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.

What makes the modal move..

Following on from last week there are two key issues that have been part of the process. Borrowing from the theory of change I initially used in StreetSpace, Transparent Operations and Real Relationships have been key. So whilst I have a lovely but ridiculously complicated diagram about why and how transparency and relationship function to increase capacity and impact its not rocket science.

Indeed operating Transparently and fostering Real Relationships have always been key for sodal organisations but finding the right feedback loops and processes to the modal is key if we want the the modal to take care of itself. Sodal is always about journeying into the cultural and community, about going further and deeper and making sure the stories from the frontier are fed back. Its about foresting good relationships so those stories are recognised, inspire and take root in the modal so encouraging people to give stuff a go.

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.

Church culture eats a big breakfast

My post on the royal wedding sermon prompted a fairly mixed response with many of my friends experiencing similar negative or not bothered responses. However what was really interesting for me from the comments process was how wedded the church is to particular methods, approaches and systems. It could be argued that preaching is one of the minor cultural texts that make up the wider church culture, and regardless of denomination the circuit of culture (representation, identity, production, consumption and regulation) has created a vague but impenitrible culture. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, strategy is just the muffin on the side when it comes to what church culture can consume.
For example we know loads about learning styles, effective communication methods, that are taught up and down the country in theological colleges, by mission training agencies, but never quite get through. When was the last time you heard a sermon in under 8 minutes, let alone the evidence that talks are one of the least effective learning contexts. You put that sort of argument up and church culture says but preaching is for this or that, church culture doesn’t just eat strategy its eats wisdom, knowledge and evidenced practice. This applies way beyond the preaching context, we know the church isn’t the building, we can rarely talk about it as people. The evidence of effective mission is all around relationships, but we keep propping up buildings. The research on effective use of films in communication (let alone on how jesus used parables) suggests we avoid purposed dominance, and instead create space for people to wrestle their own conclusions and applicability, but we don’t, because we are more products of the culture than we think. Don’t even let me get started on how we do discipleship or train leaders, people sitting in rows, how we open or close meetings, prayer, singing or…

Keep pushing out 2

There are many days I want to simply curl up. It’s takes energy to push out, to make preparations, to set sail. In the past decade or so it has been so encouraging to see the spectrum of churches wake up to breadth of the call of G-d. The gospel speakers increasingly act and the gospel socialists increasingly speak.
The motivation for these shifts can be legion, an aniexty, a new learning, a different perspective, keeping up with the Joneses, a fear of death. However I like to think it is out of genuine love as people recognise the needs around them.

In the midst of these changes it is easy to embrace the homogeneousisation and loose the distincitivness of the pioneer charism. I need to be in relationship with the wider church but I need to be me and I need you to be you. That is not to say we shouldn’t change but recognise the holiness to the process, that wrestling with who we are and what we do and how we act is a part of the Christian story we must never let go. Authentic questioning is a beautiful affirmation of life as it demonstrates we are alive. So as we grow, as we mature, give space for and embrace the difference, and those of us who seem to moving in from the edge dont stop kicking.

Keep pushing out 1

A minister would eat breakfast each day in the garden. A moment of quiet, and chance to take in life, to see the detail of the flowers and nature. One morning she saw a beautiful butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. The next day she noticed a caterpillar climbing the trunk of the same tree, the minister thought to the caterpillar this trunk must have been a mountain. The caterpillar edged up and then along a branch finally reaching the succulent leaves. The minister was amazed at the caterpillars effort, persistence and encouraged to climb her own mountain, and edge further out. The next day the caterpillar had feasted it’s was through many leaves and the minister saw it start to form a chrysalis, and each day she watched it patiently as it hung on the branch. One morning she noticed the chrysalis start to twitch, and was excited to see the beautiful butterfly that was to emerge. The effort that the caterpillar seemed to be putting into emerging from its wrapping reminded her of the mountain it had climbed to get succulent leaves. So carefully she helped peel back the outer layers, to make the great emergence easier, but now when butterfly came forth, it was too weak to fly and devoid of all colour.

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.

A new sort of resource church

Came across this article on Size Matters by Paul and reminded me that I had slipped in to the church commissioners report last year that our Mountain Pilgrims group (which was also cited by the ABC) was a new sort of resource church. What makes a resource church a resource church?
Mountain Pilgrims is tiny, but massive, it is shallow but deep, it is new abut ancient, it is open but centred, but most of all it is “allelon”, it is a shape and size that allows one anothering. If you want to know more on allelon read Pauls article or I have added a quote below.

Before Christmas we had our first Mountain Pilgrims leaders Tribal Gathering, in the room there were 9 people representing about 150 others, there were two tribes missing, and on the horizon we identified another three tribes were on their way to join us in 2018. We wrestled together on values, on shapes and words, we were challenged by each other’s theology and presence. The gathering included members and leaders as we are pretty blurry as to who is who, but we were one Anothering .

We have a brilliantly supportive bunch of people creating space up here for new things to happen in the county at all levels Including in the formal diocesian structures. Generally with the desire to try and find ways to make mission happen. I am so grateful to the volunteers and officers that work behind the scenes, they are brilliant people. Recently a committee for the diocese met and it was reported back to me that the question was asked About the financing of FXs. Whilst it’s small potatoes the finance officer reported that some members of MP had started giving to MP, and this was significant to the committee. It made me wonder if it is finance that makes a resource church, a resource church, as often scale is cited as a way to become self financing to resource mission? Then as I thought further maybe as we don’t have staff costs and buildings, of a normal resource church do those small potatoes mean we are already a resource church that pays its way? We are pretty much self funding, have gone from zero – 150 people in under two years with a total cost of about 2k and a bit of my staff time. So if it’s finance or numbers that makes a resource church a resource church do we fit the bill.
Maybe it’s resourcing mission that makes a resource church, We have resourced mission across the county, have new MPs groups springing up, and have resourced traditional churches to develop outdoor based mission opportunities. In the Spring one group is refounding a redundant church and starting a monthly Celtic type Sunday service that will be followed by a 4 mile walk and discussion.

Maybe a resource church has to have a big capital investment in staff and set up costs, because it’s about speedy growth. Mountain pilgrims we grew a further 20% this month alone, imagine what might have been if we had a couple 100k to play with instead of 2?

If what makes a resource church a resource church is up front investment imagine what we could have done with 100k instead of 2.

You might read this and think Richard is anti resource churches, I’m not but we do need to ask some critical questions about how change happens. If we are going to turn this big ship we need tug boats not new rudders, but you will have to wait for the next post on “was Jesus a both/and kind of dude?” When I can explain that.

Is there any theological insight into this question of church size? John Taylor in his seminal book ‘The Go-Between God’ explores the question of church size. His starting point however is not the church as we experience it, or whether this church or that church ‘works’, but the church’s essential nature as a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. For Taylor a primary spiritual nature of the early church is mutuality in community, expressed by the word allelon, ‘one-another’, a word that occurs frequently in the New Testament. Taylor he argues that church must be:

of a shape and size that enables this ‘one-anothering’. This is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is a hallmark of the church’s spiritual identity, about what the church is before it is about what it does
of a significant enough size to ‘be an embodiment of the life of the Kingdom’ but not so big as to tend toward a withdrawal from that sense of church alongside and amidst others in the world.
not so big that it has to be structurally organised to the extent that it thinks of itself primarily as an institution rather than a community.

FXS role in traversing the fantasy

In his Facebook podcast “how to get clients and extract their wealth” Pete Rollins playfully unpacks the idea of Transference, where an idea/construct that is key to you gets played out with one of your heroes or a guru or a leader, or I would add, even an institution. Transference works on the basis that we think this guru, this institution, has the answer to the secret, we follow them as we think they know the answer. He goes onto borrow from Lacan where the role of a therapist is to help you be freed from transference, and the disempowerment that it brings then traverses the fantasy that you have built up. He applies this to his work around Pyrotheology (see the divine magician).

I wonder if FXs have an uncovering role and empowering role, not to pull back the curtain for people but to them the tools, strength or even frustration to pull back the curtain for themselves. Too often the church unknowingly or knowingly projects that it has all the answers, like the myth of the wizard of Oz. This mythology of answers taps into people’s deep rooted desire and fantasy that someone else knows the answer. Whereas in reality for faith to be real we need to “know ourselves” that knowing ourselves is both about seeing that we have built up a fantasy that someone else has the answer, and recognising that we must do the hard work and pull back the curtain for ourselves. Otherwise what sort of faith are we peddling. This collapses the notion that church is the destination (noun), where people could allow themselves to be anethesised recipiants with the illusion that church has the all the answers and instead locates it firmly back in process(verb) the unfolding kingdom that is now and not yet, where the curtain is torn and we are coproducers in the process.