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

Institutional prophets

Time and time again the prophets called out for justice, mercy and love. On occasion they acted and orchestrated acts of justice that brought their calls for justice to the lived experience of those suffering injustice. They acted knowing that what they did was out of love and thet their actions were more important than their words. They knew their action challenged the words written down on tablets of stone as the law, and they knew that at times these tablets had been so consumed by those in power that people hearts has also turned to stone. So the prophets spoke out, the prophets acted knowing there would be consequences and they would face exclusion and be misunderstood. The presence and practice of Jesus is clear in the actions of the Old Testament prophets, and the modern justice seekers who put orthopraxis before orthodoxy.

I see the person of Christ, and the prophetic call to a new way of being and acting in the Episcopal Church and its primate Michael Curry. His statement to the primates is full of grace, and reaches back beyond the roots of slavery to a love that was embodied in the person of Christ, and it keeps me hanging their by my fingernails.

“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. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”
Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.
“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”

When I first met Rowan Williams when he was archbishop I was so taken by his ability to listen, perhaps I was a little in awe but I sensed in him a willingness to stand with me on the edge. It is early days, so I do not want to jump to conclusions about what the decision to exclude the Episcopal church means, but struggle to see how such a fracturing move can be an act of grace. So I am keen to know how both Curry and the current ABC Justin will respond but My prayer for all the primates is that they will have the eyes to see and ears to hear and grace will find a way.

We need to talk about truth…

Last year there were a raft of posts, like “it’s not you its me” “we need to talk about church” all exploring why people are disenchanted with church, leaving church and why it is failing to connect with people anymore. Then this All of which are far more symptomatic of a far deeper issue. What we really need to talk about is truth, our approach to it, the false security people invest in mini truths, the lack of trust it can engender, and how our poor approach to it captivates and limits many rather than being liberated and freed.
I think much of the issue is we have tried to limit the truth, and think it can be singular, explained, preached and taught. The monologue sermon, at its core says this is what is true. Truth is something to be wrestled with as we are wrestling with G-d, it demands dialogue, community and lived experience. It calls forth a trust that takes us out of the pulpit and towards discovery, to uncovering, and journey.
The idea of a singular absolute truth is a crutch which if leant on too heavily breaks and brings down with it all it was meant to support. Truth helps us walk forward, in faltering, humble steps, it is discovered as we walk with others, and when we turn the crutch into weapon to ward off others we fall once again. In fact perhaps if we do away with the crutch and lean into the future with the support and help of others we may begin to discover something far more real than the imitations of Truth we have created.

When we wrestle with these deeper notions of truth it will demand a shift in practices that people are drifting away from, a reimagining of the the institution that is loosing its currency, and create a space of discovery and adventure where community is lived and people want to be.

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.

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?

fresh expression a technology

Has Fresh Expresssion become a technology built the knowledge bases of experimental mission and the emerging church of yesteryear? One of the definitions of technology is machinery or devices built on scientific knowledge. In youth work or social sciences academics are quite used to thinking about practice and processes as a technology, but like any technology the danger is the system becomes the end, it takes on a life of its own and and too easily be seen as THE answer.

In an age where church is struggling to connect with community, it is little wonder that the technology of Fresh Expresssions is being embraced. It is also not surprising That like technology of old, systems are being pulled together and new pathways being created to enable this technology to spread. When steam revolutionised farming, it spread quickly, and created a whole industry, that within a few years was wiped out by the tractor. Steam engines took time to build, new factories and systems were put in place and by the time many were ready for use, they were an obsolete technology, sold off cheaply and now consigned to museums, and wonderful Fred Dibner type characters.

The emerging church that gave birth to FE was more than a technological shift. It was a paradigm move of thinking and practice and the technology developed from it was often done so by those outside the field. It is too easy to see technology as the answer, a short cut and allow it to hide the deeper issues that the original thinkers and practitioners were trying to challenge so the paradigm shift still required remains masked to many by the technology around it. Perhaps even making real change much harder. To stick with the farming analogy, to put the cart before the horse!

The power of campervans and the type of church I long to see…

Often people of faith ask me what type of church I want to see, or to explain my take on mission or faith, sometimes more due to their own insecurities and the need to put that stuff in a box. Others who ask, I know it is about their own journey, and usually in both cases I do my best to be open real and honest. Then I sit with them in the sorrow these answers offer, as they come to terms with the fact that there is no easy path or as they put me in box that captures them more than it holds me.

There is a distinct shift happening around what is church and a shift happening around dialogue and acceptance within more general evangelicalism. When i read THIS my first reaction was probably to box each side,…. but maybe I will just keep that to myself because I am sure boxes and walls don’t matter… what I liked, was that it was localised, real, and gave you glimpses of the dialogue that must have been happening behind the scenes.

Recently we have been selling our campervan as we cant afford the move to Cumbria that we feel called to make, and the conversations with potential buyers have been interesting, as I explain to strangers the reason we are selling. More often than not, it opens discussions on the type of church and faith I want to see. These amazing humans who are fearfully and wonderfully made, open up as talk of journeys (real and metaphorical) are shared, and we joke about life, rust and holidays. I find little need to sit in the sorrow of being put in a box, but liberated to walk the road ahead knowing a few more people are tentatively exploring the path before them. Missionally trying to sell this bloodly van has provoked some of the most meaningful encounters I have had in a long time, yet i still struggle to explain myself.

In world dominated by boxes and walls often the only way to explain is to revert to types and models, so perhaps for those who need to put me in a box, or those who want to continue the journey I offer THIS as perspective on the emerging church as the type of church I want to see…

Community isn’t dead it’s just different

Sociologically community has been defined as about shared interest or shared space. Over the years particularly for youth workers, Christians, activists, and in general society community has also become a word associated with closeness, sharing life, positive warm fuzziness etc. It is the demise of this type community that people often lament as gone, because they equate commitment with attendance, regularity, and cohesiveness.

At first I bought into this lamenting, but I have been observing a shift, and think that actually the sharing life aspects of community are not less prevalent than they were before but just different and in many ways more real, and perhaps more mature.

With the young people I work with, and the adults around the fringes of StreetSpace, I am beginning to see community emerge as an attitude that is carried by individuals, that whilst they may not share space very often, or share the same interests, there is recognition of a shared humanity. A commitment and attitude of support, openness, warm fuzziness and solidarity.

I wonder if post modern fragmentation is helping us mature as people, moving beyond a forced community that grows from shared space or interest, to an attitude of being community in the myriad of relationships you find yourself in. A greater openness and honesty that is fostered quickly and community grows from this (sometimes fleetingly but no less community) and where the need space and interest become secondary, rather than primary.

I think we have a lot learn form the type of community I see emerging and fading, ebbing and flowing amongst the young people and ourselves, and it would be too easy to underestimate its power, sacredness, and authenticity, because it no longer fits the old models.

Lead us out of exile

It has been so encouraging to see the recent discussion on the role of women in the church sparked by the huge inequality highlighted in lack of women speakers as mainstream conferences. Jenny has a great post here that tracks the conversation and expands the issue.
However we recognise the representation is only part of the issue, and i want to suggest that the changes required run far deeper and may not be possible in the current paradigm. As father to two amazingly gifted daughters 6 and 16 I am always on the hunt for stuff to help them grow into the people they are called to be. I am so greatfull to know people like Jenny Baker and Sally Nash and other female leaders of great integrity, who I go to with questions and guide me to resources and books such as Maya Angelou that I can share together with my children. But there is massive lack of radical faith inspired feminist writing aimed at teens and younger girls or at least stuff I can find.

The recent discussions raises two issues for me, that are connected. The first which Jenny already highlights in her post, is the issue of mentoring and supporting young women into leadership roles. Again I think this is a paradigm issue, one of the strengths of the early feminist movement was its clarity in setting up alternative structures and spaces to the established systems. I would like to suggest that the emerging church has far more to offer my daughters and is already encouraging them towards fullness of life not because of a quota, but a commitment to inclusivity, different leadership approaches, and humanity. For example Cakeful our Sunday thing, is often led by our 6 year daughter, and recently she asked to lead a session around time, and asked for support from Tracey an adult in the group. Tracey was amazing she offered Indi a planning meeting mid week, despite a busy schedule sat down with her, and planned together, which simply made my daughter beam. Watching this process was truly emancipating for my daughter and myself. I believe it is this type of approach that if practiced consistently is the best hope for young women in the church but more that that the best hope for the church to be led from its self induced exile due it’s inherent sexism and lack of inclusivity at all levels. So the second issue (sticking my neck out here and more than a little nervous in saying this) is a call for the amazing female leaders I know and thousands I don’t, to embrace the new paradigm, to create alternative structures and spaces, radical resources and methods, that directly challenge the status quo, rupture the institutions, recapture the feminist agenda in the minds of young people, and lead not just other women but eventually the whole church out of exile.

Our best hope is not in playing by the rules of the dominant, where position, gender, wealth, and power dictate, but in embracing the upside down Kingdom, of powerlessness, servanthood and grace, and it is those who have experienced oppression of the powerful that have so much to offer.

The Dragons don’t frighten me anymore

We have been playing with the metaphor Here be dragons as a way to describe what we are up to and where we are with Church on the edge. On old maps there is that space simply described as Here be dragons. We are committed to going to a new place with young people and have been off the map for a while now.
We simply do not buy into the language of whos in and whos out, dualism, etc, We recognise the curtain has been torn, the kingdom is now and not yet, the earth and everything it is the lords, follow missio dei and refuse to see mission as a bridge into church but simply collapse the bridge.

We described our approach to being and growing church in this new land to a young person and here is what Sam (18yrs) came up with what do you think? (click it to enlarge)

StreetSpace going to a new place with young people

We build on the idea that we tack (like a ship sailing into the wind) with young people on a journey to become fully human and in the process we discover what it means to be fully human and what it is to be/grow church. In the process I think I have learnt that actually the dragons aren’t that scarey anyway.