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.
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.
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.
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.
Innovation is one of those things that comes naturally to some people, and in my work it is less about an idea coming seemingly out of nowhere, but more a sense of feeling a way ahead, seeing half a dozen steps ahead feeling a way forward. Often people ask me to explain how I work, or what connections I am making, and it’s particularly problematic. Innovation is hard to explain, it’s a bit like when a weight is place on the edge of a wheel, and the movement is more jerky, a jump forward happens in response to a nudge. Innovation has a naturalality to it, it’s easy, fun, organic. Adaptation is hard work it, it turns innovation into a technological process, it means taking the time to explore the processes and reasons why an innovation worked, working out how to repeat and tweak it. On the plus side it means Adaption is easier to explain, someone has observered what’s gone before tweeked (often making it better) and then rolls out the adapted version. We need to the adaptors, but let’s not confuse the two, but more than ever the church needs to make space for and support the innovators, those making hesitant, jerky leaps forward.
The trouble is that too often the innovators are so far from the centre, and what they do is hard to explain and measure that they are overlooked by the centre or funders in favour of adaptors. Applications based on adaption are mistaken for innovation and don’t get me wrong often these adaptive change makers are often able to have improved outcomes, systemised processes that can be scaled etc, but don’t confuse the two.
I’ve always been intrigued not so much by the older brothers jealousy but by what was happening in the economics of the story. The prodigal had taken a third of the family income blown it, is welcomed back as a son, so when the father dies will he get a third of the two thirds left. Or perhaps if he did offer something new to the family on his return, and was the family eventually better off.
Either way if the father re-embraced the son, and full rights restored in the here and now. I wonder if the institutions ever really hear and value the contribution from the edge or if an older brother mentality gets in the way. If Fresh Expressions are the emerging churchs gift does the way FXs have been sanitised by the the insistution, made a little safer, less edgy, show the embrace of the older brother rather than father. The desire to protect what is already there and play it safe. So perhaps this is where we need the wisdom of the lost sheep and the emerging church had no problem leaving the 99 to go after the one. I’m sure the father would have run after the son given the chance, not so sure about the older brother and Perhaps this is why we are also leaving some of the most creative voices outside. So if the institution is serious about resisting an older brother mentality perhaps take a look at THIS
It seems several people from the emerging church are taking roles on the inside edge of the institution, some are embraced and others hesitantly recieved. So with a Hat tip to the wonderful Simon Succliffe for the spark and Johnny Sertin for the brief brainstorming session, This is going to be a couple of posts maybe even a mini series of posts putting an emerging spin on the prodigal. I’m going to be pretty playful with the text so don’t expect some sort of textual exegesis.
Firstly I don’t think those of us that left the insistutional church are prodigals in the sense of backsliders or any of those traditional interpretations, many of us left as part of a faithful search and found faith reinvigorated, and a depth of encounter with the Christ of today of the here and now, rather than yesterday or tomorrow.
So the leaving is part of the return. What if the prodigal leaving is part of a rite of passage and wether it is planned as in a formal rite, eg the boy who goes out to face the challenges in the wild and comes back when they are ready, or culturally normative eg an Amish young person on rumspringa, or for the middle class heading to uni. Perhaps in the prodigal it was more an unplanned rite of passage and like many people a series of encounters take place that help you grow up. So when it says “he came to his senses” was this the move from the youth, a coming of age, a recognition of adulthood. This raises the question what had he encountered, and how was his new sense of personhood going to be a gift and service to the community. NB I think this question of what he was able to offer still stands if you don’t think he had in anyway been involved in a rite of passage.
Coming to his senses and like a Masai warrior having walked through his exile here was a young man with gifts and talents and a different spirit, someone who had known the highs and lows, real hardship and starvation. There’s also a lovely hint in Luke that perhaps the father was open to this. The son had prepared three stances for his return, an acknowledgement of sin, a lack of worthiness, and a willingness to be treated as a servant. Yet the father only let him blurt out the first two before the re-embrace. So Once the party was over how did he re-inhabit the space he was given. Having been away to distant land had he picked up new farming techniques, was his renewed spirit of humility and way of being a gift, was he able to simply see things from a different perspective and offer these ideas to the family. As a son he was able to bring in these ideas whereas as a servant he might not.
So what stances do we need to take now. When and how we offer the new learning that has emerged from the emerging church experiences and what postures should we take. I think because the leaving is part of the returning I want to encourage those of on the inside of the edge to be themselves. This was the key advice my referees gave the bishop when I applied for the post, that I needed space and they would get the best out of me if they let me be me.
In the next post I’m going to riff on the importance of the son crossing boundaries.
On Monday Im going to post on Transitology and change in my new role based on THIS post (6 years ago). One of the things Im particularly interested locally is the rise of network based Fxs and how working with loops of change from within the system might help build resilience and platforms for change. (Watch THIS 8 minute video if you are familiar) with the concept.
Have you ever noticed who is asking the question in the story of the Good Samaritan? It made me think about the insititional church again, as in my new role with Fresh Expressions I have been using this oldie but goodie suggesting that perhaps we have put an imaginary lid on church.
Perhaps a bit of a rewrite of the opening of the Godd Samaritan may help you spot who is asking Jesus who is my neighbour…
A teacher, someone who helps make and interpret the rules, a culture setter, a guardian of truth asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?” Jesus replies “imagine YOU are walking down a road and are attacked, mugged, robbed and left for dead at the side….
If we flip the focus from the Samaritain maybe renaming the story could be retitled “The laws that bit back”. We see the teacher who had unpacked the rules, hurt at the side of the road. those walking past him at his greatest point of need were simply following the advice he had given and the culture that had formed around this. What was meant to be life affirming had become corrupt and eats itself.
What do you think maybe a call for Fresh Expressions to not only act differently but ask some critical questions about what is said, the way we structure belief, and the cultures being formed?
In creative thinking Edward de Bono talks about the idea that our thinking is pretty one way and we need provocations that act like stop signs to help us move from the one way street to change direction. In this post I want to identity 5 Turns that the church needs to make and suggest some provocations that may help people make that turn. These are sometimes deliberately designed to be theologically ambiguous, because the action (the turn) takes places in reaction to the sign (provocation) so it doesn’t really matter how spot on some of the provocations suggested are.
From a Gathered church to Gatherings
There is something good about being together, but the way we talk about the gathered church and hold onto it as a concept takes peoples thinking down the line, that church happens at a particular time or place. We don’t mean to do this and preach that church is about people but the medium is stronger than the messages we preach. A provocation that may help is to start calling the different groups you have church, Toddler Church, Breakfast Church, Youth Church, Walking Church, Lunch club Church, even if you are not sure that is exactly what they are. If church starts where Jesus is with others, and it is about people not buildings see where this language takes you…
From Walls to Wells
This comes from a well known story. When a sheep farmer from the UK visited vast farms in Australia and asked the local Aussie “how long does it take you to build all the fences?” and he replied “we don’t build fences we just dig wells”. People in churches are on the whole great, most I meet are loving, kind, generous, and just good people to be around. But we have so many walls that stop people encountering this well of human goodness, we build them with theological positions, membership structures, hoops we like people to jump through and we are perceived to be closed in. Extend whatever practices you have that build community in your church and help people in the church when they are in need beyond your walls. If you do cake after the services well, bake cakes for the local brothel. If you do meals for a week when someone has a baby, contact the local midwife and offer the service locally. If you welcome a new minister with cakes, a guide to life in the village, and local tips on the best pubs and when to put the bins out, do the same for anyone who moves into your street.
From Contextualisation to Inculturation
Churches are slowly waking up to the fact that culture has shifted, that we need to be in missionary mode, and so people are doing a lot of work to try and ensure the services (no just sunday services) are relevant to the context. Those at front are more often than not aware that language needs to change, people don’t understand the jargon and we need to find ways to share the gospel with people that relevant and real to the local language and context, (contextualisation). However there is a bigger cultural backdrop that requires a missional response that is more than contextualisation. Culture is a semiotic fluid thick, with meaning and culture eats contextualisation strategies for breakfast. We need to recognise the participative nature of God, who is active in the community before we get there, and already working in the culture. We need to move beyond contextualising the gospel message to what theologians call inculturation, a process that is far more participative, reciprocal and equal. Where we allow those we are serving to speak into our context, shape our beliefs about what is church and even what is the gospel. Most people in churches are pretty well networked with friends, family, and have contacts with people who simply don’t do the God stuff, rather than asking how you can reach them, find out how can they reach you with the gifts God has already planted in their lives. Why not develop an open PCC policy, where there are three or four members who do not attend church. Develop a council of reference made up people from outside of church, who can advise you and look at the ideas the church has, how it communicates, and what it says about what it believes. Host a community meal where ideas are presented and church members are asked not to speak, but to invite friends and be there to encourage those friends to speak honestly into your context. Make it the church members responsibility to follow up the suggestions made, and make sure the church changes as a result of the process.
From Answers to Questions
This one is really quite simple, we need to communicate more like Jesus. We need to tell stories and ask questions. When church held a more central position in society and christendom was still in place, we got used to providing answers. We even developed systems to help this answer driven approach, like apologetics, which at one level for that time when culture was open to the idea of fixed truths, was okay. (I’d probably argue it was more to with power and control than Jesus but lets not split hairs).
A sermon does not become interactive simply because you throw out some rhetorical questions that the christians know the answers to anyway. We need to embrace a far humbler approach to mission, and see ourselves as co-searchers for truth. To find the right questions to ask, and develop participative process that provide spaces for people to genuinely explore. Redesign a church service into a genuinely participative space (a byproduct of this maybe also genuine all age services), where regardless of age, all are seen as experts at the experiment of being human. Then instead of spending hours coming up with 3 points that answer a question few people are asking, the leader wrestles with God to find the right three questions to ask, and creates a space where those are explored by all the experts in the room. You could even tie the questions to the previous turn and ask your council of reference what are the questions we should be asking.
From Exclusion to Inclusion
When we follow the missionary god we cannot help but recognise the inclusive, loving, arms outstretched Jesus who died. So once again I quote Michael Curry “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” This is also not just a gay marriage issue, but about developing an inclusive way of being where all are welcomed, valued and served. Lets move beyond the arguments to find a way of being human and welcoming to all. So the the final provocation that may help us walk in a different direction is why not develop your own welcome notice like the one that was doing the rounds on Facebook a few years ago.