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

What counts?

How many people came to church on Sunday?  How many baptisms?  How many weddings?  How many came to the Fresh Expression gathering?  Are the numbers going up?  Are our churches growing?  These were our questions three months ago.  Then we left our buildings and we had a whole new set of questions.

How many logged into church on zoom?  How many watched the video on youtube?  Hurrah, more people are connecting remotely than ever came to church in the building!  Then more recently: How many of our online viewers will join us when we are back in the building?

But what if these are the wrong questions?  What if we are not supposed to be concerning ourselves with church growth at all, at least not in the numerical sense?  Dare I say that we should concern ourselves with other priorities than church growth?

Forty-six years ago Lesslie Newbigin returned from India and in 1989 wrote a book: ‘The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.’   It has become a classic, much read and quoted but the point often missed, because his point is that committed faithful believers will always be a minority.  It is how it always is.  It happened to Jesus so who on earth are we to think it will be different for us – he had crowds in the beginning but numbers dwindled.

Newbigin argues that the church has a key and important role to play in wider society, that our presence within society bringing challenge and change is critical.  We are to be confident in what we learn from Jesus, to live out and communicate faith.  But we are to bear in mind that our individualistic society has blinded us to communal aspects of salvation, meaning counting numbers is missing the point.  We’re to focus on changed society as the outcome rather than church growth.  Newbigin writes: ‘We get a picture of the Christian life as one in which we live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is… from within that indwelling try to understand and cope with the events of our time and the world about us and so carry the story forward.’ (p.99.)

What if we take seriously the calling to be salt and light, yeast in the dough, at times visible and other times invisible, a small ingredient that changes the whole?  What are our questions now?  How many people turn up on Sunday morning is no longer the priority, unless we have fallen into the trap of caring more about the institutional structures than the heart of what God is doing.

The questions then become about what the world need us to be and do, right now, as we face this crisis and wider societal challenges.  What is God working on?  What needs to be said and done in order to support society to re-engage well, to move forwards into something more connected, more earthed, more real, kinder?  Who are our partners in this work for the Common Good?

I find it hard to care as much as the church thinks I ought to about numbers coming to church.  I understand that people gathering to share together in the story of God is a good thing.  We need refreshing in what renews our vision, we need one another, we need God.

But turning up isn’t the point – the point is whole lives lived in God.  Right now, there are bigger questions at stake than numbers at church, whether in a building or online.  We have a unique moment as society, we have choices to make.  Right now, that is what I care about, that is what matters, and that is where my energy is going.

Cate Williams 1st June 2020

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

Sunday Papers In conversation

Just to let people know that over the next few weeks/month Sunday Papers is going to have some different voices posting. Following a few on line web chats a bunch of pioneer people will be using This blog to post thoughts about about how the church might inhabit the now and the not yet of the corona situation. So added a new category corona if want to access these posts. It’s a great line up people who might post so watch this space.

Sunflower Competition

During the corona out break we are running a sunflower comp. There are two pdfs that you might want to use locally.
The first is a poster to invite people in your street to join in:
poster http://www.sundaypapers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/poster.pdf

The second is a note to send spare seeds to friends note to go with seeds
http://www.sundaypapers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/note-to-go-with-seeds.pdf

Play and Dissent In complex systems

On the 8th Feb we are having a taster day for the certificate in pioneer mission that will be starting in September as part of the Northern Pioneer Centre. The day the Pastoral Statement landed I was planning a session for the taster event on the stories pioneers find themselves in and using Arbuckles notions of dissent and lament. Particularly how pioneers led by Jesus find themselves so often on the edge and how they need to value the experiences of seeing the beloved manifested in those places as resource for hope and a call to dissent. “There can be no constructive change at all, even in church, unless there is some form of dissent. By dissent I mean simply the proposing of alternatives, and a system that is not continuously examining alternatives is not likely to evolve creatively.”
Arbuckle Refounding the Church
I guess this is where the church (as denominations) often gets caught, as it fails to understand system complexity. This system complexity helps make spaces that try to examine, try to propose alternatives, and even try’s to listen (E.g. shared conversations) but is placed within an institution (and fixed false orthodoxy paradigm rooted in the enlightenment) that favours reductionism that can never compete with the complexities of following the way of love in the person Jesus. So dissent really matters, because orthodoxy that exists in a vacuum is not truth, and the Jesus way demonstrates orthopraxis that love is a way of dissent toward shalom.

At the same time my FB memory popped up with “ Whisper, somewhere beyond usefulness is a land where play reigns.” For May 29-31st we are following the Taster day with a Pioneer Fiesta(all ages welcome). In the heart of the Lakes there will be camping (with the opportunity to come early if you want a holiday) or book a B&B, and join in the stories, food and play. We are playing with different voices animating Mark 4 going to the other side of the lake. The word animating is used deliberately as there will be playful experiments including a messy take, an outdoors take, an artists take, an entrepreneurs take, a priests take, an inclusive take etc all around Mark 4. We are also Literally taking a paddle steamer to the other side of the lake and having a band and party on board. If you want to find out more email godforallevents@carlislediocese.org.uk.

At the moment I know I am called to be on the inside edge of this system and my commitment to the bride of Christ keeps me hanging there. At times I find playing with words is one of the few ways I can cope when the institution gets too much so here is an offering Of hopeful playful dissent.

Love is judged unworthy and tears of sadness grow.
Acidic edicts, camouflaged in priesty garments,
close doors to grace filled embraces.
Love sits outside with the masses
Bewildered at processes so reduced so disconnected
and so this holy water from different wells will flow.

Listen and Love with no strings attached….

one of the things that was evidenced in the Utopia for realists book was how well people responded when given no strings attached money. Experiments offering homeless people a no strings gift of 3k showed amazing turn arounds, and even when given to people deemed higher risk eg struggling with addictions. It made me think about people perceive the church as having strings. I wonder how much we have corrupted love, how much we have overthought love, categorised it, conditioned it and disconnected it from grace. Sarah Savage, ‘The experience of being listened to is so close to the experience of being loved as to be indistinguishable.’ To truly listen is to love and yet even in fresh expressions where listening precedes loving and serving, and building community we easily fall into the trap of listening with an agenda, we listen to spot the opportunity, to find out how we might love and serve this community. We need to to better empty ourselves, to more fully understand grace if we are to really listen and love.

Realist or Idealist

Im reading a great book Utopia for realists and it made me ponder how often people mistake me for an idealist when Im often just a realist. Theres a great chapter on why we should give everyone free money, and the evidence that no strings attached giving lifts people out of poverty in amazing ways and really strong evidence for the universal basic minimum income. Yet how often do we (and I think very often in the church) struggle with new ways of doing things even though there is often overwhelming evidence that if you doing things differently good stuff happens. We are locked into certain patterns and behaviours, ideals and constructs, that mean we ignore new possibilities even when confronted with realism (often in terms of evidence based research) about what is currently going on or with realism (often in terms of evidence based research) about how different approaches work.

Too often it is idealism that makes people write off new ideas, its just too pie in the sky, and yet too often realism is mistaken for criticism, so little headway is made there either. I think I am often caught somewhere between the two, I dream of a better world and do what I can towards it. I read research and try to use evidence, experience and the Holy Spirit to feel my way forward, so can be told Im being critical. Any ideas?

Live life on the bass note not the treble

I was at a FX Gathering last week and Abi Pitt from the salvation army used the phrase about paying attention to the bass notes and not the treble and I loved it. A while back I developed a presentation around the idea of Fxs and Jazz, how knowing the basics helped with improv. (not that I know anything real about jazz). What i loved about the bass notes was that so often its the treble that sticks out, that call to attention, those moments are often easy to spot. Perhaps if we pay attention to the bass notes of love, acceptance and humanity we can become more like Jesus and spot Matthew that tax collector, sitting in his booth going about his everyday business and not just Zacchaeus up in the high in the tree.