The gift of the edge and bias as a virtue

Nigel Pimlott and I spent well over a decade at FYT and we have both moved from there to what I would call the edge of the inside. Nigel now works with the Methodist Church as Regional Learning and Development Officer (4 days a week) and church-wide Evangelism and Growth Officer (1 day a week), and I work as the Director of Mission Innovation and Fresh Expressions in Cumbria. So, in the next few posts Nigel and I will explore some of the early and more recent pioneer learning and explore why the church can seem reluctant to draw on this resource.

To set the scene I want to revisit some of the cultural backdrop and responses to the story we now find ourselves in. The pace of cultural change has been accelerating over the last 70 years. Where previously we talked about longer term generational change, more recently significant cultural shifts have been noted at least every ten years. The Face Magazine back in the noughties was talking about significant shifts every decade: 1960’s The Decade of Optimism, 1970’s The Decade of Decline, 1980’s The Decade of the Individual, 1990’s Caring and Sharing, 2000s The Digital Decade. Although the Face article only went up to the noughties, several commentators suggest 2010’s as The Decade of Participation. This with the larger overarching constructs of Post-Modernism and Post-Christendom was the culture I swam in when I started in ministry back in the late 80s. For at least two decades I felt I was swimming in a completely different sea to everyone else. During that time I was grateful to link with Frontier Youth Trust who grew in response to the challenging culture of the 1960s seeking to respond to these new entities called “teenagers”. With FYT I started to recognise, thanks to the brilliant work of Jim Punton and Terry Dunnell, that as well as finding new ways to do things we also had to find new ways to think about things. I learnt that practice and reflection went hand in hand and as early as 1993 with others we started thinking through the need for a new type of ecclesiology. We had critical conversation partners such as Jim Punton, whose work on shalom was key, and several early pioneer workers and thinkers with decades of experience, like David Watson (and Graham Cray), Jeanne Hinton, Pip Wilson, and David Sheppard. It is interesting to reflect on how well these people were listened to at the time and how this helped prepare the way for some radical change, and later Nigel picks up why we may struggle to listen as well to edge now.

The two Loops of Change theory talks about the need for innovators to network and this was key to the survival of what was being birthed throughout the 90s and 00s. Towards the turn of the century a clear emerging church movement was building (often with youth workers getting older and trying to work out how to connect to their culture) and slowly we met others who were in the same ocean. Eventually the structures also started to recognise what was happening on the edge, and that they were perhaps not as well equipped as they thought to swim well in these fast moving currents, so Fresh Expressions was bought into being. Someone once said that Fresh Expressions was the “Research and Development wing” of the church. For the past 20 years several key denominations have been investing in Fresh Expressions, this generosity is a gift to pioneers and now maybe this wealth of learning could be a gift to the church.

With the two loops in mind churches have innovated well in the lockdown, either in the online space or in other ways, so it maybe worth asking, how are you networking with others to build knowledge and support yourselves? Many churches have been brilliantly creative, but innovators need to network not just for new ideas but more importantly to build the resilience needed to resource continuation. Someone once asked me when I was speaking at Greenbelt to say in three words what is needed in today’s missionary context and my answer was Courage, Courage, Courage. As churches reopen the pressure to restart the old will be on, but we can’t do everything, and you will need courage to say no, to not restart some things, courage to stand with what the spirit has been doing for the last weeks and courage to go to new places theologically. Networking will help you build the knowledge and story base to hold the innovative space you have found, and the friendships you build through networking will sustain and nourish your innovation, but alongside this maybe invite a local pioneer to walk with you through the processes, they will probably have more questions than answers but that is important right at the top of change curve.

Richard

Appreciating the hidden harvest: bias as virtue – Nigel writes…..

I’ve recently done some Unconscious Bias training. I’ve worked hard over the years and hopefully become more fully aware of my biases. As a white middle aged man, I think I have reasonably successfully endeavored to raise consciousness-levels regarding any gender, sexuality and race bias I may have had and I have sought to change my thinking and behaviour accordingly. However, I have recently become very aware of a whole set of biases that I embrace which I didn’t really know were there. I am pondering if these biases are a problem, or if they should not be called biases at all, but rather aspirations, virtues and/or essentials. Let me explain …

I am biased towards the ‘new’ and innovation – I think that’s an aspiration. I am committed to working in diverse and creative ways – I think this bias is a virtue. I remain passionate about involving younger people (participation) in the life of the church and I am biased to hearing all the voices in as many ways as possible, and on their terms – I think that’s an essential. Bias on the basis of gender, sexuality, or race is, I believe, a big problem, but the biases I refer to here I consider virtues, not problems. My challenge is, I note other people don’t see things this way. For them, my ‘new’, ‘creative’, ‘younger’ biases are a threat.

In 2015-16 The Methodist Church carried out research into 15 years of involvement with fresh expressions and in 2019 produced a report of the findings – Methodism’s Hidden Harvest. The research concluded that fresh expressions have been extremely successful in welcoming previously unaffiliated people into Christian faith exploration and participation, certainly much more successful than the vast majority of inherited Methodist churches. So why isn’t everybody who wants to reach unaffiliated people drawing on these research findings and deploying them?

• Why isn’t everybody looking to start something new rather than simply maintain ‘what is’? The research notes that fresh expressions are evangelistically fruitful, with an estimated 65% of those attending having no previous involvement in church.

• Why isn’t everybody looking to grow the church working in diverse and creative ways – the research notes that fresh expressions work in multiple and creative ways to make disciples and asks if this is an important factor inherited church needs to embrace if it is to similarly attract unaffiliated people.

• If the church wants to engage and disciple younger people, why does it not embrace how fresh expressions go about doing this as they appear much more successful at it?

Could it be that the reluctance to embrace the new, creativity and younger people’s participation is the unconscious bias, perhaps conscious bias, of some people against such things? If so, this bias is putting them in danger of disregarding things which don’t fit their own templates, paradigms and worldviews, at the expense of making disciples and growing the church. In other words, the problem isn’t my bias for these things, but the bias of those who will not embrace such things.

Of course, it’s not as simple as this, nor a binary choice, and hopefully not a case of inherited church vs fresh expressions; ‘them and us’. Having said that it sometimes feels like it is! Drawing on a bit of political bias thinking, I will explain what I mean.
There is what is known as Confirmation bias – in our context this is when someone favours information about church that affirms their existing paradigms and worldviews. People who like inherited models of church and who don’t want to change might, for example, draw exclusively on narratives that value tradition and predictability of output. They might use information that espouses the familiar, embeds and promotes an ‘it’s what we know’ paradigm. In my experience, whenever I draw on research findings like the Hidden Harvest? report, endeavor to facilitate debate, and/or offer suggestions to those in declining churches facing uncertain futures, there is more often than not push back and a negative response to counteracting information – like the value of new approaches, creativity, and aiming younger – which conflicts with favoured information.
Then there is what is called Coverage bias – this is when, for example, someone happily tells (covers) stories that relate to the ‘good old days’, when the church was full, overseas mission adventures from yesteryear, what happened in 1970, but rarely, if ever, tells stories or allows space for others to tell stories, about what is happening now in new forms of church and the changed lives of those becoming disciples.

Thirdly, I would highlight Concision bias – where people selectively focus on information, ignoring nuance and context, in ways that crowd out different views that take longer to explain. For example, someone will often counteract my encouragement for the new, creative and younger with a tale of when a fresh expression closed, a project failed or a young person left. The detail, reasons, learning and legacy are never portrayed, just the (perceived) negative outcome.

A couple of years back I had surgery for cancer. It was radical, impacting and has meant things will forever be different. If I had not had it, my future was uncertain, and I probably would have died many years prematurely. I needed to set aside my bias against someone chopping bits out of me, having lots of injections, not to mention several other deeply personal things that might not be appropriate to mention in a public blog. It was challenging but necessary.

If we are to set aside our biases and embrace the virtuous findings of research and development from fresh expressions of church, the consequent changes we need to make will be challenging and necessary. If we don’t make them, we may discover our end is also more premature than it might have otherwise been.

You can access the full results of the Hidden Harvest? research here

Dr Nigel Pimlott
Expressing a personal reflection especially for Sunday Papers

What counts?

How many people came to church on Sunday?  How many baptisms?  How many weddings?  How many came to the Fresh Expression gathering?  Are the numbers going up?  Are our churches growing?  These were our questions three months ago.  Then we left our buildings and we had a whole new set of questions.

How many logged into church on zoom?  How many watched the video on youtube?  Hurrah, more people are connecting remotely than ever came to church in the building!  Then more recently: How many of our online viewers will join us when we are back in the building?

But what if these are the wrong questions?  What if we are not supposed to be concerning ourselves with church growth at all, at least not in the numerical sense?  Dare I say that we should concern ourselves with other priorities than church growth?

Forty-six years ago Lesslie Newbigin returned from India and in 1989 wrote a book: ‘The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.’   It has become a classic, much read and quoted but the point often missed, because his point is that committed faithful believers will always be a minority.  It is how it always is.  It happened to Jesus so who on earth are we to think it will be different for us – he had crowds in the beginning but numbers dwindled.

Newbigin argues that the church has a key and important role to play in wider society, that our presence within society bringing challenge and change is critical.  We are to be confident in what we learn from Jesus, to live out and communicate faith.  But we are to bear in mind that our individualistic society has blinded us to communal aspects of salvation, meaning counting numbers is missing the point.  We’re to focus on changed society as the outcome rather than church growth.  Newbigin writes: ‘We get a picture of the Christian life as one in which we live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is… from within that indwelling try to understand and cope with the events of our time and the world about us and so carry the story forward.’ (p.99.)

What if we take seriously the calling to be salt and light, yeast in the dough, at times visible and other times invisible, a small ingredient that changes the whole?  What are our questions now?  How many people turn up on Sunday morning is no longer the priority, unless we have fallen into the trap of caring more about the institutional structures than the heart of what God is doing.

The questions then become about what the world need us to be and do, right now, as we face this crisis and wider societal challenges.  What is God working on?  What needs to be said and done in order to support society to re-engage well, to move forwards into something more connected, more earthed, more real, kinder?  Who are our partners in this work for the Common Good?

I find it hard to care as much as the church thinks I ought to about numbers coming to church.  I understand that people gathering to share together in the story of God is a good thing.  We need refreshing in what renews our vision, we need one another, we need God.

But turning up isn’t the point – the point is whole lives lived in God.  Right now, there are bigger questions at stake than numbers at church, whether in a building or online.  We have a unique moment as society, we have choices to make.  Right now, that is what I care about, that is what matters, and that is where my energy is going.

Cate Williams 1st June 2020

Play and Dissent In complex systems

On the 8th Feb we are having a taster day for the certificate in pioneer mission that will be starting in September as part of the Northern Pioneer Centre. The day the Pastoral Statement landed I was planning a session for the taster event on the stories pioneers find themselves in and using Arbuckles notions of dissent and lament. Particularly how pioneers led by Jesus find themselves so often on the edge and how they need to value the experiences of seeing the beloved manifested in those places as resource for hope and a call to dissent. “There can be no constructive change at all, even in church, unless there is some form of dissent. By dissent I mean simply the proposing of alternatives, and a system that is not continuously examining alternatives is not likely to evolve creatively.”
Arbuckle Refounding the Church
I guess this is where the church (as denominations) often gets caught, as it fails to understand system complexity. This system complexity helps make spaces that try to examine, try to propose alternatives, and even try’s to listen (E.g. shared conversations) but is placed within an institution (and fixed false orthodoxy paradigm rooted in the enlightenment) that favours reductionism that can never compete with the complexities of following the way of love in the person Jesus. So dissent really matters, because orthodoxy that exists in a vacuum is not truth, and the Jesus way demonstrates orthopraxis that love is a way of dissent toward shalom.

At the same time my FB memory popped up with “ Whisper, somewhere beyond usefulness is a land where play reigns.” For May 29-31st we are following the Taster day with a Pioneer Fiesta(all ages welcome). In the heart of the Lakes there will be camping (with the opportunity to come early if you want a holiday) or book a B&B, and join in the stories, food and play. We are playing with different voices animating Mark 4 going to the other side of the lake. The word animating is used deliberately as there will be playful experiments including a messy take, an outdoors take, an artists take, an entrepreneurs take, a priests take, an inclusive take etc all around Mark 4. We are also Literally taking a paddle steamer to the other side of the lake and having a band and party on board. If you want to find out more email godforallevents@carlislediocese.org.uk.

At the moment I know I am called to be on the inside edge of this system and my commitment to the bride of Christ keeps me hanging there. At times I find playing with words is one of the few ways I can cope when the institution gets too much so here is an offering Of hopeful playful dissent.

Love is judged unworthy and tears of sadness grow.
Acidic edicts, camouflaged in priesty garments,
close doors to grace filled embraces.
Love sits outside with the masses
Bewildered at processes so reduced so disconnected
and so this holy water from different wells will flow.

Character and Mode…..

Taff has moved the conversation on via his post here. He is helpful is distinguishing between the Character (eg incarnational relational, etc) and what I would call the Mode (eg youth work, youth ministry) but he calls approach. He suggests that we can indeed drop the Mode/Approach wording and focus on the Character. There is a lot to be said for this distinction between Mode and Character and certainly it is helpful as often the Character is present in lots of other Modes eg Community work, Childrens work.

I do not disagree that we do need a lot more work on the Character aspect generally across all areas of human liberation, and growing a flourishing community. So the Character is very important, BUT for me (Taff disagrees) the Character and Mode are often two sides the same coin and particularly in the case of Youth work . The way in which you approach the Mode could easily undermine the Character, the method and the message must match. The nature and context of working with young people who are in transition, growing, and changing, makes the connection of the Mode and Character vital.

However Taffs the separation of the concepts has been really helpful and I think I will play more the notions of Unfolding habitas as core to the character and how this ends up I am yet to work out.

From the Street and towards a new term

For some time I have thinking we need a new term to describe what a particular set of christian practitioners called Relational Youth Work, and I have in part been exploring this in Still Meeting Them Where Theyre At. The current thread of conversation has reinforced this. Taff’s start point about the term being redundant and Allans comments made me think again about this. Nick desire to return “street theology” also bring us towards this.

Relational youth work began in a context of practitioners largely working with young people on the edge of society, and grew to become a way of engaging more generally with those outside of church as we know it, and perhaps now as Allan suggests it is recognised that it is an anathema to not see youth work as relational. However as the strands have converged, the context has become more post christian, and the language of church is shifting, some of the informing values have evolved and some have been lost.

I spent a lot my early days talking about Incarnational Youth Work, as a metaphor that was beyond both simple contextualisation and moving into a particular area. It encompassed for me something I couldn’t articulate about my wholeness being wrapped up in the shalom of the community, the ongoing journey, the restoring of creation, and the powerlessness I feel much of the time and need to be reminded of if I am going to see the kingdom to continue to emerge. However this term is particularly christian and potentially dualistic which is something I am keen to avoid as it could undervalue places where the kingdom is emerging with young people unintentionally.

Over the past few years, I have been building on ideas around Inculturation, Transitology of Sobornost as all of these have the sense that we ourselves and our emancipation is wrapped up with other. I particularly like the notion of reciprocal approaches to youth work and mission, that together we see something new emerge. So this leaves a conundrum of which term to use, Reciprocal Youth Work, Emerging Youth Work, but probably the term that encompasses most of where I am coming from (but might mean the least to those outside) is Sobornostic Youth Work, where we journey with young people towards wholeness for all of society, creation, ourselves and others, to unfold a new way of living and being. This bring us full circle to Nicks previous post as sobornost is what I learnt from the street.

Love the Absolute

I have had a good twitter exchange with Becca and Jo around Empowerment and Theology and Sarah added some interesting thoughts. However I remain unsure of their approach to absolutes. Sarah has some good thoughts around Aristotle but I think Plontius may be more helpful who introduced the idea of virtues as the only absolute.

Perhaps we should think of Love as the Absolute, rather than notions of God or about God as absolute, as surely these are always inadequate and fall short of G-d who is always beyond, and transcends our ideas. Instead when we think of Love as the absolute we are always uncovering and discovering G-d.

The Unfolding Missionary Apologetic – Sobornost

Co-producing New Forms of Christian Community in contemporary culture
Alan Richardson suggests “All Christian doctrine arises from Christian experience”, in many ways this statement validates the praxis approach to mission and ecclesiology (church). It also gives space for developing doctrine and possibly theology in and out of the current context or experience. As people follow the Missio-Dei in today’s context, their mindset and theological paradigms are challenged. As people go deeper into the post modern, post christendom context they recognise the need to find fresh approaches, but often lack a theological framework to develop this. When presented with alternative frameworks that are both theologically rooted and practice (story) driven, new ways of interpreting their already dawning experiences can be developed. A conceptual framework emerging from the practice of StreetSpace and Church on the Edge and subsequent theological reflection, is the notion of seeing Church as both the being and doing, recognising that church and mission are synonymous, and as you engage in mission you are being church with the people around you (whether they believe or not).

As a cultural backdrop to this we will explore the philosopher Bourdieu who builds on earlier ideas of Habitus – cultures way of behaving and norms making society possible, which we are socialised into. Bourdieu suggests that habitus was more than this and that through our participation we contribute to the unfolding “habitus” i.e. it is a two way dialogical or iterative process. Taking Bourdieu’s concept with the findings from Reconnected we can draw two tentative points. Firstly, due to the power of the established paradigm of church, even in the light of the unfolding experiences of practitioners, little has changed in the dominance of established church paradigms. Secondly, that even though much has been said to people that church and mission should be more closely linked, the language and practices used in the mainstream reinforce a divide. What COTE managed to do by coupling the challenge to the established orthodoxy of what is church to it’s own unfolding story, was create a space for a participative habitus in the sense of Bourdieu. So whilst it is argued that “the task of rebuilding Christian theology in a more authentic fashion requires a critique of the points at which tradition has misrepresented the spirit of the gospel; and then a reconstruction of theology according to emancipatory principles”. It can equally be argued that when these emancipatory principles are told, or the traditions misrepresentation critiqued, that it must be accompanied by a liberatory story that enables people to imagine and root a new approach.

Emerging church practitioners rarely have difficulties in relating to people, but the overarching paradigm of church remains problematic. It is steeped in notions of power and will struggle to liberate itself from within, at the same time presenting a barrier to outsiders. However when we collapse the idea of mission as a way into church, realigning alongside the intentional idea of being and growing church, and approach church with the powerlessness of Christ where everyone can belong and the curtain has been torn, something genuinely new begins to emerge. As this missionary apologetic unfolds and is shaped by all present, something is co-produced to which everyone belongs and is not held by boundaries but by relationship and values. There is a christian tradition that encompasses this and it is the concept of ??????????: translated as Sobornost, meaning a spiritual community of many jointly living people. Originally a philosophical term, it was used by Nikolai Lossky and other 20th century Russian thinkers to refer to a middle way of co-operation between several opposing ideas.6 This was based on Hegel’s “dialetic triad”—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—and Lossky defined sobornost as “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values.” Rowan Williams discusses the term a number of times in his study of Eastern Orthodox theologians. In relation to the the emerging church Sobornost offers a third way and a helpful theological backdrop to the notion of an unfolding habitus or a co-producing approach to ecclesiology and community.

A central part of the emerging church following the mission dei is that the journey at times be with non-believers (who may have opposing ideas, antithesis), but whose voice, culture and context help us emancipate the church from what is has become and unfold a new of being as we journey together towards a life in all its fullness, that sobornost affirms. As Williams expounds building on Bulgakov “the church is essentially the fellowship of the Spirit, held together by the ontological bond of God’s love,……. the rest is a matter of conditioned historical decisions and polices.” Whilst it is often the antitheistic/genuine reciprocal nature of having unbelievers influencing the dialogue about what church is that people often struggle with, Sobornost hints at a Christian tradition where genuine reciprocal mission is located and the emancipation can begin.

Resonnance and disconitunity – Reflections on Wright and Cron GB12

There was some great stuff at GB this year, and I didn’t get to very much of it. Two I did were Tom Wright and Ian Cron, both were excellent but in two very different ways. Ian spoke about his memoir and much of his personal story resonated with my own, (not that my father was in the CIA). His personable style and content meshed well with my own experiences of my father, and offered cracks where the light of his story could penetrate the darkness of my own. Tom on the other hand was simply excellent on the content as he outlined 4 typologies present in the gospels to hold in tension as we explore the wholeness of Jesus. However in some ways his strength of being so clear about each type although excellently delivered, well structured,etc seemed discontinuous with my own experience. As a Gen X and post modern product the idea of holding these types in tension is second nature to me and most of my contemporaries, with a level of theological literacy. So I came away wondering what was the agenda?

the permanent revolution

just finished Hirsh and Catchim “The Permanent Revolution – Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church” and have to say it is a really good read. It is very accessible, and is peppered with a good range of examples, honest personal experiences, and diagram/charts. As a trainer, educator, writer and practitioner there is lots of really useful stuff for all disciplines I find myself moving between. I can many of the diagrams making their way into my presentations, as they are succinct and accessible.

The book draws on a range of theological, biblical, cultural and organisational texts to explore the APEST (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd and Teacher), and in particular the Apostle role in the missional shift we are in and the challenges presenting the current church. There are a good range of challenges to the thinking and practical ways to apply the concepts used.

I really like the interaction between organistional theory and how they explore the state of the current church in the introductions and later the use of systems and movement theory which has some important stuff to stay to the emerging project.

On the downside much of the stuff I had come across before, I first came across Fractal theory in the early 90s and have been using it ever since, the work around imagination will be familiar to people who know Brueggemann, the contextualistion / missio dei work is rooted in Bosch and earlier writers, you can see John V Taylor peppered through the book, as are BEC’s rooted in liberation theology where many of the current ideas around missional communities come from. However to have it all in one place and set against the current context so well is excellent. I would also have liked to have seen more challenges and deeper exploration around issues of inculturalation, particularly the reciprocal nature of mission and how this impacts the role of the apostle and problems this raises as they seek to move forward in the current in-between time.

Overall a good book that I have already recommended to my students on the Church and Mission modules and one that I will keep coming back to.

Incarnation and Disruptive experiences

Last week in after reflecting on Petes interview and our practice around TAZ (check out Kester), Flow and our approaches around being and growing church, that collapse the idea of the idea of mission as a bridge into church I tweeted

“The process of being and growing church should be a disruptive experience that is a series of encounters with the other”

I have been thinking for a while how we are so fixed in our own paradigms that we often take an approach and deceive ourselves that we are using it as intended. A classic example is Messy Church – where people so often use it as an outreach tool into ‘proper’ church. They think they are doing something different but when pushed will not leave established services to free up time to invest in being and growing church in the Messy context.
It is interesting to look at incarnational youth work and how this spawned notions of relational youth ministry – much of which was simply a tool like youth alpha or a youth club to get young people into ‘proper’ church. As such when Pete suggests there does have to be an IN he is right.
However when we think around incarnational youth work to be and grow church (and to help us discover what the church and gospel actually are as we encounter others) there is no in. In order to make this a reality this needs to embrace both the relational nature of the incarnation and the disruptive. This is not a new to my thinking Here I wrote that faith is about the redemptive processes that consistently ruptures our worldview (inc our faith paradigm) and is a series of revolutionary moves that form and shape a new (at the time) but growing (in hindsight) understanding of God.

At the moment I am very hopeful of the work going on around the openness to genuine change both around the missionary encounter with other (Ian Adams posted a series of quotes from Christianity Rediscovered that got people talking) and to changes in the liturgical space Pete mentions that Ikon experimented with. The challenge to not allow the gravitational pull to suck us back remains, and we need to counter this by asking mission/kingdom shaped questions rather than church shaped ones.