Context maketh the model

Models can be useful, can’t they? Most of us, if we’re being honest, don’t have the time or ability to think through absolutely everything from scratch. It isn’t unreasonable to look for a model and try to implement that in your church.

If we’re being honest, a lot of us start with a sense of what we think church should look like. Then, as we get into a particular church, we start chiselling away the edges and knocking it about a bit to try and make it fit our particular context. It is far easier to edit something that exists and improve it as necessary than it is to try and begin with a blank sheet of paper and work everything out ourselves from scratch.

As long as we largely acknowledge that is what we’re doing, we’ll be alright. Whether you have just left college with the perfect idea of what you assume the church should look like or you just have a very clear sense of how you think the Bible says the church should be, as long as you are prepared to alter your model as the context demands, you’ll be alright. Where we get problems is when we take our model – whatever it is – and insist that is the way every church should be in every place.

Just to be clear, when I talk about models, I’m not speaking about those specific things that are clear biblical imperatives. Every church should be preaching the Word, every church should be sharing communion, every church should be doing certain things that the Bible is absolutely clear are direct commands that bind all churches everywhere. But there are quite a lot of things that are biblical principles that need to be carefully applied to different situations. There are other things that aren’t necessarily single biblical principles, but by way of logic and reason, we take various principles and draw one of several potential applications from them and apply those because wisdom tells us that is the most suitable application in our context. Models tend to be a conglomeration of these things, taking various biblical principles and perhaps some imperatives and then drawing up a plan of what (in the view of whoever came up with the model) the church should look like.

But that is what gets us in trouble when we begin applying our model as though it is the model for every place. This, I think, ultimately lay behind the issue that I addressed yesterday regarding living walking distance from the church. That might be an excellent thing to do in certain contexts. There may even be some biblical principles there that lead to that conclusion. But there is a clear gap between the principle and the application that needs to be bridged. What may be a legitimate application of a principle, quickly turns into the application of a principle. There becomes a short step from saying that to claiming this is tantamount to a biblical imperative.

But this same issue happens whenever we try to impose our model on all churches. We are quite good at finding ‘successful’ churches and asking their leaders to come along and tell us the secret of what they did so that we might be able to replicate their success too. I have invariably found – whether it is people talking about successful planting or people talking about their successful church, or particular ministry – whilst there are often some things that can be taken and applied, the whole model is almost never credibly replicable in a context like mine. But rarely is there any recognition that what worked in that situation, at that time, might not work everywhere else (or even most other places).

I have spoken before at the need for us to acknowledge the importance of Christian freedom. We are not very good at that. But I also think we would be well served by recognising that not all approaches to church will work everywhere too. If you tried to replicate everything my church does in a white, middle class village you’d look very odd trying to hold dialogue evenings with Muslims and functioning bi-lingually for people who just aren’t there! If people dressed like we did, they might well look odd in your locality because nobody else dresses that way. I’d be willing to bet if you spoke to people like we speak to each other, you might not be making many friends! But the same is true if we were trying to replicate the forms from other places that are totally alien to us too.

But that same principle really reaches to almost everything. Again, not clear and overt biblical imperatives like preaching the Word. But it does affect how we preach the Word. It doesn’t stop us needing to treat each other with respect, but it does affect how we show respect. It doesn’t stop us wanting to train people, but it does affect how we train people. It doesn’t stop us wanting to plant churches, but it does affect how we plant churches. Well, you get the idea.

There is nothing wrong with working to a model. That can be a helpful way to work towards whatever you think you need to do. But we will all need to adapt our models depending on our context. It also means that we shouldn’t try and impose our model onto everywhere else as though it is the way to do church. There is more than one way to legitimately do and be church – even if you hold to the regulative principle of worship and reckon there will be some key elements in your church. There aren’t always straight lines to be drawn where we like to draw them.