All models are wrong

It seems that the church is looking for answers. The decline and subsequent issues have undoubtedly created a level of institutional anxiety, and in that seems to be casting around for answers, so at one level is asking great questions, but at another level looking for quick fixes. In this process I keep getting asked about the models we use up here, which in itself is problematic as I agree with my colleague who says “all models are wrong but some are helpful”. I like this statement as an activist it means we can get on and do something, but as a practical theologian and change advocate also means we need to ask some questions. Which I want to suggest is really critical if we are not going to be swept along with the organisational anxiety.

There is critical question often overlooked in the process that people seem to fail to ask which is “what does success look like?”. and I don’t mean this in terms of short term numbers, but more in terms of wider culture change. In part success for me means building a culture where people are confident with change, ready to give things a try and learn and grow as they do so. Success measured by numbers and targets is a short term fix, we can resource models, franchise programmes, and grow projects, if we are given resources. The challenge is to do those things critically and playfully to promote a wider change. If you were push me on it I would probably add that anything less is empire building rather than kingdom. It goes back to what ABC said at synod about faithful improvisation, but I think it is also about balancing evidence with making sure that we not looking for success in our own image or short terminism.

Perhaps we too easily see success in the stuff that is more like us, and then these become the models we champion. I would like to think I have a bit of grasp on the emerging church youth ministry scene, and a reasonable track record. Recently I have raised a few questions about the duplication of a model based approach, not because I don’t think these models being looked aren’t good but because on balance I think there is stronger evidence for investing in a wider non mainstream approach. For example I know the stats coming out about of some of the church army youth projects like Sorted, or FYT and StreetSpace, or God for All and NYC are amazingly strong, they are faithfully improvising approaches to mission and church that are hard to believe. However they all take an all models are wrong approach, so whilst they bear some family resemblance they are perhaps not in the image of church that the powers that be want to see, indeed they may even be asking bigger questions which is why in part they are faithfully improvising so well and seeing good results. Most people do good things, but when it comes to a wider shift we need to make sure we do the right things. It is no good just duplicating models even if these are the ones I like! We need to be better than that.

The easiest way I can illustrate it is with the current conversations around Resource Churches. A High investment, High Impact approach to mission, some of the recent stats suggest a good track record of around a 30% increased connection with people without church background, with a reasonable but fairly narrow cross section of engagement. Fresh Expressions on average are more culturally diverse and 75% engagement with people with no church background but smaller and more niche. BOTH ARE EXCELLENT BUT ALL MODELS ARE WRONG THOUGH SOME ARE HELPFUL. So why are we not making it a condition that if a Resource Church is funded that a local pioneer is appointed and connected to the resource church, and be line managed by an authority dissenter, so they the freedom to work alongside and outside that resource church. Perhaps this is the type of faithful improvisation we need from the hierarchy.

Welcome to the spacious place

Ive been thinking a lot about the intersections of place, people and relationship. I am concerned in FX we have stopped wrestling with the WHY of we do what we do, and what kind of space are we seeking to create. It can too easily become like friendship evangelism where we make friends or create places to gather but are dehumanising because they approach people as a commodity to be banked. A friend told a story of guy who became friends with someone from a local church, they did stuff together, got to know each other, their friendship grew and over time this guy shared his faith. The friend came to faith and started to get active in the church, and after a while he joined an evangelism course. The course ran a session on friendship evangelism and he recognised that this was what had happened to him and that day he left the faith. Ill blog at some point how the four values of FXs Missional, Contextual, Ecclesial and Formational help us find a different type of approach.

A while back I created a formula People + Place x Relationship = Space. I wanted to revisit this in the light of this quote I came across from Barbara Glasson below. I wanted to respond with something practical about how we reconfigure our gathering spaces, but I was drawn back to feelings of spaciousness of the community that emerged around Flow. We tend to orientate our thinking around space as the place that we control, our events, our churches our homes, when I used that formula it was around being in the places with others, encountering people building real relationship that created a space for stuff to happen that was beyond my control or a particular place, it was a space in which we all just flowed. So I am afraid I have ditched the practical and gone with the flow, and just offer a few thoughts that I hope helps you encounter the spaciousness we felt. Do let me know.

“Our church instinct tends to want to gather people in and keep them. Postmodern society tends to configure gathering in a different way. People are wary of being trapped. They need to see their exits.”

Our life together was a space made up of many different places, this spaciousness of many places gave a newly discovered opportunity to be yourself, to find a new you, and rediscover in whose likeness we are made. There were places to be and people to see, not from a rushed consumption, but from a deeper desire to be in the spaciousness that being together created. Our space that although had its similarities (safe, welcome, friendly open) was always slightly different depending on who turned up at the time, co-creation was embedded in all we did and so spaciousness abounded.

Our space was bigger than the places we met, sometimes a place came with certain boundaries, yet the formula held and the unconditional relational Flow meant even when people felt they couldn’t stay in that place due a boundary they knew thew they weren’t leaving the space, because something other flowed between and beyond us.

The space extended beyond the people, and whist people came and went they still felt part of the space, tied with loose bounds that still draw us together.

Flow was beyond exits, beyond holding, more than gathering, more than meeting it was and always will be a spacious place…

A new sort of resource church

Came across this article on Size Matters by Paul and reminded me that I had slipped in to the church commissioners report last year that our Mountain Pilgrims group (which was also cited by the ABC) was a new sort of resource church. What makes a resource church a resource church?
Mountain Pilgrims is tiny, but massive, it is shallow but deep, it is new abut ancient, it is open but centred, but most of all it is “allelon”, it is a shape and size that allows one anothering. If you want to know more on allelon read Pauls article or I have added a quote below.

Before Christmas we had our first Mountain Pilgrims leaders Tribal Gathering, in the room there were 9 people representing about 150 others, there were two tribes missing, and on the horizon we identified another three tribes were on their way to join us in 2018. We wrestled together on values, on shapes and words, we were challenged by each other’s theology and presence. The gathering included members and leaders as we are pretty blurry as to who is who, but we were one Anothering .

We have a brilliantly supportive bunch of people creating space up here for new things to happen in the county at all levels Including in the formal diocesian structures. Generally with the desire to try and find ways to make mission happen. I am so grateful to the volunteers and officers that work behind the scenes, they are brilliant people. Recently a committee for the diocese met and it was reported back to me that the question was asked About the financing of FXs. Whilst it’s small potatoes the finance officer reported that some members of MP had started giving to MP, and this was significant to the committee. It made me wonder if it is finance that makes a resource church, a resource church, as often scale is cited as a way to become self financing to resource mission? Then as I thought further maybe as we don’t have staff costs and buildings, of a normal resource church do those small potatoes mean we are already a resource church that pays its way? We are pretty much self funding, have gone from zero – 150 people in under two years with a total cost of about 2k and a bit of my staff time. So if it’s finance or numbers that makes a resource church a resource church do we fit the bill.
Maybe it’s resourcing mission that makes a resource church, We have resourced mission across the county, have new MPs groups springing up, and have resourced traditional churches to develop outdoor based mission opportunities. In the Spring one group is refounding a redundant church and starting a monthly Celtic type Sunday service that will be followed by a 4 mile walk and discussion.

Maybe a resource church has to have a big capital investment in staff and set up costs, because it’s about speedy growth. Mountain pilgrims we grew a further 20% this month alone, imagine what might have been if we had a couple 100k to play with instead of 2?

If what makes a resource church a resource church is up front investment imagine what we could have done with 100k instead of 2.

You might read this and think Richard is anti resource churches, I’m not but we do need to ask some critical questions about how change happens. If we are going to turn this big ship we need tug boats not new rudders, but you will have to wait for the next post on “was Jesus a both/and kind of dude?” When I can explain that.

Is there any theological insight into this question of church size? John Taylor in his seminal book ‘The Go-Between God’ explores the question of church size. His starting point however is not the church as we experience it, or whether this church or that church ‘works’, but the church’s essential nature as a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. For Taylor a primary spiritual nature of the early church is mutuality in community, expressed by the word allelon, ‘one-another’, a word that occurs frequently in the New Testament. Taylor he argues that church must be:

of a shape and size that enables this ‘one-anothering’. This is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is a hallmark of the church’s spiritual identity, about what the church is before it is about what it does
of a significant enough size to ‘be an embodiment of the life of the Kingdom’ but not so big as to tend toward a withdrawal from that sense of church alongside and amidst others in the world.
not so big that it has to be structurally organised to the extent that it thinks of itself primarily as an institution rather than a community.

Midwifery, FXs and Punk

My job title is Fresh Expressions Enabler and recently someone compared my role to a midwife. In many ways it makes sense as a description helping people prepare and respond to what is emerging, sometimes FX are planned and sometimes they are surprise.
However as I reflected on midwifes in the bible I was drawn to Exodus 1 and the role the Hebrew midwife played. They were told to kill the Hebrew boys and when challenged why this had not happened they responded, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
As Fresh Expressions have become more main stream they have become more defined, and it is great that roles like mine have emerged but with them come certain targets and ways of doing things. The gospel seed is vigorous and grows when it is nurtured, and yet recently I spoke to someone exploring pioneer ordination and she had had two projects killed before they could mature as they didn’t “fit” the church way of doing stuff. So often things seems to grow vigoursly, organically and in directions that we might not expect, so we need to make sure our imagined targets don’t get in the way.

What I have been trying to do in Cumbria is rather than having to be hands on and deliver loads of FXs, has been to encourage a (you might say promiscuous) culture, where people feel they have the freedom to experiment. Its not quite anarchy but it is punk, developing leading edge projects, with a bit of crazy energy. Punk only lasted a few months and it was never going to the dominant music of the 20th century. But the energy broke the system of music culture that had been around, and suddenly everyone thought anyone could give it a go. This was the culture changer, and if FXs are going to have any real long term impact, it will be in helping the church move from a culture of authority to participation, freeing people to pick up whats in front of them and give it a go.

Reframing mentoring

I watched the film Meru recently. Spoiler alerts……

The story of three elite climbers attempt on Meru, which also tracks the story of the web of relationships that made the attempt possible. Part of the allure of the peak was that the lead, Conard own mentor Mugs had attempted the peak in the eightys and failed, and was killed on another mountain. The level of trust between the three climbers was something to behold. Conrad had mentored Jimmy and introduced Renan to the party when they made their first attempt. Jimmy trusted Conrads call even through he had not climbed with Renan before, and during their first attempt they were held back by a storm, ran out of food and had to turn back meters from the summit. Then before they make their second attempt Renan, suffers a massive ski accident,that in reality means he should not climb again, but where Conrad and Jimmy choose to trust Renan the youngest and least experienced of the three to make the call that he is fit enough for a second attempt. There is something really interesting in the mentoring relationships between Conner and Jimmy and Jimmy and Renan, around the autonomy that the younger climbers are given. On the final attempt on Meru it is clear that at times Conner has to lead certain sections, and whilst all have a part to play, he is still the Sesei.
How these different levels of experience and skills are played out in the final attempt is fascinating, the grace and understanding of one another, and the level of trust takes it way beyond my notions of mentoring. This is picked up at one point when Renan cannot speak due to some sort of mini stroke, and but presses up the mountain, and this is accepted by Jimmy. Spoiler..Then I love that Conrad asks Jimmy to lead the final climb and summit first.

We often talk about discipleship and mentoring in emerging church circles, there is a lot of coaching going on, and in most contexts we hope the mentee will go beyond us. Yet what I observed was in Meru was something different, the mutuality and autonomy that came from working together was fascinating. Even in organisations where mentors and mentees share space, work on projects etc it feels like the power dynamic was different. I think it was the recognition that the Sesei needed the younger climbers to make certain moves, a fitness and dynamic that made the relationship more mutual, built trust but at the same time held esteem, a calling to dust and reframing of the old model of power dynamic relationships. I’d be really interested to apply this to the FXs just haven’t got a clue where to start.

Change the script

Some time ago (6 years) I posted THIS, as I was riffing on how change happens, borrowing from Transitology and emerging theology. I concluded that post with “the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and so (not intentionally) suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge who were and still are, key to helping make change happen.”

So I wanted to revisit that post now I’m in my new role. I am particularly interested in how Tranisitology interfaces with the double loop of change. (Watch THIS 8 minute video if you are familiar)

To recap Transitology (derived from political science and initially examining change in latin america) identifies 4 elements to the change process. 1, structural factors are inadequate by themselves, they need actors to help make change, 2 change happens at times uncertainty, 3 Actors are assumed self interested, 4, Property rights of the wealthy need to be challenged.
The institutional system of the church have travelled over the top of the first loop, it has gone beyond its peak. The emerging church and voices from the edge offered alternatives but the dominant system either crushed them intentionally, or unwittingly enticed the edges and in the process the distinctiveness of their voice lost.

So taking each of the 4 elements above let’s explore how alternative change or the new loop might be fostered:
1, The structures (and here I mainly mean the institutions and denominations) recognise the need for change and that they cannot not make the shift happen by themselves. They needed and still need actors on the edge of and preferably (in my mind) outside themselves to help make change happen. So their new role in change could be support and proactively help these groups network and form community so that the new voices are resilient enough to foster the new change loop. This is something we are hopefully working on up here.

2, The uncertainty and backdrop of the cultural shift to post (hyper) modernity is obvious, and the challenges it wrought both in terms of thinking and theological processes have seen some great stuff happen at the edge as the old walls are called to dust. So churches systems need to embrace the possibilities that uncertainty offers as a gift not a threat, and find ways to embed this into how they function, develop flexible structures that ebb and flow, develop information flow that shares ideas and models from across the network in an open source way thus helping people on the ground navigate the great emergence we are seeing.

3, Initial emergence was quite egalitarian, and practice driven by actors, working out what to do on the ground in the shifting context they found themselves. This flew in the face of self interest and created a platform for voices from the margin to be seen and heard. As the movement matured the voices shifted from the group to the individual, (which is needed as Actors play a key role), and more recently either into roles of public theology or marginalised. Perhaps the next phase is for the dominant system to rediscover, apologise and embrace the dissenting voices in real dialogue. I also think the individual voices need to resdiscover the communitas present in the early years.

So whilst the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and in so suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge, perhaps releasing resources without strings, targets, outcomes, and crucially not from a sense of institutional anxiety about the future (which there is quite a lot of in the CoE) might be a way ahead. Particularly if those resources are used to foster, resource and support the three areas mentioned above.

There’s no going back

We had a great day at our Cumbria fresh expressions day. I loved the mix of theology, practice, experiential works hoping and prayer maybe best summed up in the Maranatha yoga workshop with explanation, movement and meditation on a bible passage.

We kicked off with a poem of Arrival Lori wrote that went with the labyrinth that the marvellous Lou at Dot The Line made, see link at bottom of this.
then I opened with this video, followed by setting the tone with group work on Jesus – Mission – Church making sure what we ended up with was informed by Jesus values and approach to people. It was great to then work through the Fx stages and give shout out to people in Cumbria already excelling at different part of the story, like Jeff and Moresby Parks crew who are so great at listening to their community. I have to admit I got shed a few little tears talking about the wonderful Haven here
The day rolled well with keynotes workshops, a brilliant sum up from Jonny Baker who I had asked to listen in for the day. Various workshops including Food Glorious Food, Outdoor FXs, is God networking, stories, rethinking buildings, child spirituality and Maranatha Yoga. There were some great conversations, and here’s a few sound bites that we gleaned.

There’s no going back

We are writing a story and each week adding a new sentence

All spaces communicate values

Heads it’s church tails its mission church and mission are two sides of the same coin

Outdoor fresh expressions benefit from:
Awe – a sense of connection with the unseen.
Space – room to sense past life’s distractions.
Metaphor – exploring aspects of God/faith through the physical.

Finally we departed sent out by Bishop Rob reading the poem in reverse and working from the centre of the labyrinth out. See the poem and image here.

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.