A new way of being Christian and/or the ancient future faith (Leadership)

In the previous post I suggested we needed to find a new way of being christian at all levels sociologically, functionally, eccesiologically, culturally etc. Today I am in a reflective mood as it has just been made public that John Wheatley is the new community leader with Frontier Youth Trust. I love John and having worked alongside him for several years am delighted he has taken on this new role. But more than that I love the way the FYT board, Team and John went about re-examining what kind of leadership was needed. I love that the board have been courageous enough to listen to the team and to move away from the traditional CEO type role, and start the journey towards a new way of being.
When the legend that is Dave Wiles, the enigma that is Andy Turner and I interviewed John it was clear John was a gifted young man, I think we even said that one day he would lead FYT. And fast forward 6 years John continues to inspire me as Im pretty confident that if it had been a standard CEO role in FYT he wouldn’t have applied for the role.

I think theres two really important lessons we can learn from this. Firstly there is deep level of vulnerabilty shown on all sides. The organisation/board of FYT is open and vulnerable, it knows the risk of moving away from traditional organisational processes, and equally recognises that as people caught up in the dance of the relational trinity and a desire to see shalom we are called to be something else. Likewise the journey of the team showed amazing vulnerability, jobs were on the line, change was afoot, and livelihoods at stake. Finally there was massive individual vulnerability, Debbie Garden (interim CEO) and John did an amazing job of helping both sides navigate this process, and I think that the open handed grace that Debbie always demonstrates cannot be underestimated, she’s a gem. I love it, and I love that in an age of institutional anxiety, there are still organisations and individuals that demonstrate the way of the vulnerable christ and are finding ways to root this in how they operate.

Secondly is was really hard for me to leave FYT, and whilst many organisations go on about giving over leadership to younger generations its never going to happen unless people like me in their 30s embrace, nurture and release younger leaders, and recognise in that they can go further, faster, deeper and eclipse us, and know that like Richard Rohr success can teach us very little, consequentially making sure we are hand over before its too late. So again I think the second lesson whilst still rooted in vulnerability to individual leaders and to leadership groups is pretty obvious GET OUT OF THE BLOODY WAY!

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.

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.

The embrace of Easter Saturday

Of all the seasons and times in the christian calendar I am most taken with the wait of advent and Easter Saturday. Up at 5am this morning to watch and pray, I tried to get my head around why the wait is so key for me.

The incarnation and trinity is formative in the way I engage with the world around me, the rootedness, the relationship, the reality calls me forward to the renewal of creation, the restoration of relationships, and the recovery of my own humanity. I think this why the wait is so pertinent for me, it recognises our part in the story, it embraces the in-between time, the reality of a world that is now and not yet, and even in that not yet time, God is there. The wait reminds me of the willingness of God to be in the process with us, to descend to the depths of sheol, on Easter Saturday, and openness to take on human form at advent. A God who is never distant, but always transcendent. A God who holds our hand and is just out of reach, the one who waits for the renewal of the creation and groans with us as we walk towards it together.

5 Turns the church needs to take

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. welcome

Preach what you practice

In the Creeds in the making, Richardson outlines how the early creeds were a missionary apologetic to what god was doing in the early church. For the last two or so decades my friends and I and many I encounter at conferences, gatherings and festivals, have followed the missio-dei as we minister to and with the LGBTQ community. It has often been misunderstood, been under the radar, or simply not shouted about because as Primate Michael Curry so brilliantly put ““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.”
But perhaps it is time for those agencies to start to preach the inclusion they practice. Indeed many local churches practice a level inclusion way beyond the statements espoused by their governing bodies, and so perhaps it is time for us all to preach what they practice because we need to find an apologetic for what god is doing in so many lives and communities, and to create a pathway for those still suffering oppressions and violence in other places.

Institutional prophets

Time and time again the prophets called out for justice, mercy and love. On occasion they acted and orchestrated acts of justice that brought their calls for justice to the lived experience of those suffering injustice. They acted knowing that what they did was out of love and thet their actions were more important than their words. They knew their action challenged the words written down on tablets of stone as the law, and they knew that at times these tablets had been so consumed by those in power that people hearts has also turned to stone. So the prophets spoke out, the prophets acted knowing there would be consequences and they would face exclusion and be misunderstood. The presence and practice of Jesus is clear in the actions of the Old Testament prophets, and the modern justice seekers who put orthopraxis before orthodoxy.

I see the person of Christ, and the prophetic call to a new way of being and acting in the Episcopal Church and its primate Michael Curry. His statement to the primates is full of grace, and reaches back beyond the roots of slavery to a love that was embodied in the person of Christ, and it keeps me hanging their by my fingernails.

“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. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”
Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.
“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”

When I first met Rowan Williams when he was archbishop I was so taken by his ability to listen, perhaps I was a little in awe but I sensed in him a willingness to stand with me on the edge. It is early days, so I do not want to jump to conclusions about what the decision to exclude the Episcopal church means, but struggle to see how such a fracturing move can be an act of grace. So I am keen to know how both Curry and the current ABC Justin will respond but My prayer for all the primates is that they will have the eyes to see and ears to hear and grace will find a way.