God’s Next Big Thing: Discovering the Future Church by Scott Cowdell

(John Garrett Publishing; Melbourne, 2004)

Scott Cowdell will supervise my guided reading project, starting next week, which was the original motivation for reading this book -what a blessing!  Great writing, sharp intellect and deeply spiritual reflections engaging both head and heart – I am so excited about the academic year which is about to start!!!

God’s Next Big Thing is divided into two parts.  The first global/Australian cultural analysis is locating the church in the post-modern era and was particularly exciting for me with it’s strong critique of capitalist modes of being as a core driver of western culture’s evolution.  Cowdell favours a definition of post-modernity as an hyper-extension of the modern era which draws this out more clearly.  I still think postmodernism is a new epoch of western culture, but I valued being able to chart it’s economic heritage.

Included in part one is a fabulous chapter on the emerging church where, as a high-churchman, Cowdell argues for an emerging church that is mystical, mature and militant (by which he means prophetic engagement with the wider world).  I particularly appreciated his depiction of the immature church that is so prevalent today – insecure, defensive with an addictive & co-dependent personality.  It reinforced my own image of the Western Church being in denial about it’s midlife crisis.  Mostly however, it was just so exciting to read a Christian from a different ‘tradition’ to my own, reaching the same conclusions by a different path.  Surely a sign that God is in this ‘next big thing’.

The second part of the book is devoted to suggestions for the way forward in which he addresses liturgy; the lay vocation of the Church; and organised religion (rejecting institutionalism and managerialism in the Church).  Whilst I don’t share Cowdell’s passion for the defined Liturgical Movement tradition from which he comes, I do share his conclusions on the need for depth, mystery and beauty in our worship as a balm to the postmodern soul.  I also agree with his theology of the laity as having a ‘vocation’ that is ‘serving at an alter in the world’ – called to be disciples  in whatever life situation they find themselves, as opposed to devoting their service to the maintenance of religion.  His discussion of lay presidency is insightful in this regard.  His discussion on sexuality is really interesting!

Ian Mobsby, The Becoming of G-d

(YTC Press: UK: 2008)

I LOVE this book!  Ian Mobsby writes more of my own thoughts than anyone else I have ever read.  It is so exciting to know someone whose been travelling the same road totally separately and discovering very similar things along the way.  Indeed, this is not just a phenomena specific to me, but something  Ian writes is happening all over the world in emerging church communities – a rediscovery of the God who is Trinity to lead us into renewed ways of being church, doing theology, living a response to the bible, prayer, mission and so on!

God who is Trinity draws us into knowing God through our lived experience rather than a set of objectified facts.   God fills our imagination with the possibilities for wholeness in the world, as God fills our hearts with Love and redeems our minds by Grace.  This is theology that I can get excited about!

In outlining his own vision of the Trinity draws on an incredibly diverse range of theological thinkers:  Walter Bruggemann, Pete Rollins, Karl Barth, Brian Edgar, The Cappadocian Fathers and Mothers, Kester Brewin, Paul Tillich and Stuart Murray.  Ian’s main concern however, is to connect our transformational experiences of God to a transformational life.  “The decline experienced by the Western Church through-out the period of modernity and now in post-modernity, is due in the main to an inedequate theism.  Conceptions of God as one’s best friend, or as excessively immanent or transcendent, are the result of a faiture to accept the validity of, and move beyond, the critique of the enlightenment emancipators.” (p.35)  The book reviews models of church; challenges of mission in post-modernity; contextual theology; and the challenge of living communally, in light of a replenished encounter with God.

In summing up, Ian Mobsby’s words sum up the reason why I am setting aside 2011 to study:  “Theology is the place where God speaks into human discourse, and that as we do mission, it point people to the divine.  Religious truth is that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it.  In worship and mission we seek to contemplate God, who in turn touches and communicates with humanity.  If Church is truly modeled on this approach, it will meet deeply with contemporary culture” (p. 143).  Amen!

Ian Mobsby, Emerging and Fresh Expressions of Church

(2007: Moot Community Publishing: London)

Can ‘Fresh Expressions’ be described as genuinely church and authentically Anglican?  Answer: Yes and Yes!  This little book comes out of Ian’s masters research in which he interviewed some key leaders of four different Anglican Fresh Expressions: Church of the Apostles (USA), Santus 1, B1 and Moot (all UK).

All four examples demonstrate strong, theologically articulate, self-understandings of ecclesiology within the context of the immediate world in which they live and have their being.  There were emphases on Trinitarian Theology, Church as mystical communion, Church as sacrament and Church as holistic spiritual community.  Using  There was less clarity around theological understandings of leadership and a complex picture of catholic leaning (apostolic authority) and reformed leaning (priesthood of all believers) concepts of leadership and authority emerge. When considered in light of a variety of scholarly and traditional definitions of church these emerging christian communities all ‘pass the test’.

In relation to Anglicanism, all four Emerging Communities placed a certain amount of importance on their Anglican heritage even when relationships with the Diocese were unclear or problematic.  In particular these communities drew strongly on the liturgical and spiritual resources from the breadth of the church’s history.  Ian also makes a good argument for Fresh Expressions within a Mixed Economy of Church to be considered as a contemporary interpretation of the writings of Richard Hooker.

What I appreciated most about this book was the clear and concise descriptions of the various streams of Fresh Expressions (ch 2) as determined by their interplay with the philosophical and cultural issues of (post)modernity, which clearly differentiates Emerging Anglicans as those who are engaging the more post-modern elements of our fragmenting western world.  This helped me to be much more articulate about the Australian Anglican Scene and it’s fragmented relationship to the cultural shifts in our time and place.