The world, of which the church is a part, likes big strategic plans.
For the last few years, perhaps decades even, we have inhabited a world where big, macro, generic strategies have held sway. In the world of business this approach was popularised by Michael Porter, a charismatic professor at the Harvard Business School. I think that it is fair to say that Porteresque theories have managed to crowd out insights from other, more relational, more emergent, strategic thinkers. Models and generic strategies are, after all, fairly easy to understand; they are easy to have faith in.
Now to be clear generic strategies have their part to play. From a Church of England perspective such top down generic strategies as Resourcing Churches, Plants, Grafts and Fresh Expressions all have a part, maybe a significant part, to play in the building of the Kingdom ‘here on earth.’ But, what generic strategies should never be is the sum total of the strategic output. God, I think, cannot be easily contained within the generic, for God is equally content in the incremental (J.B. Quinn) and the emergent (Mintzberg). And, anyway, doesn’t God go ahead of us in mission?
The new set of circumstances we find ourselves in talks deeply to the nature of mission and evangelism as relational, emergent and embedded in community.
In the new set of circumstances generic models might be something that need to be gently set aside for a season. It is hard to build a new congregation or plant a resource church in periods of self isolation. Self isolation isn’t however the major point for at some, as yet unspecified time it, alongside social distancing, will presumably come to and end. Money, cash, finance and the potential return on missional assets employed is the major issue.
It is and will remain hard to fund generic models (because generic models rely on significant funding), if we are to be a substantially poorer church over the longer-term. Generic strategies by their nature are costly strategies. The rewards can be substantial, but the losses when they go wrong are truly frightening. To invest the majority of missional assets in volatile and uncertain times in generic models really is to bet the farm.
As we gaze into an uncertain future we can only ‘see through a glass darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12), but we can, I think, make some basic assumptions and begin to ask some searching questions. One basic assumption that I would make is that the church (and her parishioners) are going to be substantially poorer. I don’t think we are facing a blip or a shortfall in revenue but a potential catastrophe.
The temptation for the Church (and other institutions) will be to plan on the basis of a short fall in revenue of say between 25 and 40% over a six month period. My own view is that this a hopelessly optimistic hypothesis. If I am correct then the ongoing commitment to cash consuming generic strategies should surely be called into question. We need to ask ourselves, as the church, whether our collective faith in such approaches might be now misplaced.
One of the things that I have learnt in the current crisis is that people – non church people – have expectations of the church. Let me illustrate: For several years we have operated a small scale food cupboard scheme. It works like this. We retain a small stock of non perishable goods. When we receive a referral from the school or health centre we contact the family, discuss their needs, and supplement our existing stock with fresh produce which we buy in. Several weeks ago a number of individuals and civic institutions contacted us asking if they could provide us with cash and produce so we could scale up our offering. Other people of goodwill provided us with a timely reminder that part of our mandate is to ‘feed my people.’
Due to the generosity of others we are now able to provide food and other staple products to a relatively large number of families and individuals who would by now be living below the bread-line. Yesterday a local Indian Takeaway contacted us to say that they were going to give a percentage of their takings in April and May to the St. Laurence Food Cupboard Scheme.
St. Laurence was a deacon of the church and an early martyr. Before his death is reputed to have said that ‘these (the poor) are the treasures of the church.’ In my context it feels as though we are being nudged back to pursuing an increasingly diaconal form of ministry, where ‘responding to human need through loving service’ is at the heart of what we do and who we are.
In telling our story I am not seeking to promote yet another generic, do what we are doing, form of strategy. I am simply suggesting that the local church, embedded in the local community, should listen to the community and its expectations of the church.
At the institutional level I do wonder whether the Church of England should gently place aside (maybe only for a season, maybe for a longer period of time) the preference for generic strategies and think afresh about how assets and reserves are deployed?
Do we need to relinquish some of our faith in the generic and instead have a little more faith in the relational, incremental, authentically parochial, and emergent?
Just a few questions!