate. We revise, refine and reform.

This is ‘start-up church’. This is what it means to ‘proclaim afresh’ the timeless gospel of Jesus.

Postscript: Some may wonder whether there is anything stable, reliable, recognisably Christian and distinctively Anglican about what we do. I guess the answer is that our pattern of collective worship (Sunday gatherings and midweek services) are rooted in Word and Sacrament. By which I mean that there is always plentiful public reading of Scripture and bible-based worship songs and liturgy, as well as a weekly celebration of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Mass or whatever else you might like to call it! We declare our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed as part of our dismissal liturgy. We also do those thing that pretty much all Christiand in all times and all places have done: 1) baptise and nurture new members; 2) gather together to worship God with song, prayer and holy communion; 3) make disciples of one another, developing our lives to be obedient to God’s command in Scripture; 4) seek to serve the poor, and 5) share with others the historic faith of the church – the good news of Jesus.

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