Originally published on the White Canvas Collective website.
We sat in a circle that evening in a church in Edinburgh, and my friend Alan began the evening teaching with a joke: “Two Christians are at a bus stop and one of them sneezes. Is that a new church?” For once in my life I had the wherewithal to produce an entertaining answer: “Well that depends - did the other say ‘Bless You’?”
This was just one step on a personal journey that had begun a number of years before with my own struggles with faith and church. These had blossomed into a long-term search for the answer to perhaps the most important question facing Western Christianity at this time: “what is church?”
This question was originally sparked through the Forge Pioneer course (then called Invest), both as a student and as a teacher. My journey has since taken me through many books, websites and podcasts. I hope that White Canvas will open the conversation to a wider audience.
But as I reflected on the name “White Canvas” I was drawn to the fact that this is not a blank canvas, but a white one. It made me think of a canvas that has already been painted, but then whitewashed over, leaving a faint outline of the original painting available to the painter to use and develop.
This, to me, is an important metaphor. Too often my experience of speaking with pioneers has been that they have never considered the question ‘What is church?’ Instead they are consumed with ‘What could church be?’ and ‘What shouldn’t church be?’ The danger is that this leads us to build a foundation out of negatives: reactions to negative experiences, rather than positive assertions based on a Scriptural understanding of the principles of church.
Almost exactly 20 years ago I sat in my first proper, traditional Church of Scotland service. I remember having to stand as a huge Bible was carried into the church by the beadle, placed into the pulpit, and then a light switched on above the pulpit. The teenager next to me commented that ‘God was now in the house.’ This was, to me, a ridiculous piece of ceremony that was verging on idolatry. Something that, obviously, would never happen in the church plant I had come to Glasgow to be part of. None of that religious nonsense.
This kind of thinking is, I fear, typical of both young people and young churches. A rejection of both method and principle, primarily on the basis of the method. I had no idea why the Bible was processed in like that. It just felt wrong, and so it must be wrong. Twenty years later, a little wiser, and a little more knowledgeable about church history, I understand that this was, in fact, a symbol (some might even call it a prophetic act!) to remind people that the highest authority in that church was Scripture, not the minister. A principle that, both then and now, I would have 100% agreed with.
Would I process a Bible into church today? No, I still wouldn’t. But I would ask the questions ‘How are we demonstrating this principle to people today? What is a timely, culturally relevant, method for explaining this to people today?’
We must become much more intentional about understanding those things that we are leaving behind. We must dig beyond a cultural mistrust, or instinctive rejection, to understand the principles behind the methods so that we don’t just throw both out. Because some of those lines on the faded painting behind the whitewash are vitally important to the new image we are creating on the canvas before us.
This dividing line between principle and method is extremely important one, but often misunderstood. A principle is a timeless Biblical concept that does not change, whereas a method is a timely, culturally relevant outworking of that principle. Understanding the difference between these will help us as we attempt to create theologically orthodox, culturally relevant expressions of church.
We can see a poor understanding of these things in the church today. When everything becomes a principle, and thus unchanging and timeless, you end up with an ultra-conservative, ultra-traditional church which fails to relate to the world because nothing can be changed. On the other side, if everything is method, and therefore open to change, you end up with an ultra-liberal church where anything goes, nothing is sacred. Ultimately, anything can be worshipped, but often Jesus is not.
A word of caution, however, when it comes to thinking about principles. This is not to fall into the trap that church principles are simply about “being” and not necessarily about “doing”. The book of James warns us that, despite the modern assertion that we are “human beings and not human doings”, what we do reflects what we are, and so our actions are important. (“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:26”). In a similar way, there are things that churches do that are principles: timeless expressions founded in Scripture that define the actions of a church.
Often within pioneering ministry we focus on values and vision, and think about what a church is much more than what a church does. This may seem like the best way, but actually what a church does is also important. There are things that a church does that it cannot do without. Some of them are maybe obvious, such as sharing communion or baptising people. Others are more up for discussion. But these things are principles, and not methods. The church will never stop sharing communion or baptising people. We may debate how we do it (the method), but we shouldn’t debate that we should.