I’ve been thinking about navigating change at a local level in church contexts and how the idea of what can be gained or lost plays out in the process. As we enter further into the post Christian landscape and context I find myself drawn into more conversations about how the limited resources we have, are deployed. The burning platform is both a gift and curse for change. Whilst it may help people recognise the need to change it also means many realise how much has been lost. My experience is people don’t fear change they fear loss. So who presents the idea of change becomes more critical than we realise particularly if we are talking locally about a new sort of ministry to replace something already in place. For example If a declining church needs to think about the type of minister it has, perhaps with the notion of replacing a pastorally minded member of clergy who is retiring with a more pioneering missionally minded priest or even lay pioneer, (obviously I’m stereotyping and understand it’s much more complex than two camps) but like any change the notions gain or loss come to the fore. Clearly how you have the conversation is critical but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the WHO has, who facilitates the conversation will impact on wether people see the change as a loss or gain. When the conversation is being led by a member of clergy, arch deacon, bishop, no matter how well they hold the space, culturally everything is signalling a sense of loss. The who reminds them of what they are losing, it echos memories of what things used to be like and even if they tell a great story of what could be, the sense of loss can and will play a really significant part. When someone outside, or lay hosts the space it will be easier to position the change as gain. People can much easier see the change as making space for something new to emerge, get a different sense of perspective even if the people leading the conversation is saying pretty much the same stuff as arch deacon or bishop was.
Over the past few months I have been using an innovation technique of Pitch and Exhibit to further my thinking on Pioneering and Church. What has become clear over the past week or so is that what has been emerging as fresh expressions, and pioneering expressions of church has matured and is now firmly part of the landscape of the church in the UK and consequently we need a better way to describe the mixed ecology of church that is now present in so many communities and spaces. We have long said that Time Honoured church and Fresh Expressions have distinct needs, but we also know that they need each other. If pioneers have the gift of not fitting in, when we also see them as being a gift to the church, conversations and practice take a creative turn. We have experienced this in Cumbria and in my previous post I failed to adequately recognise just how far we have come. It is clear through church history that both modal and sodal expressions of church are required to help everyone flourish but more than that, when there are good relationships between the two, significant cultural systemic change could be achieved. I think we are very close to a watershed moment where we can observe the church Cumbria and in places beyond and really begin to shed light on what a mixed ecology of church might look like and how it interconnects and relates to one another. The image below is an attempt to capture this. You can find a larger image as a jpeg HERE or in a PDF here
A few things to say about the Trellis:
- We have been reaching for a more organic image than the spectrum and I hope this captures more the ecological element and interconnectedness of the Mixed Ecology. You can’t see it amazingly well as I need to fade it but there is a vine that weaves and interconnects across the different elements, traditions and approaches. This is to try and help people see this in a more patterned and less linear way.
- We have deliberately moved away from and taken out the specific pioneer words, recognising that we are in a new space. We all have parts to play and we are one Church in many expressions with different gifts and need one another. This is not to say pioneer language is redundant indeed it remains critical in creating the space and continued imagination we need in the institution to reach the breadth and diversity of the communities serve.
- We have removed the sense of Venn circles for a more fluid and interconnected approach.
- The left hand arrow is deliberately split into two to capture the learning from the original pioneer spectrum that at some point(s) we need a distinct and deliberate shift in posture if we are to reach deeper into our cultural context. This is particularly the case as you move towards Innovation and Activism.
- Accommodators has been one of the words we have wrestled with. It is meant as generous space makers, leaders who see that Time honoured and Fresh Expressions need each other. Accommodators are leaders who are secure enough to let others flourish and generous enough to let people go to new places they may never travel, but nourish and support them. Accommodators are not those begrudgingly making room for new things, but those who set people free to build the kingdom in the now and not yet.
I have said “we” in the wording above as the pitch and exhibit approach I have used means this has been developed collaboratively and I am grateful to all who have contributed over the past months and weeks. There is a lot to be said about the relationship between the spaces and particularly about the relationship between the centre and edge. Indeed I would even say the language of centre and edge is now problematic as in a mixed ecology centres and edges are hard to find but that’s for another blogpost.
With some other pioneers in Cumbria I’ve been thinking out loud about how we embed pioneering more into the systems. This meant having to do some thinking about what a #mixedecology of church might look like, how it fits together, and how this connects with some of the other research out there on things like how receptive people are to church etc. it’s still a work in progress and all models are wrong but some are helpful. I’m really grateful to Paul and Tina for their work on the pioneer spectrum that in some ways built on a few ideas about a typology of church I developed here. This attempt draws on some of that typology and takes the spectrum idea but expands it for the mixed ecology. I’m still not sure where hermits and other things fit but here’s my starter. The first image was where we started here in Cumbria. You
This second image is an attempt to capture some of the wider research on peoples views of church and potential reach, building on some of our research as part of our Reaching Deeper project. You can see a larger version here
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what are the things people of faith organise around and the problematic nature of this as question with all the power assumptions and notions contained within it. For the last 30 years or so it’s been a fairly common refrain that church seems to orientate and organises around gathered worship services, this where the bulk of the energy and resources go, and perhaps there needs to be a shift towards organising around mission.
At the moment as I continue to call the walls to dust, I’m struggling with the idea of “organising” in pretty much any shape, whether it is around worship, services, mission activity, practices of prayer etc. Instead I’m trying to be more chilled, chaordic, embodied and flowing, a multi directional wanderer.
Which also means I’m left wondering what might different people, thinkers, theologians, missionaries have offered in the past into this space. If ‘Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.’ Kosuke Koyama – do we orientate around being and noticing? Perhaps we orientate around the outside and “being story gatherers” an idea Al Barrett and Ruth Harley start to unpack, or “faithful improvisation” Tom Wright, or personal practices of prayer. Newbiggin would be interesting as although he was very much about the local context and community the way he viewed the space between the death of Jesus as his last public act and the resurrection as something more private could offer an orientation/organising in this in between space.
so what are are you organising around, personally and corporately and what do think different people would offer as the locus to orientate around or is the very orientation idea something we need to critique further?
For many pioneers it’s lonely, hard and the gift of not fitting is the gift that you often want to give back. Many people I know are questioning where they fit and how to connect. As old systems die and new ideas emerge those with the gift of not fitting can connect and in most cases this creates a resilient movement for system change. (System change theory)
Over the past few decades we have seen this in church, the old system and institution is in its death throws, pioneers connections made us think that the new system can emerge from these connections. We saw some possibilities emerge with things like mission shaped church and FX that encouraged us to think it maybe just around the corner. Social media and networks helped many of those early emerging church pioneers find each other and in doing so we started to find our tribe. Many of the tribe were also already in the institution and the possibility of change led others to connect.
However many people I know with a deep sense of missional spirituality that emerged from practice on the ground are wondering if this is still their tribe and sensing something is not quite right.
I think two things are happening. Firstly because the church is such a strongly double wrapped paradigm it is much harder for those connectioned individuals to get the change needed to help the new system emerge. As the church embraced those from the edge that double wrapped paradigm bought control and sanitised the re-wilding. I’ve written elsewhere for example that FX gave the institution the ability to control the emerging church.
Secondly the rise of social media meant that the network grew fast and this caused it to be noticed. So then as institution got involved often with good intentions it meant in that growth the network accelerated but it also dissipated which created perfect conditions for the double wrapped paradigm of systems and hierarchy to pull back from real change.
But I think the good news is that the missional spirituality embedded within pioneers always pulls us back to wild practice and hope of change, and this is why so many are struggling to find our tribe within this new set up. But perhaps we need to think differently about systems change in the institution and our place in it because the institution has still not admitted to itself honestly where it’s at.
So instead of looking for a particular tribe and networking for change we need to recover and lean into our missional spirituality that bought us this far and recognise that there is a deep ecosystem at work that finds a way across tribal boundaries, and beyond institutional systems and connects. This will mean for some staying connected with institution and edge, for others leaving the institution again, but let’s foster that underground ecosystem that nurtures and sustains and that you only find as you embed yourself in your community and find others doing the same.
My start point here is that mission and church are intrisically linked, two sides of the same coin and I have written extensively on this over the years so hold this in mind as you read the rest of this post.
I have been thinking a lot about HOW we should approach the task of mission and church, both HOW we should approach the thinking we need to do about it and HOW to develop the practices we engage.
When we come to the subject of mission and church Our default is to ask What type questions like ‘What is church? What do we do in mission?. BUT I think we need a different start point because if we take the idea that there can we can have a fixed answer to those questions, we can never get to an answer because we close ourselves to the possibility of interruption and contextual emergence that is intrinsic to the idea of a body, a movement, a people, a bride. We immediately start to fall into same the trap that Jews did and Marks gospel for example went to lengths to avoid of having a perceived idea of a messiah so miss it when it comes. I think the same can be applied to church and mission hence the need for thinking on the HOW because the what that emerges is contextual, co-created, emergent, the signpost is not the way, the map is not territory.
Drawing from Grenz and Franke who explore a method for ‘doing’ theology in a post modern age that uses the interaction of culture, Biblical text and tradition we can note that the established idea of mission as a bridge into church holds little weight Biblically and is not consistent with the images of church offered in scripture. Secondly the missionary traditions of people such as Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, Stanley Jones, Christ of the Indian road, and Water Buffalo Theology, written by Kosuke Koyama, all the way back to Acts 17, where Luke records Paul contextualising the gospel and using the language of the Unknown God reinforce the need to move beyond a contextualisation of the message towards a journey of discovery on both sides. Robert Schreiter sees this journey as inculturation which he describes as “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”. The emphasis being the reciprocal nature that allows the process to question our current assumptions (answers) about what church and mission is, and move us away from this to more of an emerging process. (see my last post on Habitus and mixed ecology).
Putting this kind of process approach (the how question) at the centre rather that what questions about church and mission flips the script entirely. It is a journey which fuels the individual in their understanding of God, enabling them to see the missionary endeavour as an act of worship to God, and encounter the presence of God in the whole process, which in turn brings us full circle to an understanding not of mission as a bridge into church, but church and mission as a dynamic, subversive, irritative interaction between the individual, community and Missio-Dei on a redemptive path together. Perhaps it is only without the What question that we be can led towards the future and find ourselves as co-creative participants of the way.
(for a wider read on the missional context that initially prompted this approach check out Reconnected – Releasing the missional imagination in a post modern world)
As I wrestled with the non-dualist ways of being missional church I was seeing in and through my practices with young people back in the late 1990s and 2000s, I became a big fan of Walter Brugemann’s work and particularly his work on orientation, disorientation and reorientation in the Psalms. This alongside Hegel’s thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis, and Paul Ricour’s work on naïveté, complexity and recalibration, this flow and process started to give me a language and frame of reference for the less dualist way of being that I was sensing and observing in the emerging church. Then through my post-grad I stumbled onto the idea of an emerging Habitus that Bourdieu identifies as something that emerges as an interplay between free will and structures and is developed over time. Habitus is shaped by both past events, present practices and our ideas (perceptions) of these events and practices. ie coherence (reorientation, synthesis, recalibration) emerges through the process. In this sense habitus is created and reproduced unconsciously ‘without any deliberate pursuit of coherence… without any conscious concentration’ see here for more info.
Both the national church of england (here) and in our county we are looking to become a deeper mixed ecology of church. I have two thoughts on this. Firstly it seems entirely natural and in line with the flow and process I first saw in Brugemann and more recently in Richard Rohrs work on Order, Disorder and Reorder – Institutional church, Emerging church to Mixed Ecology. It’s pattern we see through church history and before throughout the scriptures, all of which is very positive. However, my second observation is how much we lose when we try to organise, and how an emerging habitus comes without conscious concentration. So I find myself caught between a place of concern and hope. A concern that the mixed ecology become a bit like Bonhoeffer’s saying “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” A hope that the hard work of the emerging habitus of mixed ecology is sufficiently embedded and that we are in this new place of metaphor and symbol, of connectivity, of Time honoured and Fresh Expressions of church, and not seek to return to a modernist approach that categorises what is happening as the mixed ecology. But live in the spirit with her daring mixed ecological metaphors of wind and water that resist categorisation, control and keep us humble and always emerging.
Ive been thinking a lot about the future impact the current situation will have and is having on church and how we as leaders need to respond. There is no doubt that current models of ministry and mission will need to shift as resources become more limited and how local ministry can be effectivly supported will hugely be impacted. I am for the neighbourhood, in many ways 100 years ago I would have been for the parish but most people don’t know what a parish is now. But for me the importance of the local, the rooted, the grounded is paramount, it’s one of the things I like about the local church – it’s about the LOCAL. Our greatest local resource is the people, the local community, and the response about how to allocate resources as they become scarcer will ultimately impact the local. So I am interested in thinking through the decision making processes that help us work out how we release our greatest local resource.
At a basic level decision making is easy and there are several key steps – Identify the decision needed, Gather Info, Identify alternatives, Weigh evidence, Choose among the alternatives, Take action and Review.
HOWEVER there is a whole lot going on under the surface, our bias, our known knowns, our known unknowns, who is in the room, how we shift and filter information (see Nigels post). My hunch is that throughout the process we never really know ourselves as well as we think, we don’t always have the right people in the room, and we always see the context through a particular lense. In Reinventing Organisations Laloux right at the starts talks about humanity evolving through sudden leaps, and he borrows from Wilber’s colours identifying 6 paradigms and the breakthroughs that helps us move through paradigms. You can view a short video here. For Wilber modern western society has a pathological focus on the exterior or objective perspective, and whilst I tend to agree, many of us “think” we are objective but in reality less so.
One of the things that has been encouraging is seeing many leaders become braver and more objective. People who have been questioning stuff for a number of years around the edge of missional approaches are choosing now to step up or out. People are becoming more vocal about personal views that don’t chime with the institutional line. Yesterday in Greenbelts Wild At Home workshop Brian Mclaren spoke about the Institution (institutional religion) being caught in the middle between Progressive and Regressive approaches. So for me as a progressive it encouraging to see people becoming braver in leading out of who they really are. At the same time countless studies show it is almost a universal that in times of stress institutions and people tend to regress from innovation and creativity. SO what might the key for leaders as we move on. We know from hard evidence (see the day of small things etc) the impact FX has on developing local ministry, the value for money it offers, and the way it helps develop a broader innovative and missional culture in the church. So how might we regression that inevitably seems to come with the pressure on resources etc.
There are two the key issues for leaders moving forward. Firstly I think we need to revisit what it means to embrace leading out of who we are (see Simon Walkers The undefended leader). Institutions place in the middle between Progression and Regression means in all likelyhood the key leaders have come through and are shaped by the institution, so leading out of who we are is questionable. To counter this we need to make sure that different voices are in the room and lead in teams with an undefended stance allowing that team to help us take the really hard look at ourselves needed and what is shaping us and the decisions being made.
I have been around the institution long enough to hear Einstein quoted time and time again that “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” but too often this saying is rolled out without any real change happening, precisely because the of the points raised in my first point. So the second issue, is that because of the inevitable predisposition to regress, any regressive decision needs to be seriously wrestled with, it should never be taken at face value, but held to a more serious and rigorous scrutiny. In fact I would go further and suggest that any regressive decision is simply shelved or binned and a process developed to facilitate make sure that more innovative responses are considered. Perhaps a simple process could be an adaptation of De Bonos Thinking Hats. We know from creative thinking our predisposition to travel down well worn paths and these will seem particularly inviting at the moment. But by using the Thinking Hats, perhaps with the Blue Hat (chairing hat) being particularly tasked to spot and stop regressive ideas, we can counter our regressive inherent mindset.
Sadly, my team was knocked out the of FA cup last weekend. Despite dominating large parts of the game we were out-thought tactically by a very determined Arsenal team. Their manager, Mikel Arteta is new in the leadership role of Head Coach. To make the matter of the defeat worse, it was the manager of my team that apprenticed him. Arteta’s emerging leadership skills outwitted those of his discipler.
Because there are no crowds in the stadia at the moment, you can hear on the TV coverage what the players and managers are saying and shouting at each other during the game. At one point during this game we were able to hear an example of highly astute leadership practice. Like all of the top football teams, Arteta’s Arsenal team are made up from players from all around the world. They are multi-cultural and speak a variety of languages. What was so poignant was that Arteta could be heard during the game shouting instructions and encouragement to his players in their own languages. Effortlessly and fluently, he switched from English, to French, to his native Spanish so that he most effectively led and engaged the players he was seeking to influence in the manner they best understood.
When it comes to fresh expressions and pioneering, and just about everything else in life, we know that effective leadership is key to what happens. Without effective leadership, it is almost impossible for anything to develop. We know from anecdotal evidence and more formal research (E.g. Encountering the Day of Small Things, George Lings, Methodism’s Hidden Harvest) that when it comes to fresh expressions, new forms of leadership have emerged. These are not about what titles a person has, what qualifications they have, what their ministry status is, or what training they have had. It’s about how effective their leadership is in the moment and season; this is particularly the case in this present moment of crisis and uncertainty when we can see who the players are, and who the pretenders are.
As a pioneer and ecclesiastical adventurer, I too often find I speak a different language to those who are part of inherited and attractional models of church. My conviction – like that of Mikel Arteta – is that if we want to be the best we can, we need to speak the languages of those we are seeking to engage. Of course, this understanding is not new. In the book of Acts 2: 1-21, we read how people heard things in their own language. God’s commitment to communicate in people’s native languages.
I’ve recently discovered the theory of spiral dynamics. Space doesn’t allow a full unpacking of this theory, but you can discover more about it HERE – My newly gained insight has taught me afresh, that we often think differently to each other. Spiral dynamics teaches us that we are wired in different ways and this means we might speak different philosophical languages. Those behind the idea have assigned colours to the different ways we might think. In spiral dynamics terms, I – like many pioneers and those in fresh expressions – am green (promoting community, avoiding dogma, post-modern), yellow (fluid, flexible, open to change), and turquoise (holistic, purpose-driven, integrally transcendent). However, I note that many in more inherited and attractionally orientated churches are either blue (liking authority structures, rules, hierarchy) or orange (competitive, materialistic, success driven). This presents a language and a leadership challenge when we seek to communicate with each other; as we perceive things differently.
But here is the thing – I can speak the languages of blue and orange because I live in the worlds where blue and orange are spoken frequently. I have played to the rules of blue. Operated to the materialistic demands of orange. But now, I aspire to the hope of community and common good green. Flex and flow in the chaordic needs of people, project, planet and purpose yellow. Seek the holistic, intuitive, spiritual, expansive big picture of turquoise. Being what is called a ‘spiral wizard’, I can do a little of what Arteta did and what the spirit enabled in Acts 2: speak in different ways to different people in the hope of best engaging them in ways they will best understand. However, those who come from the worlds of blue and orange don’t yet speak yellow, green, and turquoise.
This becomes a problem for me and for other similarly positioned pioneers. We get misunderstood, side-lined, sometimes maligned, and often unfairly judged for speaking a different ecclesiological language. In reality our predicament can be somewhat worse than I describe. The response from those who don’t speak green, yellow or turquoise can be worse than simply not understanding the linguistics. The very words pioneers use can produce such a negative emotional response within that blues and oranges can end up precluding themselves from even hearing what pioneers are trying to say.
I say this not to invoke sympathy or out of a sense of self-pity. It’s more that we need to help those who come from a different worldview and speak a different language to better understand how we yellow, green and turquoise pioneers think, feel and behave.
My fear is that if we can’t manage to do this we will never be able to share the joys and delights of what we see God doing in our culture and language. Those from a blue and orange culture and language risk missing out on what the founder of spiral dynamics thinking, Clare W. Graves, calls the ‘unfolding, emergent, oscillating spiralling process’ that for many of us is akin to an ongoing Pentecost experience … and I don’t want them to miss out.
Dr Nigel Pimlott
Expressing a personal reflection especially for Sunday Papers
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.
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