By Jason Clark
In the world of psychiatry, students study not just the manifestations and causes of mental dysfunction, but the idea of wellness’, of what helps the well part of a patient become more well’. In the worlds of education, and business, rather than focus on people’s weaknesses, there is the move to explore and develop people’s strengths. In looking at developing countries, debt relief agencies, look for positive attributes for assessment, instead of previous models that just measured the bad ones.
This doesn’t mean you ignore glaring weaknesses and problems inherent to the system you are involved with. What it does mean is your focus stops being what is wrong?’, and becomes what is right?’. Back to a medical example, doctors have had to learn that referring to a pathologist, doesn’t lead to good health.
And with that in mind, I often wonder if we have made the mistake in our assessments of church, in becoming almost pathological. We look at current forms of church, and church in the past, with an eye to the ill health’, the deformations, the things we dislike etc. Then we construct idealisations of church in reaction to this sickness’ diagnosis. Church becomes about not being’, and we measure who we are by what we don’t do, and what we are not. Are we left with any understanding of wellness’ of the church at all?
In Europe where the church has been almost eradicated (for instance where I live around 1-2% of the population are connected to a local church community), does this focus on what is wrong help, or just exacerbate the problem? Does it give us more reasons to avoid the notion of the people of God in any missional sense, with our pessimism about church seemingly insurmountable, and our confidence shattered beyond restoration? Indeed church within the pathological vision might become so bad that we might see ourselves as post-church to escape the sickness that is church.
How do we avoid the slide into a pathological ecclesiology, whilst attending to the very real problems of church? How do we speak prophetically, idealistically and passionately to the need for church reformation, whilst being practical and pragmatic, without losing the confidence towards action? How do we find the best of church through history, to take us forward into the future, without a blind naive sentimentalism to the past, whilst on the other hand avoiding the fostering of a negative and bilious cynicism that invalidates everything that has gone before us?
How do we navigate these dilemmas and arrive at a positive and enabling vision of church, that leads us to wellness’?
For some of us in the UK, the notion of Deep Church’, a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis, is providing a mood to direct our reflections and actions to that end. It finds it conjunctive resonance, outside the UK in the Deep Ecclessiology’ articulated and lived by Brian Mclaren, and the Emergent movement/network/tribe/mode/
Deep Church values and affirms the many streams of what the Spirit is doing with the church in our times. Maybe this includes amongst many others, the fluid, and emerging forms of church, outside the existing church structures. Then perhaps the fresh expressions’ of the inherited church as it seeks to experiment with new forms of church outside of itself, but in relationship with it. Then, there is the inherited church and existing church that is seeking to renew itself, whilst we then find the streams of church that are trying to preserve traditions and practices in the face of cultural change.
And in all these forms/streams, the Deep Church focus becomes, not about what is wrong and invalid or that which is authorized by existing or new groups, but about the challenge of the shared context we find ourselves in. There is within Deep Church, a desire to recover a confidence in the gospel and Scripture, along with the accessing of the spiritual resources of the historical church in non superficial ways, so that we might align ourselves with the work of the Holy Spirit in forming communities, that are living faithfully in discipleship to Jesus, in our contemporary context.
We are not wanting to re-package the past, or be fashion victims of the emerging culture, but rather aspire to an understanding of church embedded in the past, whilst fully engaged in the present. So that within that we might discover and build on what is well’ with the Church catholic.
Jason is a pastor, teacher and mentor with a BA honors degree in Theology and a DMin in Leadership and Theology in the Emerging Culture. He is currently working on his PhD.