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Can We Use Imagination More? – Simon Sutcliffe

Digital image

In a recent Lay Anglicana post we were introduced to some work that has been done by Bishop Steven Croft which can be read in full here. In his paper Bishop Croft outlines 7 disciplines of evangelisation which I have copied here but ought to be read in the context of the whole paper:

1.     The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)

2.     The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith)

3.     The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation)

4.     The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)

5.     The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)

6.     The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)

7.     The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)


Croft isn’t the first to come up with a list of points or words that might enable the church to grow, but if I’m honest I would rather go with Cron’s 5 words in the novel Chasing Francis and be a church that takes seriously, transcendence, community, beauty, dignity and meaning. But even then, the whole thing is just a lot more complex than hanging a movement on a number of hooks.

Steven Croft’s first and the seventh point I would want to completely agree with. A disciple of Jesus is called both to be attentive to a God who longs to be in relationship with God’s people (1) and to place ourselves into similar scenarios with a similar mindset as The One who calls us out into the world (7). Nor do I have a problem with 4, this is the business of discipleship and I, along with all followers of Jesus, have an obligation to learn from those who think differently and those who have gone before. So points 1,4 and 7, are, for me, part and parcel of being a Christian. They relate to evangelism in the sense that they are assumed prerequisites.

I am more cautious about the other disciplines. At this point I ought to declare my hand fully. I am an ordained Venture FX pioneer (the pioneer ministries scheme in the Methodist Church) and I am the Tutor for Evangelism and Church Growth at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. I am utterly in debt to the Church and to the work of Bishop Croft; my bread and butter is Fresh Expressions and I am so grateful for the Mission Shaped Church movement that has reshaped the landscape of British ecclesiology and our understanding of the mission and ministry of the whole people of God.

But you sense a ‘but’ ….

I think I have a number of questions about his other points. Firstly, it all seems a bit church-centric to me which feels like the wrong place to begin, and therefore we are likely to end up somewhere we never intended to be (which might not be a bad thing). Secondly, and related to the first, I’m not convinced that more churches leads to more Christians – I don’t think the evidence bears that out (Some work done by Dutch theologian Stefan Paas suggests something similar you can read some of his work here). Thirdly, I’m not persuaded apologetics will lead to ‘a new evangelisation’ – it demands me to out-think my atheist and other-faith friends, which seems a bit colonial to me.

This church-centric view is prevalent in most discussion around evangelism. In a paper going to the General Synod under the heading ‘The vital importance of making new disciples.’, it reads:

The simple fact is this: unless there is a significant increase in new people joining the Church over the coming years, that there will be an accelerating decline in the overall number of worshippers.

Para 15


I’m not overly surprised by this church-centric assumption. I spoke at the English version of the Roman Catholic conference Croft attended that began his thought process. Then, like now, I recognised an almost naive assumption that if the church only did what it does better, and if only we could convince people of the faith we share, then our churches will be full. But, like I said, this is my bread and butter – I know that it is simply much more difficult than that. My experience, and the narrative of other pioneers, tells me that we need more than ‘doing church better’ (Parish Renewal) nor can we rely on outsmarting some clever protagonist of new atheism in the local pub.

The problems lies, I suspect, in the telos, the end result, of evangelism. If we are to think that the chief aim of evangelism is salvation (whatever you might mean by that) and that the only expression of salvation is bound up in membership of a recognised mainstream church, then you will naturally assume that evangelism will lead to church growth and that we will know we are succeeding because our church grows and we will finally succeed when all the world becomes Christian.


What if we begin to see evangelism differently? What if, for instance,  the diverse mix that makes up the tapestry of human life and community is somehow God-inspired? So my ministry, as a pioneer, is not to try and mould people into the same shape as me, but to celebrate and point out the rich diversity that is God’s will for all creation.  So instead of lovingly creating a monochrome peoples known as the Church – it is part of my role to work with The Artist to bring together all the raw materials of Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Theist and Atheist, Muslim and Sikh …. to form the most beautiful, radiant and glory-filled mosaic for all eternity. We might call it Kingdom.

You might not agree with the last paragraph, and that’s fine, but is it possible to think of evangelism and discipleship (the two can never be far from each other) in such a way that the church is vital, but not the centrepiece of God’s missional activity? Or are we always bound to an old expression of theology for a Fresh Expression of Church?

Can we imagine more ….

The image is Imagination by: David Hollingsworth vi Seed Resources

Simon Sutcliffe


12 comments on this post:

Peter Barber said...

Great blog Simon. Thanks. Pete


Thanks Peter – glad you enjoyed it.

02 July 2013 10:56
01 July 2013 22:27
Ian Paul said...

So, if I have read the last paragraph correctly, you are saying that the goal of inviting a diverse range of people, from all cultures and classes, to join the adventure of being disciples of Christ, is even more exciting if we omit to invite them to be disciples of Christ…?


Hi Ian, thanks for commenting.

My last paragraph is simply asking for us to think more imaginatively and creatively about evangelism. Not just ‘how’ we do it but the theological assumptions that lay behind our practice. My penultimate paragraph is a very brief attempt at offering an alternative assumption to the one I think lies behind Bishop Croft’s discussion document – like I say, you don’t have to agree with it, but I would love Bishop Croft’s paper to facilitate a conversation that begins to challenge those things we have assumed as normative.

But to answer your question more directly – I’ve never said anything about inviting people to be a part of something. Invitation and acceptance have always been traditional understandings of evangelism but they assume that I (A Christian) act in the mode of host and the other (yet-to-be-Christian) is in the mode of guest. Hence the invitation. But pioneers are discovering, I think, that finding yourself in the mode of guest begins to recast the role and purpose of evangelism. The problem is, that there are relatively few tools in the theological toolkit to be able to articulate this recasting (but some of us are trying).

Of course some people will always be drawn to inherited models of Church, which is good and those Churches need to work tirelessly to live out their call authentically. However, I think I would want to be cautious about an evangelism that made that the only possible outcome.

So I guess to answer your question – Yes! it would be more exciting …

Ian Paul said...

Hmmm…it might be exciting, but I am not clear that is what we are called to do. I agree with you about the dilemma about us doing the inviting, rather than being invited. The really interesting thing about Jesus’ teaching in Luke 9-10 and Matt 10 is that the disciples go as invited guests to the ‘person of peace’ and enjoy hospitality. So mission here is not about being the strong, with the resources, but being the weak. However, along with that, there is a clear injunction to proclaim the kingdom and God’s presence–not just any old God, but the God of Israel, and we want now want to say, the Father of our Lord Jesus.

Again, I agree with you about the rich tapestry of human personality and culture–the kingdom cannot be monocultural or homogeneous. But when you say ‘What if, for instance, the diverse mix that makes up the tapestry of human life and community is somehow God-inspired?’ then I think this goes down the ‘original blessing’ route and is in danger of forgetting fallen humanity in need of redemption. When folk are struggling under all sorts of forces controlling their lives, I am not sure they would thank us for saying ‘Don’t worry, God thinks it’s ok!’ We all need redeeming from sinful habits, cultures, systems and structures…


Brilliant conversation Ian – thank you so much. On the guest thing – I too have found the ‘sending’ passages a real source of inspiration. I have done quite a lot of work around guest/host stuff over the last year, especially using some of the post-structuralists work on hospitality. I would love to see biblical scholars (not my field I’m afraid) work on the notion of guest over the next few years to give a firmer foundation to the work of those who are thinking of ministry from a different starting place.

As for the rich tapestry stuff. I don’t think I’m advocating ‘original blessing’ and the one thing I am deffintiely saying is that we do need to actively work against injustice. But when you say ‘I don’t think they would thank us’ I guess I would respond with ‘but let’s at least ask them first…’ You can’t build a rich mosaic (original post) that shines with the Glory of God unless all the pieces are willing participants and that can’t (or doesn’t usually) happen if folk are under oppression or living irreconciled lives. It might be that some Christians think that the only way to be out of oppression and have reconciled lives is to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour and to express that through membership in a church. I’m not as convinced. I fully agree that we all need redeeming from something but I am not convinced that the end result of that lies in church membership.

Of course you have now introduced two other theological terms that have a direct correlation with the work of evangelism: sin and redemption. If we really are to begin thinking differently about evangelism then we will need to grapple with those tricky issues.

As for your opening sentence ‘…..I’m not clear that is what we are called to do’ …. Some of us are ….. and we are thankful to the wider church for hearing our experiences.

Ian Paul said...

My comment on calling was not really a reference to each of us as individuals, but corporately. If we root our understanding of ministry in the NT, then one expression of our calling is to ‘make disciples, baptising…teaching…’. Another might be to see all grow up into the full stature of Christ. I agree with you that this must not be coercive–but we might differ slightly on the role of ‘church’. I don’t take this term in an institutional sense, but a healthy vision of ‘ekklesia’ (the gather of the citizens in the kingdom) means that our goal is not individualised, but has an irreducible corporate dimension.

I agree with you about injustice, though again a NT perspective might say that all injustice arises from sin, and therefore, whether personal discipleship is involved or not, Jesus’ death and resurrection is theological the final answer to this.

I think there already is quite a lot of work done on the question of hospitality, both in commentaries on this passage, but also by Mike Breen and his 3DM stuff which majors on the ‘person of peace.’

03 July 2013 08:29

Thanks Ian, there is a lot of work done on hospitality and I have made extensive use of folk like Pohl, Newman, Bretherton who all write brilliantly about hospitality but it all usually assumes the role of host. but I would love to read some more stuff about being a guest. My reading of the NT suggests that Jesus was guest often and there are other OT and NT stories of people being guests in other peoples spaces – I just wondered if anyone had written from that perspective? so rather from asking the question ‘what makes a good host?’ ask the question ‘what makes a good guest?’ if you’ve got any pointers – I would be grateful.

And my emerging little community in Stoke-on-Trent love some of Mike Breen’s stuff – brilliant.

03 July 2013 09:36
02 July 2013 22:36
02 July 2013 21:26
02 July 2013 11:18
02 July 2013 10:19
Steven Croft said...

Many thanks for a stimulating response Simon. I look forward to the conversation continuing. I guess the heart of my reply would be around what it means to be church-centric. The papers form part of a debate at the Church of England General Synod on Saturday evening so we will see how it fares. Steven


Thank you – and thank you for generating the conversation. The more it is talked about the more we are able to articulate our understanding of evangelism and the more we are able to develop our theology. Sadly, I suspect this conversation is not what this General Synod will be remembered for; but at least it is on the agenda. I’m afraid the Methodist Conference has nothing equivalent on its agenda this year.

02 July 2013 16:18
02 July 2013 13:56

As Hauerwas reminds us, without the church as a global and historical community embodying our story in the bread and butter practices of our faith, all becomes fantasy and we are not formed to recognise God’s activity in the world nor to have our imaginations trained through worship. It is precisely as part of the church, a rainbow people rooted in the stories of Israel and Jesus, that we have a Gospel to live and proclaim. Embodied apologetics is therefore key but we can’t escape the ambiguity of that story and its communities in order to engage contemporary people. We can, though, seek to be more faithful in our witness. We can’t cut the chord with our inheritance any more than Descartes could free himself completely from all that went before him. We can, though, seek to be more repentant and imaginative in prayerful conversation with that legacy as well as with contemporary challenges.. Hence the gathered community still matters.


I couldn’t agree more. The Gathered Community is essential. I wouldn’t want to use Hauerwas uncritically but his articulation of church as a community of character is essential to this conversation.

It’s also worth noting that he would want the church to narrate the worlds story, and to do that with integrity we need to be found in the nitty gritty of life. So my question still stands: do we narrate such a story in the hope that the worlds story becomes our story, or do we find ways of being in the world with integrity (communities of practice) that allows others to maintain their integrity?

Or to put it another way: how big does the gathered community need to be? Some of us will want to identify ourselves as Christian and the church. But what about those, who for good reason, don’t want to? Are they yet-to-be Christians? Or can we begin to configure that relationship and our obligation towards them differently? And will we allow them to transform our story and tell it differently?

02 July 2013 17:36
02 July 2013 15:14

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