Thinking about the why and the way post covid

The Golden circle from Simon Sinek has been the key concept in helping businesses think differently about their approach. He says every business knows the what, the product etc but few know the why. The why has always been critical to the charity sector and especially the faith charity sector and then working out how this informs the how and the what are logical and critical next steps. However whilst this linear cause and affect approach will remain I think we are in the midst of another critical shift.  In the complexity of the  “it is what it is” post covid world where positive regard, inclusive openness  and benign indifference all meet it demands we rethink these sort of linear models that work well when dealing in simple contexts, but under resource us for more complex situations.  Indeed Dave Snowdon who developed CYNEFIN would argue that you need to approach the situation differently depending wether you are in a chaotic, complex, complicated or simple zone and indeed one of our biggest failings is to recognise the zone we are in. For the faith organisations the why has always much more complex than we often think at the outset. This complexity is why the simple responses have limited connection and impact and may work at surface level of short term but are often found wanting in the long term. As this why complexity collides with the new post covid complexity already  mentioned we see many faith sectors doubling down on simple responses or descending into chaos. What we fail to realise is actually that the two are often linked. We want the command and control that chaos demands and it plays into the hands of those who think the why is simple, until we end up in quite a negative loop.  

Modernity has led us towards a teleological approach where we think we know everything there is to know about the why  (or put God in a box) and so choose actions the how and what accordingly. However we need something less teleological that’s more humble and that recognises the complexity of the world we are in. So we approach the why as something less fixed and as a joy to be discovered as we sense our way forward. This is why The Way is such a key concept in the Christian faith, we only discover the WHY  by walking it. 

Permission to play at the edge?

This post is kind of connected to previous one. This morning I was drawn to the idea (probably because I have been reading Them Merton again) that I needed to give language to what I was sensing. So the couple of sentences I developed and posted are below.

Since I wrote the original post on how doctrine shapes measures a few days ago I have been thinking about its broader implications and particularly how we use the bible in our missional context. Can we be playful with the biblical text as we sense the Spirits lead and how far do we allow the historic to influence us as we seek to develop translations that feel authentic to where the community and spirit is. So in the light of the image above rather than what are the boundaries, Im interested more in where do the boundaries come from and when we place these type of boundaries on our playfulness are we again in danger of reducing the text to a formula and losing the magic and mystery.

This is particularly pertinent to me at the moment as Im working on some text for the outdoor community Im a part of. Anyway I wanted to play a bit so wrote the passage below and wondered what people thought? You might spot the text it’s based on, you could say it’s a long way from the text, and so far you no longer recognise it? A prize of Kendal Mint Cake to anyone who does recognise it. You might say its a good or poor piece of faithful improvisation, you might see it as heresy, you may find it resonates comfortably or uncomfortably? But in doing so I want to know why, and where do those boundaries come from, and I would love to know is why do you have the reaction you do.

Creator Sets Free (Jesus) shows us that total peace is possible, a ceasing of strife, a ceasing of separation, a different relationship with time, space, nature, ourselves and others. A mystery revealing a peace between us, all tribes, and the whole of creation. A deep magic that moves us towards a total  connectedness so that we may know and be in unity, with one another and with all creation. United together under the Beloved, we are one body. Creator Sets Free comes as the breath of peace and so we are drawn close to the Beloved like we are drawn to the thin places where heaven touches earth. We all; human, tree, rock, creature are of the same spirit, no longer strangers, we are family. Creator Sets Free is our true north, and with all of creation we are now being weaved together and becoming a dwelling place for his Spirit, a renewed creation, a holy place.

What we measure matters,New Christian Communities or New Worshipping Communities, and Emerging missional approaches

That maybe the longest title I have ever given a blog post but the national Church of England Strategy has set a target of developing 10000 New Christian Communities but the language coming out is that what will be measured are New Worshipping Communities and what we measure matters as it speaks to certain ideas and approaches.
Two conversations recently have got me thinking a bit more about measurements and how the paradigms that resource projects shape these outcomes. I was working on an IME2 session with Paul Bradbury for Pioneer Curates and we were discussing Resilient Pioneering and Sustainability. This led to the idea that the Institutional paradigm see things one way and therefore means one thing by sustainability because they value things like solidity, cohesion, and shape, whilst the Emergent paradigm sees sustainability differently because they value emergence, flexibility, etc. So an emergent project might change its shape to achieve sustainability and continue but this may not valued to the same degree in the institutional paradigm precisely because it has changed shape.
However this also then sparked deeper questions for me about what then gives shape to the paradigm we are in, in the first place. In particular what theology gave shape to the paradigm we are in. So when it comes to the question of measurement Im wondering if the institutional / inherited paradigm values and wants to measure New Worshipping Communities not just because it speaks of solidity cohesion and shape but because NWC reflect their particular doctrine of salvation. In his paper  A view from the Street Stefan Paas puts it they have a “soteriological paradigm that echoes societal differentiation and subcultural isolation. ‘Conversion,’ ideally perceived as dramatic and sudden, is the bridge from one culture to the other, or from the ‘world’ to the ‘religious’ realm. It is a paradigm that allows for clear distinctions (e.g., between the saved and the lost) and challenges (e.g., regular churchgoing as a mark of the truly converted).”
What is interesting is how at odds this approach is with a more Missio-dei orientated theology  and emerging missional community practices where the values of those joining shape what is emerging because we recognise the work of god in those people and some of those values. Consequently what emerges maybe new christian communities that don’t fit the criteria set for new worshipping communities because these parameters are set through the wrong lens. 
However as Pass reminds us its important to remember that the soteriological paradigm that values differentiation is only one view of soteriology and one that is informed by the reformation and rise of the economic transactional culture of modernity. So as pioneers who faithfully improvise and draw on culture and christian tradition we may need to find other soteriological traditions that help us in the emergent paradigm. Indeed many of the new christian communities I see emerging are more fluid and much more aligned to the soteriological approach of the church from 200-400AD which saw salvation and about how do we live, thrive, and find healing in a time of uncertainly are valid, real and orthodox. Some many call themselves new spiritual communities rather new christian communities as using word christian carries colonial and negative connotations. Or they may adopt  practices that would not be seen as worship in an institutional paradigm but are authentic and contextually appropriate to the emerging paradigm. So they may never count in the 10000 not because what we measure matters, but because we measure what matters to the paradigm we are in.  

The grace space between the Rock and the Person

It’s that season where newspapers tell us stuff we already knew and there is a subsequent flurry of activity in faith based circles. This time is was The Times telling us Britain is no longer a Christian country, say frontline clergy. The article is behind a paywall but a summary with a couple of links is HERE.

In the accompanying flurry of radio interviews, articles and comments much attention is paid to How things are done and depending on your perspective, the same old arguments about the how get rolled out. Now Im starting to sound grumpy mainly because entrenchment gets us nowhere.  Perhaps one way forward is to think why are we in these trenches in the first place and I think that much of it is do with the Epistemology and Ontological approaches to church and faith and truth that I discussed in the previous post. Language is going to fail me so Im going to play with metaphor to try and find a more spacious way forward.

In one trench you have epistemology and we wave the flag of Jesus the Rock. Here we know what Jesus looks like, and like a rock it never changes. They are steadfast, predictable, weighable, and known, and when we look we see the security and shelter on offer. The truth is at hand but it’s held closed.*

In the other trench is ontology and we wave the flag of Jesus the Person. Someone like anyone who grows, eats, drinks and someone who learns and changes. They are prone to unpredictable stories, and when we look into their eyes we see we are all on a journey to the deep unknown. The truth is at hand and it’s held with and open palm*.

And like in wars of old, neither side makes any progress whilst the world looks on unable to comprehend why either side is so dug in the first place. But between them is a field a space where grace and love can model something else to the world. Its hard to imagine, impossible to describe but the deeper magic that rises up as each side climb out of their trenches, kick a ball around, exchange gifts and really encounter one another, yet it is something of beauty that the whole world recognises, longs for and is drawn towards.

Like the temporary Christmas truces during the war we catch these glimpses of beauty. These glimpses are fleeting because not because we resist change but because we resist loss and when you’re dealing with something as fundamental as the nature of truth people feel they have an awful lot to loose.  Yet we know these grace spaces when we see it, we catch these thin places out of the corners of eye, they serve as new banner to rally under but for something for lasting to be embraced we will need to clamber out the sides of those muddy trenches, take the risk of those first hard yards towards the other. Falteringly  step beyond the graves of heroes of bygone eras and enter the grace space. But to stay there we will need to let the grace space invade our very being, and do the soul work that these genuine encounters demand until we learn that neither truth needs the upper hand, and the kin-dom is so much more we can imagine.


*See Graham Adams Holy Anarchy “Truth-in-Hand. Grasped. Contained. Sufficient” p38 “Truth-in-Process. truth as event, conversation, an ecology of potential, attentiveness, the making possible of greater empathy.” p39


Explaining Church as way of being with AI’s help

I recently did a podcast for Youthscape which timed in well with a lot of thinking I have been doing recently about the nature of church. my amazing friend Paul Rose gave some great thoughts that’s set my mind going on why knowledge (epistemological) based approaches to defining church are such a stumbling block. I think much of what I was arguing for in Here Be Dragons was a more ontological approach but At the time I hadn’t really encountered enough embodied theology and practice to start to frame it well. As Rachel and Martin said I use a lot of long words I thought I might just explain the ontological approach a bit more here. And then I thought as it was youth focussed and I’m into co-creation why not use the latest tech to help. So  I asked ChatGPT Ai to write it for me in the style of Sunday Papers blogpost and here with a few edits is what was created.

I think my shift reflects the growing interest among theologians and religious scholars in the use of an ontological approach and towards a deeper consideration of the fundamental nature of reality, and a rejection of the dualistic thinking that has long dominated Western thought. Part of what we learnt from being and doing church young people and Flow was we needed a different embedded joined up approach, and this was where we were heading in Here Be Dragons with sobornost.

At its heart, an ontological approach to the church emphasizes the importance of being and existence, rather than simply knowledge and understanding. While the epistemological approach tends to focus on the intellectual aspects of faith – what we know, what we believe, and how we come to know it – the ontological approach looks beyond these cognitive processes to consider the very nature of the church itself, and the role it plays in the world.

One of the key benefits of an ontological approach is that it allows us to move beyond the limitations of language and conceptual thinking. Too often, our understanding of the church is shaped by our attempts to put it into words – to define it, categorize it, and understand it within a particular framework. However, this can often lead to a narrow and limited understanding of what the church really is, and what it can be.

By adopting an ontological approach, we can begin to see the church as a dynamic, living entity that is constantly evolving and changing over time. Rather than trying to pin it down with definitions and concepts, we can appreciate the church in all its complexity, and recognize the many different ways in which it can manifest itself in the world.

Moreover, an ontological approach to the church allows us to move beyond the traditional boundaries of religious affiliation and denomination. Rather than seeing the church as a set of beliefs or practices that are unique to a particular group, we can recognize that the church exists in many different forms and contexts, and that it has the potential to transcend the divisions that often separate us.

Of course, an ontological approach is not without its challenges. It requires us to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, and to acknowledge that our understanding of the church will always be limited by our own experiences and perspectives. However, these challenges are precisely what make the ontological approach so valuable – by embracing the unknown and the unknowable, we open ourselves up to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the church, and with the divine.

In conclusion, the adoption of an ontological approach to the church represents an important step forward in our understanding of what it means to be religious and spiritual in the modern world. By focusing on being and existence, rather than simply knowledge and understanding, we can move beyond the limitations of language and conceptual thinking, and appreciate the church in all its complexity and diversity. So let us embrace this approach, and open ourselves up to a deeper and more profound experience of the divine.

The Ai bit ends here.

once the podcast goes fully live on the site I might say a bit more why I think how the epistemological approach showed up in the podcast discussion and how it can inoculate us from change.


Holding and being held – setting out

Ive been thinking about writing again recently but struggling because the medium of writing does not model the message of what Im hoping to write on. Whilst it feels indulgent the only way I can approach the task is in a collaborative ethnographical way probably starting with me. This is because the topic i want to explore is how to find a deeper spirituality that thrives through the interconnectedness of all things and how this helps us find our place in the ongoing journey of change. There is some deep embodiment involved and to borrow from Donna Haraways work on chthulucene explore how the interconnectedness and entanglement of all things facilitates a deep rooted, earthed spirituality that enabled me to “stay with the trouble” in the past and sustains me towards the future.

Staying with the trouble for me is about staying on the edge and recognising that change, creativity and the generative possibilities for systems change come from here. This is being fuelled by two places. Firstly it was sparked through the practice of being on the edge and finding G-d was always beyond what I thought, and discovering a more embodied way to connect with this through Flow, Mountain Pilgrims etc. Secondly it is only more recently that I have begun to find a language for what Im sensing and this is coming from ecology (thanks to Strands and Haraways work) and Christina Cleveland’s work on liberation. These two spaces of language and experience have started to give voice to what I reaching for when I spoke about “feeling my forward”, church as part of the deep magic, calling the walls to dust, the heretical imperative etc. but I still find myself running out of words hence the difficulty in returning to writing.

Sophie Strand uses the word “Sympoiesis” to describe how different organisms and entities come together to create and sustain complex systems and ecologies. It is a collaborative and dynamic process of co-creation that isn’t driven by central control, and thus it challenges both hierarchical and reductionist approaches. When we start to join the dots between this and non reductionist approaches to ecclesiology that I think we see clearly through the use of metaphor when discussing church in the bible, we start to enter a space where the trinity, the church, humanity and the planet are caught up in a sympoetic dance towards what Martin Luther King describes as the arc of world leaning towards justice and love. Then this is where I start to run out of words again, so I resort to image/metaphor but our challenge is to inhabit a space that is less boundaried and this means we inevitably stay with the trouble. So all I can imagine as such a space is walking in Rumis field out beyond the ideas of right and wrong where we meet Jesus who is both the ground on which we walk, the wheat we run our hands through and the centre to which we journey.

It is possible to feel more than one emotion at once

I wanted to write about what I’m observing in the Queens passing. This remarkable woman won me over, her dedication, faith, life of service was inspiring. She hasn’t turned me into a royalist or an advocate of the monarchy and that’s ok, it’s entirely possible to feel more than one emotion at the same time. In my case feeling a deep grief at the passing of a wonderful inspiring figure and feeling grieved that how the process has drowned out voices calling for greater equality at a time of such need. These mixed feeling are accompanied by a sense of bewilderment at how strongly the soft power implicit in cultural hegemony* is being played out so that any alternative voice is shouted down, arrested or demonised.
Obviously at times those dissenting any dominant system are subject to critic, and at times like this it is easy to write off dissenters, especially when the language used is abrupt and inconsistent with the grace needed by those feeling a sense of grief and loss. But never in my lifetime has there been a greater need to address the gap between the rich and poor. The cost of living crisis will never be solved by the crumbs from tables of the rich but only by overturning the tables. Just think about how we saw huge increases in the price of petrol and diesel that a few years sparked protest but now are just accepted. We are about to see the same thing happen with gas and electricity. In part it is cultural hegemony that enables this. The momentum built by valuing key workers during lockdown, and conversations that were just beginning to posit alternative ways of being, the strikes for living wages that were supported by the populace have all been hijacked by a narrower narrative that says we cant feel more than one thing at the moment, we can’t have a conversation about the injustice at the same time as grieving the loss of someone important and loved by so many people.
So we are going through a reinforcement of cultural hegemony like never before, and Liz Truss’ proposed tour with the new king is just the start, that if we don’t find a way to have a better conversation will keep the poor poor, make the rich richer, see pensioners dying in their own homes, kids go to school with empty bellies, while we sleepwalk into a new an era where nothing has really changed except a figurehead at the top.


if you’re not sure what cultural hegemony is or how it works visit HERE

Let there be an invitation

When I think about how my faith and practice is formed, there are number of angles but each perspective has at it heart an invitation to a journey, an offer alongside others to co-create a better world. At the heart of lots of the key tools, or practices, that I have written about is the notion of collaboration not to create out of nothing but to co-create with what ever fish I hold and what ever bread the other carries. These concepts are embedded in community work through Asset based approaches, Youth ministry through particpation, Fresh Expressions through listening, and the emerging church through the resistance of power.  In fact they are embedded in the faith itself, in the earth, in the Beloved, since before the beginning of time.

Our past flows into our present reality and we tend to read the creation story from the position of power, reinforced by the idea of divine omnipotence  and the notion of humanity as the pinnacle so we see the statement “let there be” as a command. What if it was more complex, and it is a language of invitation of participation. This is much easier to see when we embrace the fullness of God revealed through the Trinity in the creation story. The Spirit hovers over the waters and enlivens the cosmos, joins with the Christ who participates and sows seeds, and the Beloved issue an invitation “Let there be light”. And there was light, and the God of Love responds with delight seeing it good and invites the elements to collaborate to bring forth life, and animals, and fish, and they do. So the Beloved sparks co-creation, encourages transformation and we begin dance in divine solidarity with the Beloved and the creation who continues to invite us to participate in the ongoing co-creative process.

A thought on Navigating local change

I’ve been thinking about navigating change at a local level in church contexts and how the idea of what can be gained or lost plays out in the process. As we enter further into the post Christian landscape and context I find myself drawn into more conversations about how the limited resources we have, are deployed. The burning platform is both a gift and curse for change. Whilst it may help people recognise the need to change it also means many realise how much has been lost. My experience is people don’t fear change they fear loss. So who presents the idea of change becomes more critical than we realise particularly if we are talking locally about a new sort of ministry to replace something already in place. For example If a declining church needs to think about the type of minister it has, perhaps with the notion of replacing a pastorally minded member of clergy who is retiring with a more pioneering missionally minded priest or even lay pioneer, (obviously I’m stereotyping and understand it’s much more complex than two camps) but like any change the notions gain or loss come to the fore. Clearly how you have the conversation is critical but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the WHO has, who facilitates the conversation will impact on wether people see the change as a loss or gain. When the conversation is being led by a member of clergy, arch deacon, bishop, no matter how well they hold the space, culturally everything is signalling a sense of loss. The who reminds them of what they are losing, it echos memories of what things used to be like and even if they tell a great story of what could be, the sense of loss can and will play a really significant part. When someone outside, or lay hosts the space it will be easier to position the change as gain. People can much easier see the change as making space for something new to emerge, get a different sense of perspective even if the people leading the conversation is saying pretty much the same stuff as arch deacon or bishop was.

The Mixed Ecology Trellis – a watershed moment?

Over the past few months I have been using an innovation technique of Pitch and Exhibit to further my thinking on Pioneering and Church. What has become clear over the past week or so is that what has been emerging as fresh expressions, and pioneering expressions of church has matured and is now firmly part of the landscape of the church in the UK and consequently we need a better way to describe the mixed ecology of church that is now present in so many communities and spaces. We have long said that Time Honoured church and Fresh Expressions have distinct needs, but we also know that they need each other. If pioneers have the gift of not fitting in, when we also see them as being a gift to the church, conversations and practice take a creative turn. We have experienced this in Cumbria and in my previous post I failed to adequately recognise just how far we have come. It is clear through church history that both modal and sodal expressions of church are required to help everyone flourish but more than that, when there are good relationships between the two, significant cultural systemic change could be achieved.  I think we are very close to a watershed moment where we can observe the church Cumbria and in places beyond and really begin to shed light on what a mixed ecology of church might look like and how it interconnects and relates to one another. The image below is an attempt to capture this. You can find a larger image as a jpeg HERE or  in a PDF here

A few things to say about the Trellis:

  • We have been reaching for a more organic image than the spectrum and I hope this captures more the ecological element and interconnectedness of the Mixed Ecology. You can’t see it amazingly well as I need to fade it but there is a vine that weaves and interconnects across the different elements, traditions and approaches. This is to try and help people see this in a more patterned and less linear way.
  • We have deliberately moved away from and taken out the specific pioneer words, recognising that we are in a new space. We all have parts to play and we are one Church in many expressions with different gifts and need one another. This is not to say pioneer language is redundant indeed it remains critical in creating the space and continued imagination we need in the institution to reach the breadth and diversity of the communities serve.
  • We have removed the sense of Venn circles for a more fluid and interconnected approach.
  • The left hand arrow is deliberately split into two to capture the learning from the original pioneer spectrum that at some point(s) we need a distinct and deliberate shift in posture if we are to reach deeper into our cultural context. This is particularly the case as you move towards Innovation and Activism.
  • Accommodators has been one of the words we have wrestled with. It is meant as generous space makers, leaders who see that Time honoured and Fresh Expressions need each other. Accommodators are leaders who are secure enough to let others flourish and generous enough to let people go to new places they may never travel, but nourish and support them. Accommodators are not those begrudgingly making room for new things, but those who set people free to build the kingdom in the now and not yet.

I have said “we” in the wording above as the pitch and exhibit approach I have used means this has been developed collaboratively and I am grateful to all who have contributed over the past months and weeks. There is a lot to be said about the relationship between the spaces and particularly about the relationship between the centre and edge. Indeed I would even say the language of centre and edge is now problematic as  in a mixed ecology centres and edges are hard to find but that’s for another blogpost.