Crafting Mission in Systems

This a longer post than usual. Ive shared this paper with a few people and they have asked me to post it more widely. I’ve had trouble with the images so had to upload as PDF so you will nee to click sorry

Its been 8 years since moving from deliberately being on the outside edge of church to moving to the inside edge of the institution. We have had ups and downs and for the most part I have loved the roller coaster. I have used different theories of change over that time, had brilliant colleagues and seen some great stuff emerge. I have been given a freedom of movement, support to experiment, opportunities to lean into my gifts, encouraged to play pirate, and we have got a lot of stuff done and had a lot of fun, tears and laughter along the way. At our peak before covid we were seeing a new fresh Expression of church emerge every few weeks, and overall Fresh Expressions now made up around a quarter of the church in Cumbria. I hope our work has been Christ centred, and we have tried to work both at a practical level on the ground and taking this learning to work at a cultural and systems level. I think mission is much more of an art form or craft than something more mechanistic or technical. Indeed when we reduce the mission of God to a simplified process or technology for conversion we slip away from the heart of the gospel.

I have always thought quite strategically and tried to adopt a posture and missional humility that is rooted in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness where he resisted the power to provide, perform or possess. I have often failed to live up to this. 8 years on and maybe I’m starting to find a way to talk about how to make space for the craft of mission in the systems I find myself in.

There are two key concepts that have helped start to find that language. The first concept is a process Wheatley and Frieze’s Two Loops of change which I have discussed before and secondly the CYNEFIN framework. The focus of so much my first few years was on the bottom arrow of the two loops, Naming, Nourishing, Narrating and Networking what was happening on the ground in the emerging mission and Nurturing more and more of this.


The result was a stronger missional ecosystem, that planted over 100 fresh expressions, some great people and practice on the ground, and a fledgling mixed ecology of church. We made mistakes along the way particularly around how we held the tension between time honoured and fresh expressions of church, how we communicated and simply by dropping the relational ball at times because the scale and pace of the change at times was overwhelming.  As the emerging system gained traction it was clear that there was more going on here as we sought to follow the mission dei in our communities and reflect that back into our systems. Perhaps it was a practical outworking of what Taylor calls “one mission in two directions out into the world and back into the church”. (which I also think is at the heart of Pioneer Ecclesiology).  As momentum built eventually, we were asked by the bishop what would this look like to help the whole transition and the partnership with CMS was formed. A key piece of work then needed was to find a way to talk about the whole system as one rather than its two constituent parts and so we developed Mixed Ecology Trellis. This really helped us counter some of the previous failings and changed the conversations on the ground because everyone can find themselves on the Trellis. It also recognises that people can have multiple places of belonging[1] eg a time honoured church can also have fresh expressions, innovate etc. So instead of setting people up against one another it honours the diversity and better reflects a more authentic ecclesiology that recognises the multiplicity of what church is.


However we also recognised the value of the two loops and that we needed to take the learning from the emerging system if we are to have any hope of growing a mixed ecology that wasn’t just a technical change but something more crafted and genuine. So with what seemed seems like an impossible challenge from the bishop to try and take the whole church with us I started to play with the how the two loops translating them into the time honoured and emerging church and mapping the Trellis onto the loops alongside who and how we might support the transition.


The second concept is The CYNEFIN framework. So often the church finds itself in disorder because we fail to recognise which of the four zones; simple, complicated, complex and chaos we are operating in. (technically there’s 5 zones as disorder is one but simplified for this post)  Consequently, we often reach for a tried and tested method of mission thinking that Best practice is what is required when in fact more often than not the cultural context of mission means for the most part we need Emerging or Novel practice (see left hand side of image CM4 below). Theology also plays a key part in the process and often our preconceived ideas, theologies, orthodoxies and practices will pull us towards thinking we are operating in a zone we are not really in.


Church Planting can work really well in the Simple zone where you are clear about the context and variables. This is why Resource Churches saw such success where there were clearly identified student population, cultural contexts and resources that fitted were utilised. Where there are the right conditions it is easier to sense, categorise and respond with what is needed in terms of leaders, worship leaders, plant size etc to ensure a best practice result. This is great and to be applauded. However the mistake we too often make is that we too often try to assume that what is best practice in a simple zone will work in another zone. Church Planters have quickly learnt that in rural areas or estates you need to reach for good practice as the context and call of the missio dei in those places demands something different. It may carry much of the same charism but if you try to force a one size fits all you are bound to fail.


Another key piece of learning is that as the context shifts further towards a post christendom, hyper (post) modern culture the more key the left-hand side of the framework becomes. It is essentially the R&D department. We may have some models of good practice of youth ministry that can operate in the complicated world of young people but in reality, we only scratching the surface. So much of the world is much more complex or chaotic we need to find different ways forward. The development of Bubble church in Southwark diocese is a good illustration. Towards the end of Covid as the world opened up to the chaos of social distancing a way of running a service for children and families each sitting on their own rug bubble was enacted. It was a novel practice for a chaotic situation. Growing over time and the shift away from social distancing this novel form of church has been able to grow and where the context allows can now also be a model of best or good practice and duplicated in other areas. Likewise Network Youth Church recognised the complexity of youth ministry in Cumbria and was able to take the learning from the emerging church to probe and sense a way forward. Using the 6 stages of the FX journey we have seen church emerging for 1000s of young people in a way that looks different across the county but shares the same DNA and intention of being and growing church with young people.

The critical challenge to the system is that funders like Best and Good Practice because the outcomes are predictable, easily measured and more attainable. So often words like scalability, or repeatable are used which are fine but missiologists know that due to how culture operates and the cultural ties and inherent cultural tribalism (we mix with people like us) the reach within the simple or complicated zone is drastically reduced.  Breaking out of these zones and developing emergent and novel practice is why NYC and MYCN have been able to reach such significant numbers of young people who have no previous connection with church.


In terms of funding models what we measure becomes what matters. As funders look towards the right hand side of CYNEFIN these best practice and good practice inevitably become a lense through which they see the world. It is easy to forget that often best practice started out a novel. One way to consider this is to encourage funders to recognise the difference between Lead Measures and Lag Measures. In the terms of growing New Worshipping Communities in the missional context we will be seeking Emerging and Novel practices which essentially correlates to the bottom loop of change. So the lead measures that we should be looking for are things like Relationships, Connections, Networks, Conversations, Reflective Practice spaces, New Learning etc. The lag measures are much more obvious on the right-hand side as we know what good practice eg a resource church looks like. One challenge we have faced in Cumbria has been that we have tried to measure Novel and Emerging practice with Lag criteria that is more fixed. This will mean we may not/cannot hit funders targets in particular ways and obviously that will make them question the validity of novel or emergent practice.

However as culture moves further towards the left without significant development of emergent and novel practice the long term future of any system will remain bleak.  This is especially true for the church systems as research also shows that where systems are wrapped in notions of orthodoxy change is harder. Work that is seen as novel or emergent practice is often accompanied by novel or emergent thinking. So its takes a secure system to allow this process to happen and a humble system and leadership to take the learning and apply it their wider context.

This is especially hard in the church systems as we exist in a double wrapped paradigm. Chris Neal coined the phrase “gravitational pull” in relation to pioneering in the institution. He would talk about the gravitational pull of inherited church acts as a double wrapped paradigm. There’s the culture/tradition that has been placed around the original (dissenting) idea as one layer ie the way we do things around here. Then the second structural layer of leadership hierarchy etc. Chris used to say pioneer projects need enough velocity to break that gravitational pull. Like a rocket needs the boost to break gravity and head towards the moon until the moon starts to pull it forward. So the challenge of current system is are we willing to at least offer enough investment in the left hand side in the hope that we may like Bubble church learn some lessons that can encourage a genuine mixed ecology.

Back in the 1990s The Lausanne Conference for world evangelisation stated that a key factor for the church and its leaders in the future will be their ability to develop a missional humility that learned to listen well to the edge. I think it would be fair to say that this is still a lesson we are learning and when it comes to investing in innovation, we are particularly bad. The church seem to get collective amnesia every 15 years or so. The church in the City report gave rise to Church Urban fund that was later cut, the Youth Apart saw a growth in the development of the youth service and work force across the church and subsequently cut. The latest has been the withdrawal of funding from Fresh Expressions following what may have been the most impactful report of all Mission shaped church.

In the context of the church system how the left hand side often plays out is that we see orthopraxis emerging as people seek to reach new people in new ways with the good news and this is then accompanied by theological reflection. This theological reflection can then be challenging to the perceived orthodoxy of the system it has emerged from. Particularly where missional humility is lacking. But when the theological work is not embraced, we are weaker as whole for it and the new practice emerging is much more susceptible to the whims of change rather than being recognised a genuine works of the spirit and backed longer term accordingly.

Audre Laude said  “For the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”Therefore as we visit the two loops not only do we need to nurture the practical outworking of mission on the ground, talk about its scale, energy and hope, we also need to find ways to nurture the thinking (and pioneering ecclesiology)  that’s accompanies it. Inherent in this challenge is the need to do this in a way that honours the new, breaks the gravitational pull and reflects the humility needed in the new missional context. If we are discovering the G-d who flows with skaters or Christ the wounded healer that is the G-d or Christ we need to reflect this in how we talk and how we measure not just in the theology that accompanies it.

[1] Co-incidentally CYNEFIN also means places of multiple belonging

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.  

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.


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

Post pandemic expressions of church needed with younger people

Pandemics are not a new phenomena, and Dr Nicholas Christakis suggests several patterns can be observed in society as we pull out of pandemic situations. Exploring these, here are a few observations the church should heed to be alive in 2021 and beyond.

Firstly, whilst all the stats suggest people will not return to church gatherings in anything like the numbers pre pandemic, and this decline will continue, it will be initially masked by the huge desire people have for what Christakis calls “extensive social interaction”. Like the rise of online interactions saw with churches moving online, we must not be fooled into a false sense of security that everything is going to be fine post pandemic. The predicted increase of religiosity which is usually seen, during the pandemic was played out in the rise of online visitors, and hopefully some churches will be able to build on these relationships and capitalise on the desire for interaction as lockdown eases during late 2021, but it is unlikely to stick. Beyond 2022 and going forward the nature of the social interaction observed after previous pandemics is more hedonistic in nature, so it is unlikely people will look to the church spaces as a point for gathering longer term, particularly young people. So the impact for stronger decline with an already aging profile of traditional church shouldn’t be underestimated.

However I am hopeful that the desire for social interaction accompanied by the more conscious awareness of millennials (I know there’s generalisation issues here) will provide an opportunity for the church to connect through its myriad of great social action and social interaction initiatives, such as Toddler groups. But churches will need to shift their approach to attract this group and engage them beyond the social space and the critical posture that needs to be adopted is that of missional humility. The need for this missional humility should not be underestimated when we consider the rise of Trump, his evangelical alignment and the months people have had to think more deeply about who they are and how they want to be. So perhaps we need to plan parallel approaches utilising one approach for the early millennials, now with young families, that builds on the assets of groups that already took place pre pandemic. Then we will need a second approach for those younger, who if Christakis is correct will be “relentlessly seeking social inactions”, seeking out hedonistic opportunities, with more access to money thanks to a recovering economy who will be increasingly rejecting religiosity. Perhaps we need to develop something far more akin to the emerging church of the early 1990s who were able to engage the generation emerging from the early 80s HIV and AIDS epidemic reaching them in very different creative ways. These emerging expressions were rooted in the real relationships people were seeking and held a missional humility that made space to journey with people in ways that had rarely been seen before.

Mixed Ecology a language of protest since 2011?

Super nerdy I know but the first time heard the phrase “Mixed Ecology” was sitting with Mark Berry back in May 2011 because it was the day I started Twitter. I had just heard Rowan give a brilliant address on ecclesiology, but around our table we were struggling with the economic metaphor and playing with ecology instead. There was Twitter feed behind Rowan and I wanted to join in.

It’s great that in more recent years Mixed Ecology as a concept has been gaining traction. Over the years the ecology phrase and mindset has become increasingly important to me to root and give shape to type of change I want to see. Back in 2011 at the conference my earliest tweets during the conference as Rowan spoke at were “if change comes the edge not sure I saw enough edge to change the landscape of church as we know it…” and “institutions on catch up”.

I wanted to reflect on these tweets as in reality the rise of the phrase Mixed Ecology shows nothing much changed, the institution is still on catch up. The term Mixed Ecology is great but once again its something developed from the edge, something other that has been colonised by the institution, and in doing so lost meaning, understanding and authenticity.

Notions of Ecology run deep within the emerging church, its about far more than a catch all phrase that seeks to make everyone feel welcome. For example It inhabits notions of an embodied ecological leadership approach that is highly networked, rooted, connected and equal. This is in direct contrast to the more mechanistic, modernist, leadership within the institution.

Heres something we wrote last year at the CMS HUI and perhaps if we are going to talk about a mixed ecology we remember it was a language of protest and contrast to the fiscal language of economy seeking to be faithful to the edge and start here…

often the system works in silos
but the ecosystem connects & works in synergy

systems are heavy with titles, officers & symbols of power;
the ecosystem fosters relationships that are real, authentic & symbolic

the system works behind closed doors where knowledge is power;
the ecosystem is transparent and lets the light in

the system can become self-sustained,interested in sustaining the institution;
the ecosystem starts small where life & growth find a way

the system is stuck in a past reality
the ecosystem reframes, reimagines & adapts to the reality of the now through creative stimulation


the system can tend towards the letter of the law
& ecosystem leans towards the spirit

the system can struggle with new thinking where
the ecosystem embraces the “heretic”

institutional systems fear chaos,
ecosystems thrive from it

systems can be based on control & punishment,
ecosystems find new ways of trust & solidarity

systems produce isolationism & monoculture,
ecosystems live in and by generative & fruitful symbiosis

institutional systems cultivate comfort zones & boundaries.
ecosystems foster growth beyond these boundaries

the institution designates who can be in the space;
the ecosystem simply creates space.

The call of the pioneer and ecclesiastical hypothermia

A final post from Nigel and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my good friend Mark Berry recently who I hope might write more fully on ecclesiastical hypothermia at some point! When above the death zone on a mountain, we know that to survive we need to be mobile and get off the mountain but our body wants to pool resources to protect what it believes are the vital organs… so it shuts down the very things that could make survival possible… it tells us to sit down and sleep, to pull energy back from the limbs into the centre… in an attempt to keep the core alive as long as possible it shuts down and sleeps itself to death!!!

Nigel writes…

The call of the pioneer: hoisting sails in the storm of crisis, chaos and uncertainty
This is the last of my reflections about what we can learn from fresh expressions of church in the current season. It invites us to draw on the sense of adventure that pioneers and those curating fresh expressions embody; hoisting sails in the current trinitarian storms of crisis, chaos and uncertainty.
As I begin, I want to acknowledge that it’s rough out there. The storms of illness, bereavement, unemployment, fear and anxiety are raging. The waves are big ones and the winds fierce. Whilst this is a sobering and challenging assessment, we would be foolish to pretend that conditions are anything other than turbulent and threatening.
It would be understandable if we looked to the gods of safety and certainty as antidotes to the crisis and chaos threatening to engulf us. Indeed, I argued in a recent session on ‘crisis leadership’ that our very first response needs to be to protect people and try and get an element of stability in the situation. That is the priority. However, once we have done some of that, I believe we need to look to the future, rekindling our purpose, vision and mission. We need to develop where we are going, revitalising where necessary – hoisting sails so we get to where God needs us to get to. To fully catch the winds, we may need to start doing this while the storm is still raging.
There is an Irish proverb that I resonate with – ‘the seas may be rough, but the rocks have no mercy’. Perhaps it is my Irish ancestry that engenders the appeal, or maybe the pioneer in me that wants to recognise the value in seizing the day, taking the risk and venturing into the unknown. Whatever the reason, I like the thinking. I know that if I don’t hoist the sails, I risk perishing on the rocks.
Institutions usually play it safe; especially church institutions. Conformity, regularity, longevity, consistency and certainty are the cultural narratives of many. Thankfully, for those of us committed to hoisting the sails, many fresh expressions of church have broken free from the shackles of inertia typified by these constraining cultural values. Many fresh expressions and pioneer folks are risk takers; they are prepared to take a chance and hoist the sails even in the most stormy of seas.
I’ve been thinking about taking chances quite a bit of late. I’ve been asking myself if our best chance, is to take a chance. Might we be better served taking some risks and exposing ourselves – deliberately – to chance, especially when we don’t know what to do or where to go? Might this be the best chance we have of allowing God to meet us in the sea that is the ambiguity of our uncertainty? I say this in the firm belief that when we have no idea where it is we are supposed to be going or how we are going to get there that it is better to set off on the adventure and allow the voyage to determine what outcome subsequently results.
Perhaps we can learn afresh from those who have pioneered new forms of church and once again create an ecclesiological culture that celebrates, mandates and honours those who hoist the sales for God. Once out on the waves, tasting the salt, and being guided by the sun, moon and stars, we may need those who might be considered more a safe pair of hands and who can steady the ship. However, if we align ourselves with these good folks and allow them to influence our initial thinking too much, we risk never setting sail in the first place.
For the pioneer, the hoisting of the sails is something that may come more easily than for others. For my wife, Sue, and I this is something we are actively doing right now. We have left the church we have been part of for 7 years, Sue has given up her job as a senior school leader, and we are in the process of applying to be foster parents. We don’t know where this journey will take us or what the outcome will be, but we’re hoisting the sails and setting sail.
In doing this, we are not being reckless. Preparations for our journey are meticulous. We are preparing according to our well-defined values, being true to our core purposes and seeking to do the right things in terms of what we believe in. We’re undertaking training, engaging in learning and development and committing everything to God in prayer. We may stumble upon crisis, encounter chaos, and be confronted with uncertainty. To borrow a thought from Richard and Lori Passmore, we may find dragons as we sail into uncharted waters, but I hope we continue to have the courage to hoist those sails.
I also hope those who are thinking about what church might look like beyond the pandemic, might stop looking to the rocks. I hope they look beyond asking questions about when they might re-open buildings, how they can do communion, and when they can sing together again. Such questions betray a lack of adventure and display inertia and malaise. Instead, I hope they look to pioneer, to go where they have not gone before and venture to the vast and wide-open oceans. Hoist the sails and explore uncharted waters. Bon voyage …

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)
S and S Murray-Williams (2012) Multi-Voiced Church
B. Kapil (2020) How To Wash A Heart
N. Pimlott (2009) Participative Processes