Running with the ball

Thinking the unthinkable in times of transition…

The game of Association Rugby originated according to tradition in 1823, on the playing fields of Rugby, England. The game itself is said to have started when a student named William Webb Ellis who was playing football, picked up the ball and ran downfield with it under his arm.

Imagine people’s disbelief at that defining moment – ‘surely you can’t do that, can you?’, ‘quick, somebody get the rule book’!! The bystanders didn’t understand, it was the same playing field; it seemed like the same game but in an instant there were was somebody playing by different rules. Someone had started to do the unthinkable.

It seems to me that the church in the post-modern era equally needs to start playing a new game with different rules to the traditional expressions of church. This new game is one that understands that we live in a landscape of post-modernity which has huge implications on the way we live our everyday life and the Christian faith that we hold to.

This game is not one with truth claims that dismisses all other expressions of church, but rather looks at what is going on around us in the world and in our churches and seeks something deeper, more meaningful and authentic.

One cannot sit a rugby player and a footballer down to discuss the rules of ‘the beautiful game’ and expect them to agree which is the ‘correct’ game. Neither is better than the other, they are simply playing a different sport. The final aim is still the same (to score more goals or points than the other team) but the methods for getting to this are subtly different. A sturdy scrum half often doesn’t make a skillfully flamboyant left-winger and vice versa. They are different people suited to a different style of game. To mix them together would be to lose the creative diversity of sport in general.

This new game that the church must now start to reflect upon should not be concerned with casting aside its own heritage. Just as Rugby is born from football, so the emerging church is birthed from a rich and diverse genealogy of leaders, people, tradition and ritual.

In both the old and the new testaments significant meaning is placed upon ‘remembering’ and how this demonstrates an importance in defining our identity and shaping our direction. Often we are called not to repeat the mistakes of our past but rather to take what we know as the truth and the one we know is truth in order to redefine and interpret our understanding of the present.

The church is without doubt entering a period of transition, indeed to survive the 21st century it must do. But the new transitioning church is unlikely from this era onwards to stop moving. To fool ourselves into thinking there is another resting place ahead is to trick ourselves into a false sense of security. The emerging church will never cease to be ‘coming into sight’. Our vision never becomes completely into focus, just slightly less blurred. The future is fluid; the future is where we never arrive.

Graham Cray has said in the past “The gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence”. We must imperatively look for and encourage bravery to pick up the ball and run – to know that we will be misunderstood by our own people – accused of heresy by some and dismissed as a fad by others. But through this it is essential that we play toward the same aim with new rules.

When a seed called ‘gospel’ is planted into a human community it will grow into something called church. When we have found a people brave enough to do the unthinkable and run with the ball is when we are really at the start of the ‘great transition’.

Mark Barkaway is manager of ‘the BASE’ – an inter-church based youth and community project in Bognor Regis, part of ‘Third‘ at Maybridge Community Church and an Everton Supporter.

This article first appeared in the September 2002 editions of Seven Magazine, Next-Wave Magazine and Phuture magazine.