The following article is republished with the kind permission of The Crowded House

There are at least two elements that are essential in any gospel ministry:

  • an understanding of our context
  • a coherent and clear theology

Mission without the contemporary perspective will be irrelevant. Mission without being theologically informed will be ineffectual.

That doesn't mean that nothing can be done without both of those in place. Many people, for example, have little theology but they display a real passion and expend real energy in trying to reach contemporary people in pertinent ways. Such passion should never be despised, and many an evangelical could do with an injection of adrenaline when it comes to those who are “without God and without hope in the world”. DL Moody was right to rebuke the critic of his crusades with the words: better the evangelism I do than the evangelism you don't!

But for there to be a lasting work in which lives are transformed, sinners saved and individuals discipled, then I take it as axiomatic that a contemporary perspective set within the context of a robust theological framework is essential. I phrase it like that deliberately because what this will mean in practice is that any activity I undertake will be shaped and formed by that framework.

Just one more word of introduction that will at least settle my mind that I've highlighted the salient issues. In all of this, and in everything you will hear, remember this one vital truth: it's a gospel thing! I'm not into change for the sake of change. I'm not into being trendy for the sake of being trendy. I'm not into innovation for the sake of innovation. I'm into the gospel. I'm into presenting the good news that is Jesus to people in ways that are relevant and persuasive. I'm into demonstrating to lost individuals that there is truth that rescues, a word that liberates and a life to be lived. Because I'm into gospel, I'm into church, because the two go hand-in-hand, because church is intended to be that demonstration! And all that is true because there is a God who has spoken a final, definitive and sufficient Word, and that word is Jesus.

I'll give you an outline of where I plan to go from here, but I ought to warn you that it won't be quite as neat as it first appears.

  • the contemporary scene
  • the theological framework
  • a theologically informed praxis

The contemporary scene
Space does not allow me to present a definitive view of where society is at. It's even too ambitious to try to highlight what I consider to be the most significant issues. So what I'm going to do is to focus down on one issue, namely the issue of home, because this is particularly pertinent to what we're trying to do as we seek to be church in a transitional age.

Is the nuclear family built to explode?

Have you seen the film Mrs Doubtfire? The interesting feature of the film is that the classic 'happy-ending' is absent. There is a resolution to the plot, but it's a very contemporary one. There is no romantic reunion between the husband and wife, and the idealised nuclear family of Mum, Dad and kids is not reformed. But that's only part of the problem, because, as we've seen, the film ends with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire guise, narrating an extended soliloquy in which (s)he applies the term family to all-sorts of non-traditional units.

Mrs. Doubtfire isn't subversive. It takes society as it is at this moment in time, and through humour, tries to address certain issues relating to the breakdown of family life that are far more than theoretical for millions of people.

Perhaps in doing this it does erode some of the foundations, but the nuclear family as we know it needs undermining, and something more than social cohesion is at stake.

Obviously, nothing happens in a vacuum, and historical changes do not merely occur, there is always a developmental character to them. This is certainly the case with the great movement known as the Reformation. The insights of Martin Luther, although clearly defined by the Bible, also owe something to the changes in worldview that took place during the Renaissance. It isn't that everything Luther said can be explained by the changes in intellectual and social life in Europe during the 13-15th century. That would be crass reductionism. But the fact that Luther could read his Bible as he did was a direct consequence of the emerging importance of the individual.

In another time, Luther would never have dreamt of standing against the Roman Church, nor of believing for a moment that his own understanding of justification was legitimate, whilst their view was erroneous. But gradually, from around the time of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the individual became more significant, and the role of the Church in defining truth and reality became less definitive.So by the time of Luther, there was nothing altogether peculiar about an individual's conscience being captive to the Word, and prepared to stand against the full might of scholarship and tradition that was the Catholic Church.

This individualistic focus became enshrined in Reformation doctrine, and played a part in the formulation of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (a corporate concept irretrievably individualised?), and even the understanding of justification. So too did the prevailing view of Scripture, and the doctrine of perspicuity. Now it was no longer the Church that interpreted the Bible in the light of how the Church had interpreted it through the centuries. It was essentially down to the individual believer, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The next great intellectual shift came about in the 18th century in what we know as the Enlightenment, and by this time the individual had truly become the centre of the universe. Aquinas had asserted the sanctity of the intellect, and the Enlightenment took that to its logical conclusion by making human reason the bar to which all issues must be brought for a verdict. Laissez-faire economics; trade unionism; the abolition of the slave trade; Darwin's evolutionary theory – these were all, in their radically different ways, expressions of this view. In other words, the individual was becoming more important, and his or her well-being was becoming increasingly influential in policy decisions, and his or her ability to think and solve problems was now a matter of course.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, the middle class began to form, with it's emphasis on hard work, financial security, and independency. Wuith these came a freedom to vote and make life-defining decisions, plus mobility and the pursuit of wealth. All of these are important factors when it comes to seeing how the nuclear family became so dominant.

Especially as mobility of labour increased, family units, of necessity, became increasingly narrowly defined. So whilst at one time, the majority of people lived within a few miles of where they were born, it rapidly became normal for someone to establish a home miles from anyone, and of necessity, detached from their roots.

Obviously the support network of extended families became increasingly difficult to call upon, and couples were left on their own to make their own way in life; provide for their own future; care for their own children; and solve their own problems. This placed enormous pressure on those couples, and many of them couldn't cope with such demands. Add to that the loss of social pressure to maintain a marriage, and increasing divorce rates became inevitable.

Over succeeding decades, fractured relationships have become the norm, and consequently children are reared in an environment in which they have no models of interpersonal relationships, of how to work through difficulties, of how to cope with problems, or how to concede to another's needs.

What they see, and thus what they learn is the total inviolability of an individual's rights of self-assertion and fulfilment. As tragically displayed in the plethora of nursing homes to provide care for the elderly because an increasing number of children are no longer willing to undertake the responsibility. Principally because of the way in which it curtails their own personal freedom. (Linked to this is the design of modern houses, which actually makes it difficult for nuclear families to 'house' other family members, and thus favours a 'detached', isolated mentality.)

It's the process of individualisation which lies at the root of many of our contemporary social problems. So we not only have the reality of single-parent families, due to the break-up of a marriage, but single women making a personal choice to become a mother without having to have the hassle of a father, using either medical techniques or resorting to necessary . But it's OK because that person is free to make those choices, and it is the ultimate violation to attempt to deprive an individual of that choice.

One of the further developments that has taken place recently is a growing rediscovery of the importance of relationships. This is good, and we do need to exploit it, but I also think that we need to do so with a little caution, because I think that this same issue of individualism lies at its heart. There was a time when you were a member of a family and that was a given. You had your place within that, and it brought with it privileges and responsibilities. People may be recognising that we need each other, but the impetus is our own personal need, and having that met. So relationships are in fact viewed in utilistic terms in the sense that they are there to further my own personal development.

But the point I'm trying to make is that the emergence of the nuclear family is actually a point in this process, and it carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, and itself makes a powerful contribution to the process. But where we're at now is in a fractured and broken environment in which people are feeling vulnerable and rootless.

Homeless could be another word! In fact it could be a very powerful word, because the ideas and conventions that provided modern people with a home in that it gave them identity and security have now become eroded. And the fragility of nuclear family illustrates this perfectly. People no longer know where they are, nor even who they are. The reality of a global village only serves to extenuates this. Just consider the phenomenon of the Web! In which knowledge has been replaced by information and communication by e-mails! And it's entirely non-evaluative.

So in a world that is entirely pick-and-mix, how do you make decisions? The thing you fancy today becomes that which you're indifferent to tomorrow and loathe the day after! Is it any wonder that people are confused about their own existence and identity? Yet still long for a home.

The theological framework
Having tried to establish an historical perspective, let me state in fairly bold terms my thesis. The concepts of home and family are an important dimension of human identity, and there is something intrinsic to being human that craves for a context of refuge in which individuals have identity, and are accepted and secure. But the purpose of such 'units' is to offer a 'home' to the “strangers and aliens”, and to face the world with an open face and welcoming arms.

The term 'home' is an emotive and provocative term. As a word, it carries with it a range of ideas, including those of:

  • security
  • acceptance
  • refuge
  • provision
  • shelter
  • identity
  • protection

The 'home-less' are a powerful social metaphor for the ills of a society. A million refugees poignantly expose the injustice of a regime or the atrocities of war. A nation's morality is rightly judged by its attitude to, and treatment of, those dispossessed of their homes and country.The phenomenon of nationalism is, amongst other things, a corporate response to this need for an identity, and 'a place in the earth'. For example, Hitler's references to “The Fatherland”, effectively conjured up evocative images of Germany as a strong patriarchal 'home', providing protection and identity to its 'children'.

According to the Biblical story, when God made man and woman, he placed them in a Garden, that he himself had planted. The important and interesting issue for us is that the garden we know as Eden was not coextensive with the whole of creation, but it was a microcosm of it, and it had a geographical location, as indicated by the mention of the names of the four rivers that flowed out of it (ch.2:10-14). In other words, this garden was home for the first couple, and it was intended to be their place upon the earth.

But as we know, this idyllic setting was soon disrupted because of their rebellion, and integral to the punishment was expulsion from the garden – a fact of some significance, as the author sees fit to mention it twice (cf. 3:23 & 24). Within the scheme of the narrative, this event is something of a watershed, and we are immediately confronted with the sin of Cain in the murder of Abel. Interestingly, his punishment is very similar to that of his parents (4:11ff), but in his case, the second aspect is seen to be more significant:

(i) the ground would suffer the consequences of his act, and resist his attempts to cultivate it (cf. 3:17-18);

(ii) he would be a vagrant and a wanderer (cf. 3:23).

This is too much for Cain, and he asks for his sentence to be ameliorated, which it is, and although Cain settles (?) in the land of Nod (wandering), he is seen, according to the structure of the story, to have no home because he has been expelled from the presence of the Lord. Just like Adam and Eve, he moves east, further away from the Garden. So too the rest of humanity in 11:2. Because as we read the story, we see that humanity is portrayed as trapped in an unrelenting restlessness. Dispossessed of its home, it is for ever looking for somewhere to call its own (cf. 11:1,2).

This is confirmed for us at the end of the story of redemption, when the vision of a new heaven and earth is set before us, and is shown to be that for which humankind was made: A place where man and woman can enjoy their status as God's people at rest, as they live obediently under his imminent rule.

In between these two critical points of the redemptive story, we are permitted a glimpse of God's intention in, for example, the provision of the Promised Land. That was to be a dwelling place for his people. Their place in the earth. A place of security and abundance. A place to call their own. A place to enjoy the freedom to be the people of God, with God in the midst of them. (Cf. Deut. 8:7-10; 11:11&12.)

The land was also meant to be a refuge, and strangers and aliens were to be welcomed into the land, and the Israelites had a God-given obligation to care and provide for them. See Numb. 9:14; 15:14,15; 35:15; Deut.10:18-19; 14:28-29; 24:14,17,19;26:12; 27:19; 29:10-13; 31:12. Some of these passages really are quite remarkable in the way that they 'embrace' the alien, and allow him to enjoy, as an 'inalienable' right, the privileges of justice and provision. There was also the feast of Jubilee (Lev. 25), in which all land was to be returned to its original tenant. This was very important because the land was meant to be a place of security and abundance for all the people. Each household was intended to have a place of their own, a place where they could call home, and a context in which they could flourish.

But once again rebellion rears its ugly head, and as before, expulsion from the land is the penalty, and the people of Israel, although they return from exile, never again fully enjoy the privileges of a home, as they are subjugated by a succession of foreign powers, and ultimately displaced in AD70.

The supreme demonstration of God's purposes is however Jesus, who offers rest to a restless people, and points to the rest that is to come. One of the interesting elements of NT theology is the way that the land as a motif disappears from view, and it seems that in some way Jesus fulfils the promissory character of it. Particularly in his teaching and enactment of the kingdom of God, which although not territorial, resonates many of the OT themes of God's sovereignty, and a people under his rule.

This is also demonstrated in one of the major preoccupations of the ministry of Jesus, and that is his intention to build a new community, amongst whom he spent time teaching about what it meant to be this new, non-hierarchical, inclusive family of forgiveness and grace. Although theologians have been at pains to separate the ideas of kingdom and church, we should not be so ready to divide them if God has actually joined them together. In fact the Church as a community is meant to be the setting in which the Kingdom of God becomes visible, especially if we define kingdom as God's rule actively exercised and willingly obeyed.

After his death, resurrection and ascension, this community continued, and through the Holy Spirit, met each others needs with a radical commitment, and by their tangible love for each other, demonstrated the fact of their discipleship. This phenomenon was the Church, and like Israel, and Jesus himself, the Church lived with both the reality and the promise. She looked forward in hope to the fulfilment of all things, and the joy of taking possession of her home, where there will be:

  • freedom from her enemies;
  • rest from her labours;
  • security, abundance, contentment, joy

Yet like Israel and Jesus, she too existed to point forward to that reality, to model the fulfilment, and to give people a foretaste of what was 'in store' for those who, by grace, could be called the people of God. This responsibility belonged to the local church, for it was she who had opportunity to embody this principle, for it was she, and she alone, that was the visible, time-and-space expression of the heavenly reality.

As churches were planted throughout the Roman Empire, households proved to be the fertile ground out of which they grew, and provided an important image for a Pauline understanding of Church. We'll turn to just one example, which is of especial significance – Eph.2:19. Paul is summarising his argument in ch.2 in which he contrasts their condition prior to God's rescuing grace. They were without God and without hope (v.12), excluded and separated. In redemptive or covenantal terms, as Gentiles they were no people, and they had no place of their own, and were literally “away from home”. (Paroikoi, from which the term parish is taken, indicating status). But in Christ they have become a people, namely the people of God. They now have a country of their own, a nationality, and most significantly a home, because they are members of God's own extended family (oikeios).

This idea of household, common to both Jewish and Greaco-Roman culture, was an altogether different idea from our own understanding of home. Home for us is, idealistically, a place for Mum, Dad and kids. For them, it included slaves, other family members, and business associates. In other words, places of interconnecting, mutually-supporting relationships. It was in these contexts that the early church was born and flourished. (Cf. Acts 2:46; 5:42; 10:7,24; 16:15,31-34; 18:8; 20:20; Rom.16:5, 14-15, 23; 1 Cor.1:14-16; 16:19; Col. 4:15; 2Tim.1:16; 4:19; Phil 1-2.)

Consequently, the concept of units of mutual support and interdependence, so important to the Pauline view of church, was already established. Churches were then seen to be what they were intended to be, i.e. extended families, and the homes in which the churches met were far more than a meeting place. They provided the dynamic of what the church was meant to be: communities of God's people, living under God's rule, in God's 'place'. To the extent that the churches were faithful to this, they offered refuge to the dispossessed wanderers who were instinctively looking for the 'home' from which their original parents had been expelled. It has been suggested that the houses of the rich had a front vestibule which opened out to the world, and this was the place in which the church would often meet, thus underlining the idea of accessibility and welcome. Integral to these ideas is the prevailing biblical notion of a human being as a dependant creature, who shares an interdependency with his/her fellow creatures. This flies in the face of the creed of individualism and myth of autonomy we referred to earlier. Home, within the framework of the Biblical story, is always a social environment, with God as Father, and each of us as brothers and sisters.

A theologically informed praxis
But how do we go about this? How do we participate in the building of church as home, and what does that mean in terms of how we reach people? A number of pointers, but as I make them please do not imagine that I'm setting up myself or what we're doing as a bastion of godly relevance!

  • the need for a missionary theology rather than a theology of mission
  • the need to work from a biblical definition of church: a group of God's people, covenanted together under the Word of God for the gospel
  • the need to see relationships as integral to the issues of evangelism and discipleship: long-term, low-key & relational
  • the need to distinguish form from reality
  • the need to find our security in God rather than in our titles and positions
  • the need to follow an apostolic model of ministry rather than a professional one

Allow me to tie up some loose ends. I would want to maintain that this yearning for home is there even in the minds and hearts of those from broken homes, or homes where they have been abused. Such people instinctively know what home should be, and long for the opportunity to experience it. People yearn for intimacy because they were made for it, and perhaps the promiscuity (monogamy: a type of wood?) that is so rampant in society is actually a search for intimacy, and a fleeting experience of it. Our churches should be units which model the heart of a God who reaches out to the vulnerable, marginalised and dispossessed, and thus offers a home-from-home whilst we wait for the home for which we were created – the home of righteousness!