From "Anabaptism Tomorrow"

By Noel MoulesNoel Moules

I have taught Christians across Britain for many years and there is one question I am frequently asked, “Which period of church history would you most like to have lived in?” There is never any need to pause or stop to think, the answer for me is quite simple and very clear – “today and tomorrow”. Of course there are so many periods and events from the last 2,000 years that entice and lure me, but it is the present and the future that are the supreme challenge and opportunity. While we build upon the incredible heritage of the past, now is always the time to discover God in fresh ways and to make a major impact. This is our kairos moment!

Like a ship in a storm

As we look to the future, the challenge to the church in this country is enormous. Society and culture are involved in fundamental change – energised by individualism and consumerism, enabled by the most astonishing advances in technology, manipulated by the exploitative power of the media. Values are transient, the human story unimportant, the certainties and promises of the past an illusion. The terms “post-modern” and “post-Christian” affirm a break with what has gone before, but take us nowhere. There is existential questioning and spiritual searching everywhere; yet at the same time the majority of the population are not only unchurched but probably culturally “unchurchable”.

Added to this, within the church itself there is a watershed. Much of the church has been washed by the wake of the charismatic movement; however, its immediate impact is all but spent. In many sectors of the church little has been left untouched with its passing; there has been a serious shaking of foundations as well as superstructure, but to what end? Churches in historical denominations along with independent congregations have become less inhibited in worship and more spontaneous in spiritual self-expression, but now that charismatic characteristics have become part of the popular Christian ethos and the acrimonious conflicts of the early days have passed, many people are looking for something more. This fact alone reveals the shallowness of its legacy.

Across the country there has been increased networking between a whole variety of churches and groups, and there are some remarkable examples of church planting and church growth. However, rather than a growing hunger for “deepening”, I believe many people have become caught up in a cycle of “happening”. A taste has developed for “receiving” in preference to “being”. As a result, many people are always looking for the next wave – whatever that may be, whatever that may bring. This makes them vulnerable to focusing on short-term experiences, with their fragmented theology and spiritual naivete leaving them wide open to false teaching. The hopes of many are also increasingly pinned on God sovereignly sending a revival which, with little human effort, will fill the churches and change the face of the nation. What will be the spiritual fallout if this scenario fails to unfold? For all this emphasis on experience, I nevertheless meet very few Christians with a raw excitement for God.

In contrast, there are those who are disillusioned; who feel that the spiritual promises of previous years have never been fulfilled; and their disappointment has given way to a deep sadness. For them an early freedom, joy and sense of discovery appear to have been substituted by top-down structures; where strategy is replacing spontaneity and effort has often supplanted excitement and enthusiasm. As a result, across the country, there are growing numbers of mature, experienced Christians who are no longer actively part of a local church; or only touch its fringes. They still have a deep faith and living experience of God, but have become disenfranchised disciples. To describe some of them as “post-evangelical” may perhaps define their past, but it does not connect them to a future. For them, the organised structures of the Christian community are no longer nurturing their spirituality, nor creating an environment in which their gifts can be expressed. Neither do they feel that the church is seriously engaging with modern culture in a way that honestly grapples with the searching questions of their own hearts and of our times. It is not without significance that Christians like these are the fastest growing section of the church in Britain today.

Nevertheless, I personally believe that the greatest weakness in the church in Britain is with leadership. In struggling to relate living faith to changing culture, many leaders display little real sense of direction. Their lack of orientation can at times compromise their integrity. Many have become isolated, struggling to maintain both church systems and people’s expectations. Others, having succumbed to the popular Christian notion that successful local church means becoming big prosperous centres of spiritual power, come under intense unspoken pressure from their congregations to be part of this experience. They are urged to become networked with other groups that are sharing in this “success syndrome”. Many leaders are not leading but being driven. Along with all this comes insecurity, from which often spring authoritarian attitudes.

There is also the subtle seduction of power and the desire to be in control, which maintains hierarchical structures and fails properly to enable the community of faith to function with maturity. Most experiments with “cell-church” will fail because the cells are not genuinely empowered; authority remains centralised and they become little more than revamped house groups. Leadership weakness is also seen in superficial biblical teaching and the expectation that people will follow “party lines” in thinking. There is virtually no encouragement for individuals to reason, question and experiment for themselves and so enrich the body as a whole with divine diversity. The situation is compounded by the fact that few leaders seem aware, or prepared to admit, that anything is other than completely satisfactory. The role of leadership is vital, but the old mould of both style and thinking have got to be broken.

As the twentieth century falls behind us the challenge to the church is serious. Apart from the concerns I have outlined above, pre-millennial tension has also exacted its toll. Few will admit to the level of expectation there has actually been. At one extreme there have been the minority, fairly certain that Jesus would return. Far greater numbers have been part of widely publicised schemes for world evangelisation or massive national church growth; all of which have fallen dramatically short of their original widely publicised objectives. Many more people just had a sense that the year 2000 should have been spiritually significant; the fact that it wasn’t leaves them with the question, “Where do we go from here?” Like a ship in a storm, these are days of disappointment and often unspoken struggle with faith for many Christians.

Grasping the moment

This is where the doors open to so many wonderful possibilities! In spite of the sobering picture I have painted, many exciting things are also happening in the Church in Britain, and often in the most unexpected places. This book is an important glimpse into part of that story and promise for the future. The remarkable growth of interest in Anabaptism and the influence of its ideas are not accidental. I believe God’s hand is behind it all. So many spiritual journeys, from every direction and background, are converging on an approach to the Christian faith that draws us towards the truth.

As we have seen, the term “Anabaptism” means different things to different people, yet it connects together in a common bond those touched by it. It has always held within itself a diversity of contrasting views. For me, it defines a unique ethos rather than a specific agenda. It is not so much what was experienced and experimented with in the sixteenth century, inspiring though this is, that is of primary importance. Rather it is the way in which those radical reformers rediscovered the Christian faith and approached Scripture, their ability to reach past the barriers thrown up by Christendom and to tap into the original source and character of our faith. To me, the quintessence of Anabaptism is the vision and values it confronts us with and the direction in which they call us to follow.

At its most focused, this is an encounter with the person and life of the historical Jesus, who came preaching peace. He is our model; his example, death, resurrection and the sending of the Spirit enable us to follow in his steps. Everything else flows from this irreducible central core. The word “Christocentric” recurs throughout the text of this book and that is because it is the key. It means, first and foremost, that each one of us must personally come to a place of being convinced that the new covenant experience flows from a clear commitment in discipleship to Jesus; which takes seriously his pattern of life for our own; which is prepared to practise and experiment with his hard sayings in the power of the Spirit.

Such a seemingly obvious decision for a Christian will, in reality, set us at odds with much historic – and alas contemporary – Christian thinking which has marginalised Jesus to a theological principle, rather than embracing him as the person who is our model and example. However, I dare to believe that in God’s economy one of the purposes of the charismatic movement – as of other forms of spiritual re-energising – has been to prepare the church for a liberated radical discipleship that is ignited, empowered and characterised by the presence of God and the work of the Spirit. In a Christian ethos that is looking for the next “experience,” this is a cold sober choice [metanoia]. For the vision and values of Anabaptism to truly impact churches and secular communities, the first step must be made by individuals who are inspired by a deep joy and spontaneous freedom in Jesus.

Early Anabaptists have been described as being “neither Protestant nor Catholic”. While these words make an important historical point, they also express a vital truth; the fact that there is only one Church. The original Anabaptists were rejected by both sides in the Reformation; our aim today is to be a catalyst in reconciliation and ecumenism. We wish to affirm the indivisible unity of the community of faith, bringing the body of Christ together. Our desire is to bridge-build and embrace everyone who names the name of Jesus, has been touched by the fire of his love and is following him. Several contributors have expressed how it is also our desire to draw deeply from the diverse streams of Christian spirituality – Celtic, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, ancient, modern and global – and so create a confluence of richness and reality to the glory of God. This was not possible in the historical circumstances of the sixteenth century, but I believe it is nevertheless true to the spirit of the Anabaptists. It is also essential if we are to be the one united church God wants us to be, bold witnesses to Jesus into the future.

However, a word of warning. The increasing interest in Anabaptism across Britain itself presents a challenge. In some Christian circles people respond to new manifestations of Anabaptism with alarm, fearing that there will be new attacks on cherished Christian practices, leading to new divisions. In other Christian circles Anabaptism has positive connotations and is in danger of becoming a buzz-word. In order to sound radical, the language of some groups and individuals is merely being decorated with “Anabaptist-speak”, without seriously changing their thinking or behaviour. For example, the themes of community and nonconformity appear attractive, while the subjects of non-violence and justice are ignored. The challenge to each of us is to grapple with all the issues with which the radical reformers wrestled and work out their implications in our own times. Likewise, to attempt simply to “pick ’n’ mix” or try to “bolt on” certain Anabaptist ideas to existing frameworks of thought is to fail to do justice to them. They must be recognised as a unique culture that ferments and changes the whole.

Closer to the centre of the Network I believe there is another danger. Most of us were initially drawn towards the movement by the ideas, individuals and events of the Radical Reformation. The challenge is to be able to turn our encounter with these into tangible life-changing experiences for individuals and churches today. Solid and sustained research into all aspects of Anabaptism will always be a central task, but we must equally be conscious of the danger of the Network becoming simply a historical and theological society. If the fruits of our reflection do not practically and radically change the lives of individuals, churches and secular communities across this country, then we will have missed the most incredible opportunity.

The challenges within both the church and our culture are enormous, but I believe that the inherent Anabaptist values of thinking creatively and acting radically in the power of the Spirit can produce phenomenal results. This is not based upon some romantic view, but hard-headed experience over many years. Individuals and small groups working both within and outside existing structures can have an influence far beyond their number or their status. We must never underestimate the influence of a person whose demeanour, responses and attitudes are provocative by their unique truthfulness. Most social revolutions have spread by deeds observed or conversations shared. The power of the right word or action impacting an individual or group at exactly the right moment simply cannot be exaggerated. We should be working to change the current environment and culture of our churches and society; stimulating creative thinking, encouraging debate, provoking discussion. At every step we need to be learning from each other, sharing experiences, being humble enough to admit mistakes and childlike enough to rejoice over even small successes.

We have the chance significantly to influence the life of the church in this land for years ahead. It will almost certainly be “grass-roots-up” in its method, it will be gentle in its character, but it will not happen by some passive process of osmosis. If we are to grasp the moment, it will take a determined commitment on the part of each one to act boldly and single-mindedly. The question is: do we think that the themes of Anabaptism should simply be fashionable for a time, or are we convinced they point us clearly towards truth in its fundamental form?