Overegging the Relational Pudding image

Overegging the Relational Pudding

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The story goes that a few years ago, John Piper came to speak at the Newfrontiers leaders conference, and asked someone at one point where our theological commitments were written down. They aren't, he was told. We don't have a formal theological statement. We operate relationally, not denominationally. Piper, by all accounts, was baffled. The notion of holding a network of churches together without clear theological definition was thoroughly mystifying to him.

I don’t know if I’ve got all the details right, but I have heard that story told anecdotally a number of times, and in some ways it’s the popular in-house version of the story rather than what actually happened that interests me anyway. The story is told, you see, as an important and celebrated part of the Newfrontiers narrative: we are relational, and that means that detailed theological statements of what we do and do not believe are unnecessary. But the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve interacted with thinkers, leaders and movements very different from me, the more I’ve become convinced that we’ve been a bit too quick to disavow theological precision on the basis of relationships. We have, in my view, been in danger of overegging the relational pudding.

Not that being relational - which I take to mean friendly, loving, and family-like - is unimportant. It is very important, and I feel privileged to be part of a network where everybody winces when a visiting speaker talks about not making friends with the church, or firing your fellow elders. But it is not the only thing that is important. Overegging a pudding, I’m told, is what happens when you put in too many eggs for the total volume of mixture; the flour and the sugar are underrepresented. And if the three key things that unite a movement are shared relationships, shared theology and shared mission, then overegging the relational pudding involves putting an undue stress on the first one and an insufficient emphasis on the last two. That, I suggest, has been at risk of happening in Newfrontiers.

Take theology, to start with. There are at least three good reasons why avoiding theological definition in the name of relationship is risky. Firstly, the prioritising of relationship over theology is more rhetorical than real in any movement where theological boundaries exist. There are certain things that I could believe, say or write which would, despite my extensive friendships with other Newfrontiers leaders, make it impossible for them to continue working with me on training courses, conferences and so on; good relationships do not make the theological bandwidth infinitely broad. I really like Rob Bell as a person, but the reality is that I would not have him teach at my church on a Sunday because I disagree with so much of his theology. So liking people does not make theological agreement irrelevant.

Secondly, and following on from this, there is Carl Trueman’s superb argument in The Creedal Imperative, which is that when a church or movement does not write down a confession of some sort, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a group of theological commitments to which everyone adheres. They do, as everyone does. Rather, it means that they have a confession, but nobody is quite sure what it is, because it is not publicly articulated, clearly expressed or biblically transparent - it is simply in the head of the leader, or the eldership, or whoever. And thirdly, as Trueman goes on to show, the lack of explicit statements about what people do and don’t view as theologically vital - in Driscoll’s terms, which issues are closed hand and which issues are open hand - actually makes everybody vulnerable. Nobody is quite sure whether believing x is OK, and if not, what that might mean for them; they know that most people round here don’t believe it, but they don’t know how important it is, or why it is believed so strongly, or what to do if they disagree, or whether they will be kicked out or marginalised if they do. Writing theology down, as old-fashioned as it sounds, actually protects people.

Now, clearly, I am not expecting the different spheres in Newfrontiers to start writing confessional statements any time soon. I don’t flatter myself that people would take what I think that seriously. But I would encourage people to ask why. Because theological precision is somehow non-relational? Because we aren’t completely sure what we believe? Because we wouldn’t want to pin our colours to the mast on some things? Or what?

With mission, the challenge is a bit different. For as long as I have been involved in Newfrontiers, there has been no reluctance to identify our shared mission: to advance the kingdom of God through making disciples, planting churches, training leaders, serving the poor, and reaching nations. So being relational doesn’t stop us from being clear about the mission we’re on together. But it can stop us from being clear about how we are going to achieve it. It can make people nervous of planning for the next five years, because we have to do things relationally (which can simply mean “do things in a way that nobody minds”, which is not always virtuous). It can make people nervous of planting a new church in a nearby town of 100,000 because there’s another one there with 150 people, led by a friend. It can lead to rather odd ways of working together, whereby we work with people we know who live hundreds of miles away, in preference to those we may not know that well who live just around the corner, even if it makes everything more expensive, more time-consuming and less evangelistically effective. It can also, ironically, be something of a cop-out when it comes to building new relationships: surely, if faced with the choice between getting to know the church up the road and working with them, and ignoring them in favour of working with a church hundreds of miles away we’ve known for years, the more relational thing to do is to build a relationship with the guys up the road. Isn’t it?

Mission, I would think, requires working with whomever God has put near you, so long as they believe the gospel and are eager to preach it with you. It involves strategy, courage, and (occasionally) doing things that not everybody will agree with. So I suspect churches are more evangelistically fruitful when their relationships are constrained by and built around their mission, rather than having their mission constrained by and built around their relationships. Perhaps nobody is doing the latter; I’m not sure. But at times it can sound like we are.

Anyway: that’s why I talk about overegging the relational pudding. If the amount of eggs (relationship), flour (theology) and sugar (mission) is correctly balanced, you can have as many eggs as you like and still have a great cake. But if you keep emphasising eggs and forgetting the flour or the sugar, you end up serving an omelette for dessert. And nobody wants to be that guy.

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