Published by Rachel Noel on 15th September 2016

Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice, by Michael Moynagh. Reviewed by Tim Harle

Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice, by Michael Moynagh.

SCM Press, 2012, 490pp, ISBN 978-0-334- 04369-0, £30.00.

Reviewed by Tim Harle

church-for-every-contextThis is a significant book, but perhaps not for the reason that the author or publisher expected. Moynagh has been closely involved in the so-called Fresh Expressions initiative. He has written on the subject before (eg Moynagh, 2004), but this is an altogether weightier tome.

The book is in four parts. The first provides a historical and contemporary survey, beginning with an examination of the New Testament and, in particular, St Paul’s approach to church planting and context as evidenced in Acts and the Pauline letters. A chapter written by Philip Harrold, Associate Professor of Church History at the Trinity School for Ministry in Philadelphia, takes the reader through a historical tour ranging from Bede and Benedict via Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding to Dorothy L Sayers. A chapter on sociological perspectives uses various ‘turns’ favoured by sociologists: it explores such questions as secularisation and the tensions between mass production and customization.

But it is a chapter entitled Fresh Expressions of Church in Britain that contains writing with profound and far reaching implications for ecclesiology and mission. In it, Moynagh starts applying insights from complexity theory to the Fresh Expressions agenda. His way in is via Ralph Stacey’s work on complex responsive processes, and especially Patricia Shaw’s work on conversations (Shaw, 2002). Here the language of emergence meets the emergent church. As with non-linear equations, so with conversations: we do not know where they might take us. What we do know is that others have started making connections. Stephen Pickard, an Australian bishop, applies a complexity framework to ministry (Pickard, 2009), while the US-based Emergent Village community ( has published books about embracing a paradigm of narrative and chaos (eg Keel, 2007)

The second part of Moynagh’s book is the most theological. Much of the writing is addressed to questions of ecclesiology and missiology, but Moynagh is too much of a theologian to stop with surface manifestations. The Trinity is a deep source of inspiration, through such writers as Paul Collins, Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf and John Zizioulas. This theology provides a way in to examining such questions as culture-specific manifestations of the church and continuities, or not, with inherited traditions. It is in this section that Moynagh engages most directly with critics of the Fresh Expressions project, whether John Hull from the standpoint of theology, Martyn Percy’s sociological critique or Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank on pastoral practice. One missed opportunity is the absence of reference to Kester Brewin’s extraordinary applied Christology (Brewin, 2004): it features in the bibliography, but not the text. Moynagh interacts with contemporary missiologists, such as Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. It is perhaps surprising that he pays less attention to Alan Roxburgh’s work on missional leadership, which starts from a base of the ‘inherited’ church (again, there is a reference in the bibliography, but not the text).

The third part of the book is the most practical, and perhaps least inspiring. However, it starts with a spark, picking up the ideas of emergence from earlier in the book. Dave Snowden’s cynefin framework (Snowden & Boone, 2007) is, as with an increasing number of authors, reduced from its original chaotic 5-fold morphology to a 2×2 matrix. Readers are then taken through what looks a little like a programme for starting a Fresh Expression: gathering a community, researching opportunities and engaging partners. A chapter on action-based learning includes an interesting reference to the work of Arie de Geus, but does not mention the writing of Joe Raelin or Laurie Green. A chapter on teams includes a short but significant section on the emergent nature of leadership, and returns to Shaw’s work on conversations.

The final part of the book, Growing to Maturity, addresses a critique of Fresh Expressions, expressed by Martyn Percy, among others. Are they part of an engagement with the world, or an individualistic retreat from it? Are they linked to some sort of ecclesial highway, or do they form some boutique byways (or even culs-de-sac)? A chapter on worship examines different models, while the chapter on community has some interesting reflections from the Hebrew tradition, prompted by the writings of Walter Brueggemann and Christopher Wright. A concluding chapter, Towards the Mixed-Economy Church, offers provocations for prophets, pragmatists and purists.

What of the book overall? A feature of emergence is that the whole demonstrates more than the sum of the parts. So with this book. Moynagh has helpfully mapped out a great deal of the territory, and provided a number of lenses to study it. As with learning, the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. As hinted at in the subtitle, this is at least two books in one: the theological contribution is vital, but runs the risk of being skimmed or ignored by activists. The practical parts are also vital, but may not satisfy the theologians.

Moynagh is to be congratulated on engaging with critics of the Fresh Expressions project. Whether they are satisfied by his response is open to doubt. However, in the spirit of emergence embraced in this book, the conversations must surely continue. This book provides a stimulating invitation to join those conversations.

Tim Harle is a Visiting Fellow at Bristol Business School and lecturers on leadership at Sarum College. He is Vice-Chair of MODEM (, Twitter @TimHarle).


Brewin, Kester (2004) The Complex Christ. London: SPCK.

Keel, Tim (2007) Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor and Chaos. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Moynagh, Michael (2004) emergingchurch.intro. Oxford: Monarch.

Pickard, Stephen (2009) Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry. Farnham: Ashgate.

Shaw, Patricia (2002). Changing Conversations in Organizations. Abingdon: Routledge.

Snowden, David J, & Mary E Boone (2007) ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’, Harvard Business Review, 85(11), pp 68-77.


This review first appeared in MODEM Matters Issue 23 in April 2013

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