Last year I preached a series on ‘values’, those words used by contemporary churches to describe the kind of church they aspire to be. It was not a list of values we had generated ourselves – we don’t have an agreed set of values – but instead we unashamedly borrowed them from Rob Warner’s 21st Century Church: Preparing your Church for the New Millennium first published in 1993. Rob is a former minister of the church, and I thought that it would be good to re-visit the same list to see how they fit today.

The 8-values Rob listed are: Whole-Life Discipleship, Inclusive Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, Impactful Prayer, Active Commitment, Vibrant Worship, Attractive Lifestyle and Fruitful Witness. Leaving to one side any discussion about whether ‘Breaking of Bread’ is a value or something that expresses a value, it’s a pretty good list drawn directly from Acts 2:42-47.

Values are a useful tool to describe the kind of church we want to be, not least to those unfamiliar with who we are. Values are different from doctrinal statements; they appeal to feelings and experiences rather than intellect and rational debate. Doctrine of course matters, but the language of doctrine cannot always communicate the experience of faith and discipleship in a local church. Church websites now often have a ‘Vision and Values’ page to give a taste of what people can expect.

We don’t have a list of values at Herne Hill. For some church members, previous attempts to generate a list have only led to a disappointing paper exercise with little else changing. Others would be open to re-visiting a list of values.  If you are going to commit to this, you have to recognise it has to be more than a paper exercise; somehow procedures and practices need to be put in place to keep ‘on top of things’ and to make sure some progress is being made. I like the idea of values in church life but struggle with how we maintain and measure them. What became especially clear to me in preaching this series was that ‘context’ and ‘culture’ matter. A lot! And when I say ‘culture’, I mean both the internal ‘Christian culture’ of a church along with the wider external ‘contemporary culture’ within wider society.

Take, for example, the first value from Rob’s original list: ‘whole-life discipleship’. At first reading there’s little to put anyone off: all our life should be submitted to the lordship of Christ. But scratch a little deeper and you soon encounter layers of cultural conditioning that shape and bend what this means in practice. Artificial ideas of the ‘sacred and secular spaces’ which divide our lives up so that some areas matter more than others subtlety build bias into how we understand ‘whole-life discipleship’. For example, when measuring the quality of our whole-life discipleship church-related stuff tends to get greater attention than our work and leisure stuff. Our commitment to church rotas matters more than our commitment to a community group completely unrelated to church. Wider cultural assumptions about the priority of the individual and personal autonomy make it harder to address communitarian ideas of discipleship that prioritise the gathered community and our willingness to submit our lives to the scrutiny of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

What about the value described as ‘Attractive lifestyle’? Surely accepting the lordship of Christ, being empowered by the Spirit and living in the fullness of the gospel should have something attractive to offer. Lives shaped by love and generosity, peace and kindness, sacrifice and compassion ought to be attractive to those outside the world. But again, cultural ideas of what an ‘attractive life’ actually looks like soon loom into view. ’You might get crucified’ is rarely an attractive thought. There is an unattractive cost to Christian discipleship that the world rejects along with plenty of resistant Christians. And who are we trying to be attractive to? Anyone familiar with ‘seeker-sensitive’ principles of evangelism knows that as part of the strategy there is normally a clear ‘target audience’. Decisions must then be taken about worship styles, preaching styles, programme timings, the use of building, models of discipleship and so on, all shaped by the ‘target group’ and the term ‘attractive’. We don’t want any of this to be ‘unattractive’ to the very people we are trying to reach. But in our desire to be attractive to one group we risk becoming unattractive to another. A young woman once said to me after going to one of the more high-profile churches in London particularly known for the outstanding quality of its musical worship, that she probably wouldn’t be going back again; she just didn’t feel she was ‘cool enough’. Rachel Held Evans famously said that churches have the ‘cool and uncool’. The ‘cool’ people have their services and the ‘uncool’ people have their ministries. So long as they are kept apart, everyone is happy.

How about ‘inclusive fellowship’? When this was written twenty-five years ago the focus was almost certainly on the full inclusion of women in the life of the church and the full inclusion of people from minority ethnic groups. Today, the term ‘inclusive’ relates to one particular group of people: people from the LGBT+ community.

Today, for a church to talk about being an ‘inclusive fellowship’ is more likely a signal that the church is welcoming (or affirming) of same-sex relationships. This understanding of ‘inclusive’ would not have entered into anyone’s thinking when this list was compiled. For a church today to say it wants to be ‘inclusive’ is more contentious than just a few years ago.  It’s much less disruptive to create ‘ministries’ running parallel with the main programme than make the changes necessary for inclusion in all areas of church life, let alone the ongoing debates about the morality of full inclusion in this area.  So, your church wants to be inclusive? Who gets to be included and why? And who doesn’t? Rowan Williams once commented on the language of inclusion in the wider debate about same-sex relationships by saying, ‘I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself…Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: ‘You can come in, and that decision will change you.’ We don’t say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ.’

We could do this same analysis with the remaining values from Rob’s list, but I hope you get the point. Each cannot be properly understood without a real appreciation that values are understood and interpreted through cultural lenses often more subtle and more powerful than we are aware of.

My point is that when we preach, we preach from within the context of our own culture whether it’s our church culture or experience of the wider culture. So, when using the language of values – even values that have been derived from scriptural texts – we are in a world where gospel and culture collide. There are no neutral readings of the Bible; we all read the Bible from our own context; a context laden with values. ‘Values’ come heavily loaded with cultural assumptions and ‘taken-for-granted’ understandings. The trick is to recognise where these values stand against values truly consistent with the gospel. These are not just either-or decisions; they are gospel decisions.

Preaching ‘values’ in an inner-London multi-cultural church ended up being more complicated than I had anticipated. Turns out my assumptions as a minister who had spent most of his time in predominately white middle-class churches didn’t always match the experience of a number of my congregation and their own assumptions. It therefore forced  me to work harder as a local church pastor and preacher to articulate ‘gospel values’ that unsettle the status quo rather than maintain it and then create space for the Spirit to come to shake us and move us so that we truly reflect the life and values of the kingdom in our local church.

Rob May

Rob has been the minister of Herne Hill Baptist Church in south London since 2015. Before that he was Guildford Baptist Church and Horley Baptist Church. Rob trained at Spurgeon's College where he is now an associate lecturer and online tutor. Originally from Suffolk, he was a PE teacher before training for Baptist ministry. Rob is married with three adult children.