Creating niche churches or congregations raises the question: Are there some criteria that must be satisfied before we can consider these experimental faith communities to be churches? This question becomes more acute when a niche congregation is created in a way that places it outside the frame of any prior existing church community; it is likely to be less so when the niche congregation is established under the auspices of an existing church. It is likely that, with the growth of Fresh Expressions and the emerging church movement, this question will be asked more often. It is one thing to assume that things have changed with the end of the Christendom era, but it is quite another to assume that all post-Christendom responses will be equally acceptable.
This raises again the relationship between the historic Christian faith, on the one hand, and the emerging cultural and social environment, the context, on the other. It is a matter of deciding, in any particular context, what a faithful contextualisation of the gospel looks like (see second post for 6 June 2015). Both aspects are important. Faithful contextualisation, says Ward, involves “the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the Church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith” (166, quoting William Reiser, quoted in Sweet Aquachurch, 81). It always entails a conversation between the text of faith and the context, and an interplay between the pilgrim principle, which states that faith is never fully at home in any culture, and the indigenizing principle, which asserts that the gospel is at home in every culture.
Ward suggests, as a first step, that these experimental faith communities should at least satisfy the description of the church in the Nicene Creed, i.e., that the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. (1) In saying that the church is one the focus falls on the unity of the church. It is a unity that has its source in the church’s communion with God who is experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in growing participation in God’s costly love as evidenced in Jesus Christ. The experimental faith community ought in some way to give visible expression to this unity. (2) The holiness of the church is measured against the life of Jesus, a life marked with God’s character and reflecting God’s glory. The focus of the experimental faith community needs to be on incarnating that life in its own social and cultural context. (3) The quality of being catholic refers to the universality and inclusivity of the church, a church that is open to the world. This is expressed in the life of individual congregations through showing a love that reaches out to all and excludes none; in so doing they start to become a concrete expression of God’s new humanity. It runs counter to our tendency to live by choice in particular sub-cultures, and so it means that an experimental niche community must somehow have a larger focus than its own life in community – hence the significance of the quote at the end of the last post. (4) The apostolic quality refers to a continuity in the life and faith of the church with that of the first apostles sent by the risen Christ to give witness to the gospel. This means that there must be a sense of continuity with the faith of the first apostles and the experimental faith community must maintain a conversation with that faith so that it feeds into the life of this community in its particular social and cultural context.
Ward adds to these four indicators a further two drawn from reformed tradition. The first is an emphasis on “word and sacrament,” specifically that the word is preached faithfully and the sacraments are rightly administered (Calvin). The second is an emphasis on church discipline, not in the misunderstood sense of control and regulation, but in the fuller sense of being concerned with the formation of disciples and the life of discipleship. There must be a sense in which the experimental church community is engaged in forming itself and its members in the character of Jesus.
We are still very much coming to terms with the rise and variety of experimental church communities, particularly as many have come into being outside the mainline denominations. Ward suggests that Max Weber’s concept of the routinization of charisma offers a helpful perspective for looking at the rise of the emerging church. Weber “argues that what happens in the evolution of religion is that a new group gathers around a charismatic leader and is a dynamic, free, loose charismatic movement. Over time it rationalizes, routinizes, and systematizes its life and so loses its charisma. Some adherents become frustrated with this and break away around the edges to form a new charismatic group, with new energy and dynamism. It is this that ensures the ongoing renewal of the religion” (182). Ward suggests that this process is at work in the creation of many experimental faith communities. His hope, however, is that, instead of breaking right away from the church, these experimental faith communities would remain in conversation with the church and that, as a result, the church as a whole will grow into “a more faithful and dynamic communion of the triune God in our challenging Western context” (182).
Ward concludes with a plea that both sides of the conversation move beyond issues of definition and continue to talk to each other so that, whatever shortcomings there are on either side, all of us may be helped “to more fully demonstrate the transforming presence of the risen Christ in our life together” (183).