Tom Allan, in his 1954 publication: The Face of My Parish, describes D P Thomson's notion of a "Church within the Church": "Corresponding closely to the people who surrounded Jesus...there are the five thousand - the "fringers"...who remain on the periphery...the seventy - the dependable workers...leaders of organisations...loyal to their church...the twelve - a narrower circle and the intimate friends - those who have truly been with Jesus."(The Face of My Parish, Tom Allan p51)
He viewed part of his task as bringing people from one circle into another, always moving closer to Christ. And he sought to achieve this by involving them in missionary activities in the parish.
However, although he was seeing a rapid growth in membership of the parish church, he cautions: "It Is the easiest thing in the world to get people to "join" the church; it is supremely difficult to know what to do with them once they are in; and it is virtually impossible to keep the majority of them within the conventional framework of the church's life." (The Face of My Parish, Tom Allan p33)
Sixty plus years on, as congregations explore what it means to be a Missional Church today, we are rediscovering some of those challenges that Allan faced in his parishes in Glasgow. While we are not experiencing rapid numerical growth, we are grappling with how, or more realistically, whether to assimilate those who are experiencing growth in faith and commitment. As God continues to reshape the church today, it is clear that a fluid, less structured body is required to support disciples whose call is to live incarnationally in their neighbourhoods.
Recognising that God is already at work in our communities we face again the knowledge that, often, the church as an institution is a stumbling block rather than a launch pad that helps people discover the call to discipleship, discern their gifts and then equips and releases folk to live out the good news in their many and varied contexts.
In Mission by the People: Rediscovering the Dynamic Missiology of Tom Allan and his Scottish Contemporaries; (Alexander Forsyth 2017) Forsyth draws this conclusion:
"...practical and theological highpoints of Allan’s missiology can be identified. These demonstrate that his missiology should not be viewed primarily in terms of practical “failure” viewed from the present vantage point, but in many ways as a success and source of inspiration."
It is to be hoped that, as the institution and individual congregations grasp the need to be tentative, to be places of experimentation where we learn from failure rather than fail to take risks, that we will continue to be grateful for saints who have gone before us leaving clues along the way. And, learning from their endeavours, we will contribute to the picture of God at work in the world, calling the church into mission.
Hebrews 11:39-40 (The Message)
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.