Is an Intelligent Church a Questioning Church?

Some readers of this blog and others who know me, probably know by now that I am not a fan of one-size-fits-all programmes, whether they be about church growth, personal development, community engagement or anything else. One of the reasons for that is that I am increasingly convinced that such programmes over-value the product over the process. In their original context they probably worked because the process was one which took the context into consideration, but care must be taken when employing such a programme that they are appropriately tailored for a new setting... Better still, learn from the principles of the programme but develop something much more organic in situ. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, and perhaps (as I have done) can use off the peg programmes for specific short-term goals, but don't forget that the long term journey is a vital part of discipleship...

Which brings me to the book that our church book-group has been looking at since before Christmas... Intelligent Church, by Steve Chalke with Anthony Watkis. We picked this because it was endorsed by Brian McLaren, the author of our previous book, "Finding our Way Again" (more of which anon), which was greatly appreciated by the group, but also because the sub-title "A Journey Towards Christ-Centred Community", and the various blurbs about the book, seemed to touch on a number of issues that kept coming up, both in the book and in wider discussions in church.

Most in the group were only familiar with Steve Chalke from his occasional TV appearances ("Is he that orange TV minister?") and the controversy over the "cosmic child abuse" comment in "The Lost Message of Jesus" a few years ago. I however, have read most of the stuff he has written down the years, particularly on the church/community interface, and have been at numerous conferences where he has been the speaker. An abiding frustration that I have is that he often writes and speaks as if all his thinking is brand new - you would at times think that he had not re-invented, but ACTUALLY INVENTED the aforementioned wheel... be it in the controversy over the atonement and its implications for engagement with the wider world, or practical approaches to faith-based community development. Whether it be ignorance of previous thought and practice that comes from a lack of research or an attempt to make his own material seem more unique, I am not sure, and am not sure which I would prefer to be the case.

Don't get me wrong, I think that he and the organisations that he has worked with over the years (including Oasis and Faithworks) have done great work and do offer models of good practice that others could do with emulating (e.g. I think the Faithworks Charter included at the back of this and many of his recent books, is a superb, concise set of principles that churches and other faith-based organisations could do with adopting before seeking to engage effectively and healthily with the wider world). But sometimes... just sometimes... the product is valued over the process... and the product is misold in the first place...

To an extent that could be said of this book... The very title annoyed me... What is an "Intelligent Church"? If anything the church is called on to run counter to what the wider world would describe as intelligent or wise? Targeting the poor, the marginalised and the struggling is not necessarily the intelligent way to run a church... It can be messy, exhausting, and financially demanding among other things... But actually, the chapter headings confounded the title of the book, and all in all it offers a good digest of some of the characteristics of a church which the world may not see as intelligent, but which is an expression of the heart of God... A relational, inclusive, messy, honest, vulnerable, generous, vulnerable, diverse, political (small p) and transformative church.

Again, however, the publishers' blurb over-eggs the contents, claiming that 'Each thought-provoking chapter concludes with a "Yes but How?" section, which gives practical suggestions for moving your church along this path." Yes there was a "Yes but How?" section, but this consisted of a list of questions and the repeated suggestion that we have a church day/weekend away... So anyone expecting an A-Z gazetteer showing how to navigate this "journey towards Christ-Centred Community" will be deeply disappointed. But for me, that's a good thing... because, for me, it is the sub-title, the journey that is more helpful and is a better reflection of the content of the book. And the "Yes but How?" section is a vital part of its effectiveness, so long as you don't actually expect it to tell you how...

Christ told storys to prompt (not necessarily answer) questions... And as Brian McLaren points out, Chalke tells a good story himself... If his stories and the questions at the close of each chapter produce questioning churches, then perhaps they may be further along that journey to being Christ-Centred Communities.

NB. A member of the book group was indignant at the "orange TV minister" comment, as that was NOT actually said by a member of the group, but was a description I heard a couple of years ago... Wouldn't want to convey the wrong impression... Don't think I've misattributed anything else!


Anonymous said…
Hi David, Sorry said I would never do this again but I would just ask does no-one ever make comment?
I could write reams.

You say first sentence (some readers of this blog) so.

If there is evidence would a word of encouragement help. It would be great and add further interest to your post.

Welcome back... According to the hit counter there are between 30 and 80 people who read my drivel each day, plus the ones who pick it up on facebook... just the ones who actually visit the site are all shrinking violets clearly! Or else there's nothing really worth commenting on...

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