An Interview with Stuart Murray Williams

Len: Thanks for taking some time to interact with us. One of the questions that came up in an evening conversation was in reference to assumptions we make about parallels in Canadian and UK culture, as well as trajectories with reference to post-modernity and post-Christendom. Having spent some time with leaders from across Canada, are your convictions on similarities confirmed or altered? If so, in what ways?

My recent visit to Canada confirmed impressions from previous visits that Canada is on the same trajectory as the UK in relation to the demise of Christendom and the challenges and opportunities this presents, but that this process is not yet as far advanced. Canada seems to me to be between the US and UK scenes, although markedly closer to the UK experience. Church participation is still significantly higher in Canada than in the UK, but this is diminishing. In some parts of Canada the loss of church members has occurred at a much faster rate than in the UK, making the experience more traumatic. There seems to be a more thoroughgoing secularity in the UK than currently in Canada, but this may be only a matter of time-lag rather than indicating a different trajectory. One factor that might make a difference is the pattern of future immigration. Some commentators point to this factor as one of the main reasons why the US may not be on the same trajectory as Europe, with indigenous churches swelled by immigrants with a Christian heritage. In the UK, not only has immigration reduced dramatically, but many recent immigrants are from other religious backgrounds. Perhaps the number and background of immigrants to Canada over the coming years will be a significant factor in determining whether Canada more resembles the UK or US scene.

Len: Along similar lines, what seem to you to be the pressing questions Canadian leaders are asking?

In Canada I encounter an issue that is familiar from my visits to Australia - a history of reliance on US models and methods and a growing suspicion that these do not translate very well into the Canadian (or Australian) context. A British voice is welcomed into the discussion as an opportunity of hearing a different perspective. Canadian Christians will soon be facing the challenge British Christians are already facing - developing mission strategies to engage with the burgeoning 'never-churched' rather than the diminishing constituency of the 'de-churched'. This will likely spark a debate between the leaders of large, successful, modernistic churches that continue to flourish but engage only with a relatively small (and decreasing) sector of the population and pioneers of emerging and missional communities that presently look far less impressive and are as yet unproven, but which might have the capacity to connect with the post-modern, post-Christendom society that Canada is becoming.

Len: It was evident that for both you and Juliet the Anabaptist legacy has its own twist on diagnosis and treatment with regard to cultural shift and a faithful response. What does Anabaptism bring to the table in this new space we are in? In what ways is Anabaptism a powerful resource for us in post-Christendom?

Several people have suggested (using language derived from the book of Esther) that the Anabaptist tradition is suited for 'such a time as this'. As Christendom disintegrates and the mainline traditions that operated within a Christendom framework struggle to adjust to the new context, a tradition that for nearly five centuries has regarded Christendom as a distortion and has explored alternative ways of thinking about discipleship, church and mission may have some helpful contributions. Increasing numbers of Christians in the UK from many denominations are appropriating the Anabaptist tradition, learning from its practices and exploring the implications of its core convictions. Something similar is happening elsewhere in nations with no historic Anabaptist heritage (including Korea, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia). Most observers acknowledge that the Christendom era is coming to an end; the Anabaptist tradition offers a sustained theological critique of imperial Christianity that lays a foundation for developing a post-Christendom missiology and ecclesiology.

What does Anabaptism bring to the table? A Christocentric approach that takes seriously the life and teaching of Jesus that was marginalised or domesticated in the Christendom era; an emphasis on whole-life discipleship; a communitarian approach to hermeneutics, corporate worship and pastoral care, including accountability and conflict-transformation processes; and a commitment to non-violence and active peacemaking.

Len: You have been a careful observer of culture and the churches in the UK for many years now. Looking back, what changes have occurred that you did not anticipate? What ecclesial responses to cultural shift could have been better thought out?

There is ongoing debate in the UK about whether secularity or alternative spiritualities will characterise post-Christendom culture. Until the late 1980s many of us anticipated that secularity would be the dominant reality, but during the past twenty years mission strategies have often been predicated on the assumption that secularisation was under threat from the arrival and growth of other religious communities and an upsurge of interest in 'new age' or alternative forms of spirituality. More recent research suggests that the 'new age' is ageing and that teenagers are nothing like as interested in spirituality as those now in their twenties and thirties. I am concerned that we are still prone to over-simplify a diverse, complex and changing culture and to develop missional strategies that are insufficiently attuned to different sectors of the community. I think most of us at first under-estimated the growth of mono-ethnic congregations and more recently have over-estimated their capacity to engage in mission across cultural boundaries.

Len: How are UK churches faring in raising up and equipping the next generation of leaders? What is the greatest challenge you face in that task?

Another legacy of the Christendom era is the preponderance of pastors and teachers in all aspects of church life and the continuing marginalisation of those with pioneering gifts - evangelists, prophets and apostles. We need to recognise such ministries, provide proper training processes for them, develop effective support and accountability structures, and enable them to flourish at local, regional and translocal levels of church life. Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is raising up indigenous leaders in urban communities.

Len: How are UK churches faring in planting new churches? How many of these new communities are operating in a truly missional frame?

During the 1990s, most denominations embraced church planting as a legitimate, even normal, aspect of their mission. Many hundreds of new churches were planted. But there were significant deficiencies in these developments - inadequate training and leadership, planting too quickly without adequate research or preparation; lack of strategy in relation to where churches were planted; and a tendency to replicate known models rather than creating new churches suited to their context and a changing culture. Consequently, there was a significant reduction of church planting activity in the second half of that decade. Since 2000, there has been a resurgence of church planting, although the preferred terms are 'emerging church' and 'fresh expressions of church'. Many of these initiatives have been more flexible and creative, more culturally and contextually sensitive. But most are fragile and as yet unproven. Some are operating in a missional framework; others seem to be more energised by ecclesial concerns.

Len: Somewhere Sally Morgenthaler wrote that, "Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less to the table." In these transitional times we desperately need something like a wider hermeneutical community in order to increase our learning. The Internet and social networking have empowered some of this. In what ways have you developed a wider hermeneutical community in the UK? How do you see this issue in terms of the missional challenge?

One of the positive features of the church planting movement in the 1990s was its trans-denominational nature (although it was overwhelmingly evangelical). Conversations, consultations and partnerships across denominational divides have been helpful in teasing out essentials from non-essentials. I have personally worked with more than 25 different denominations in the past few years and this cross-fertilising has been instructive. The Internet-driven 'emerging church conversation' is a good example of the kind of wider hermeneutical community you suggest. Another is the Share website developed by the Fresh Expressions initiative - an online and interactive knowledge bank which grows as users contribute their own experiences. And the network of teams and associates linked together through Urban Expression (www.urbanexpression.org.uk) is another example. These relational and organic forms of mutual learning seem to me to fit much better into our missional framework than the older approach of books and manuals.

Len: Similarly, the church is in need of "local theologians." Is this one of the tasks you have set for yourself in Urban Expression? What kinds of efforts are going into theological work in the UK? How critical do you see this piece relative to a faithful response to the changes around us?

Urban Expression has chosen not to operate with a statement of faith or summary of our theological convictions, but with a set of core values. These values are, of course, imbued with theology but values operate differently from propositional statements. We have found them to be liberating and encouraging of creativity, as well as providing a strong centre around which we can gather and a yardstick to evaluate what we do. Theological reflection on issues that emerge from the various contexts in which our teams operate is one of the core practices our values advocate.

One of the fears often expressed about pioneering initiatives and emerging churches is that they might become heretical. In my experience, this is rare - and heresy is by no means confined to marginal groups in the history of the church. Actually, I would like to see more theological creativity, not less, among church planters and missional leaders. We can, I believe, remain faithful to the gospel handed down through the generations and at the same time ask searching questions about ways in which our understanding of this gospel has been distorted or truncated by previous cultural shifts.

For example, during the Christendom era the gospel was primarily understood in relation to guilt, retribution and satisfaction. While these elements are undoubtedly present in the New Testament, so are many other issues, motifs and themes, some of which might be contextually helpful today and might help us recover a more full-orbed understanding of the gospel. We need to beware confusing theological perspectives that have only 500 or 1500 years of history behind them and were developed in a particular cultural context with biblical principles that can be expressed in various ways in diverse cultures.

Notes:

In an article in Christianity Today in September ("The Gospel for iGens") Scot McKnight writes,

"My own experiences teaching iGens, listening to iGens, and reading the papers and journals of iGens have confirmed that most iGens reside behind a carapace of protection nothing short of a castle wall. Older models of evangelism aimed at leading humans to a reception of God's grace in Christ by making them aware of their profound and utter sinfulness-indeed, that they were themselves sinners by nature. But a different model might be in order to "reach" iGens. This generation may need to be wooed to the castle door, the way Paul wooed the Athenians on the Areopagus, before they will hear the gospel.

"If we begin with an assault on a human's worth, Mr. Rogers' gospel of self-acceptance will come to their rescue. If we begin by claiming that all humans are depraved, Sesame Street's gospel of universal acceptance will make its defense. If we question the self's disposition, we will find that the gospel of self-esteem has created a bunker deep enough and a wall thick enough that deflection and absorption are instinctive responses. It might work to reach some iGens, but not most.

"When I saw the title of Alan Mann's book, Atonement for a Sinless Society, I knew he was onto something. The intent of evangelism that focuses on preaching the law and God's holiness, wrapping those two elements into a vision of God's wrath and hell, is to stimulate a cry for salvation out of a sense of guilt over who we are and what we have done. This model still works for some. But it may not be the wisest model for iGens. "One of the most insightful elements of Mann's book is whether iGens feel guilt. For a person to feel guilty, that person must have a sense of morality. But morality requires a potent sense of what is right and wrong, and it needs a powerful sense of what is true and false. Contemporary culture does not provide the average iGen with a profound grasp of what is right and wrong apart from the conviction that assaulting the self is clearly wrong.

"Yet deciding to stake one's life on Jesus and the cross requires a sense that we are wrong, that we need Jesus, and that his saving death and resurrection can become effective. Mann claims that iGens are neither moral nor amoral. Instead, because of trends like the self-esteem movement and the impact of relativism, he concludes that iGens are pre-moral. Mann suggests that they do not feel guilt as much as they feel shame for not achieving what they are designed to accomplish.

"This realization has helped me see that Jesus is the place to begin with iGens. In fact, we can make this more precise: Jesus as lived out by a credible witness or through a community that makes Jesus real. This is not Jesus as revealed by institutional religion or churches, but Jesus seen in the lives of genuine compassion and commitment to something that transcends the superficiality of modern and postmodern culture."

See also Shalom and the End of Christendom


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008