What counts?

How many people came to church on Sunday?  How many baptisms?  How many weddings?  How many came to the Fresh Expression gathering?  Are the numbers going up?  Are our churches growing?  These were our questions three months ago.  Then we left our buildings and we had a whole new set of questions.

How many logged into church on zoom?  How many watched the video on youtube?  Hurrah, more people are connecting remotely than ever came to church in the building!  Then more recently: How many of our online viewers will join us when we are back in the building?

But what if these are the wrong questions?  What if we are not supposed to be concerning ourselves with church growth at all, at least not in the numerical sense?  Dare I say that we should concern ourselves with other priorities than church growth?

Forty-six years ago Lesslie Newbigin returned from India and in 1989 wrote a book: ‘The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.’   It has become a classic, much read and quoted but the point often missed, because his point is that committed faithful believers will always be a minority.  It is how it always is.  It happened to Jesus so who on earth are we to think it will be different for us – he had crowds in the beginning but numbers dwindled.

Newbigin argues that the church has a key and important role to play in wider society, that our presence within society bringing challenge and change is critical.  We are to be confident in what we learn from Jesus, to live out and communicate faith.  But we are to bear in mind that our individualistic society has blinded us to communal aspects of salvation, meaning counting numbers is missing the point.  We’re to focus on changed society as the outcome rather than church growth.  Newbigin writes: ‘We get a picture of the Christian life as one in which we live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is… from within that indwelling try to understand and cope with the events of our time and the world about us and so carry the story forward.’ (p.99.)

What if we take seriously the calling to be salt and light, yeast in the dough, at times visible and other times invisible, a small ingredient that changes the whole?  What are our questions now?  How many people turn up on Sunday morning is no longer the priority, unless we have fallen into the trap of caring more about the institutional structures than the heart of what God is doing.

The questions then become about what the world need us to be and do, right now, as we face this crisis and wider societal challenges.  What is God working on?  What needs to be said and done in order to support society to re-engage well, to move forwards into something more connected, more earthed, more real, kinder?  Who are our partners in this work for the Common Good?

I find it hard to care as much as the church thinks I ought to about numbers coming to church.  I understand that people gathering to share together in the story of God is a good thing.  We need refreshing in what renews our vision, we need one another, we need God.

But turning up isn’t the point – the point is whole lives lived in God.  Right now, there are bigger questions at stake than numbers at church, whether in a building or online.  We have a unique moment as society, we have choices to make.  Right now, that is what I care about, that is what matters, and that is where my energy is going.

Cate Williams 1st June 2020

The relentless fight for political freedom from the market, a missional response

null
At the height of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave and address at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 that contained these words. “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  What we sometimes forget, is that this battle was directly related to the global market system of the time.  The battle in the USA was whether the State was there in the vision of the founding mothers and fathers of the nation to be centred on human freedom, or like many other nations, end up just another expression of an oppressive feudal state where the uber rich oppress the many.  The battle at the heart of this civil war was for the right to enslave human beings as the cheapest form of labour in the growing of global commodities of the time.  Lincoln won the battle, but I do not think he won the war.  Looking back at the USA now in 2020, I think we can clearly see that the market won and civil rights has never been fully delivered in one of the most divided and unequal societies in the world.

What exists now in the USA and now in the UK is economic slavery, maintaining cheap labour with reduced employment and terrible wages.  The Global Market won, and democracy and equality lost out.  We are now all commodified and where human dignity is now in decline.  You could argue that actually there has been a constant state of battle in the Western World ever since the Black death in 1346, when the feudal system and oppressive market society collapsed in the pandemic, as there were too few workers, so that wages and freedoms had to rise to ensure crops and industry were sustained. It was purely economics that drove this social change, and that since then there has been a battle between a society of justice and fairness v a market feudal oppressive system culminating in our current society.  Until recently you could argue the market had won, but now in another global pandemic, will this give us an opportunity again to diminish the power and relentless scourge of the market society? Or will it actually make a more feudalist system more likely to be reimposed? How does the church respond?

We remember that Jesus’ entire ministry happened in the context of the oppression of the Jewish people under the super power of the time, and that included the imposition of an international market system at the time.  It has always been a personal bafflement to me why Jesus did not call out this oppression at the time, other than Jesus being clear about money about fairness and money being of this world in Caesars name. The only hint of challenge to this, are the words of Jesus before Pilate after he had been flogged where he says “I am not of this world’.  Chad Myers helpfully reminds us that the greek here for ‘world’ here is ‘Kosmos’ the same as ‘domination system’.  With this in mind, Jesus is calling out the Roman Empire as a militaristic market society as a domination system and so we Christians, holding onto our understanding of Jesus ‘now but not fully yet’ Kingdom in the context of having to live in a domination system, but not of a domination system,

I want to point out at this point, I am not being an extreme Socialist or Communist, this is the stories of the Gospels and and Letters of the Apostles, and my thought has always been that more conservatively inclined Christians really need to get back the Gospel narrative, as you will be in for a shock!

So how do Christians react to the reality that our market society continues to oppression and now leads to destruction with global warming and ecocide.  Mission has to start with economic, ecological and social justice.  These are the heart of the Judaeo-Christian understandings of stewardship, jubilee and the Kingdom.  We can not idly sit by and see successive governments just continue to oppress people.  What will it take for Christians in the UK to stand up to the oppression of the market and the invisible power of the super-rich as Jesus sides with the unbearably poor?  What will it take to seek a Government that prevents the excesses of the market system by what used to be called a mixed economy?  What will it take for this to be seen by the church to be a missional priority?  It is not just about evangelism , fresh expressions and new ecclesial communities.  like Jesus turned over the market stalls in the temple for causing de-sacralisation, so we as Christians should be challenging and turning over the market stalls threatening the wellbeing of people and the continued existence of our planet.  It is high time that the Christian Church rediscovered it’s calling and historic roots. Now in this pandemic, can we face this calling to prophetic witness and prophetic living.

Reading Systems Failure as Sign of the Times

I do think some of the reactions in the USA for me just show how addicted we are, (not just how they are), to a consumerist capitalist system, and I really do think these are signs of system failure. Most of my life we have talked of the shifts from modernity to post modernity to post secularisation and the collapse of our financial system as the consequences of a system where money has become disconnected from the real when we ended the gold standard, and where the system has created economic slavery and an insatiable desire to use the worlds resources beyond what is sustainable and now faces global warming and ecoside.

The dominance of a culture dictated by Economics now does not make any sense anymore, where the billionaires are forcing political leaders to get people back to work even when their lives are at stake with this virus because they are losing money. For too long now Economics has been more important than human decency and human dignity. We need to own that we are facing a global system failure and it is going to be very painful as predicted by Obama at the beginning of his presidency. My sadness is that many Christians and Churches are so addicted and emeshed into this current market society that they have become part of the problem not the solution. Our model of ‘Church as business’ has been proved impotent in this crisis, with many important pioneers furloughed and now not able to work at a time when we need them more than ever to help and reimagine a church and society in this change. I am convinced that the effects of this virus are part of this system failure, and we have not faced this yet, and the solutions brought in to ride the storm like a universal wage, reductions in activity and destruction of the earth are going to need to part of our future.

There will be no going back, we need to face the future and I am sure that God must look back at some aspects of the Church and weep. I will never understand how some can call themselves Christians with the stances they take which seem to me to have very little to do with the Gospels and Jesus” teachings. We Christians need to play our part in this painful time to face serious change as our global market system collapses, and not be part of the problem. It seems to me some aspects of the church are to deeply emeshed and polluted by ties to the rich and powerful they they have lost their prophetic place as God expected as being the Body of Christ and the visible expression of the invisible Kingdom of God. Give to Caesar what is Caesars and give to a God what is Gods.

Interestingly traditional religious communities with their shared purse and commitment to poverty obedience and chastity can continue as a model of discipleship resistant and counter cultural to our market society and “Church as Business”. This is why I think we need to start to think what does it mean to be a Christian community living out the faith as a rhythm of life and why I am committed to a more new monastic approach to understand how to be a Christian in the context of our changing world where I am seeking not to collude with a system in failure but live simply and seek to hold onto Jesus’ teachings concerning social, economic and ecological justice. May be the solution is that we need to do our own spiritual 12 steps to be able to face this. I recently had to face an addiction problem in my life and this has really helped me to face things in a way I have never been able to before. We need to face our own sitting down by the rivers of Babylon, so we can be part of the solution not the problem as the church unfortunately can be.

We need to talk about the Adjacent Possible

I know many people are just trying to cope, just trying to get through, some are trying to keep the show on the road, and few are still trying to carry on regardless but in a different format. But in the midst of this the opportunity to speak to the Adjacent Possible (see Jonnys blog post on this for some background) is probably greater than ever before, but the voices seem lacking and particularly voices from the faith communities.

People struggle to imagine a future they can’t see, and you can’t think yourself into a new way of being. So the possibilities of the moment are immense. People are having to live differently and inhabit new ways of being. But who from the church and how is the church speaking into this? I have had some fascinating conversations by posting simple questions into different Facebook groups eg I posted in a couple of Mountain groups How do your experiences of being lost in the fells help you cope with being in lockdown? In fact I got such good feedback it inspired be to use Lost as theme for a virtual Mountain Pilgrims experience on Sunday.

So how can we speak to adjacent possible? We need the artists and poets and this where we have seen some signs of hope, such as the NHS You clap me now and Tim AKA Beat liturgist Exploring the future and we can all do our part through local action, groups and online. However I wonder in these “unprecedented” times what we are being too called beyond the acts of service and love that the church has been brilliant at responding with such as keeping the foodbanks open, connecting and collecting shopping etc. With so many millions of people on lockdown, if only one or two percent of those people re-evaluate their life choices and decide to live differently after lockdown the culture shift could be seismic; are being called to speak into this? Can we draw on the wisdom traditions, to help people see the adjacent possible that so many are reaching for and is so tantalisingly close, and how might we do so on the scale of these unprecedented times. Let’s mobilise to speak to the adjacent possible (my offering is below), let’s dialogue with new people beyond our social media bubbles but let’s take a few risks to connect at scale for example I would love to see a conversation between Russell Brand and Rev Kate Bottley or Rev Richard Coles. What would you suggest, what future do you want to see and who are you talking about this with?

Contained by Mirrors

We had a great Mountain Pilgrims gathering last weekend. Thanks to Rob for leading. We went to Creiff where the Victorians had build a castle folly. Part of the reason for the folly was to create windows to frame the view, to tame and order the wild landscapes of Cumbria. We then slogged up the hill and used Claude Glasses. Where you stand with your back to the view and use a mirror to look behind you and again frame and tame the view. Unpacking this alongside 1 Cor 13v12 (we see through a glass/ a mirror dimly) it was easy to make the connections with how we seek to tame/box and confine G-d.
I love my current role (new job title Director of Mission Innovation and Fresh Expressions) in Cumbria and the ambition of the churches captured by the vision of God for All. But is wasn’t until a couple of days later that I joined the dots with a reflection we had with Johnny Sertin and how the God for All vision is a challenge where many are still operating within what Lamin Saneh calls the regulatory impulse. In this all our common worship, common prayer and, where mission, is shaped by this impulse to ‘fit’ good news into the existing forms we have inherited. God for All is moving from “temple” to kingdom. Our challenge is not to be subservient to historical time or even eschatological time in the guise of holding up tradition or passive towards the future but to embrace the G-d who has torn the curtain of the temple, and invites us no longer to stand with our backs towards her only seeing through a mirror dimly but to face the wonder, the opportunity, to know and be known, so that we move forward with the God who is for All in faith, hope and love.

Co-creating rites of passage

I love it when worlds collide and so often something amazing happens. Core to a good experience is that both worlds enter into the conversation and work out the way forward together. Grayson Perry has done this brilliantly with the first of his rites of passage pieces on Channel Four. The way he curates the living wake is simply beautiful, for the individual involved and the community around him, it is the best example of co-creating space I have seen in a long time.

As I reflected on the programme it made me reflect on how of all the major rites, perhaps, death is the one where the church is at its best. The process of developing the funeral service is co-created between the ministers and the family, its personal, its poignant because the space is co-created, it doesn’t matter where on the faith journey the participants are, their opinions and ideas are valued and included where possible. Perhaps something similar happens at weddings.

This co-creation of space is at the heart of the emerging church for me. It is what helps it move from a position of power to service, from orthodoxy to grounded orthopraxis, and make real connections that help us all discover the g-d we don’t yet know.

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.