Does G-d exist outside relationships?

Every now and then someone reports on if young people are interested in God, or spirituality, or something of that ilk. Good reports like Buried Treasure, in depth stuff like Faith of Generation Y, and recently a small scale research piece called No questions asked.

One of the questions I always come back to in this sort of research is where is relationship within the context of the research, and what role does relationship play in asking these sort of questions? I often test out the questions used with young people I have an ongoing connection with, and without fail get into great discussions around faith, spirituality and life. Often for obvious research reasons, the research is conducted outside of the context of ongoing relational youth work. So whilst I could argue about research paradigms and the role of researchers, the question I really want to ask is; does God exist outside of the context of relationship?

I am always fascinated by the communal nature of the trinity, the relational and incarnational aspect of God. It also seems from reading the various documents that more often than not when relationship is excluded as a variable, the god talk doesnt happen, but when included it does. What is going on here? Is it as simple as people need to feel comfortable or known to talk, or is it more?

It’s natural that young people don’t talk about about God in a vacuum, as for most people the natural evidence is that God doesn’t exist. So is it supernatural that people do talk about God in the context of ongoing relationship? Is God being made more manifest in those conversations? Are miracles occurring in the lives of young people, as despite the natural everyday evidence that God isn’t real, they want to talk?

Does G-d exist outside the context of relationship?

Every now and then someone reports on if young people are interested in God, or spirituality, or something of that ilk. Good reports like Buried Treasure, in depth stuff like Faith of Generation Y, and recently a small scale research piece called No questions asked.

One of the questions I always come back to in this sort of research is where is relationship within the context of the research, and what role does relationship play in asking these sort of questions? I often test out the questions used with young people I have an ongoing connection with, and without fail get into great discussions around faith, spirituality and life. Often for obvious research reasons, the research is conducted outside of the context of ongoing relational youth work. So whilst I could argue about research paradigms and the role of researchers, the question I really want to ask is; does God exist outside of the context of relationship?

I am always fascinated by the communal nature of the trinity, the relational and incarnational aspect of God. It also seems from reading the various documents that more often than not when relationship is excluded as a variable, the god talk doesnt happen, but when included it does. What is going on here? Is it as simple as people need to feel comfortable or known to talk, or is it more?

It’s natural that young people don’t talk about about God in a vacuum, as for most people the natural evidence is that God doesn’t exist. So is it supernatural that people do talk about God in the context of ongoing relationship? Is God being made more manifest in those conversations? Are miracles occurring in the lives of young people, as despite the natural everyday evidence that God isn’t real, they want to talk?

Midwifery, FXs and Punk

My job title is Fresh Expressions Enabler and recently someone compared my role to a midwife. In many ways it makes sense as a description helping people prepare and respond to what is emerging, sometimes FX are planned and sometimes they are surprise.
However as I reflected on midwifes in the bible I was drawn to Exodus 1 and the role the Hebrew midwife played. They were told to kill the Hebrew boys and when challenged why this had not happened they responded, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
As Fresh Expressions have become more main stream they have become more defined, and it is great that roles like mine have emerged but with them come certain targets and ways of doing things. The gospel seed is vigorous and grows when it is nurtured, and yet recently I spoke to someone exploring pioneer ordination and she had had two projects killed before they could mature as they didn’t “fit” the church way of doing stuff. So often things seems to grow vigoursly, organically and in directions that we might not expect, so we need to make sure our imagined targets don’t get in the way.

What I have been trying to do in Cumbria is rather than having to be hands on and deliver loads of FXs, has been to encourage a (you might say promiscuous) culture, where people feel they have the freedom to experiment. Its not quite anarchy but it is punk, developing leading edge projects, with a bit of crazy energy. Punk only lasted a few months and it was never going to the dominant music of the 20th century. But the energy broke the system of music culture that had been around, and suddenly everyone thought anyone could give it a go. This was the culture changer, and if FXs are going to have any real long term impact, it will be in helping the church move from a culture of authority to participation, freeing people to pick up whats in front of them and give it a go.

Is the gospel always culturally contained?

People often say the gospel never changes, but what is this gospel that speak of? For many Christians when it comes to questions about mission and culture, at the forefront are phrases like “how do we proclaim the gospel afresh to every generation? How can we speak relevantly with watering down the message? ” I wonder if these the host of other simular questions speak more of our own anxieties and cultural conditioning than we realise.

Any reading of Acts 17 will tell you that the reality is that the “how” of ministry is shaped by the “who, when and where” of culture. But maybe the question we should be asking is “what” is ministry?

Culture is thick with meaning, and we navigate culture both as individuals, (some with greater awareness of the impact culture has on how and why make certain choices) and as society (where individuals and the circuit of culture is always operating and forming). A person is both an individual and a member of society. Because of this, any personal relationship a person makes with their deity (namely God), it is a result of the relationship the greater society in which he belongs has with that deity. Our understanding is that religious belief originates in the mind of the individual, when it is actually a product of collective thought. (I nicked that last two sentences from here as its a good spin on Durkhiem but the link is broken for the whole article).

So when we use short hand like “proclaim the gospel” or “the message” It immediately slips us into a much more culturally conditioned way of operating than we think. Over on BiblePirate.com I love what Matt has been doing with the bible text in his unauthorised versions, and his playful podcasts, In particular Eve as hero rather villain (listen here) and I wonder how much that radical read of Genesis 3 should change the way we approach issues of contextualisation, and syncretism and the what of the gospel that we speak of.

FXs older brother

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

Who left who, Learning from Pigs and Dragons

In the last post on the Prodigal I posted about the postures we may need when emergents return. One of the things I want to tease out here is did the prodigal leave or perhaps more accurately, who left who.

Im a big fan of stories and parables, particularly in how they stretch. I am left wondering if the parables work, as Jesus did as the still point in a turning world, but as Elliott says that’s where the dance is. So I am starting to see the parables maybe acting as a pivot point reconnecting Israel as a blessing to nations and Peters vision.

When Abraham was called as the father of Israel, he agreed to go with what he had, which probably wasn’t that much in terms of material wealth or in terms of knowledge of where he was going. As Jonny Baker brilliantly put he is commended in Hebrews for basically saying “I don’t know where Im going but whos up for coming with me!” In the light of what we said about the prodigal picking up ideas and wisdom from the culture that hosted him, did Abram do the same. Did he go through some rites of passage in his 70 and 80s? Was there a link between the journey of Abram and the destination of becoming Abraham, that one couldn’t happen without the other? And importantly wasn’t being blessed by Melchizedek all about the inclusiveness and presence of God in the culture (ie Abraham was told he would be the blessing to the nations but some dude turns up to bless him, and shares bread and wine with him)?

The trajectory of Israel being a blessing to other cultures is wrapped up in Abram being embraced by and embracing the gift from other cultures, and this more universal embracing shows us something about who and how God is revealed.

In the story of the prodigal the pigs weren’t unclean in the culture that the prodigal had entered. In my world it’s about the journey off the map to the spot marked here be dragons. Pigs were only unclean in his old land. He had crossed so many boundaries, and yet they were artificial boundaries that had been put up by law makers. So much so that God has to emphasise the point to Peter later on by giving him vision on the roof, and instructing him not to call unclean what God has called clean. Perhaps the embrace at the end is as much repentance on the fathers side as on the sons. The tearing of the curtain broke these boundaries ushered in the kingdom which was always the trajectory of Isreal. In killing the fatted calf, (the Christ) and eating together a new world without boundaries is created, the old walls are called to dust, the father and the son are Called to repentance and a new place.

so maybe it’s less about leaving and returning and more about a pivot around which shalom is formed as all things are made new, relationships restored and boundaries pulled down. Don’t forget the prodigal is part of a trio of stories and lost coin doesn’t have to shout “help” it simply sits there and waits to be found.

When emergents return

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.

Networking The lone Nuts or plotting our own downfall

So one of the things I explored in this post was the role the institution might play in helping those on the edge network in order to build a level of resilience that stops said institution crushing the emerging change taking place.

I think that the early days of the emerging church people networked well, but as things developed people got busier and stuff got harder. The energy levels needed to organise and stay on the edge were immense, so most people seemed to invest in there own networks. It was great to have Steve Collins stay for a few days and get some his take on those early networks and conversations, how people wrestled with theology and practice in private email groups, before the ubiquitous Facebook. It seemed clear that in early days the networks did help some people survive and probably build enough momentum and longevity, for things like Fresh Expressions, VFx, CMS pioneers etc to start that were more centralised. Yet many of us have reservations about the direction that some of these more centralised movements are taking, some of the colonialising approaches, and some of the roots in organisational anxiety.

So how can we support and network the lone nuts recognising in doing so that organised religion might be plotting its own downfall. Which I think is key part of the christian story unless a seed falls….

https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement

Perhaps there are few places that might resource drawing the lone nuts together, for example there are first followers now within the institution (thinking of pioneers into some of the institutional networks I have encountered like Tina Hoggitt, Paul Bradbury, Nigel Pimlott, Ian Bell, Ian Mosby, Mark Berry Janet Sutton webb) or there are a few places left like Greenbelt that could develop something. One of the things that has shifted is that there are different voices and voices in different places. As ever youth work seems to be at at the forefront of R&D for church, so we need those voices but there are also several networks on the edge of organised church, like VFX, CMS, Incarnate. At the last national FX thing I was at, Andy Freeman talked FX about being a Network of networks, but Im not if this is what they had in mind or even maybe there is a role for Nick to develop if the CofE is serious about setting Gods people free.

Change the script

Some time ago (6 years) I posted THIS, as I was riffing on how change happens, borrowing from Transitology and emerging theology. I concluded that post with “the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and so (not intentionally) suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge who were and still are, key to helping make change happen.”

So I wanted to revisit that post now I’m in my new role. I am particularly interested in how Tranisitology interfaces with the double loop of change. (Watch THIS 8 minute video if you are familiar)

To recap Transitology (derived from political science and initially examining change in latin america) identifies 4 elements to the change process. 1, structural factors are inadequate by themselves, they need actors to help make change, 2 change happens at times uncertainty, 3 Actors are assumed self interested, 4, Property rights of the wealthy need to be challenged.
The institutional system of the church have travelled over the top of the first loop, it has gone beyond its peak. The emerging church and voices from the edge offered alternatives but the dominant system either crushed them intentionally, or unwittingly enticed the edges and in the process the distinctiveness of their voice lost.

So taking each of the 4 elements above let’s explore how alternative change or the new loop might be fostered:
1, The structures (and here I mainly mean the institutions and denominations) recognise the need for change and that they cannot not make the shift happen by themselves. They needed and still need actors on the edge of and preferably (in my mind) outside themselves to help make change happen. So their new role in change could be support and proactively help these groups network and form community so that the new voices are resilient enough to foster the new change loop. This is something we are hopefully working on up here.

2, The uncertainty and backdrop of the cultural shift to post (hyper) modernity is obvious, and the challenges it wrought both in terms of thinking and theological processes have seen some great stuff happen at the edge as the old walls are called to dust. So churches systems need to embrace the possibilities that uncertainty offers as a gift not a threat, and find ways to embed this into how they function, develop flexible structures that ebb and flow, develop information flow that shares ideas and models from across the network in an open source way thus helping people on the ground navigate the great emergence we are seeing.

3, Initial emergence was quite egalitarian, and practice driven by actors, working out what to do on the ground in the shifting context they found themselves. This flew in the face of self interest and created a platform for voices from the margin to be seen and heard. As the movement matured the voices shifted from the group to the individual, (which is needed as Actors play a key role), and more recently either into roles of public theology or marginalised. Perhaps the next phase is for the dominant system to rediscover, apologise and embrace the dissenting voices in real dialogue. I also think the individual voices need to resdiscover the communitas present in the early years.

So whilst the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and in so suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge, perhaps releasing resources without strings, targets, outcomes, and crucially not from a sense of institutional anxiety about the future (which there is quite a lot of in the CoE) might be a way ahead. Particularly if those resources are used to foster, resource and support the three areas mentioned above.

It’s a love thing

It’s been a tough couple of days reading the Bishops report on Marriage and Same Sex relations after the Shared Conversations. I find myself in a strange place with many questions. Much has been written about the report already with an excellent reponse from Miranda Threlfall Holmes Here. However I want to take a different look.
Over the last 25 years or so I have actively been seeking a more inclusive welcoming open space, one that goes beyond gender, sexuality, age and race. This wasn’t something that came from reading theology, it was something something that came from encountering theology on the streets (primarily with young people). It changed my views and opinions, it forced me back to reading the bible, looking at the Christian tradition and what God was doing in the culture. This love of people drove me from orthodoxy to orthopraxis, something I see implicit and explicitly in Jesus’ ministry. It has shaped my understanding, the way I read the bible, encounter my neighbour, talk to my children and follow my vocation.
Perhaps I exist in an echo chamber but when I see my friends and coworkers around the globe loving people, I see inclusion a growing part of that process. Most of The leaders of the fresh expressions churches (and all the leaders of emerging churches) I know are open and inclusive, their creative orthopraxis is often in contradiction to the orthodoxy of the COE. They find ways to support and at times celebrate with People in same sex committed relationships, see people come to faith, and impact their communities as they grow together. AND let’s not forget this one of the fast growing Jesus movements in the west and according to recent research “Nothing else, as a whole, in the Church of England has this level of missional impact and contributes to the re-imagination of Church”
So it was with dismay that my reading of the Bishops report seemed to place orthodoxy over practice, and I heard the cries of many LGBTI friends who felt unloved, unwelcomed and betrayed. The further potential for the report to put rules before love (and I would argue it already has) with talk of teaching documents, the rehetoric that is already being spouted, and news coverage, makes love all the more important but just that little bit harder, as our neighbours once again see the church as disconnected and distant, and a place where love is neither celebrated or practiced.