Review: Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change

ManifestoDonn Morgan, Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8192-2768-3; 96pp.

A guest-review by Kevin Ward.

This is a very brief little book that at first glance does not have much relevance for the church in New Zealand. It comes out of the crisis facing theological education in the US brought about by having far too many theological schools faced with rising costs, declining student numbers and reduced financial commitment from churches. That is a challenge for theological schools in New Zealand also, as I am aware both through teaching in one and being involved at executive level with both the New Zealand and Australia New Zealand Associations of such schools. However, as I read it I realised much of what was being discussed, both in terms of challenges and suggested ways ahead, was generally true for the church in New Zealand as well as theological education.

The core argument is that the mission of the church has three basic elements: worship, service and learning. He argues that while worship and service are regularly prioritised, learning is no longer regarded as ‘an important part of the church’s identity and mission’. ‘Service and worship without education and formation risks separating mission and ministry from fundamental parts of our identity, and creating a kind of amnesia concerning our Christian faith and its particular expressions’ (p. 38). This is a concern I also share and is identified in many recent studies, particularly among young people and young adults. Morgan takes a holistic view of this, not just concern about theological schools, and argues that the most important level of education is what happens at a congregational level. Here, in my observation, it is sadly neglected in many churches. The consequence of this lack of concern is, of course, a lack of commitment of resources to it, both at a congregational level and also in supporting theological education. Giving our scarce resources, service ministries or providing exciting worship is what counts.

The book is helpful in summarising some of the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years which have impacted on churches and theological schools in similar ways in New Zealand. ‘There continues to be debate about both the causes of and the solutions to the mainline churches’ decline. Because some churches continue to thrive, some say this is just a wake-up call for those in decline. But the overall numbers in many denominations reflect devastating change that would appear to require radical rethinking of the church’s mission, of “how to do and be church”’ (p. 17). Rather than thinking about these issues and the wider challenges of the state of the church as a whole, most focus has been on the survival of our particular community and its sustainability. This fosters a foxhole mentality. I would suggest this is true of both theological schools and local churches.

When it comes to looking at implementing the changes needed, Morgan suggests that it is like being in the middle of a three ring circus. The first ring represents the perennial issue of resources, especially financial, and the lack thereof. The second represents changes in church and society, which are, of course, related to the first. But while we spend much time discussing and obsessing about these, there is a third ring where ‘we try to put financial realities together with the changes in church and society as we reconsider mission and ministry’ (p. 61). This is the place where we need to not merely talk about structural change, but get through to doing it. This is the ring that is all-too-rarely entered. From my perspective it is a problem many theological schools have not addressed; namely, why a number in New Zealand have closed over recent years, and others are at crisis point (although I would add that it is one thing the Presbyterian Church has done well). But it is an even bigger issue for mainline churches, none more so than the PCANZ, and although we have been aware of the need for it for over a decade, have done precious little to address it.

The final chapter looks at some of the problems faced along the way of change, such as ‘inertia and investment in the status quo’, ‘particularity and diversity’, and ‘competition’, which are equally shared by churches and education schools. So while this book, at one level, is about challenges facing theological schools in the US, reading it provides many helpful insights and suggestions not only for similar institutions in New Zealand but also for the church in the very challenging context we find ourselves in, where time is no longer our friend.

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