Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mature Church?

(This is an extract from 'Biscuit Tin', a mission newsletter for Yeovil Deanery, which was published this week. More snippets to follow in the next few days.)

Mission Insights: The Mature Church

What is a mature church?

One of the pressing questions for new and ‘fresh expression’ churches is to grow to maturity. One criticism of such churches is that they are a trendy or shallow response to changing culture. We need to find a way of discerning when newly planted churches, and fresh expressions, can be considered to have ‘grown up.

But that itself presents a challenge. We all know adults who behave in immature ways. Just because you are legally ‘mature’ (e.g. old enough to drive a car) doesn’t mean you’ll act mature. A mature church therefore isn’t just one that’s been around a long time, or has the right legal status. So what are the marks of maturity?

a) Structural maturity.
Mission pioneer Henry Venn, back in the 19th century, looked for 3 qualities of new churches planted on the mission field. They had to be

1. Self-financing 2. Self-governing 3. Self-propagating.

On this ‘three-self’ basis, a mature church would pay its own way, look after its own affairs and organisation, and bear fruit. This fruit would either mean planting new churches, or raising up new gifts and leadership within itself. In all of this there is the maturity of independence, standing on your own two feet, becoming a fruitful contributor, rather than a net recipient of support and resources.

b) Personal and Community Maturity
St. Paul writes to the Ephesians of the church growing to maturity in Christ. This includes the use of spiritual gifts, loving relationships, a sound understanding of Christian truth, a Christ-like lifestyle and integrity, with everyone playing their part. A church which isn’t marked by love, where the lifestyle of members isn’t markedly different from non-Christians, which has a fragile grasp on Scripture, or where most of the congregation are passive consumers, is not a mature church.

There is also an intellectual component: it isn’t mature simply to obey without question everything you are told. A mature church will ask questions of its heritage and traditions. Neither is it mature to get excitable over every new thing – we love this in children, but see it as flakiness in adults. A mature church will ask questions of culture and change, and stand in a critical relationship to society.

c) Barriers to Maturity
The soon-to-be King David, on volunteering to fight Goliath, was given Sauls armour. This was a mature mans armour, but it was too cumbersome. David knew what he was doing. Some of our younger churches will be more effective if they don’t have to wear the same armour. A small church plant in a new estate doesn’t need a 14th century building to make it a church. A community café doesn’t need a paid incumbent. However, fresh expressions do need to grow and develop, and move from being projects to self-sustaining communities of disciples. It’s interesting that Jesus helps this to happen among the disciples by leaving them!

So this is not just a question for new churches, but for all our churches. Do we have the marks of structural and personal maturity, outlined above? Do we think and ask questions, or accept the status quo (and fear everything else)? Do we deal with conflict in a mature way, or more like children?

Questions (for PCC’s, leadership teams, home groups, or just personal reflection)
1. How is maturity different from being adult?
2. How is our church doing on the marks of maturity? If the Diocese of Bath and Wells (and all its clergy) shut down tomorrow, how well would the church stand on its own two feet?
3. How is our church growing and bearing fruit? Is there any fruit missing?
For further reading: George Lings ‘Fresh Expressions: growing to maturity’ in Croft (ed). ‘The Future of the Parish System’ (Church House 2006)

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