An exercise in missing the point

Ok maybe it’s because I’m not feeling great with man flu, but I’m screaming inside as I read the peice “why does it matter if young people do theology” As it seems such a good question but so misses the point because it is rooted in an old paradigm perspective that flys in the face of all the good stuff that millennials are offering that the article cites earlier. It demonstrates the antithesis of what being woke is.

I agree “this is where theology comes in. Theology matters because it redirects our worship. It realigns it. It always has. It offers new perspectives on the age old questions of ‘who am I? What am I here for? What’s the meaning of life?’, which are being asked in new ways by a generation who live in a constant state of tension and flux.” But the authors quick jump to the idea that theology is about communications and translation “for and to a generation longing for answers” is swift and telling, and spectacularly misses the heartbeat of millennials. It fails to see how rooted in power that approach is and how that the approach of theology as something worked out behind closed doors, and done too/presented to people is, flys in the face of the millennial culture. Whilst the approach may tap into the authenticity narrative that millennials are searching for, it does so in a rather inauthentic way that most millennials will see through. Now I have to admit im not a millennial, and yes the list of topics in the theology slam are all good, but for the “me too” generation a theology that explains/translates doesn’t matter. A theology that doesn’t include “other” in the conversation, or an assumption that theology is done by Christians doesn’t matter. What does matter is theology that is cocreated with the woke generation, regardless of where they are on their journey of faith, a community theology around a bigger table where everyone has a seat is what matters to them because they graciously already know we need them more than they need us.

New Ideas are not the problem

It was Leon Festinger who termed the phrase “cognitive dissonance” as he observed that when reality clashes with our deepest convictions we would rather recalibrate reality than amend our worldview. So when we are seeking change in church circles, or with people of faith, facts and evidence can often make little difference. John Maynard Keynes said “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones”. So the question isn’t about the lack of new ideas but about HOW people and society moves forward into the new. This forward trajectory towards love and peace, is central to the christian narrative, the missio dei reconnection of church and mission, calls the church as the living text, the same spirit that called the early church calls us on to the kingdom that is now and not yet. A kingdom narrated and marked by love and grace. So the HOW remains the issue.

I want to unpack the HOW and the role cognitive dissonance plays by looking at a little twitter conversation I had with Jason Gardner who raised the question “In a dominantly secular age, surely Christianity – all religion – is seen as irrelevant. Do we fight for relevance or admit that culture clashes are inevitable as the worldviews of secularism and theism are utterly opposed?” Personally I think they are both far less opposed than we think, but both ideologies that people want to protect. The issue for theist is more about how wedded to the old we are when are part of the kingdom that is now and not yet, and called to be part of the ongoing living text. Jason response raised two really important issues, “the New Testament way is ‘live such good lives’ that people can’t argue against our way of life but Jesus was clear that the world will still hate us. Still living the story is key.” I assume he was drawing on 1 Peter in the first part “live such good Lives” and I love this text because it is so grounded, rooted in locality and space and time and a community (and hate it because it is such a high call). Whilst Jesus parts are more generalised, the “world” (root cosmos) will hate us, perhaps he is being more parabolic and what he is addressing is more about the powers (the strongman is the systems of oppression and violence, social, economic and political domination that pervade our world see Ched Myers reading of Mark) and people wedded to the accepted ways of being, those seeking to hold onto what they have, know, think. Because when I am in local grounded spaces where people are questioning the powers, the old dichotomies and binaries, I find tremendous love and grace more often than not from people who would not call themselves christians. Yet when I am spaces where christians are drawing lines of who is in and who is out, what is true and wand what isn’t, I usually find the opposite of the grace and love that is supposed to mark the kingdom.

So I wonder if Jesus is saying us being hated is too often used by people in power to prop up the status quo and not wrestle with what good looks like, and in doing so disconnects from the ongoing story of Jesus. The world hating us gets used to excuse as cognitive dissonance to prop up ways of being that end up showing very little love and reinforces old ideologies that struggle to connect with the church as the living and emerging text. As Dean chipped into the twitter conversation “creating a siege mentality leads to a culture war… which is just a clanging gong”

Pioneering Transparent Ops and Real Relationships

One of the issues I have struggled with most since moving from an organisation that has always been outside the institution and committed to the liminal spaces, to within the structures of the church, is staying true to the calling I think I have. It is very easy to tone stuff down for political expediency and so loose that sense of who I really am. Im fully aware I need to take care about the HOW of what I say what to whom, and I have always done that in no matter what role I am (good adult to adult honest and real dialogue in pretty short supply in the church), but Im not sure I should ever change the WHAT. Real Relationships for me is a two way thing, I can’t be in a real relationship with those I am serving in the institution if I am not being honest about the what of who I am and the what of what Im doing. I remember saying to students (usually in the first week or so) when I used to teach mission and theology that I wanted to be really up front and I saw part of my role as about corrupting them with the christ who would spend time on the margins with young people outside the church. Likewise with Transparent Operations I needed to be clear and open about what the third space fresh expressions were. That they were deliberately playful, pushing boundaries, pathfinding projects, about their failings and successes. I can be great at putting a positive spin on stuff but more often than not be too brutally honest about stuff so people end up thinking Im grumpy or negative. But my own self awareness has to be key to Transparent Ops and Real Relationships if we want to see increased impact and capacity and enable others to catch the vision.

I might not do anything as mad as Richard but…

I wonder if there is an argument to say that when sodal side of missional church pushes out that the modal takes care of itself. For full definitions see Ralph De Winters paper but for shorthand I borrow from Jonny Baker “modal is the local gathered and sodal the spread out focused around a mission task” I think that maybe when you do the sodal well the modal gets a jump start as well, we have seen a proliferation of Fresh Expressions of church in Cumbria close to the fringe of the established church. Many have been great, imaginative, relational and for those involved bold and brave steps, but they aren’t what I would have done, and thats okay. When I arrived in Cumbria I deliberately set up 3rd space Fresh Expressions which were more akin to the emerging church stuff I was familiar with, they were not connected to the local churches so they had space to play and work towards the right hand side of the pioneer spectrum. They included Maranantha Yoga and Mountain Pilgrims and so Ive heard it said “i’m not going to do anything as mad as Richard but I’ll give this a go…” Subsequently we have seen a modal move to action, engage their fringe really well, and yes its not what I would do but thats more than ok its brilliant.

Inclusion delusion

“A delusion is a false, unshakeable idea or belief, which is out of keeping with the patient’s educational, cultural and social background; it is held with extraordinary conviction and subjective certainty” (Sims A (2003) Symptoms in the Mind: An Introduction to Descriptive Psychopathology.3rd Edition)

There has been some really quite horrid stuff flying around the web in response to Vicky Beechings book Undivided. The level of vitriol sometimes explicit and sometimes couched in religious terms was disconcerting even for someone like me who knows just how difficult Christians can be when you challenge certain orthodoxies. So much so that the only word that came to mind was “deluded”. This is not a word I use lightly but to see the Christian story and particularly details (around practices, what is and what isn’t kosher) as so fixed, so unnuanced, so unchangable, is out so out of keeping with the “educational, cultural and social background” of the Christian narrative that it seems delusional is the only word available.
It is only by using the word delusional can I make any sense of some of the cheap shots (about her replacing one stage for another or she could never have been a Christian) that have been thrown Vickys way. The trajectory of Christian story is rooted in love, it starts in a garden and heads to a city, it moves in an ever unfolding redemptive arc, it didn’t start with Jesus, but he exemplified it, and it certainly didn’t stop with Jesus whose words to love our enemies call us to continue in those footsteps through the ages and continue beyond the now as what love really is, becomes uncovered. When you deny the humanity of one person, struggling, wrestling, seeking and sense making you step outside that arc, and you loose something in yourself.

We need to loose a bit more

I’ve been reflecting on the paradoxes in faith, like, it’s better to give than receive, to loose life to find it, wisdom through foolishness, strength in weaknesses and so on. I’m wondering about their role in evangelism and mission, not about telling people the whats of the paradoxes like you need to loose your life in order to find it, but more about how paradox should function in mission. In discipleship we start with a banking approach giving people the basics of what we think they need to know, and I think this might be contrary to how the paradoxes function. Why don’t say to someone forget everything you think you know and I have nothing to teach you, other than I am weak, I have only foolishness to offer…
When we fail to operate out of the paradoxes, we disempower and we perpetuate the myths of organised religion, we operate from positions of power, and we compromise the opportunity for indigenous faith to be nurtured and supported.

Does G-d exist outside relationships?

Every now and then someone reports on if young people are interested in God, or spirituality, or something of that ilk. Good reports like Buried Treasure, in depth stuff like Faith of Generation Y, and recently a small scale research piece called No questions asked.

One of the questions I always come back to in this sort of research is where is relationship within the context of the research, and what role does relationship play in asking these sort of questions? I often test out the questions used with young people I have an ongoing connection with, and without fail get into great discussions around faith, spirituality and life. Often for obvious research reasons, the research is conducted outside of the context of ongoing relational youth work. So whilst I could argue about research paradigms and the role of researchers, the question I really want to ask is; does God exist outside of the context of relationship?

I am always fascinated by the communal nature of the trinity, the relational and incarnational aspect of God. It also seems from reading the various documents that more often than not when relationship is excluded as a variable, the god talk doesnt happen, but when included it does. What is going on here? Is it as simple as people need to feel comfortable or known to talk, or is it more?

It’s natural that young people don’t talk about about God in a vacuum, as for most people the natural evidence is that God doesn’t exist. So is it supernatural that people do talk about God in the context of ongoing relationship? Is God being made more manifest in those conversations? Are miracles occurring in the lives of young people, as despite the natural everyday evidence that God isn’t real, they want to talk?

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.