You say syncretism, I say inculturation or What’s wrong with a bit of syncretism?

I have been thinking a lot about holding the tension between culture, bible and tradition which has moved into thinking about what it is to be swept up with missio dei, and what this may look like for our structures and approaches/ theology.

I still think and still feel we are a long way off the mark in emerging church circles as we are worried about slipping into syncretism, and the gravitational pull of orthodoxy. Perhaps our orthodoxy is as much a myth as the myth that we can know the unknowable G-d.
I think the separation of sacred and secular is rooted in our need to box God in, to define what is God and what is not.

So there is something buzzing away in the back of head about the need to collapse much of our approach as it feels dualist. We have made great progress in missional thinking and understanding recognizing the missio dei etc – if God is working, sovereign, we ask what is God already doing, so we can get in on this (rather than the older approach which was thinking it is our mission or we are the carriers of God or God is not present/at work) but this question, what is god doing is still rooted in identifying a particular thing God is doing (which in itself supposes there are things that God is not in control of or doing) and thus enables us to focus on this known/discerned aspect of God rather than simply being cast adrift with the missio dei with G-d in G-d’s world.

This raises the question of ‘other’ what is it, does it exist, or is there other but that is a whole other kettle of fish which i cant get my head around.

If syncretism is about the attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought wasn’t this what happened with introduction of christ and the emerging christology. So since Christ split the curtain shouldn’t we be a bit more about what Robert Schreiter sees as inculturation “the dynamic relation between the Christian message and culture or cultures; an insertion of the Christian life into a culture; an ongoing process of reciprocal and critical insertion and assimilation between them” which seems to differ little for me from syncretism. Perhaps i am being naive about the semantics.

The wedding banquet from below

Just looked at this parable with a group and started with the question where is God in the parable?

If see God as with the poor and marginalised he is in the highways and byways. Using this as the startpoint you don’t have the option of seeing the king as god or the son as Jesus and could see the parable as a critique of organized religion or power.

The king is keen to make alliances with the rich farmers and businessmen so invites them to the party to impress them, they are obviously powerful as they have the opportunity and means to kill the servants the king first sent, and the king needs to subdue these people after they killed the servants by the use of force with armies not just a couple of people.

Then in order to not be seen as a loser the king needs to have some people come to the party so invites (coerces?) poorer people to attend. Tradition at the time suggests the grooms father provides the right clothes for the party guests but one person refuses to wear the clothes from the manipulative, politically savvy, violent and coercive monarch. one person refuses to play the game by the rules of the powerful and is cast out into the darkness with the outcasts.

Here we see Jesus as someone not willing to go along with the power plays of the day, someone who stands up for justice, who reads the motives of the powerful and stands outside of those systems. The kingdom is heaven is about putting other people first, standing up for righteousness, speaking out for the voiceless and living in a way that is radically different to established ways of the world.

1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Imperialistic thinking masquerading as missional engagement

Pete Ward has an essay here on the nature of celebrity in culture and missiological implications. There are some interesting points raised and I value several of the observations and critic of celebrity as an entity. However when it comes to exploring the missional nature it is again theologically/missionally conservative, and IMHO falls far short of genuine missional application. His section on Beyond Functional Equivalence is well written but is rooted in a quasi imperialistic approach to missional engagement masquerading as a radical movement. Pete suggests we must “take this capital into account” and whilst he recognises the “contested meanings” around celebrity provide a fruitful area for engagement it is very much on re-interpretative terms rather than from any position of powerlessness or that our doctrines could be wrong and need re-interpreting through genuine dialogue with the people shaped by the culture.
I am not arguing all culture is good, but equally neither is all doctrine. I simply want to hold the culture with the reverence it is due and as an equal partner with the bible and tradition in the “contested” space that non imperialistic mission should inhabit.

I hope the book that is due to follow the article will address some of these issues, but I wonder if there is an inherent imperialism or notion that we have our doctrines right, rooted in the theological or publishing culture that would never let a book like this get written. As underlying any text would be the need for an heretical imperative as that is part of what enables real dialogue in the contested space of missional engagement.

Missionary Imagination 2 – The place of awareness

NB This may not make much sense as words are problematic.

Often people talk about awareness in mission, the need to be open to what God is doing, and this is critical. However this a part of the process, and we need to discover a place of awareness. Without sounding too much like an old duffer, when I was younger, practicing the spiritual disciplines of silence, different prayer forms and awareness exercises was a key in helping me tune into what G-D what doing on the streets. Like any muscle it needed training and exercise. However the process became too important and I found my self looking for acts of kindness, giving or love etc and it was spotting these that tuned me into the recognition that we were in a thin place, where heaven and earth seemed closer. More recently I have found I needed to practice inhabiting the thin place in the whole of life, slowly I have begun to learn to tune into seeing Jesus in both the act and the person. It is like the difference from being aware you are walking on thin ice and so watching for every step, to simply being in tune with the ice that you walk on so you spend less time watching your step but feel the environment with all your senses.
Last week on visiting some of the great projects around, we went walkabout. On encountering a group one guy the workers knew was homeless, so they checked to see how he was doing. As they chatted over the income support forms another in the group reached across and gave the guy a chocolate bar. He wasn’t sharing a piece because he was eating a bar himself, but simply a response, a seemingly random act. The guy was homeless simply said thanks stuck it in his pocket for later and continued to work on the forms.
I felt christ in the workers, both young people, the sacred space and the well know chocolate bar but I knew we were in a thin place the moment I parked the car and hour or so before the encounter.

Contextualisation and dualism (Finding adventure 2)

In the last post I wrote about the story Finding Adventure, and I have been thinking about how do we avoid any sense dualism between the Spiritual and practical side of the work with young people in growing church. This has been a key part of the project and we have been quite good at equally valuing the both sides. BUT this is exactly problem as we have to talk about both sides – It is really hard because our language inhibits us and we slip between the two or alternate rather than blending holistically. Due to the structure of language and our western conditioning as soon as we use a word like prayer or spiritual we are drawn to an ephemeral/woolly/other type of image in our minds and away from the rootedness expressed in the new testament and particularly (Hatip to Mark P) Romans 12 v1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Even here it feels ephemeral/Wooly/Other but it is actually incredibly rooted in the waking, eating, walking and talking of everyday. So anyway I needed to do some more work on the story following (thanks for the feedback) and have tried to be less dualist in this version… what do you think?

Charlie was a BMXer who loved riding, and even when she had started out on a scooter loved the adventure of riding close to the edge and pushing new tricks. She was quickly developing a reputation as an excellent rider, so in order to make the most of her growing profile she decided to set up a shop locally and online brand of clothes and equipment. Her technical skills grew and meant she could design new pedals and peripheral equipment that really enhanced riding and made the whole experience better. She even invested in new technology such as new alloys, that could be used in frames and was soon making frames that were lighter and stronger than anything else on the market. She made sure that everyone working for her got a fair wage and only used ethical suppliers were possible. Charlie was quickly raking it in and the money didn’t corrupt her, she gave a portion to those who needed it and kept up always tried her best to be honest in business.

The thing she loved about having money was still rooted in adventure, only now she could travel to loads of places around the country and abroad. She flew around the world and rode in well know places, that were distant dreams to many. On returning from her travels she paid attention to business and things continued to grow, but she was never quite satisfied and always longed for something else.

At about the same time a man was traveling the around the area, who also had a growing reputation. People weren’t quite sure what to call him, he wasn’t a skater or biker, some people called him the Well digger, as once helped people find some water and dig a well, some people called him the Builder for similar reasons, others called him Sufi – someone who was spiritually enlightened, and at peace with themselves, to others he was the Teller, the problem was he never fitted into any one box. People who had heard his stories or spent time with him, never could sum him up in one word or label him this or that. They said he had healed the sick, and helped the poor, built houses and you never knew what what was going to happen next, and although he too was poor was he was rich in a different way. The group that traveled around with him were known as “the adventurers”, as they were set them challenges, and always asked questions that made them think or act in a different way. As a group they never knew where they were going next or what they were going to have to eat the next day, but something always turned up, and anyway what better way to keep the adventure real. Even though Charlie had been on many adventures, and always pushed her riding to the next level, she always felt something was missing. Something needed to change she told herself and so went to find this man that couldn’t be put in a box. Finding him, she was not the type to be shy, so explained how she loved the adventure and how she had tried to live an ethical life, and asked “what must I do to join the adventurers and journey with you?”
The Man replied “go and sell all your possessions, your business, your bikes and inventions and give the money to the poor, then come and join us?” Charlie went away disappointed.

Flow, TAZ and relational continuity

In the light of Apple 7 happening tmw and Jonny and Kesters posts that have been swilling around in the back of mind for a while, I thought I would stick my nose in here as I cant be in London.

The notion of TAZ (temporary autonoumus zone – in a regime of power people find gaps in the maps away from the authorities to create something short lived, temporary, that dissolves before the authorities can latch on to it and it dissolves to re-emerge elsewhere. the rave scene, festivals, flash mobs and so might be examples.) is appealing and TAZ fits quite well to describe our community experiences of Flow. It has been hard for me to reconcile the idea of temporary church but instinctively the temporary nature has felt okay and that was before I found the TAZ phrase or had chance to reflect on Jonny and Kesters musings.

Part of the okayness is because we often fail to notice in our selfish search for belonging that people belong in different ways (see Myers work), so in forming community we need to accept (although we may challenge) this selfishness and recognise that relationship is beyond the confines of a time and space because it is so core to G-D. So whilst Flow might represent a TAZ, it is in it’s connection with the DNA of relationship (G-D) that these relationships supersede the physical/time limits, I can easily imagine a young person looking me up in a few years to chat, or out of need and this has often been part of my experience as 20 yr plus youth worker.

Embracing the temporary possibility of teh Flow group has also been a key in my missional thinking, leading me to seek out ways that will enable individuals to connect or be reminded of Flow that can last beyond the TAZ. In the past I called this corrupting worldviews with Christ and it is the very everyday possibilities of this, that give TAZ a kind of permanence beyond the getting together. If church exists to be missional then TAZ could be a key part of the future landscape, and whilst people may come together in TAZ type contexts because of what is going on at specific time (or out of selfishness), if it is to be an authentic expression of church (and begin a move beyond selfishness) it needs to maintain that attitude and action (see here) in its development. For us we are now experimenting with Harmony as a new engagement with the younger group coming through, whilst the older Flow group is transitioning on/moving away.

One of Jonny’s key issues was linking to Bauman and how individualism wins out over community, and can the temporary be anything like as effective as the continuity of long term engagement. Myself, I am left wondering if we ever can change community in that broad way (or even if that is our role) but by maintaining presence and through a series of TAZ adventures, enable a new type of community to emerge that is self defining as it goes. I can see this at a local level but here is also where I think it connects into Apple 7’s question. TAZ will only ever remain flash in the pan as the institution is so crippled by either looking back to tradition, or in a broader way will engage beyond its mode- to quote Aquinus (pretty out of context) for the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. The struggle is to look to the other for definition, and in the other find G-D anew.

Conservative Greenbelt?

Back from Greenbelt and as ever there was a great range of music, art and talks. However at the festival and on coming away I couldn’t help feeling it was all rather theologically conservative. After posting this on FB I thought I needed to think out loud a bit more about this to help me understand my feelings, so apologies if this becomes a stream of consciousness rather than a coherent post.

23 years of attending and I am hearing the same (great) speakers that inspired me when I was 17 to give up life plans and change tack. The content remains great, but culture, and I have shifted but not sure the theological content has. This obviously begs the question of should it shift and for many new people coming and hearing this stuff for the first of third time I know John Smith or Dave Andrews thoughts could turn their world upside down towards a kingdom reorientation. So what has changed or needs to be said. The love and acting out of compassion and justice remains, those values are timeless, but in the cultural shifts that have taken place over the past 20 years how do we rethink the missiology that needs to accompany the missio dei in those acts of love and justice, so we can go with God effectively.

The theme of looking sideways raised my expectations about Greenbelt this year, but the sideways looks I heard were safe glances back to tradition (although playing with this) Richard Rohr, glance back mediation (although with hat tip to worship as a whole of life experience) Laurence Freeman. Don’t get me wrong it was all good stuff but it was all stuff that was been part of my missional thinking 15 years ago.

Missionally it felt quite milky, the questions I wanted to ask were, who is genuinely taking a sideways look at the world, how do we do this and here the stories about the missional journey that starts when we do. When I was chatting with Andy Turner about this he was asked who do we need to get and I am afraid I was at a bit of loss. I certainly missed Pete Rollins. The themes that came to mind however different stuff I would like to hear or talk about would be:
Living with the corner stone and the stumbling block, going with Christ beyond the christ we know in mission
The role of Powerlessness in mission and going with G-D in this.
How the when we join up Greenbelt christian thinking and start to try and live it, it takes us beyond, Yet when one section rises in popularity (currently meditation and new monastic forms) due the consumerist culture and deep rooted individualism and selfishness it takes us away from Christ and detracts from the deeper theological work that is needed in our lives and communities.
How do we deny Jesus in order to look sideways and discover G-D in our neighborhood and can we begin that dangerous journey with the tentative courage that comes from a community like Greenbelt behind us?

So was Greenbelt Conservative? – not really because the social gospel shone through the justice and love discussions.
Was greenbelt policitally conservative? – you certainly cant give that label.
Was Greenbelt missionally conservative? – ABSOLUTELY.
Where do we go from here? – Haven’t a clue except we need the artists and activists (theologians who may not have that label but can articulate their thinking) who can genuinely help us take a sideways look at the world and see the Kingdom within!

By the people with the people?

In one of my early jobs on an estate I sat down with the priest and we discussed the nature of liturgy and how it comes from a people in context in response to the sacred. It is by the people for the people. TSK in his (tongue in cheek)armchair theologian post got me thinking how like liturgy, theology has drifted from the people. I so look forward to seeing what TSK has say because of the reality of the people he meets and I hope he finds a signal again soon.

In discussing the idea of being missional with a friend recently I ranted how when we deny non believers the chance to argue, shape, change and challenge our activities we deny the presence of G-d in them and this is no way to start a missionary journey.

Closed sets are the bane of my life I cannot stand the religious assemblies, but want (with Amos) justice, that affirms Christ in the other, and so changes and transform me and the world around. A liturgy or theology that thinks it has arrived, or is right – can only be death, because we are not static and it denies the living reality of the trans-formative G-d. We need to return and enable liturgy that is of the people, and their faulting, authentic, real, half baked, chaotic response to the sacred in the context of humanity, a context that must be inclusive as we discover the sacred in one another. So heres to the armchair theologians that try to rework their mindsets in the public arena of the blogosphere, but to the pyjama wearing, or ivory tower closed setters – do try to get out more!

The nature of commitment and mission

To think about mission without considering the changing nature of commitment in post modernity would be naive and for some time the changing nature of commitment has been buzzing around my head. what does it mean to commit or be committed to Christ? Is it that the old has gone and the new means we are instantly changed. Pete talks about denying the resurrection every time we walk past a homeless person or fail to to feed the hungry as part of his insurrection tour. I have been exploring the notion of commitment with a few young people (happy midi narrative) and others and the more I discuss it the more I am taken with idea that the process needs rethinking. If we are on a journey then maybe as Tuffty says it is about finding some values and committing to try and work to what these mean for you. I think he was hinting that it doesn’t start with a statement but is a life long process.

Often we see our role as helping young people learn values, but in that process our purposed dominance so easiliy comes to the fore and in doing we either either undermine the values we are seeking to communicate or we undervalue the depth of values by reducing them to words. Perhaps our role is recognise the lack of values and real commitment in our own lives and as we journey with young people recognise that we will encounter situations and circumstances where values can be encountered. Because when we pass the hungry with a young person and choose not to deny the resurrection and meet with that person, we encounter christ. Likewise when we walk past – will we have the humanity to discuss with the young person our disbelief in the resurrection.

The implication for mission is on the one hand huge – as if the nature of commitment has shifted we need to shift how we do evangelism. But if you are into emerging missional thinking the implication is to ensure you are as consistent in the going to the new place that you may set out with and continue this open journey with the young people to reframe and rediscover the resurrection in every encounter, and see today that Christ is doing a new thing.


In mission terms we often talk about the missionary imagination happening in terms of a balance between a culture, tradition and bible triangle. Often people talk of using tradition and ritual as a place to root discipleship or as a resource for creativity. With the emerging post christendom context and the gravitation pull of tradition, I think we need to explore the balance in a new way and give it a different sort of prominence in the mission task.

In church on the edge, the tradition balance comes not from a replication of ritual but using traditional language a resource to locate the work in a christian tradition. As we talk about Flow and often when reworking bible passages talk about Jesus as a sufi or wise man and it would be easy to completely miss the christian underpinning. However using words like church connects with the echo of the memory that gen y still hold, or gives an opportunity to locate the project in the christian story but also importantly enables us to balance out the gravitation pulls that can come with the usual way of approaching the triangle. Then as communities of faith become more important ritual can be revisited but in a way that does without the purposed dominance that many people ascribe them, and rather genuinely allows for a reciprocal re-working that values the culture, tradition, bible balance.