Retelling the Good Samaritan and FX

Have you ever noticed who is asking the question in the story of the Good Samaritan? It made me think about the insititional church again, as in my new role with Fresh Expressions I have been using this oldie but goodie suggesting that perhaps we have put an imaginary lid on church.

Perhaps a bit of a rewrite of the opening of the Godd Samaritan may help you spot who is asking Jesus who is my neighbour…
A teacher, someone who helps make and interpret the rules, a culture setter, a guardian of truth asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?” Jesus replies “imagine YOU are walking down a road and are attacked, mugged, robbed and left for dead at the side….

If we flip the focus from the Samaritain maybe renaming the story could be retitled “The laws that bit back”. We see the teacher who had unpacked the rules, hurt at the side of the road. those walking past him at his greatest point of need were simply following the advice he had given and the culture that had formed around this. What was meant to be life affirming had become corrupt and eats itself.
What do you think maybe a call for Fresh Expressions to not only act differently but ask some critical questions about what is said, the way we structure belief, and the cultures being formed?

5 Turns the church needs to take

In creative thinking Edward de Bono talks about the idea that our thinking is pretty one way and we need provocations that act like stop signs to help us move from the one way street to change direction. In this post I want to identity 5 Turns that the church needs to make and suggest some provocations that may help people make that turn. These are sometimes deliberately designed to be theologically ambiguous, because the action (the turn) takes places in reaction to the sign (provocation) so it doesn’t really matter how spot on some of the provocations suggested are.

From a Gathered church to Gatherings
There is something good about being together, but the way we talk about the gathered church and hold onto it as a concept takes peoples thinking down the line, that church happens at a particular time or place. We don’t mean to do this and preach that church is about people but the medium is stronger than the messages we preach. A provocation that may help is to start calling the different groups you have church, Toddler Church, Breakfast Church, Youth Church, Walking Church, Lunch club Church, even if you are not sure that is exactly what they are. If church starts where Jesus is with others, and it is about people not buildings see where this language takes you…

From Walls to Wells
This comes from a well known story. When a sheep farmer from the UK visited vast farms in Australia and asked the local Aussie “how long does it take you to build all the fences?” and he replied “we don’t build fences we just dig wells”. People in churches are on the whole great, most I meet are loving, kind, generous, and just good people to be around. But we have so many walls that stop people encountering this well of human goodness, we build them with theological positions, membership structures, hoops we like people to jump through and we are perceived to be closed in. Extend whatever practices you have that build community in your church and help people in the church when they are in need beyond your walls. If you do cake after the services well, bake cakes for the local brothel. If you do meals for a week when someone has a baby, contact the local midwife and offer the service locally. If you welcome a new minister with cakes, a guide to life in the village, and local tips on the best pubs and when to put the bins out, do the same for anyone who moves into your street.

From Contextualisation to Inculturation
Churches are slowly waking up to the fact that culture has shifted, that we need to be in missionary mode, and so people are doing a lot of work to try and ensure the services (no just sunday services) are relevant to the context. Those at front are more often than not aware that language needs to change, people don’t understand the jargon and we need to find ways to share the gospel with people that relevant and real to the local language and context, (contextualisation). However there is a bigger cultural backdrop that requires a missional response that is more than contextualisation. Culture is a semiotic fluid thick, with meaning and culture eats contextualisation strategies for breakfast. We need to recognise the participative nature of God, who is active in the community before we get there, and already working in the culture. We need to move beyond contextualising the gospel message to what theologians call inculturation, a process that is far more participative, reciprocal and equal. Where we allow those we are serving to speak into our context, shape our beliefs about what is church and even what is the gospel. Most people in churches are pretty well networked with friends, family, and have contacts with people who simply don’t do the God stuff, rather than asking how you can reach them, find out how can they reach you with the gifts God has already planted in their lives. Why not develop an open PCC policy, where there are three or four members who do not attend church. Develop a council of reference made up people from outside of church, who can advise you and look at the ideas the church has, how it communicates, and what it says about what it believes. Host a community meal where ideas are presented and church members are asked not to speak, but to invite friends and be there to encourage those friends to speak honestly into your context. Make it the church members responsibility to follow up the suggestions made, and make sure the church changes as a result of the process.

From Answers to Questions
This one is really quite simple, we need to communicate more like Jesus. We need to tell stories and ask questions. When church held a more central position in society and christendom was still in place, we got used to providing answers. We even developed systems to help this answer driven approach, like apologetics, which at one level for that time when culture was open to the idea of fixed truths, was okay. (I’d probably argue it was more to with power and control than Jesus but lets not split hairs).
A sermon does not become interactive simply because you throw out some rhetorical questions that the christians know the answers to anyway. We need to embrace a far humbler approach to mission, and see ourselves as co-searchers for truth. To find the right questions to ask, and develop participative process that provide spaces for people to genuinely explore. Redesign a church service into a genuinely participative space (a byproduct of this maybe also genuine all age services), where regardless of age, all are seen as experts at the experiment of being human. Then instead of spending hours coming up with 3 points that answer a question few people are asking, the leader wrestles with God to find the right three questions to ask, and creates a space where those are explored by all the experts in the room. You could even tie the questions to the previous turn and ask your council of reference what are the questions we should be asking.

From Exclusion to Inclusion
When we follow the missionary god we cannot help but recognise the inclusive, loving, arms outstretched Jesus who died. So once again I quote Michael Curry “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” This is also not just a gay marriage issue, but about developing an inclusive way of being where all are welcomed, valued and served. Lets move beyond the arguments to find a way of being human and welcoming to all. So the the final provocation that may help us walk in a different direction is why not develop your own welcome notice like the one that was doing the rounds on Facebook a few years ago. welcome

if you want to pioneer Set your face like flint

I work with the wonderful Carolyn Dykes who has been pioneering the Network Youth Church across Cumbria. NYC is a fantastic initiative, it was way ahead of the curve, and has been trying to develop a more ecclesiological rooted model of youth work practice across the diocese for the last 7 years. Pioneers find new routes and pathways, and with the archdeacon Kevin, Carolyn has been pioneering within the structure of the established church, to create space on the ground for new forms of church with young people. In many ways she has had the hardest task of all pioneers, working within the system, and if I did #wonderfulwednesdays like my friend Gemma, Carolyn, Kevin and NYC would definitely be up there for a post.

As I said before, I often encounter people doing great stuff on the ground, but who are too close to it see how good it is. In this quiet corner of the North West I think I have uncovered a real gem in NYC. There is still a long way to go if we are to really embed a fresh approach to mission and ecclesiology, and I am really looking forward to helping NYC move forward into a new phase, but Carolyns vision and drive has been really pioneering, and I suspect really hard work! So here are a few of the things I have already gleaned as I have come alongside NYC:
– Embedding a radical approach into diocesan structures is hard work but it can be done!!! Amen can i get an amen!!!
– Holding the ecclesiological model is difficult but direct lines through the structure to episcopal oversight can be found
– even when senior leadership get it, the local context might not, so relationships and trust needs to be won and systems and permission from above can help
– The structure can help, but can become a problem, hold the values and be flexible, if good stuff happens on the ground you already some structures in place.
– The gravitational pull of traditional approaches to mission and ecclesiology is almost a cultural embedded phenomena it is strong and can easily lead to mission drift, but perhaps the structure can help act as a corrective to shift the culture towards re-imagination.

Navigating structures

One of the things that attracted me to my new role is how committed the leadership of the locally established church was to trying something new and seeking to reshape their structures towards this. Equally it brought a sense of trepidation in taking the role as I do think “newness has to happen elsewhere”. The phrase captures my lifetime of experience (so far) of being on the edge and is taken from Jonny’s reflections on Arkbuckle (HERE). You can also see some my further reflections on how this applies to our approaches to church (HERE) particularly the Typology work which connects to newness and Fresh Expressions. As an aside I think one of the reasons why lay led Fresh Expressions are so successful (HERE)is that culturally the lay leaders are automatically a space that is of newness happening elsewhere.

So even in this role with great supportive senior clergy who are trying to take risks, reshape structures and systems, I still feel called to try and navigate, carve out, and create space for a newness beyond. The work on structures so far has been excellent at starting the journey towards the more Modal/Sodal Fresh Expressions column of my typology, people are having great conversations I can capitalise on, and I have a least 6 Fresh Expressions things bubbling up in the first three weeks. However I think part of my role has to be about creating the elsewhere space for the more Emerging wing of the typology which will help generate the stories sparking the re-imagination of church, and I have couple these in the pipeline as well.

Blending Metaphor and Creative thinking

So I am two weeks into my new role as the Fresh Expressions Enabler and buzzing with ideas, met some great people and trying to navigate the structures and systems in place. There is a move in the diocese to reshape with Methodist and URC partners into mission communities, and inevitably everyone has a different take on what a mission community is. There are big questions about how to work with the structures and divergence as well as the need to recognise and embrace that “newness happens elsewhere”.

SO two things have come to mind, firstly is to try and find a metaphor for Fresh Expressions/ Mission Communities/Pioneering in Cumbria, that is broad enough to cope with the divergence but sufficient to bring some focus. (at the moment I am playing with dry stone walls). Metaphors can be powerful, and the strength of using them in an emerging context is obvious. They offer stretch and focus, give people space to imagine and ground practice. I am also interested in using it as what Edward De Bono would call a provocation to promote creativity (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjSjZOjNIJg about 3mins in) and as a tool towards lateral thinking. This may mean reducing the dry stone wall concept to a single part (eg stone) to increase the effectiveness of the provocation, but somehow we need to help people change track. Perhaps the balance of using the stone as the provocation and wall as the metaphor will mean discussions can navigate the divergence/focus issues.

Secondly I want to navigate some regional types of mission communities that can span the structures and re-imagine Fresh Expressions in this context, and equally these could act provocation signposts to encourage people down a different track, the challenge will be how to shape them and communicate them with the wider community.

What are the weaknesses of this approach and has anyone blended metaphor and creative thinking approaches in the emerging church contexts?