Reforming the Parish Church

by Mark Ashton with an introduction by Zac Neubauer

Editor’s note: Throughout the 1990s EFAC-USA published a printed journal called “The Episcopal Evangelical Journal” (EEJ). We have combed the archives of EEJ and found a number of articles that have stood up to the passing of time and will be reprinting them here.

This first article, “Reforming the Parish Church,” is a revised version of an address given at the Episcopal Evangelical Assembly (the precursor to our annual conferences) in Orlando, Florida in 1995. The author, Mark Ashton, was the vicar of the church of St. Andrew the Great, Cambridge England, where he served from 1987 until his untimely death in 2010. I never met Mark in person, but count him as one of the strongest influences on my parish ministry, having discovered Evangelical Anglicanism while attending a Church of England parish church where one of Mark’s many many proteges, Steve Price, ministered.

Mark was a preacher and not an author, but he (at the request of those who were brought up to ministry under him) wrote down his eight guiding convictions on parish ministry. They were published in booklet form after his death. Much more could be said about Mark, but that will have to wait for another time. For the time being, I’m happy to republish “Reforming the Parish Church” on our blog.

Paul’s vision for the church in Ephesians 4 is essentially dynamic. Each individual member of the church is to grow up into maturity, and so the whole church is to make bodily growth and up-build itself in love.

God’s call to the human race through the gospel is a call to change: to get ready to meet Him and to spend eternity with Him. The church, as a community brought into being by the gospel, must also be committed to change: change in its parts, and change in its totality.

This is what I understand reformed to be. It is the same process in the life of the community of believers that sanctification is in the life of the individual believer. Every day as Christians we wake up with the same task before us: to allow Christ to rule our lives more fully. If you were converted as an adult, as I was, it will have been one of the first realizations at the start of the Christian life: that having saved us from the penalty of sin, Jesus Christ begins to save us from the power of sin. We are at the beginning of a process. Reformation starts with ourselves. Each of us has an obligation to bring his or her own life more under the rule of Jesus Christ. And it is an ongoing process, which will not be complete until our death or the Second Coming.

As we individually are committed to that process, so must our churches be. They must be regularly asking how they can bring their corporate life more into line with the will of God. It is not my task to address the denominational dimension of this matter. I assume that it is a task for the denomination too.

But our churches do not have a right to campaign for the reform of the denomination, if they are not themselves actively involved in reforming their own church life. So it is on that level that I am going to focus in this paper.

God’s Work

As Ephesians 4 makes clear, the reform of the church is God’s work, not man’s. A healthy church will be being reformed by God. It is not a process that we humans can initiate or control. It is a positive process, and not a negative one. So let us not be dominated by a negative attitude, that concentrates on ridding our church life of abuses. We are not just trying to find faults and to criticize. We are in the business of making positive progress towards, and under, the will of God, with the help of the Spirit of God. 

Let us beware of talk about getting it right. Just as it is a mistake to speak of getting a Bible passage right (we don’t actually get it right; it gets us right), so we must guard against perfectionism and elitism in our church life. We will always be able to do things better. We are never meant to rest on our laurels, and to comfort ourselves by how much better our church is than others. 

We must not be like the two Cambridge students who were backpacking across India together and reached a village in the jungle where they were warned that the next stretch of the road was frequented by a tiger that had taken to man eating. Nervously they set off hoping for a lift but, as the day went on and the evening came, they still had not got one. Then suddenly there was a blood-curdling roar in the jungle close beside them. Far in the distance they could just see the lights of the next village and they both started to run for all they were worth. Then one stopped, opened his backpack and started to get out his best pair of running shoes. “Don’t be silly,” said his friend, “you’ll never outrun the tiger.” “I don’t have to outrun the tiger,” the first student replied, “I only have to outrun you.”

It is not a matter of outstripping each other in the reforming of the local church. It is a matter of letting God do His work. And if it is God’s word, it will be largely invisible. Like the iceberg, nine-tenths of what God is doing is usually hidden from human view. This prevents us from quantifying it, measuring it, drawing a false self-satisfaction from it, or priding ourselves on being ahead of others in it.

It will occur at God’s pace. That may be a great deal slower than we humans would choose. We may well find that, when we want to rush on, God slows the pace of change down. Or, when we want a breathing space and are hoping that we have arrived on a comfortable plateau after some spectacular break-through, we may find that the end of one phase is only the beginning of the next, and God is already leading us on it.

We will need to keep re-calibrating our thinking according to God’s time-scale. It has been well said that we tend to overestimate what can be achieved in six months, and to underestimate what can be achieved in five years, if the same purpose is consistently maintained.

God’s reform of the church will always be done by God’s methods. In human terms it is possible to think of achieving a good end by bad means. That is never the case with God’s work. Godly ends will be achieved by godly means. So the reform of the local church will not be characterized by dissension, disharmony and disunity. The church is not changed effectively by being split. And that will influence the pace of change. The pace of change must be limited by the speed and ability of the fellowship to cope with change without dividing. At St. Andrew the Great we try to decide the pace of any innovation in our church life by the degree of unity there is about it. (I will return to this issue before I finish: how do we reform the church that does not want to be reformed?)

Change is not an end in itself. It is the natural outcome of a healthy church seeking to serve God. The task of church leadership is to teach and to edify the church that it naturally grows and develops without division.


Because the reform of the local church is God’s work, it must be spearheaded by prayer. Ever since I came to Cambridge, I have prayed daily for wisdom, in the terms of Solomon’s prayer, that God would give me a heart of wisdom to discern between good and evil in order to govern the people well. Wisdom for the church is my daily need as a vicar.

I think I am learning to thank God for those things in the life of the church that frequently defeat me. The sense that I am getting out of my depth (with administration, with correspondence, with staffing problems, with church finances, with divisions, with planning decisions) is the only thing sometimes that really brings me to my knees in earnest. I suspect that being out of my depth is the only safe position for me from which to lead a church.

Our two great enemies are the proud self-sufficiency that is always urging us to rely on ourselves on the one hand, and the despair that tells us that our problems are too intractable to be worth praying expectantly about, on the other.

It is our job to ask God to work. It is our privilege to come before Him daily, confessing our sin, weakness and utter inadequacy, and casting ourselves wholly on His mercy, expecting Him to work. 

The Bible

If the reform of the local church is God’s work, then He will do it through His word. It is God’s word that will disentangle our thinking from the thinking of the world in which we live. It is the Bible that will critique our culture, and realign our church’s life with the will of God rather than will the culture. It is at those points where the Bible and the culture meet head on, that we need to listen most carefully to what God is saying to us.

So we must let the Bible lead the way in reforming the local church. This will mean that our preaching will always be at the center of change within the local church’s life.


That does not mean that we preach topical sermons geared to changing the church in the directions we want to change it, but it does mean that we will be expecting a faithful and consistent exposition of the Bible to initiate and enable change. So we will want to think carefully about what parts of Scripture we are preaching. Somehow or other we must endeavor to teach the whole counsel of God, by preaching our way representatively around Scripture, without allowing our own hobby horses to dominate. I suggest that it is a cop-out to resort to the lectionary. 

What we preach, and how we preach it, must be at the very center of the reform of the local church. But that is not confined to the Sunday services.

Youth and Children’s Work

I have to say that I am deeply concerned at the way the Bible is often handled in youth and children’s work today. Most of the material produced is simplistic and uses the Bible as a springboard for teaching, rather than encouraging our children and young people to learn how to feed themselves from God’s word. We find it difficult at our church to find suitable Bible materials to use in our children’s program.

Forgive me a specific example, but it may be that some are unaware of what sort of things I am referring to. To take the story of Noah’s ark as the basis for biblical teaching about the family, as one recent book on the family does, is an example of what I mean. There is a great deal of material in the Bible that teaches directly about family life. But Noah’s ark is not a part of that material. When we start to attach our teaching (however good it may be) to any convenient or eye-catching, biblical text, we can no longer pretend that we are under the Bible’s authority. We are beginning to use it for our own ends.

This way of handling the Bible is damaging evangelical Christians in the country at the moment. I think it is particularly dangerous if our children grow up with that sort of teaching. Can I encourage you to look closely at the Bible reading notes that you sell in your churches?

Family Services

From time to time we have an all-age Sunday morning service. To caricature what sometimes happens on such occasions, they can be times when the children are entertained and the adults spectate. But the biblical pattern would reverse that: for example, remember those occasions in the Old Testament where the adults were taught, while all ages were present and observed (Nehemiah 8).

While all parts of these services have to be child-friendly (it’s not fair to have the children present and then to ignore them), they do not have to be childish. A shorter, simplified, and illustrated sermon can edify and evangelize adults effectively. Indeed it may be more effective because it is the medium and not the message that has been adjusted.

But, if a family service talk is going to edify the whole family, the preaching will need to prepare as seriously as he would for a full-length adult sermon. Great simplicity requires great clarity of thought; and that will require the sort of deep understanding of the passage that comes only through hard preparation, and serious commentary work. Our children need to hear the Bible being taught seriously to their parents and to the rest of the adults of the church. The adults do not need to watch the Bible being taught to the children. The Bible is not a book of morals for teaching our children how to behave properly: it is a book by which all believers live. It is vitally important that the children of the church see that the Bible matters passionately to their parents. So at St. Andrews the Great we encourage our preaching to speak directly to the adults from time to time in Family Services, and to let the children know they are doing so. In that way there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind as to how seriously we all take the Bible.

Home Groups

If it is the Bible that will revive and reform our churches, then the level of Bible study in home groups must also be high. I have been struggling over this for many years now, and 18 months ago we made a senior staff appointment to specifically tackle this issue. The second most senior person on the staff at the church has the home groups as his top priority. He puts the major part of his time and preparing the materials and training and resourcing the leadership of the home groups. The home groups study the same passages as will be preached on the following Sunday (not, please not, the previous Sunday, lest the home group discussion is merely a dissection of the sermon). He meets and resources the leaders of the groups regularly, he runs short training courses for them, and it is his task to force the preachers, well in advance of their sermons, to produce material on the passages they will be preaching to help the home groups.


As I understand it, it is the primary task of the staff of a local church to teach the Bible. That is not confined to the preaching, although it is right for the greater part of my time to go on preparing sermons. But it also means that I must seek to teach the Bible in the other activities that are inevitably part of my job. I do not find it easy to make sure that pastoral interviews and visits are geared to Bible teaching. But I believe that is a right constraint to be under. There are times in life when people do not want to be taught the Bible. The sick and hospitalized rarely have an appetite for Scripture. Those are not good moments for visits by a Bible teacher. We try to persuade the congregation to use its Bible teachers for what they are meant for, and not to deflect them from it. Spurgeon used to say to his students: “Learn to say no. It’s a lot more use than being able to read Latin.”

We must try to keep the Bible at the heart of all our activities. I was once on a New Year conference with the leadership of a local church where the slogan was, “We will do nothing in 1987, simply because we did it in 1986.” Each group started with a clean slate and imagined they were reinventing their program from scratch. Often they came up with a very similar program for the new year, but they had to be satisfied that it was the best program for teaching the Bible in their group before they would adopt it.

We do far too many things in our churches simply because we’ve always done them. We’ve lost sight of why we’re here and what the church is for. Institutional life is so much more comfortable than life according to the Spirit of God. But the church does not exist for its own comfort. It exists for others, and that takes us on to the subject of ministry.


“Every member ministry” is a commonplace slogan of the modern church, as acceptable to the culture as it is to the church. I think it is understood by many to mean nothing more than democratic leadership. But the “every member ministry” of the church is not actually about leadership. It is about being the Body of Christ on earth. That Body is on earth in order that God may reconcile people to Himself. 

So the ministry of the church is the task of Gospel proclamation, teaching others about God. This is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian.

We must not let our people start to think that organizing the church’s life and taking decisions in church matters is ministry. That is a chore for servant leaders. Indeed it is the task of the leadership to keep the chores of organizing and leading church life away from the members of the congregation, so that they can be free for ministry. Lay ministry does not mean people coming to us to run our programs. It means us helping them to be God’s ambassadors where they are.

Probably most of our churches should do less in terms of structured programs. Too much of our people’s time is going on running programs for the church as an organization, and too little is going on winning the world for Christ.

We must encourage all church members to think ambitiously about how they can minister the gospel themselves. They need to know the gospel so that they can explain it confidently to others. Then they need to find ways in which they can each be effective in building up other Christians and in evangelizing non-Christians.

It may well be that we ought to be telling some of our members to be less involved in the life of the church rather than more involved. We ought to be concentrating regular church meetings onto only certain nights of the week: for example, committees on Monday nights, and mid-week Bible study groups only Wednesdays. In this way our most committed people cannot fill their whole week with church events.

It is also appropriate to limit church involvement according to a person’s life stage. For example, newly-weds need a year off from caring for other people spiritually within the structured programs of the church, so they can devote all their emotional energies to getting to know one another and to building a stable marriage relationship that will last the distance. It is not only for them; it is an investment in them by the whole church. Parents of young children also need to be freed from church responsibilities in order to concentrate on the spiritual nurture of their families at home.

But there are certain times when it is right to challenge other individuals and couples to get more involved in church life (for example, at the start of adult working life, or when children leave home).

I am sorry to admit that I used to be a reader of Mad Magazine. It ran a series once on “Scenes We’d Like To See,” one of which was the scene from an adventure film where the hero is carrying the wounded heroine in his arms, while being hotly pursued by a tribe of enraged, spear-waving cannibals. “Leave me,” she says, “there is no point in us both being killed — you’ll never escape with me in your arms — save yourself!” The hero looks back at the furious natives and says, “You’ve got a point. That’s rather a good idea,” drops her, and runs safely into the sunset. Well, there are such scenes I’d like to see in the life of our churches — where church leaders start to remove the guilt from church members by lowering the structural and program demands upon them and pointing them out to serve the world.

We should always be reforming our churches so that they draw less of their members’ attention onto internal matters, and focus more of it on external matters. What hymn book we use or what service times we have, what buildings we meet in, or what money we need to raise, or what the future may be for the denomination, as much less important issues than whether we are winning our country for Christ. Our churches must not get self-obsessed, preoccupied with their own concerns and their own comfort.

If we keep our vision clear and bright about that then our churches will keep on reforming. We won’t be able to stop them. And it is the faithful teaching of the Bible that will keep a clear gospel vision before their (and our) eyes.

Practical Realities

But is not all this very far removed from the practical realities of life in our local churches in the dear old Anglican Church week by week? Forgive me if I have been sounding idealistic in all this. My thinking in this matter is strongly influenced by the church to which I belong in Cambridge. It seems to enjoy an unusual degree of unity. My predecessor, Mark Ruston, preached there faithfully for 32 years. His longevity coupled to the consistent faithfulness of his biblical ministry have provided a rich heritage.

That makes me think that the basis for reform in the church must be Bible teaching. We must not change things because we like change, nor because we are neophiliacs, nor because we get excited, nor because ungodly and traditional things within the denomination are driving us crazy. Neither enthusiasm nor iconoclasm are the right motives for change. It must be the Spirit of God through the Word of God prompting us to seek the will of God.

That may well mean in a particular church situation that the need is not to change the church, but to teach the church. Faithful preaching must lead the way. Otherwise human enthusiasm may well take over. I saw a cartoon of a car careening down a hill out of control, while the driver turns to his passenger and says, “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re sure getting there fast!” Some churches are a little like that.

But it may not be God’s work that is going on in them. The changes he wants to bring about will be triggered by the teaching of the Bible. They may come slowly and gradually over many years. It will take a very long time to get people so biblical in their thinking that they long to bring their church more and more under the authority of the word of God. But that is the right way to go about the process. Whether a church is changing or not is far less important than whether it is listening humbly and attentively to the word of God. 

I think we need faithful Bible teachers in the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church who will stick in one place for much longer than we tend to do at the moment. We need men who will go on preaching to the same fellowship year in, year out, faithfully teaching them the whole counsel of God, until the time of that fellowship begins to resonate with biblical doctrine. Many of the clergy in the Anglican Church today lack the perseverance (and the theology) for such a ministry. But true reform won’t come in any other way.

This means that we will give a great deal of careful attention to what happens on Sundays–not just to the sermon itself, but also to the way that the rest of the service relates to and supports the message of the Bible passage that is being preached upon. Anglican liturgy, which is, I believe, a blessing, must not be an excuse for not preparing carefully  and in depth every aspect of the service. It may well be right to share out the leading of services to a number of different people, so that each individual leader can take a great deal of trouble over the bit he or she will be contributing to the weekly gathering of the fellowship.

It is worth taking trouble over the music and the singing, so that they complement and support the preaching. Preacher and musicians need to be in tune with one another. The charismatic movement has a great deal to teach the rest of us here.

The Local Church

The initiative lies with us in our local churches, to seek to bring them more and more into line with the will of God with every year that passes. It is as great a responsibility as the responsibility we have as individuals to live holy lives and to grow in grace.

Indeed, it is as we reform our local churches that reformation and renewal will occur within the denomination. I do not want to decry those who look to the government of the church or the bench of bishops for new spiritual life within the Anglican Church. But I have to say that during my 27 years as a Christian (I was converted the year after the Keele Conference, with its call to evangelicals to engage in the hierarchy and structures of the Church), it has been the local churches of the country which have been the seed-bed for all the most important spiritual developments.

It seems to me that the contribution of major churches far outweighs what the denominational leadership is able to do. We need only to consider the work of All Souls, Langham Place (with the preaching of John Stott and the music of Noel Tredinnick); Holy Trinity, Brompton (with the vast growth of Alpha Courses); St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate (with the significant development of the Proclamation Trust); etc.

It is at this level, it seems to me, that spiritual life and renewal have flowed into the denomination. During my life as a Christian, as far as I can tell, it has not come down from above.

So it is my plea that every local church will seek to be more pleasing to God and more effective for Him in the way it conducts its corporate life. It is the most significant way we can contribute to the life of the Anglican Church.

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