Congregation: Abundance in context...

Angela Sheard writes on finding abundance in your context: The September HeartEdge conference ‘Humbler Church, Bigger God’ was an opportunity to meet people from across the UK and around the world, who are seeking to be at the heart of their church communities and to be with those on the margins of society. Over two packed days in Leeds, I learned about the experiences of those from other HeartEdge churches, shared something of my own experience and learned something of the potential ways forward for HeartEdge as a network.

In all these activities I was struck by a common emphasis on context as the essential starting point for the renewal of any church or organisation. There was no single template or model – in fact, exploring the four themes of commerce, culture, compassion, and congregational life was expected to look different in every context. It was clear that ventures which had worked well in one church would not necessarily work in another, although the sharing of experiences was a useful learning opportunity for all involved.

It was equally clear that the four themes should be explored from within existing churches and organisations which have a clear sense of their own historical, geographical and social context. The emphasis here is not on creating new churches, but on opening existing churches up to breathe in the new life of the Spirit as they engage with the realities within which they find themselves.

This shared approach of the HeartEdge network represents an alternative to traditional models of church multiplication and church revitalization, which I will call contextual revitalization. This approach sees context as an essential starting point for revitalization, as I have explored earlier. More than this however, it views the contexts of existing churches not in terms of deficit but in terms of asset. These contexts are not compared negatively with an ‘ideal church’. Rather, they are evaluated positively on the basis of their existing assets (actual and potential, held by individuals and communities) and how they operate. This is an approach that has much in common with that of asset-based community development (ABCD), which is used in community organising.[1]

As in ABCD, the assessment of assets is not done solely by an external authority but is grassroots, with members of the community being empowered to facilitate their own decision-making. HeartEdge networks thus become groups of churches and organisations which seek to explore revitalization principles and practices together as learning communities. The learning community model facilitates churches being with each other - knowledge and expertise is seen to be held by the whole community, rather than by any one church or group of churches. In this way, the HeartEdge network replicates dynamics which we seek to foster within our individual church communities.

The theological theme running through contextual revitalization is that of God’s abundance. Both the approach to revitalization taken by an individual church and the structure of the HeartEdge network reflect the abundance which God generously gives to the church and to the world. Sam Wells describes Christian discipleship as firstly receiving this abundance, then responding to God’s call in moving from scarcity to abundance, then dwelling within God’s abundance and finally sharing it with the world. God’s abundance is embodied in Jesus Christ, and so this approach to Christian discipleship has the incarnation (the embodying of God’s abundance among us) at its very heart.[2]

In this age of the church it is the Spirit which brings new life, and Christians in all contexts are called upon to listen for what the Spirit is saying as we discern the way forward. Perhaps the Spirit is calling us to become attentive to God’s abundance in our midst – the new life which the Spirit brings is in fact an openness to what is already there, what God has already given us. We have already been given life in abundance, and a world within which we can flourish. Our task is to listen for the voice of the Spirit, which opens our eyes and ears to this abundance in and through the unique contexts in which we find ourselves.

The source and origin of our revitalization as church is not any model or strategy that we can devise – it is, in fact, nothing other than our own contextual, incarnational reality.

[1] ripfa_leaders_briefing_asset-basedworkwithcommunities_web-1.pdf ( p8-10
[2] A Future that’s bigger than our Past, p2