Fellowship with other believers in a variety of contexts was crucial for Wesley, and should be today. It is only when we engage in genuine and meaningful relationships that we grow towards our full potential.
LeClerc & Maddix Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm
A few years ago I was heavily influenced by the work of many involved in emerging church including Frank Viola. His Re-imagining Church (pub. 2008) remains a seminal work in my thinking. Viola left the ‘institutional church’ because he noted that across the board -irrespective of denominations – he saw
‘very little spiritual transformation in the people who attended these churches’.
I can relate to that!Moreover, any spiritual growth he did see/experience seemed to occur outside of traditional church settings. As a result of this he began meeting with a group of Christians in an organic way.There was no building. There was no pastor. What Viola was testing – by his own admission -was whether there was ‘a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience’, and if so what did it look like?
Many of us can relate to that -and indeed this is partly the drive behind fresh expressions (of Church)
As I said Viola’s writing influenced me, and even as late as 2012 (only a year ago!) I underlined that phrase in his book. Much of me still resonates with the question – but I am increasingly finding myself wondering if the question itself is a bit off-key! It’s in part a reaction to the idea of doing church – rather than being church – in the first place.
Viola states ‘A revolution in both the theology and practice of the church is upon us. Countless Christians, including theologians, ministers and scholars, are seeking new ways to renew and reform the church’ and goes on to argue that the church is not an institutional organisation but a spiritual organism. It has life. It breathes. It grows. It shrugs off old dead cells. This idea, to me (now) sits at odds with the idea of doing church. As an organic being I don’t think about breathing (unless in adverse circumstances) I breathe; I don’t think about growing-I grow. But in an environment where breathing is difficult, and growth is stunted – then the question of intentionality becomes of vital importance. Without which the organism dies - and all we are left with is an empty or hollow shell.
I suppose one of the most difficult questions we grapple with is what is church?
For so many of us it’s a place to go (usually on a Sunday morning), and perhaps something we have chosen to be a member of (though baptism or membership classes).
I find myself wondering what Wesley saw it as in C18th England. He lived and died a good son (of the Anglican Church). He was an ordained priest. Yet he recognised that for so many ordinary church going people, church attendance wasn’t enough, or more accurately there was a disconnect between church attendance and transformed lives. There was no evidence of the Holy transforming their lives. Wesley didn’t ever advocate curtailing church attendance but rather to those he helped reconnect with God (revival) he emphasised their getting involved in a society.
What then was the difference between that and church? In one sense I think societies were organic church. They weren’t involved in the sacraments or rituals of the church (they continued to happen in the Anglican services) – but they were involved in the Spiritual formation of the people. Much of that was education based – Bible study, prayer, learning theology by singing hymns filled with theological teaching etc, and the bands were the place where the nitty gritty of discipleship was worked out in connection with others. But being part of a regular community of church goers remained a part of that too.
What role does it have in the nurturing and sustaining of that family member I wonder. A lot to think about it seems!