Eyes wide open: the value of participation

I read recently that if one of a kitten’s eyes is kept closed during the first few weeks of life it will be blind in that eye, even though the eye is perfectly normal. That got me thinking about which of my ‘eyes’ have been opened and which have remained closed, resulting in blindness. It also got me thinking about which of our ‘eyes’ have been opened regarding the things we are currently discussing in this series of blogs about fresh expressions. What has been learned – particularly in my case from youth work practice – in our fast moving culture? My thoughts quickly focused on the matter of ‘participation’.

Around 25 years ago a group of us in Frontier Youth Trust began to focus and take seriously what youth work might look like if young people’s participation was elevated to the place of paramountcy. When talking of participation I mean that, ‘affirmative value, focused on creating settings that enable people —whatever their identities, backgrounds, or institutional positions—to thrive, realise their capabilities, engage meaningfully in … life, and enable others to do the same.’ We consulted young people, changed our practice, wrote books, spoke at conferences, ran workshops, and most importantly, looked to enable young people to participate in the things, decisions, and initiatives that were about them.

We endeavoured to stop doing things to young people, and focused on doing things with them. Whilst others journeyed with us, it was initially an uphill struggle. The ‘adults know best’ sacred cow was a big idol to compete with. I am pleased to say, that young people’s participation has come a long way since those early days. In the church it is now thankfully mainstream practice in many places; albeit an ongoing work in progress. Eyes have opened and the blindness of ‘youth worker knows best’ amended.

Perhaps because some of the early ‘participation’ pioneers went on to start fresh expressions of church or perhaps because many were simply convicted that effective participation was essential for the future of the church it has become important in fresh expression thinking. It’s considered a better, more humane way of communally existing. Stuart and Sian Murray-Williams note that many churches promote passivity as the norm. However, multi-voice approaches enable a more liberating, empowering and dynamic participative approach. The fresh expressions web site encourages people to move from ‘audience to participation’. It encourages participants to experience and engage with others and join in with what God is doing. It advocates listening and finding out what needs are; connecting heads, hearts and hands.

Whilst lots of progress has been made regarding participation, there is still some way to go across the church before we can truly claim to be a fully functioning, including community and priesthood of believers.

British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil writes about colonialism and race and how exhausting it is to always be an outsider in a culture:

“It’s exhausting to be a guest, In somebody else’s house, Forever.”

In his introduction to this series, Richard talks about how for the last 20 years it has felt as though championing things like participation has caused many pioneers to feel as though they are swimming in a different sea to most in the church. Many times it has felt like we are guests at the mercy of the hospitality, and in the clutches, of the institutional church. Whilst I am sure it has not been as crushing as how white privilege and exceptionalism has crushed people of colour, it has been exhausting and wearying. Quite why some would want to resist involving people so – as our definition above states – they can thrive, realise their capabilities, engage meaningfully in life, and enable others to do the same, is a mystery.

The challenges we still face are aptly illustrated in the current debates about online communion that are taking place in some of our mainline denominations. Those with power are preventing the participation of those with no power. How the sacraments are made available has always been a challenge in those fresh expressions where the sponsoring denomination has particular theology and rules about ‘presence’ and the function of the priesthood. Many people have been denied communion because a powerful priesthood has prevented participation in something Jesus indicated should be a daily reminder over a meal. Quite how something so accessible and so simple has become something so controlled and complex is a mystery. Many of us just get on with it and share ‘bread and wine’ as and when. We eat our contemporary contextualized and cultural equivalents of whatever bread and wine might be. My prayer is that eyes will be opened.

If we don’t manage to keep increasing participation so that all eyes are opened then I am less hopeful for the future. In my own setting I have seen very painfully what happens when people are systemically not encouraged to participate.

Another church group recently decided to join something I was facilitating. After they had come along a few times, I deployed my participation values and asked the leader of this group if somebody from their cohort would like to contribute something; share something, tell a story, or offer a reflection. Their leader went away to ask the group. Despite most of this group being in church for decades (some 50+ years), the reply came back that ‘they weren’t quite ready for that sort of thing yet’. I went away (muttering some very bad language) wondering when if they would ever be ready. Decades of non-participation had rendered them voiceless; eyes were closed.

On the positive side, anecdotal experience suggests the current use of online platforms has increased participation in church settings. Conversations seem to have flowed more easily and people have felt more at ease to participate more fully. So long as we don’t embed broadcast power in the hands of a few, then I am hopeful for the future. I have noticed how those of us who championed participation in face-to-face settings have continued to do so via online platforms. Whilst the future has arrived, we need to be mindful that all are not yet quite equally participating in this moment, but platforms like zoom can help with this.

A while ago, I wrote about some tools to help our participation. I noted that God – despite many reasons why she might not – has continually trusted people to fully participate and be his agents, ambassadors, co-creators, and advancers of the Kingdom. I still hold to that view and hope God will continually open our eyes to the delights of participation.

Dr Nigel Pimlott
Expressing a personal reflection especially for Sunday Papers
S. Sturm (2012) https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/full-participation-and-arts-culture-and-humanities
S and S Murray-Williams (2012) Multi-Voiced Church

Vision Events


B. Kapil (2020) How To Wash A Heart
N. Pimlott (2009) Participative Processes

The gift of the edge and bias as a virtue

Nigel Pimlott and I spent well over a decade at FYT and we have both moved from there to what I would call the edge of the inside. Nigel now works with the Methodist Church as Regional Learning and Development Officer (4 days a week) and church-wide Evangelism and Growth Officer (1 day a week), and I work as the Director of Mission Innovation and Fresh Expressions in Cumbria. So, in the next few posts Nigel and I will explore some of the early and more recent pioneer learning and explore why the church can seem reluctant to draw on this resource.

To set the scene I want to revisit some of the cultural backdrop and responses to the story we now find ourselves in. The pace of cultural change has been accelerating over the last 70 years. Where previously we talked about longer term generational change, more recently significant cultural shifts have been noted at least every ten years. The Face Magazine back in the noughties was talking about significant shifts every decade: 1960’s The Decade of Optimism, 1970’s The Decade of Decline, 1980’s The Decade of the Individual, 1990’s Caring and Sharing, 2000s The Digital Decade. Although the Face article only went up to the noughties, several commentators suggest 2010’s as The Decade of Participation. This with the larger overarching constructs of Post-Modernism and Post-Christendom was the culture I swam in when I started in ministry back in the late 80s. For at least two decades I felt I was swimming in a completely different sea to everyone else. During that time I was grateful to link with Frontier Youth Trust who grew in response to the challenging culture of the 1960s seeking to respond to these new entities called “teenagers”. With FYT I started to recognise, thanks to the brilliant work of Jim Punton and Terry Dunnell, that as well as finding new ways to do things we also had to find new ways to think about things. I learnt that practice and reflection went hand in hand and as early as 1993 with others we started thinking through the need for a new type of ecclesiology. We had critical conversation partners such as Jim Punton, whose work on shalom was key, and several early pioneer workers and thinkers with decades of experience, like David Watson (and Graham Cray), Jeanne Hinton, Pip Wilson, and David Sheppard. It is interesting to reflect on how well these people were listened to at the time and how this helped prepare the way for some radical change, and later Nigel picks up why we may struggle to listen as well to edge now.

The two Loops of Change theory talks about the need for innovators to network and this was key to the survival of what was being birthed throughout the 90s and 00s. Towards the turn of the century a clear emerging church movement was building (often with youth workers getting older and trying to work out how to connect to their culture) and slowly we met others who were in the same ocean. Eventually the structures also started to recognise what was happening on the edge, and that they were perhaps not as well equipped as they thought to swim well in these fast moving currents, so Fresh Expressions was bought into being. Someone once said that Fresh Expressions was the “Research and Development wing” of the church. For the past 20 years several key denominations have been investing in Fresh Expressions, this generosity is a gift to pioneers and now maybe this wealth of learning could be a gift to the church.

With the two loops in mind churches have innovated well in the lockdown, either in the online space or in other ways, so it maybe worth asking, how are you networking with others to build knowledge and support yourselves? Many churches have been brilliantly creative, but innovators need to network not just for new ideas but more importantly to build the resilience needed to resource continuation. Someone once asked me when I was speaking at Greenbelt to say in three words what is needed in today’s missionary context and my answer was Courage, Courage, Courage. As churches reopen the pressure to restart the old will be on, but we can’t do everything, and you will need courage to say no, to not restart some things, courage to stand with what the spirit has been doing for the last weeks and courage to go to new places theologically. Networking will help you build the knowledge and story base to hold the innovative space you have found, and the friendships you build through networking will sustain and nourish your innovation, but alongside this maybe invite a local pioneer to walk with you through the processes, they will probably have more questions than answers but that is important right at the top of change curve.

Richard

Appreciating the hidden harvest: bias as virtue – Nigel writes…..

I’ve recently done some Unconscious Bias training. I’ve worked hard over the years and hopefully become more fully aware of my biases. As a white middle aged man, I think I have reasonably successfully endeavored to raise consciousness-levels regarding any gender, sexuality and race bias I may have had and I have sought to change my thinking and behaviour accordingly. However, I have recently become very aware of a whole set of biases that I embrace which I didn’t really know were there. I am pondering if these biases are a problem, or if they should not be called biases at all, but rather aspirations, virtues and/or essentials. Let me explain …

I am biased towards the ‘new’ and innovation – I think that’s an aspiration. I am committed to working in diverse and creative ways – I think this bias is a virtue. I remain passionate about involving younger people (participation) in the life of the church and I am biased to hearing all the voices in as many ways as possible, and on their terms – I think that’s an essential. Bias on the basis of gender, sexuality, or race is, I believe, a big problem, but the biases I refer to here I consider virtues, not problems. My challenge is, I note other people don’t see things this way. For them, my ‘new’, ‘creative’, ‘younger’ biases are a threat.

In 2015-16 The Methodist Church carried out research into 15 years of involvement with fresh expressions and in 2019 produced a report of the findings – Methodism’s Hidden Harvest. The research concluded that fresh expressions have been extremely successful in welcoming previously unaffiliated people into Christian faith exploration and participation, certainly much more successful than the vast majority of inherited Methodist churches. So why isn’t everybody who wants to reach unaffiliated people drawing on these research findings and deploying them?

• Why isn’t everybody looking to start something new rather than simply maintain ‘what is’? The research notes that fresh expressions are evangelistically fruitful, with an estimated 65% of those attending having no previous involvement in church.

• Why isn’t everybody looking to grow the church working in diverse and creative ways – the research notes that fresh expressions work in multiple and creative ways to make disciples and asks if this is an important factor inherited church needs to embrace if it is to similarly attract unaffiliated people.

• If the church wants to engage and disciple younger people, why does it not embrace how fresh expressions go about doing this as they appear much more successful at it?

Could it be that the reluctance to embrace the new, creativity and younger people’s participation is the unconscious bias, perhaps conscious bias, of some people against such things? If so, this bias is putting them in danger of disregarding things which don’t fit their own templates, paradigms and worldviews, at the expense of making disciples and growing the church. In other words, the problem isn’t my bias for these things, but the bias of those who will not embrace such things.

Of course, it’s not as simple as this, nor a binary choice, and hopefully not a case of inherited church vs fresh expressions; ‘them and us’. Having said that it sometimes feels like it is! Drawing on a bit of political bias thinking, I will explain what I mean.
There is what is known as Confirmation bias – in our context this is when someone favours information about church that affirms their existing paradigms and worldviews. People who like inherited models of church and who don’t want to change might, for example, draw exclusively on narratives that value tradition and predictability of output. They might use information that espouses the familiar, embeds and promotes an ‘it’s what we know’ paradigm. In my experience, whenever I draw on research findings like the Hidden Harvest? report, endeavor to facilitate debate, and/or offer suggestions to those in declining churches facing uncertain futures, there is more often than not push back and a negative response to counteracting information – like the value of new approaches, creativity, and aiming younger – which conflicts with favoured information.
Then there is what is called Coverage bias – this is when, for example, someone happily tells (covers) stories that relate to the ‘good old days’, when the church was full, overseas mission adventures from yesteryear, what happened in 1970, but rarely, if ever, tells stories or allows space for others to tell stories, about what is happening now in new forms of church and the changed lives of those becoming disciples.

Thirdly, I would highlight Concision bias – where people selectively focus on information, ignoring nuance and context, in ways that crowd out different views that take longer to explain. For example, someone will often counteract my encouragement for the new, creative and younger with a tale of when a fresh expression closed, a project failed or a young person left. The detail, reasons, learning and legacy are never portrayed, just the (perceived) negative outcome.

A couple of years back I had surgery for cancer. It was radical, impacting and has meant things will forever be different. If I had not had it, my future was uncertain, and I probably would have died many years prematurely. I needed to set aside my bias against someone chopping bits out of me, having lots of injections, not to mention several other deeply personal things that might not be appropriate to mention in a public blog. It was challenging but necessary.

If we are to set aside our biases and embrace the virtuous findings of research and development from fresh expressions of church, the consequent changes we need to make will be challenging and necessary. If we don’t make them, we may discover our end is also more premature than it might have otherwise been.

You can access the full results of the Hidden Harvest? research here

Dr Nigel Pimlott
Expressing a personal reflection especially for Sunday Papers

Why reopen, what and when?

So it has been announced that church buildings can reopen in July, without singing and in smaller groups. This is good news for some but as Shane L Bishop a pastor in the States pointed out “If your church was ineffective and in decline before the COVID shut down; the last thing you want to be thinking about is “returning to normal.”
So I have taken the liberty of adding the previous post on Deeper Magic and and maybe if you’re not into magic before you read it check this out from the RSA.

A friend who is a political theologian in Germany recently highlighted how one symptom of the loss of power and hold of Christendom was the rush of many to reopen church buildings. Prayers are no more special or effective because they are said in a particular place, and yet, it is equally true that holy places (hills, buildings, beaches, pilgrimage sites) can bring solace, connection. The nature of corona has been apocalyptic as true to the meaning of the word apocalypse it is uncovering a lot of different stuff. Whilst the church has done some amazing things locally in it’s communities with acts of love, bravery and service, some great examples of online services, for many who have honestly asked there has been an increasing uncovering that despite this their church is no longer at the centre of the community and that’s ok. At the same time it’s clear that many have had Christendom blinkers on, evidenced by the conversations (and their tone) about getting back into church buildings, not holding Eucharist online, ‘harvesting’ the rise of people praying for the first time, a lack of critical engagement with those already in online spaces, judgements about what is or isn’t church in the online space, etc. This is uncovering that many are still oblivious to the culture shift that has happened over the last 50 years and living to a greater or lesser extent in a Christendom bubble and whilst I would like to say that’s ok too, because it can be hard to see the systems we are caught up in, but I’m not sure it is. I love the part in the Narnia story where Aslan tells the children of a “deeper magic” and I wonder with all the anxieties around if we are still trusting enough to help push deeper. I saw Ian Paul had used a quote from Alan Hirsch who suggested “If you want to learn to play chess, then take away the queen—then you see what the other pieces can do!’ For many churches, Sunday services have been the ‘queen’ that we have lost. Which I thought was a great commentary on the situation, but as a friend pointed there is an assumption you know how to play chess the first place, and we may be playing chess whilst the rest the world has moved onto Ludo or more likely in the west Monopoly.
BUT despite this once again I want to shout out and congratulate those churches who have served so well without services, wether you have been dog walking for your community, organising food, doing prescription runs, organising sunflower competitions, supporting parents home schooling, and say don’t automatically drop these things because you want to refocus on sunday gatherings. Ask yourselves how can we keep these connections going, so we can keep building on what God has been doing through lockdown, perhaps God has even been showing you, you can improvise, you can change and do things differently. So if services aren’t what’s next, what might be? How can we continue to journey with people in a new way? What about those with dogs in the church arranging mini meet ups with those who can now walk their dogs again, what might a socially distanced homework club look like with a few adults on hand to help any children who have been struggling catch up. The church has learnt to do things differently and proved to itself and many skeptics that change can be done quickly when needed but as Blanchard warns in the seven dynamics of change “If you take the pressure off, people will revert back to their old behavior.” and perhaps the best way to avoid this is to recognise the sacredness of the spaces and relationships created in lockdown. Seeing God where you have creatively and effective served and changed your actions and communities and that this may well have been about you following the missionary impetus of the Holy Spirit into the new. So let go of some things and don’t rush to pick back up other things, even if that is your queen, give yourself the time and space to keep following the missio dei to places you nor I have been before and where the deeper magic happens.
If you need resources or support to do things differently it’s ouT there, but maybe in not in the places you expect. For decades the church has been in investing in Fresh Expressions and for decades before a wealth of mission nouse has been building so maybe those pesky pioneers and prophets who have been a pain in your arse might be worth taking for a socially distanced coffee. Or if you’re in Cumbria sign up for the new pioneer mission certificate here or book on our taster day here

A deeper magic

A friend who is a political theologian in Germany recently highlighted how one symptom of the loss of power and hold of Christendom was the rush of many to reopen church buildings. Prayers are no more special or effective because they are said in a particular place, and yet, it is equally true that holy places (hills, buildings, beaches, pilgrimage sites) can bring solace, connection. The nature of corona has been apocalyptic as true to the meaning of the word apocalypse it is uncovering a lot of different stuff. Whilst the church has done some amazing things locally in it’s communities with acts of love, bravery and service, some great examples of online services, for many who have honestly asked there has been an increasing uncovering that despite this their church is no longer at the centre of the community and that’s ok. At the same time it’s clear that many have had Christendom blinkers on, evidenced by the conversations (and their tone) about getting back into church buildings, not holding Eucharist online, ‘harvesting’ the rise of people praying for the first time, a lack of critical engagement with those already in online spaces, judgements about what is or isn’t church in the online space, etc. This is uncovering that many are still oblivious to the culture shift that has happened over the last 50 years and living to a greater or lesser extent in a Christendom bubble and whilst I would like to say that’s ok too, because it can be hard to see the systems we are caught up in, but I’m not sure it is. I love the part in the Narnia story where Aslan tells the children of a “deeper magic” and I wonder with all the anxieties around if we are still trusting enough to help push deeper. I saw Ian Paul had used a quote from Alan Hirsch who suggested “If you want to learn to play chess, then take away the queen—then you see what the other pieces can do!’ For many churches, Sunday services have been the ‘queen’ that we have lost. Which I thought was a great commentary on the situation, but as a friend pointed there is an assumption you know how to play chess the first place, and we may be playing chess whilst the rest the world has moved onto Ludo or more likely in the west Monopoly.
BUT despite this once again I want to shout out and congratulate those churches who have served so well without services, wether you have been dog walking for your community, organising food, doing prescription runs, organising sunflower competitions, supporting parents home schooling, and say don’t automatically drop these things because you want to refocus on sunday gatherings. Ask yourselves how can we keep these connections going, so we can keep building on what God has been doing through lockdown, perhaps God has even been showing you, you can improvise, you can change and do things differently. So if services aren’t what’s next, what might be? How can we continue to journey with people in a new way? What about those with dogs in the church arranging mini meet ups with those who can now walk their dogs again, what might a socially distanced homework club look like with a few adults on hand to help any children who have been struggling catch up. The church has learnt to do things differently and proved to itself and many skeptics that change can be done quickly when needed but as Blanchard warns in the seven dynamics of change “If you take the pressure off, people will revert back to their old behavior.” and perhaps the best way to avoid this is to recognise the sacredness of the spaces and relationships created in lockdown. Seeing God where you have creatively and effective served and changed your actions and communities and that this may well have been about you following the missionary impetus of the Holy Spirit into the new. So let go of some things and don’t rush to pick back up other things, even if that is your queen, give yourself the time and space to keep following the missio dei to places you nor I have been before and where the deeper magic happens.

An open Letter to the church

Dear Church
I thought quite hard before writing this but I have been re reading a Bonhoeffer biography and last time I read it I was focussing on Bonhoeffers theology. This time I found myself constantly drawn to the political situation in th early 1930s right at the start of Hitlers rise and the churches failure to speak out, the internal politics of the more moderate voices (and the church) and how the Nazis used the social situation of unrest and unknown futures deliberately often using tactics of chaos, polarision, statements about recovery, moving on etc to manipulate and consolidate power. I have to say I see too many parallels with what is happening in the UK, (and the US) through the demonisation of socialism (ie how Corbyn was treated) preparing the way for a rise of right leaning politics, and the masquerading of elite political classes as being of/for the people and since Boris came to power how he and Cummings have access to even greater resources of the state for even greater manipulation. The whole contempt with which the public have been treated, blatant lies, then gaslightling concerned voices that we need to move on, the removal of Emily Matiliss from Newsnight for speaking truth to power, and the abuse of power through strategic ambiguity, is just too familiar after what I read in Bonhoeffers book, my spirit is ill at ease and I need to speak out.
The light in all this has been the bishops who have gone public, but the church is in danger of being complicit as the voices are still to few and internal wrangles have already started. Yes we need to pray for our leaders but we also need to stand up for integrity, and truth. Many of us will have seen the words of Niemöller “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” And it is important to note many like Bonhoeffer warned Pastor Niemöller what was going on as far back as mid 1930s. So we need our Bishops and church leaders of all denominations to speak louder, speak now, and SPEAK TOGETHER, and we need to do our part in encouraging them to do, whilst ourselves standing up and speaking truth to lies and power where we can and we need to so now.
Faithfully
Richard

A parable about the unlocking of lockdown

I was flicking through Facebook and the mix of memes about getting back to normal, hitting the shops, and comparing this to the comments of a few weeks ago about not rushing back. The FB feed included similar mixed comments about churches starting to return to buildings, at the same time as seeing a really impressive rise in the creative content and approaches from some ministers as they grow in confidence online.

When I saw this meme I was suddenly reminded of a parable I wrote for Off the Beaten Track 16 Years ago!

The prison walls had become the home they had forgotten; so long had they been there in the dust and dirt that any memory of the outside world was just a dream to them. One day they huddled together as usual to have the same conversation they’d had every day for as long as any of them could remember. They talked about escape – how they would they do it, what they would do once they got out, how much better life would be. In the middle of this discussion something unusual happened. The cell door swung open. The prisoners cowered against the back wall, shielding their eyes from the bright sunlight. A man stood there, someone they didn’t recognise, for they had not seen or heard anyone new for very many years. The man spoke to them, saying “you are free to go”. The group sat in silence, for though they had talked about leaving and made plans to leave, now they were too afraid to do so. What world was out there? It was surely a place that must have changed beyond recognition. The prison walls suddenly seemed appealing, for this had become their home. No-one moved until one man, cautiously got to his feet, crossed the small cell and, averting his gaze from what lay beyond, quietly closed the door.

Receptivity and Discipleship

Receptivity is a fairly new term to me but has been at the heart of how I try to live as a follower of christ. Walking that balance which recognises that I both have story to tell and stories to hear, that I cannot limit something that is infinite so must keep my face set towards the person of christ (our true north) and doing so will always take me to the land of dragons.

In the midst of furlough I have been trying to take time to reflect on the missional space we find ourselves in and reading Stefan Paas’ Priests and Pilgrims when I have the head space. I loved how he picked up the true north in an early chapter talking about the danger of limiting mission (see Bosch) and said “rather than trying to describe where mission ceases and other Christian works begins we should keep stressing where the heart the magnetic pole of mission lies” and balanced this beautifully drawing in Rowan Williams work on the incarnation stating “receptivity precedes purpose, power and action”.

This really got me thinking about the importance of receptivity in relation to discipleship as we come out of lockdown. If a fraction of the people who have turned to prayer during this time want to take things further my guess is the churches first instinct will be, what do we teach these people rather than what can we learn. I also think that with all the talk of the new normal the church will double down on a kind of internal programme of theological teaching (giving people the basics first) disconnected from social learning and practices. Too often we have disconnected discipleship from the ongoing following of Jesus both infinite and finite. Too often we feel we have to get the basics right in others before journeying with them or sending them out. I’m always intrigued by how Jesus sent of the disciples and yes the 12 might have had more idea what they were doing but the 72 must had a whole series of crazy ideas about who Jesus was, what they were being sent out to do that was informed by hanging around and hearing a shed load of random stories that they may or may not have understood. But as Paas points outs they were sent out in the spirit of radical receptivity with nothing but their sandals and vulnerability as seekers, to find people of peace, learn what God was doing and find their place in gods mission. In doing so Jesus BROKE the stereotypes that we keep trying to return to of “givers” and “receivers” and set the trajectory that all mission is contextual, that God is already at work in the culture, that other is a gift and that discipleship is intrinsically linked to and flows from radical receptivity.

For a deeper look at receptivity check out Al Barrett‘s who introduced me to the term.

Continuing the digital dialogue.

Lori Passmore writes

For better or worse many of us have been forced into the online space as our mixed economy of churches seek to connect with congregations in a virtual way because of social distancing. But what will happen to these digital spaces as we move out of lockdown?
According to a poll conducted by Tearfund, a quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began1 giving the church an unprecedented opportunity to reach beyond its usual contact. People are able to be curious, seek comfort in a time of uncertainty, make a faith re-connection, be globally connected…but whatever the reason for this increase, there is a hunger to connect. You can find everything from prayer meetings, to messy church, to worship, to interactive experiences being streamlined through social media. As Richard has previously spoken about we are invited from our private spaces into a.n.others private space, there is an intimacy in that connection. With a collective online community we can listen, interact and contribute with one another and the facilitator/leader.
So what happens next? We don’t know what the next months, year(s) will bring, but if we want to continue to ‘be’ in the digital space – what could/will this look like? We could, for example, streamline church or other services – as many churches did pre-lockdown. But suddenly this intimate collective online connection becomes something else. I wonder if something will be lost in that connection as we move from the private into the public space and there is a risk of excluding those who are wanting to be part of an online community, rather than just spectators.
A form of ‘digital’ church is not new and there are many who already inhabit this space such as Disability Jesus who found there emerging community online on twitter @DisabilityJ2 or d-church who are ‘’exploring spirituality, creating community in an online world’3. But for those of us seeing a new uptake in interaction and thinking about what we can do next, what could that look like? I think there will be a natural drop in demand as life get’s back to ‘normal’ but I do think there will be a group of people for whom connecting in this way is meaningful. Therefore I ask – how can we create a digital community as part of our church life and what could this look like? I’d be interested to know if anyone has been asking these questions of those who’ve connected with them online. There is an opportunity to create something that’s digitally experimental, creative, accessible and not geographically constricted. As someone involved in Fresh Expressions and pioneering I’m excited by the opportunity this gives us and hope that there will be those willing to take the leap.

The future belongs to Maureen.

Being involved in Gods mission means we start with asking what is God doing and its a key question many people are asking. One of the joys of social distancing being played out in the public space and where I see God at work is in those moments when you catch someones eye walking down the road and you both adjust your course slightly. In that moment and action something intimate happens as you both recognise and value the humanity, preciousness and dignity of the other person, and adjust accordingly.

Back in day aka about 6 weeks ago our our physical and emotional proximity was primarily played out in four spaces public, social, personal, and intimate. (see Halls work on Proxemics). These spaces not only helped us navigate culture and communication but also belonging. Indeed the church and other institutions often sought to foster belonging within certain spaces (eg encouraging alignment with a particular discourse in the public space of preaching, promoting connections in small groups, house groups in social spaces or prayer triplets etc in personal space). And in much the same way as the public space becomes intimate for a moment as we encounter a stranger walking towards us and adjust our path, so other spaces and peoples approaches to them have changed. The internet streaming of church services has blurred the public worship space as it enters homes and the personal space of prayer has gone into quasi social/public space as people phone it into a stranger for support. Whilst the intimate acts of compline or offices are made public as they are streamed from someones lounge or personal prayer space. Our physical and emotional proximity spacing and attitudes are changed and changing. What if this dehumanising and democratisation of spaces is something that can resource us as we prepare for the new normal. Our previous default (see Myers) as church was often to inhabit two spaces a public space (both in worship services and in social action spaces) and a social space (small groups) but what if instead of slipping back in that public broadcast space and social space (often hidden away in someones house) which together have too often fostered a dualistic separateness of the spiritual and human, we build on the new proximity emerging.

In Cumbria we have often talked about the mythical Maureen, who was faithfully part of the church for most of her life and now just retired continues to serve the local church and community. What ever we provide in terms of evangelism, discipleship and mission enabling has to work for Maureen. So when we talk about growing Fresh Expressions sparked by a question from Bishop Emma we have often said “wouldn’t it be great if every Maureen could have a FX around their kitchen table or in their living room”. I think this might now be more possible than ever. But it will not happen unless we build and learn from what God is doing now, and resist the urge to return to what was. The opportunity to merge and creatively continue to disrupt the proximity spaces to enhance a missional way of life where we live out our discipleship in every space is huge. What if all public worship and compile spaces are always on online so Maureen and few pals can gather around a table and join in in her kitchen. What if the thought for the week is streamed or printed and Maureen and different bunch of pals gather around a table that has now moved into the public space at the back of church whilst Shelia is at another table with different pals and does the same over cake. What if Maureen and friends come together and for a number of weeks in their personal space plan a way to serve the community and do this on last friday of every month. What if we hold the different spaces more lightly, and think strategically how they can resource one another more intentionally. WHAT IF and WHY NOT….

Use the tools in your box

I asked Rev Dan Crouch to do a guest blog responding to Beyond Broadcast. Dan used to be part of the StreetSpace/FYT community before heading to vicar school, and initially trained through CYM asa the Youth and Community Worker so I thought it would be get his perspective. I love what he offers and the humility to recognise he is a visitor on holy ground.

Dan Writes….
As I offer these reflections, I am aware that I am not a native minister in the online world. I have been offering services online for about six weeks. I am a visitor. I am walking on ground that does not belong to me and exploring a place in which I am unfamiliar. There are others who know this landscape better than I do and I am their guest. This is indeed Holy ground.

With that in mind, my reflections come from someone who is a visitor to this realm. I am also a curate with a whole 21 months(!) of experience behind me, so I suppose I am also still establishing how I interpret this calling of priest – and what a time to be doing that!

I think this recognition that I am a visitor in someone else’s realm is actually quite a helpful way of looking at how we might look at cocreating ministry online particularly with regard to the ministry of life events (baptisms, weddings, funerals).

People interact with the online world in a very different manner to the physical world. We see this through trolling on Twitter and comments on Facebook. The possibility of hiding behind a persona, not identifying oneself fully, keeping some elements of life ‘offline’ in order to protect ourselves and others. The lockdown has, in some ways, challenged our approach to life online because we are no longer able to engage in the physical world, can the online world simply replace that, and if so, what does that look like and how do we go about creating space?

As an ordained minister in the Church of England one of the privileges I have comes through the invitation to conduct a baptisms, wedding or funerals. One of the things that has struck me has been how surprised many people are that they can be cocreators in these services. Yes, there are elements that must be included, but there is much scope to shape things to represent individuals, couples and families. Often people will say ‘I don’t want to offend the church’, to which my response is always ‘I think the bar here is a little higher than you imagine, tell me what you are thinking and if I possibly can I will help you to make that happen.’ It is this open-handed approach to cocreating that I think must underpin our approach to church online. It is a journey of getting to know people, of building relationship, drawing alongside, accompanying, listening, and always serving. I will return to these five elements of the journey later.

The possibility to be a cocreator was also true in our physical gatherings as Richard’s original post acknowledges, and I would agree that, in our case, the cocreation has happened through the desire to retain the status quo! Those present should always shape the services we have – which is why in our church building, with the vast majority of members aged over 65 we have liturgy heavy services including traditional hymns where we celebrate the eucharist each week. I am not knocking this completely – I in part perpetuate it – and we are called to serve the church to which we have been called and appointed, but we also share the cure of souls for the whole parish (church and community) and the big realisation I have faced is that by taking elements of ministry online I have broadened the stretch of those who view me as a potential teacher/pastor in the faith.

It is interesting is that our online presence is engaging a similar number of people as were attending our physical gathering, but I can be certain they are not just from our congregation because at least a third of our members do not have access to the internet. At the moment our approach has been more akin with broadcast than participation – probably because in my thinking we have been seeking to provide for our church community which is more used to a broadcast – but now, six weeks since the doors to the building closed I am being forced to consider how I might work with others to respond effectively to the needs of the local community.

I remember at college being taught about missional hermeneutics (interpreting the bible) and preaching and I remember one lecturer reminding us that every reading of scripture is a performance. It will not be read like that again, even if that same person is reading it. They also reminded us that every sermon/talk/address is for a particular context, group of people, needs and concerns, which is apposite advice at this time, but also offers a challenge because as we broadcast online and engage across a potentially wider congregation, how do we retain the local connection, relevance and importance? It feels there is a danger of becoming stuck in a paradox that as circumstances drive people to be more local, the church is moving online and becoming global. This is why we must ensure that we are serving our local communities, not just creating content for the online community. It is both/and not either/or.

Perhaps one the most challenging elements of cocreating worship is time, and as clergy learn various skills and are faced with the challenges of moving worship online, it is easier to say ‘I’ll do it myself’ than to share the burden with others. At this time of uncertainty, we are in a liminal space of opportunity and now is the time to embrace the possibility of change, but we are called to do so together.

The key elements of cocreating that emerge from my experience of the life events that may provoke our thoughts concerning Sunday worship

a) Building relationship – people approach the church, often with little/no relationship prior to the birth of a child, the engagement or the loss of a loved on. We respond, as representatives of Jesus, and get to know people rapidly, partly because there is an openness and a reason for our dialogue. There is a reason people are engaging and creating space to build this relationship will help. We may also find that our existing relationships are re-shaped by our current shared experience.

b) Drawing alongside – people are vulnerable, their experience, their emotions, their very selves are open and they need to be carefully engaged with. I am reminded of the journey of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples had effectively given up hope, they were walking to Emmaus talking with one another about what had happened. Jesus joins them where they are and walks with them. He does not change their destination, force them to go in a particular direction, or suggest he has a better route, but he draws alongside and travels with them, at their pace. We can draw alongside people online too, it takes time and effort and a commitment to engage.

c) Accompanying – people need to be walked through their experience. They do not know the choreography, they are unsure of the words. They need to be prepared, but they need to be accompanied, at their own pace, walking alongside them, sometimes leading them on, sometimes dropping back, sometimes carrying them. We need to be a little like a swiss army knife in terms of our willingness to be flexible, adapt and respond.

d) Listening – There is a lot of listening in these encounters. In my experience, it is much harder to listen in the online realm (some of this is connected to algorithms, but nonetheless it is a challenge) and many of us use the online world as a mouthpiece. It would be great if we were able, as the church, to find ways of modelling listening online. Pose questions, await responses, don’t judge but seek to serve.

e) Always serving – In these instances of cocreation we are always serving, serving God, and those who have approached us. As we seek to cocreate online and shape ‘church’ for what comes next in this liminal space, we need to ask ourselves who we are serving.

A possible direction of development in the future could be the online wake/celebration of life. For the vast majority of funerals that I am privileged to conduct at the moment the function of the funeral service is being performed, but the space for grief, for sharing memories, for gathering is either being omitted or postponed. It is such an important and significant space. When I speak on behalf of a family and invite people to a wake I usually use the words ‘the family invite you to [insert venue] to continue to share memories of…

In our cocreating of life events we are in the process of creating memories and holding space for memories. Perhaps this might be part of how we can serve our local communities through our online ministry at this time of coronavirus. Facilitating a space where things that need to be remembered can be, but also where new memories and new modes of being can emerge.

As I conclude, I reiterate that my ministry online is emerging, and has been necessary. responsive and reactive. Others with greater online experience of ministry can and will undoubtedly have more to offer to the conversation. I simply offer my reflections, observations and thoughts as a visitor to this holy space that so many call home.