Changing times – continuing our look at fresh expressions of church
The Apostle Peter states to his fellow believers that they are resident aliens – or “foreigners and exiles”, see 1 Peter 2: 11. In many ways, this could be seen as the situation for Christians in Ireland.
Increasingly, it is no longer a society in which religious affiliation can be assumed, where beliefs automatically reflect Ireland’s Christian heritage, and where mission is just about reviving the lapsed.
One reason for paying attention to fresh expressions of church is the realisation that Ireland has again become a mission field.
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In our latest article on fresh expressions of Church (front page), Dr Tim Ling looks at the way culture and society are changing on this island. It all means that the Church and individual Christians are living in quite a different context than 20 years ago. We may or may not like this – but the place where we live out our faith and work out the mission of Christ is changing.
David Bosch is one of the current significant thinkers on mission. He says there are certain presuppositions within Christian mission, including:
- • A sender;
- A sender who has authority to do so – God/Church/agency;
- Person/persons sent by sender;
- Those to whom one is sent;
- An assignment.
Interestingly, he also suggests that, from without and within its own ranks, “more than ever before in its history the Christian mission is in the firing line”.
The Church of Ireland does not exist in a cultural, economic or political vacuum. There are external influences that come to bear on our ability or disposition to be missional.
1.We live in a time of distrust of institutions. A wide variety of scandals along with the financial collapse mean that large organisations, including the Church, are often viewed with cynicism. Human leadership has been shown to be flawed.
2. We now live in a postmodern culture. Postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. It has several manifestations:
- There is less inclination to think of a power beyond ourselves; • The concept of ‘revealed truth’ is not accepted;
- Mere restatement of ‘truth’ is increasingly regarded a fundamentalism or as being the adopting of an absolutist mentality;
- A lack of absolutes within the marketplace of ideas;
- Society becomes more pluralist;
- Society becomes more secular;
- Ethics become more intuitive;
- Unjust structures of oppression and exploitation are being challenged, with authority and institutions being questioned.
Postmodernism makes it more challenging to suggest a faith that believes in a divinity outside of ourselves, or in any concept of revealed truth. The West, for 1,000 years the home of Christianity, has lost its dominant position in the world. It is slowly being de-christianised, with a rise in atheism, neo-paganism, secularism and unbelief.
For years, we took Christianity as being the one true and only saving religion. We now live in a religiously pluralist society. Freedom of religion forces us to reevaluate our understanding of other faiths. If we are honest, there is profound uncertainty felt in parts of the Western Church about even the validity of Christian mission.
3. Recent years have seen the development of rapidly changing and increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith societies in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
A Hard Gospel publication noted: “Historically, throughout Ireland ‘the others’ have been seen in the context of Roman Catholics and Protestants and religious and political differences. However, there have for many years been settled minority ethnic groups with different cultures and traditions whose needs and rights must not be overlooked. These groups include Travellers and Indian, Pakistani and Chinese immigrants.
“Furthermore, in recent years in Ireland, north and south, there has been a significant change in demographic trends with many people coming from other countries of Europe and beyond to find work or seek asylum. There is a growing diversity of cultures, traditions and nationalities which has presented challenges far beyond the traditional divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, with racism now raising issues like those faced through sectarianism.
“Furthermore, the number and variety of faith groups throughout the island of Ireland is growing rapidly, bringing a whole new dimension to the concept of understanding diversity and religious tolerance.” (p.11 Life Beyond Boundaries: A Theology of the Hard Gospel)
Archbishop Richard Clarke, in his presidential address to the 2015 General Synod, said “… the statistics present the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us as a Church, but nevertheless it is one that if we cannot embrace with confidence and with hope in Jesus Christ, we may as well close the doors of our churches now. We must relate to reality, and we must also relate to the future ahead of us, a future towards which God is always calling us.”
Put another way, when Christ told a motley collection of believers to go into all the world, he had given them an enormous task – but not an impossible one. The challenge to engage in mission in 21st-century Ireland is undoubtedly more complicated than it used to be.
That does not mean it is an impossible task. We just have to work out the ‘how’ in 2018 and beyond.
Adapted from ‘The Church of Ireland: Apologetic for Mission’
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