Monday, June 24, 2013

Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples by Neil Hudson

Problem: the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom don't attend church on a regular basis. This is a something of a problem because the key task of the church is to re-evangelise the people of our 'post-Christian' nation. As few non-Christians turn up for church building-based meetings and activities, how are we going to reach them with the gospel so that non-believers become disciples of Jesus? Neil Hudson's solution to this problem is not another quick n' easy church grown gimmick or faddish programme. Rather, his book invites the reader to re-imagine church as the place where whole-life disciples of Jesus are formed, equipped and sent out into the world. The purpose of the activities of the 'gathered church' is to enable believers to live as the 'scattered church' in every area of their lives.

Hudson is not against gathered church-based evangelistic activities, such as toddler groups, children's clubs and special meetings, but he argues that the mission of the church should not be exclusively, or even mainly viewed in terms of such things. Every believer is a missionary and we carry out that mission as we submit every area of life to Christ's Lordship. This sounds fine and in a sense the writer is saying nothing new here. How many times have pastors told their congregations that being a Christian is not simply about what we do on a Sunday?  But do preachers always apply the teaching of the Bible to the whole of life, or is application often limited to the life of  the gathered church? 

The book helpfully and insistently makes clear the vital connection between the 'gathered church' and the 'scattered church'. All too often there is a disconnect between the two and when that is the case the church fails in it's task of making whole-life disciples of Jesus. Hudson gives some practical hints and tips for overcoming this disconnect. We often have Missionaries tell stories of their work in church meetings, but seldom do we invite Christian doctors, teachers, accountants, car mechanics or mothers of small children to do the same. The writer suggests that church members be given the opportunity during Sunday meetings to speak of what they will be doing at the same time the next day. That kind of thing can help reinforce the message that what believers do as the 'scattered church' is of value and importance for the kingdom of God. The 'gathered church' is better able to support and  pray for its members when we know what our friends are doing during the week. 

So far so good, but I do have one or two 'issues' with Imagine Church. The first is that little attention is given to the shape and form of the church according to the teaching of Scripture. A book on church life should have at lest attempt to sketch out a biblical ecclesiology, but Hudson is content to say that the Imagine Church thing would work equally well in a "traditional church, a middle-of-the-road church or a new church." More worryingly, confessional theology doesn't seem to count for much either, "So it doesn't matter if you, post-charismatic or neo-reformed." Well, it does and notwithstanding some excellent things in this book, Hudson's pragmatism on the doctrine of the church and church doctrine is disappointing. 

Next, while the book often uses the word 'mission', no real attempt is made to define the mission of the church in biblical and theological terms. Is a Christian doctor, teacher, accountant, mum, or whatever carrying out the mission of the church as they go about their daily work? Granted, part of the mission of the church is to equip its members to be whole-life disciples for Jesus. But it would be difficult for many Christians to act as 'fishers of men' in the workplace by speaking explicitly of Jesus to their colleagues. That kind of direct gospel witness is often best carried out in the context of the organised activities of the 'gathered church'. How many NHS Doctors' Surgeries, State-run Schools, offices or factories would allow gospel preaching meetings, or run Christianity Explored Courses and the like? The individual believer's work is his or her calling from God and is to be carried out as an act of service for the Lord, but this is not a direct expression of the mission of the church. The church's mission is not medical, educational, financial or industrial, but evangelical; to proclaim the gospel of salvation to all peoples. Yes, all believers are missionaries, but only so far as they bear witness to the good news of Jesus in the context of their daily lives. If a disconnect between the 'gathered' and 'scattered' church is no good thing, a disconnect between 'gospel' and 'mission' isn't the answer. 

I didn't set out to write a negative review of this book and I don't want to put potential readers off from having a look at it. Hudson's central case is good and he presents it in a winning way. He certainly got me thinking afresh about seeing the church as a community of whole-life followers of Jesus. As a preacher I need to give more attention to applying biblical truth to every area of life. It's true that if we are going to re-evangelise the nation for Christ, mission cannot be limited to the programmes and activities of the 'gathered church'. The 'scattered church' needs to get out there in the community, the workplace, wherever, living as whole-life disciples for Jesus and bearing witness to him by their walk and talk. Then and only then will we be the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world'. Just imagine if church was more like that. 

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