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.