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The Gospel-Driven Church - a Reader's Response

By Nigel Hardcastle.

Vicar of St Luke's with St Bartholomew's Reading

and a Work Consultant for the diocese of Oxford

I liked the article by Ian Stackhouse on "The Gospel-Driven Church". It was refreshingly honest and made a very important statement about the priority of the gospel over techniques. This fits in well with ideas I have been working on and writing about (60,000 words so far!) for many years under the title "Grace as a Controlling Idea in Pastoral Oversight." Like Ian, I assume that the Church can often usefully learn from all sorts of techniques the world produces and produce similar techniques in their general image, but that Grace must be the controlling idea that decides whether the technique can be used and, if so, how it can be used.

For example, much of our congregations' life is dominated by business. Here you are not 'Justified by Grace', but by work. Often it is worse than that - you are justified by success. Never mind how hard you work, if your project fails or someone else's does better, your existence in the organisation may no longer be 'justified'. As a relative 'justification of being' in a particular job, this may be true. Unfortunately in the absence of greater public systems of beliefs, the person who is redundant at work, can feel redundant as a person in an absolute way. Thus many people's inner peace depends on success. This is bound to affect ministers.

This effect is potentially increased when management techniques are introduced into church. They may be useful and safe. They may, however, bring with them hidden assumptions about what counts as success and how you can feel all right about yourself. The person who sells the book or the course will be out to sell the power of the idea. Suddenly we have the idea that, "If ONLY you follow this technique then success is assured."

Conversely if you are not a success, clearly it is your fault, you are a failure, redundant, a waste of space, not justified.

This is hard on those who have accepted worldly management techniques in the church with little effect in their case. It is harder on those who have turned Christianity itself into a kind of technique without the success found elsewhere. "If only you are a REAL Christian (e.g. evangelical or charismatic or liberal) success will inevitably happen" (this idea is, of course, magic, not religion). A minister can see churches where growth has happened through the same method, but it isn't working for them. It must be their own fault.

And if their faith is insufficient to save their church, is it sufficient to save themselves?

No wonder there is a crisis in ministry. No wonder ministers overwork as they try to save God, and establish the kingdom by human effort as if the Bible's visions of the Kingdom were a management vision. The church in our land is declining, partly because of our failure, but largely for reasons over which Christians have no control. To minister in this sort of time may be disheartening. If many have come to believe unconsciously in justification by work or success, or that Christianity is a technique to achieve automatic success, then many ministers will be broken-hearted.

If we read the gospels we do not find the picture of inevitable success that we find in descriptions of management techniques and sometimes of 'Christian' techniques. Jesus' church has no members by the end of his life. Everyone has deserted him. There is no heavenly kingdom on earth. He dies horribly, asking why God has forsaken him. Yet we consider this the greatest victory in the universe, the victory of love. He forgives the people who kill him. Here is our victory by which we are justified, at peace with God and so with ourselves.

I would rather see full churches than empty churches, but in the last resort there is no point in a church large or small that does not love. There is every point in the church, however small and failing, that does love. If the minister loves, he is ministering. If he or she doesn't love, it won't matter how good the techniques are.

Jesus does not promise us success to our projects. One minister may have a tremendous success on his hands, another what appears to be a failure. They may both be equally doing God's will, equal in faith and love. Even where it is our fault that we are failing, he loves us. He justifies our existence by grace, by the love shown on the cross. Ministers need to believe that and act that out. We are saved by God's grace and we save by pointing to God's grace. The grace of God is the controlling idea for pastoral oversight.

The author adds: This summer I plan to use a study leave to complete (or at least advance) my thoughts and researches in this area. If you have any ideas or experiences or recommendations that relate to this I would be glad to hear.

The author can be contacted at 14 Erleigh Rd, Reading RG1 5LH, or by Email at Nigel@hardcastle33.fsnet.co.uk

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You are reading The Gospel-Driven Church - a Reader's Response by Nigel Hardcastle, part of Issue 33 of Ministry Today, published in February 2005.

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