Thursday, January 15, 2009

Alan Smith 'God Shaped Mission'

On Tuesday Alan Smith, Bishop of Shrewsbury, was appointed Bishop of St. Albans. There's even a Youtube video (1170 views as of Weds morning, but shame about the corny background music).

It just so happens that last week I finished reading 'God Shaped Mission: Theological and Practical Perspectives from the Rural Church.'
It's partly written in response to Mission Shaped Church (MSC), and the lack of material in that report on rural mission and fresh expressions. MSC was 'important and timely', but raises plenty of new questions - is it change or rebranding? Are 'fresh expressions of church' sustainable? Would the gifted leaders required by fresh expressions produce just as much growth in a normal church setting anyway?

The book argues that the countryside is changing, and that many of the views we hold about it are myths. The romantic picture of peaceful village life is a long way from the 'usually hard, occasionally brutal' reality. As farms close or diversify, incomers change the nature of village communities, and facilities close, there are plenty of challenges for rural communities.

Smith identifies 7 myths which rural churches have to tackle (chapter 2):
1. There was a golden era when rural churches were full.
2. Each village had its own resident parson
3. Rural churches are facing unprecedented change
4. Most rural congregations are made up of people from the village (as opposed to urban congregations, who are eclectic)
5. Rural churches are so resilient they will always survive
6. The best solution is to close some rural churches, sell the buildings and unite the congregations.
7. The CofE is rich because it owns so many buildings.

The book looks at churchgoing and spirituality in rural areas, which reflects the national picture of decline, but finds the typical rural dweller associating with their church without actually attending it. He also challenges the view of some missioners that 'spirituality' is on the rise, and replacing religion, noting that interest in new age, ghosts, and other pseudo-spiritual things is concentrated only among certain social groups (chapter 3)

Chapter 4 explores theology, arguing that mission arises out of worship: "before we can be a mission-shaped church, we must be a God-shaped people". Mission is the overflow of our encounter with God. This in turn frees us from activism - the gospel is not good news if it's just a summons to work harder for God's kingdom. Smith notes that Jesus says both 'come and see' (this Sundays lectionary reading, from John 1:43-end), and 'go and make disciples', and challenges a sharp distinction between 'attractional' and 'missional' churches. (i.e churches which try to get people to 'come to us', and churches which go out and engage with their communities)

There is a sizeable section looking at how the thinking and practice of fresh expressions can be applied to rural areas, with a host of good examples drawn from his experience in Shropshire. Smith also notes the positive effect that Mission Action Planning has had in helping churches to focus energy and resources. He also surveyed the rural fresh expressions currently held on the national database, and notes that several things which carry the name 'fresh expressions' aren't what it says on the tin.

There are particular challenges in rural areas: subcultures tend to be smaller, (e.g. youth, parenting classes etc.) which means that a viable group for them is going to be Deanery-wide, or involve co-operation between several villages, which presents its own problems. Many rural 'fresh expressions' tend to be tweaks on a standard service of worship, but in a different venue, at a more convenient time, or in a different style (e.g. Sunday 4:6 in Devon)

Chapters 6-8 cover children and youth, worship, and social action/pastoral care, exporing both the issues and some ways in which rural churches have tackled them.

'Passing on the faith in the Family' (chapter 9) is probably worth publishing separately in its own right: Smith notes that from ages 5 to 15 children will spend 15,000 hours at school, 125,000 hours at or around home, and 500 hours in Sunday school. Yet we focus most of our efforts on Christian nurture of children around the church context, rather than the home. Smith argues for much more energy to be put into supporting Christian parents, and resourcing families to raise their children in the Christian faith. Lots of food for thought in this chapter, and worth reading on its own if you've not got time to read the whole book.

His section on Apologetics has suddenly become very relevant, with the agnostibus campaign, calling for the church to recover the ministry of giving reasons for our faith, persuading and reasoning with people for the truth of Christianity, and facing up to the questions asked by the world.

The final section sets out some 'principles for mission in the rural church':
- Listening (to God the community, the rural culture, your past, one another)
- Learning - there is a fascinating section here on 'what's wrong with the church', which I'll cover in a separate post.
- Acting (he goes through the Mission Action Planning process, and how it's worked in Lichfield diocese, and notes that 4 main areas have emerged for attention in local churches - welcoming people: welcome, worship, creative use of the building, and using economies of scale by teaming up with other churches)
- Refocusing for mission: with ideas about how the role of bishops, synods and church leaders need to change in order to engage with mission challenges.

A few quotes and stories from the final section:

- a day on evangelism which began with "a prolonged period of corporate silent prayer. This proved to be extraordinarily disarming. No one was able to set any personal agendas through their choice of language, prayers or hymns. We were all equal before God in the silence. The result was a great deal of real listening to one another."

- There is a big difference between Greeting and Welcoming. Greeting is what happens when you say 'hello'. Welcoming has happened when someone knows they belong and have a role to play. Note how, when you ask for something in a supermarket, they'll escort you personally to the right shelf. When did we last escort someone to a seat/coffee/etc. in church?

- A story of a young couple with a child on their first visit to church, who ended up sitting on their own in the church hall whilst the regulars chatted to one another. Only the vicar and the visiting bishop spoke to them, and they left, unnoticed. "I am sure the congregation would have been horrified if anyone had said they were unfriendly, but they were."

All in all an excellent book, well worth engaging with, though it will be a demanding engagement. Bishop Alan Smith is serious about mission, and about how the church needs to change, and I pray that his energy, vision and practical experience will be a great blessing to his new Diocese.

See also: Mission Shaped and Rural by Sally Gaze


  1. Is there a typo in the numbers here? "Smith notes that from ages 5 to 15 children will spend 15,000 hours at school, 125 hours at or around home, and 500 hours in Sunday school." 125 sounds a bit small...


  2. Thankyou Anonymous - my notes said 125k and I missed off the 'k', so it's now amended with proper numbers. I could pretend it was a deliberate mistake to see if anyone actually read the post in full, but I'd be lying!!

  3. Bishop Alan Smith spoke about how he wanted atheists to debate. 'Let the debate go on' he said.

    So I emailed him and asked if he wanted to debate the resurrection at

    No reply as yet.

    If you know him , could you ask him if he was serious about atheists and debates, or was that just for the press conference?

  4. Steven - I'm afraid I don't know him personally, and I'm guessing that he has plenty to do with moving jobs.

    I'm sure the debate is going in on plenty of places outside the blogosphere, and no doubt you'll want a bit more from him than just posting a couple of comments, so he has to think about whether it's realistic to engage with a blog he may well have never heard of, for an unspecified amount of time, when he has a list of things to do as long as a gibbons arm.

  5. Well, I'm pretty sure he wasn't serious about claiming he wanted the debate to go on and he wanted robust atheists to debate issues.

    He is probably far too busy with press conferences calling for 'the debate to go on' to have time to engage in debates.

    But we shall see.

  6. I imagine that particular press conference was in connection with his appointment as Bishop of St. Albans, rather than something specially staged to counter the agnostibus.

  7. He took the opportunity of the press conference to announce his welcoming of debate and talk about the atheist bus slogans. In a very partronising manner, if you ask me, but your opinion may be different.

    Still, I am sure he was sincere about the value of debate. I'm sure he thinks it important enough to fit into his schedule sometime, somehow, considering his desire to see it happen. Let the debate go on (perhaps without me though)