A Fresh Look at Paul Avis’ Missional Ecclesiology

In preparation for our 2019 Intersection Conference, the Rev. Taylor Ishii of Church of the Apostles Eastern Shore reviews two influential books by Anglican theologian Paul Avis: A Ministry Shaped by Mission, and A Church Drawing Near: Spirituality and Mission in a Post-Christian Culture. Avis’ work is a crucial lens through which to explore our conference theme: “For the Sake of the World: An Anglican Missional Ecclesiology.”

By Taylor Ishii

The Anglican Church has been blessed with a number of clergy who have written books for the upbuilding of the church, including names like N.T. Wright, Allister McGrath, and John Stott.

One less recognizable, but equally prolific, author is the Church of England priest and theologian Paul Avis. Avis is known for his work in ecclesiology, ecumenism, and practical theology. His expertise in these areas makes him a fruitful dialogue partner for a conversation about missional ecclesiology. Here, I will first review 2005’s A Ministry Shaped by Mission (MSM). Then, I’ll review 2003’s A Church Drawing Near (CDN) and explore some questions and takeaways for contemporary Anglican Church leaders.

Avis is a wide-ranging thinker, drawing from numerous fields of study. Neither of these books are simplistic “how to” books for church ministry, nor are they tomes of ivory tower academic theology. They are practical theology at its best: resources to clarify, assist, and energize church leaders for the task of proclaiming the gospel faithfully in contemporary society.

Let’s get started.

Review: A Ministry Shaped by Mission

A Ministry Shaped by Mission was written after A Church Drawing Near, but MSM is the theological skeleton around which Avis builds his practical theology of Church in CDN. The central task of MSM is understood as follows: to explore “the pivotal connection between ministry and mission.” Put another way, the “how” and “what” of ministry is integrally related to the content of the church’s mission.

Mission and the Church

In defining mission, Avis relies on the influential missiologist David Bosch, who describes mission as “the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world.” To speak of mission in this way is a reminder that mission starts with God, not our efforts to make him known. At the same time, the Church, as the body of Christ, has been commissioned by God in the power of the Holy Spirit to draw others into a fellowship of reconciliation with God and all of creation that has been accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Mission starts with God, not our efforts to make him known.

One of Avis’ unique contributions is his insistence that the historic forms of the Church are crucial to God’s work in the world. He grounds his thinking in an oft-cited passage of Scripture, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. He relates the activities of making disciples, baptizing, and teaching with three different areas of ministry: pastoral care and oversight, word, and sacraments, respectively. These three broad areas of ministry encompass the totality of the work of mission for the church. Mission is not an additional activity of the church, but is central to its foundational ministries of word, sacrament, and pastoral care.

Much of the popular literature in the ‘missional church’ movement is skeptical of the historic Church’s institutions and structure. The end result of this skepticism is often a desire to recover a new way to be missional, often over and against current paradigms of Church. For Avis, that misses how God has uniquely ordered the Church. Any group of people can gather to serve in a soup kitchen, but only the Church gathers to baptize. Thus, “to follow Jesus through the waters of baptism is the appointed way of initiation into the community of disciples who keep Jesus’ word” (MSM 23). The sacraments are a public display of witness to the mission, love, and reign of God, not secret initiation services of an ingroup.

Any group of people can gather to serve in a soup kitchen, but only the Church gathers to baptize.

Challenging the Common Understanding of “Ministry”

Avis makes a distinction between the everyday response of obedience in the Christian life of discipleship and the distinctive calling of ministry within the Church. While all who are baptized have spiritual gifts, Scripture is clear that there is a diversity in those gifts, all under the authority of Christ. Ministry is public and representative of God’s mission. If we abandon the historic structures of authority in the Church, we risk privatizing ministry to personal preferences. Thus, “ministry is God-given work for the cause of God that is acknowledged by the Church” (MSM 52).

If we abandon the historic structures of authority in the Church, we risk privatizing ministry to personal preferences.

Ministers represent Christ “not primarily through any personal sanctity that they may possess, but precisely through the means of grace that he has provided” (MSM 75). The historic, apostolic Church and its practices are the link between past and present understandings of mission because Christ entrusted this mission to his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The last section of the book focuses on ordination. For Avis, the Bible describes a God who creates and sustains his creation with structure; the world is full of holy order. Thus, to speak of ordination and its importance for ministry is not simply hierarchical clericalism, but an awareness “that there is a diversity of gifts and callings and a distribution of responsibilities—an economy—in ministry and that this is recognized in a ‘sacramental’ way” (MSM 90-91). The interdependency and mutuality of ministry in word, sacrament, and pastoral care for the lay minister and the ordained offices of deacon, priest, and bishop are like concentric circles that ever widen and deepen the mission of Christ in the world.

Review: A Church Drawing Near

In the preface of CDN, Avis states that the threefold ministry of word, sacrament, and pastoral care outlined above should never be superseded if the Church is to stay true to its mission. With that in mind, CDN is Avis’ thoughts on how this pertains to the ministry of the Church of England in late-modernity. While written 15 years ago, Avis’ description of the challenges of late-modernity still ring true. Chapters covering privatized faith, secularization, generic spirituality, and a loss of community offer valuable insights to the situations that many pastors and churches find themselves in.

While written 15 years ago, Avis’ description of the challenges of late-modernity still ring true.

At the core of CDN is the conviction that “only a renewal of close pastoral involvement—not preachy public statements and not a purist liturgical diet in parish churches—can help to bridge the widening gulf between Church and people” (CDN ix). This is not a call simply for deeper relationships, for that would be too individualistic, but rather a gentle nudge toward fuller participation in the community of the Church, especially its sacramental life.

It might be fruitful for us to ask: What if the Church did not lament the decline in church attendance and the disappearance of a broadly Christian culture(secularization) as all bad? Even in much of the post-Christian west, there is a residual Christianity that Avis calls common religion, “the religious beliefs, values, and practices of those who are not habitual churchgoers” (CDN 111). A recent study asked Americans who don’t identify with a religion, the ‘nones,’ why they are religiously unaffiliated. 60% responded they questioned religious teachings whereas only 37% said they didn’t believe in God.[1]Creating a space for people to voice their questions and concerns about religion, while also providing appropriate forms of catechesis, might help some of these ‘nones’ engage the Church and find meaning in its common life.

Societal rites of passage, like weddings and funerals, are opportunities for the Church to bear witness to the depth of meaning that Christianity can give to one’s life. Avis advocates for “multiple access points” and “pastoral generosity” to guide us (CDN 187-191).

My Observations

One major weakness of applying CDN in an American context is that some of the strategies are reliant upon the Church of England’s relationship to society as an access point for the Church. While there are geographic regions where a similar strategy may work in the United States, the different relationship between Church and State means that the parish model is hard to maintain here. Americans have many more ‘options’ for Church and strangers are less likely to turn up at church looking to get married than they would be to find any pastor or licensed person they could pay for that service. One wonders what Avis might say about social media—CDN was written pre-Facebook—as an opportunity for Church ministry.

Even when one does not agree with Avis’ suggestions for ways of doing ministry, it does not negate the model he advocates. Avis recognizes that lay persons, pastors, and bishops will all need to prayerfully discern their context and where they already see God at work.

The biggest value of both of these books is how Avis is able to theologically ground mission and ministry in the historic life of the Church that is also consistent with Anglican ecclesiology. These books will complement any other literature about mission and church strategy by reminding us that all we do must be traced back to our life of worship: the Word preached, the sacraments received, and the pastoral oversight of the community.

Did you enjoy Taylor’s post on missional ecclesiology? Dive deeper at the 2019 Intersection Conference: “For the Sake of the World: An Anglican Missional Ecclesiology.” 

Taylor Ishii grew up in Orange County, California and has served in churches in California, Texas, and now Alabama. He is passionate about equipping teenagers to learn Scripture, understand God’s call on their life, and serve both the church and the community in which they live, all while having fun and celebrating the lives God has graciously given us. Taylor was ordained a priest in 2016. He loves to watch and play soccer, read theology, and play board games. He is married to his wonderful wife Hillary, and they have a beautiful baby girl.