if you want to pioneer Set your face like flint

I work with the wonderful Carolyn Dykes who has been pioneering the Network Youth Church across Cumbria. NYC is a fantastic initiative, it was way ahead of the curve, and has been trying to develop a more ecclesiological rooted model of youth work practice across the diocese for the last 7 years. Pioneers find new routes and pathways, and with the archdeacon Kevin, Carolyn has been pioneering within the structure of the established church, to create space on the ground for new forms of church with young people. In many ways she has had the hardest task of all pioneers, working within the system, and if I did #wonderfulwednesdays like my friend Gemma, Carolyn, Kevin and NYC would definitely be up there for a post.

As I said before, I often encounter people doing great stuff on the ground, but who are too close to it see how good it is. In this quiet corner of the North West I think I have uncovered a real gem in NYC. There is still a long way to go if we are to really embed a fresh approach to mission and ecclesiology, and I am really looking forward to helping NYC move forward into a new phase, but Carolyns vision and drive has been really pioneering, and I suspect really hard work! So here are a few of the things I have already gleaned as I have come alongside NYC:
– Embedding a radical approach into diocesan structures is hard work but it can be done!!! Amen can i get an amen!!!
– Holding the ecclesiological model is difficult but direct lines through the structure to episcopal oversight can be found
– even when senior leadership get it, the local context might not, so relationships and trust needs to be won and systems and permission from above can help
– The structure can help, but can become a problem, hold the values and be flexible, if good stuff happens on the ground you already some structures in place.
– The gravitational pull of traditional approaches to mission and ecclesiology is almost a cultural embedded phenomena it is strong and can easily lead to mission drift, but perhaps the structure can help act as a corrective to shift the culture towards re-imagination.

Blending Metaphor and Creative thinking

So I am two weeks into my new role as the Fresh Expressions Enabler and buzzing with ideas, met some great people and trying to navigate the structures and systems in place. There is a move in the diocese to reshape with Methodist and URC partners into mission communities, and inevitably everyone has a different take on what a mission community is. There are big questions about how to work with the structures and divergence as well as the need to recognise and embrace that “newness happens elsewhere”.

SO two things have come to mind, firstly is to try and find a metaphor for Fresh Expressions/ Mission Communities/Pioneering in Cumbria, that is broad enough to cope with the divergence but sufficient to bring some focus. (at the moment I am playing with dry stone walls). Metaphors can be powerful, and the strength of using them in an emerging context is obvious. They offer stretch and focus, give people space to imagine and ground practice. I am also interested in using it as what Edward De Bono would call a provocation to promote creativity (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjSjZOjNIJg about 3mins in) and as a tool towards lateral thinking. This may mean reducing the dry stone wall concept to a single part (eg stone) to increase the effectiveness of the provocation, but somehow we need to help people change track. Perhaps the balance of using the stone as the provocation and wall as the metaphor will mean discussions can navigate the divergence/focus issues.

Secondly I want to navigate some regional types of mission communities that can span the structures and re-imagine Fresh Expressions in this context, and equally these could act provocation signposts to encourage people down a different track, the challenge will be how to shape them and communicate them with the wider community.

What are the weaknesses of this approach and has anyone blended metaphor and creative thinking approaches in the emerging church contexts?

fresh expression a technology

Has Fresh Expresssion become a technology built the knowledge bases of experimental mission and the emerging church of yesteryear? One of the definitions of technology is machinery or devices built on scientific knowledge. In youth work or social sciences academics are quite used to thinking about practice and processes as a technology, but like any technology the danger is the system becomes the end, it takes on a life of its own and and too easily be seen as THE answer.

In an age where church is struggling to connect with community, it is little wonder that the technology of Fresh Expresssions is being embraced. It is also not surprising That like technology of old, systems are being pulled together and new pathways being created to enable this technology to spread. When steam revolutionised farming, it spread quickly, and created a whole industry, that within a few years was wiped out by the tractor. Steam engines took time to build, new factories and systems were put in place and by the time many were ready for use, they were an obsolete technology, sold off cheaply and now consigned to museums, and wonderful Fred Dibner type characters.

The emerging church that gave birth to FE was more than a technological shift. It was a paradigm move of thinking and practice and the technology developed from it was often done so by those outside the field. It is too easy to see technology as the answer, a short cut and allow it to hide the deeper issues that the original thinkers and practitioners were trying to challenge so the paradigm shift still required remains masked to many by the technology around it. Perhaps even making real change much harder. To stick with the farming analogy, to put the cart before the horse!

The power of campervans and the type of church I long to see…

Often people of faith ask me what type of church I want to see, or to explain my take on mission or faith, sometimes more due to their own insecurities and the need to put that stuff in a box. Others who ask, I know it is about their own journey, and usually in both cases I do my best to be open real and honest. Then I sit with them in the sorrow these answers offer, as they come to terms with the fact that there is no easy path or as they put me in box that captures them more than it holds me.

There is a distinct shift happening around what is church and a shift happening around dialogue and acceptance within more general evangelicalism. When i read THIS my first reaction was probably to box each side,…. but maybe I will just keep that to myself because I am sure boxes and walls don’t matter… what I liked, was that it was localised, real, and gave you glimpses of the dialogue that must have been happening behind the scenes.

Recently we have been selling our campervan as we cant afford the move to Cumbria that we feel called to make, and the conversations with potential buyers have been interesting, as I explain to strangers the reason we are selling. More often than not, it opens discussions on the type of church and faith I want to see. These amazing humans who are fearfully and wonderfully made, open up as talk of journeys (real and metaphorical) are shared, and we joke about life, rust and holidays. I find little need to sit in the sorrow of being put in a box, but liberated to walk the road ahead knowing a few more people are tentatively exploring the path before them. Missionally trying to sell this bloodly van has provoked some of the most meaningful encounters I have had in a long time, yet i still struggle to explain myself.

In world dominated by boxes and walls often the only way to explain is to revert to types and models, so perhaps for those who need to put me in a box, or those who want to continue the journey I offer THIS as perspective on the emerging church as the type of church I want to see…

Community isn’t dead it’s just different

Sociologically community has been defined as about shared interest or shared space. Over the years particularly for youth workers, Christians, activists, and in general society community has also become a word associated with closeness, sharing life, positive warm fuzziness etc. It is the demise of this type community that people often lament as gone, because they equate commitment with attendance, regularity, and cohesiveness.

At first I bought into this lamenting, but I have been observing a shift, and think that actually the sharing life aspects of community are not less prevalent than they were before but just different and in many ways more real, and perhaps more mature.

With the young people I work with, and the adults around the fringes of StreetSpace, I am beginning to see community emerge as an attitude that is carried by individuals, that whilst they may not share space very often, or share the same interests, there is recognition of a shared humanity. A commitment and attitude of support, openness, warm fuzziness and solidarity.

I wonder if post modern fragmentation is helping us mature as people, moving beyond a forced community that grows from shared space or interest, to an attitude of being community in the myriad of relationships you find yourself in. A greater openness and honesty that is fostered quickly and community grows from this (sometimes fleetingly but no less community) and where the need space and interest become secondary, rather than primary.

I think we have a lot learn form the type of community I see emerging and fading, ebbing and flowing amongst the young people and ourselves, and it would be too easy to underestimate its power, sacredness, and authenticity, because it no longer fits the old models.

Lead us out of exile

It has been so encouraging to see the recent discussion on the role of women in the church sparked by the huge inequality highlighted in lack of women speakers as mainstream conferences. Jenny has a great post here that tracks the conversation and expands the issue.
However we recognise the representation is only part of the issue, and i want to suggest that the changes required run far deeper and may not be possible in the current paradigm. As father to two amazingly gifted daughters 6 and 16 I am always on the hunt for stuff to help them grow into the people they are called to be. I am so greatfull to know people like Jenny Baker and Sally Nash and other female leaders of great integrity, who I go to with questions and guide me to resources and books such as Maya Angelou that I can share together with my children. But there is massive lack of radical faith inspired feminist writing aimed at teens and younger girls or at least stuff I can find.

The recent discussions raises two issues for me, that are connected. The first which Jenny already highlights in her post, is the issue of mentoring and supporting young women into leadership roles. Again I think this is a paradigm issue, one of the strengths of the early feminist movement was its clarity in setting up alternative structures and spaces to the established systems. I would like to suggest that the emerging church has far more to offer my daughters and is already encouraging them towards fullness of life not because of a quota, but a commitment to inclusivity, different leadership approaches, and humanity. For example Cakeful our Sunday thing, is often led by our 6 year daughter, and recently she asked to lead a session around time, and asked for support from Tracey an adult in the group. Tracey was amazing she offered Indi a planning meeting mid week, despite a busy schedule sat down with her, and planned together, which simply made my daughter beam. Watching this process was truly emancipating for my daughter and myself. I believe it is this type of approach that if practiced consistently is the best hope for young women in the church but more that that the best hope for the church to be led from its self induced exile due it’s inherent sexism and lack of inclusivity at all levels. So the second issue (sticking my neck out here and more than a little nervous in saying this) is a call for the amazing female leaders I know and thousands I don’t, to embrace the new paradigm, to create alternative structures and spaces, radical resources and methods, that directly challenge the status quo, rupture the institutions, recapture the feminist agenda in the minds of young people, and lead not just other women but eventually the whole church out of exile.

Our best hope is not in playing by the rules of the dominant, where position, gender, wealth, and power dictate, but in embracing the upside down Kingdom, of powerlessness, servanthood and grace, and it is those who have experienced oppression of the powerful that have so much to offer.

What are you going to do today?

When Ferris Bueller picks up Sloane for a day bunking off school she asks:

Sloane: What are we going to do?

Ferris: The question isn’t “what are we going to do,” the question is “what aren’t we going to do?”

Cameron: Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home.

Ferris: [to the camera] If you had access to a car like this, would you take it back right away?

[beat]

Ferris: Neither would I.

We have more than a car – what are you going to today?

Tell me why you don’t like Sundays?

(Apologies to Sir Bob Geldof and the rest of the Boomtown rats). But I want to shoot Sunday mornings down. The issue rose it’s head again yesterday and attending a sunday morning “service” and QandA with a potential minister, reinforced what I had been thinking for a long time. That Sunday gathered worship is one of the main stumbling blocks facing the organised/mainstream churches. We know that one size fits all is a myth, that learning rarely happens in large groups, that worship is more than singing, that church is gathered and scattered, that what happens in small groups, youth groups, house groups, mums groups, toddler groups, etc etc is as much church as anything else. BUT the medium of gathered sunday mornings sends a different message. The person from the front may communicate that church is more than this, the elders may believe it and even have it in their strategy documents, vision statements and business plans, but no matter how hard you try to say it, the sunday morning medium sends a different message. We know that sociologically sunday mornings are difficult for people to gather, that people are more dispersed, visit friends and families on Sundays, more people are in patchwork families so weekends can be a difficult and precious time, that with easy of travel, and different social strata, that practically it is hard for people to gather at this time, and near impossible to facilitate something that could possibly reach such a diverse group even if we could get everyone in the same place at the same time.

We know, but continue to persist in the myth and fool ourselves. So the mainstream churches continue to gather on Sundays at about 10.30 but split off the children, the youth know it so most have voted with their feet, and if they do attend are again split off, BUT because we have believed, the message that the medium of sunday mornings has communicated for the past few hundred years, and we have become indoctrinated into an approach that simply doesn’t work, we keep going.

I am not saying gathering across social strata, across different groups and ages is not important, but do something simple that works, eat breakfast, have a BBQ, have a party. Why sing a particular genre, why have the stuff people don’t get, why try to encourage learning when the majority of evidence suggests that people don’t learn much from an upfront approach, why try to exhort one another from a distance rather than across a table, and why pray generic prayers that are at best pat on the back rather than the reality of the hug that person sitting in the balcony needs.

Do the world a favour and stop. Change the medium so the real message of hope can be heard.

The method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energised by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating…Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright pg 123

Character and Mode…..

Taff has moved the conversation on via his post here. He is helpful is distinguishing between the Character (eg incarnational relational, etc) and what I would call the Mode (eg youth work, youth ministry) but he calls approach. He suggests that we can indeed drop the Mode/Approach wording and focus on the Character. There is a lot to be said for this distinction between Mode and Character and certainly it is helpful as often the Character is present in lots of other Modes eg Community work, Childrens work.

I do not disagree that we do need a lot more work on the Character aspect generally across all areas of human liberation, and growing a flourishing community. So the Character is very important, BUT for me (Taff disagrees) the Character and Mode are often two sides the same coin and particularly in the case of Youth work . The way in which you approach the Mode could easily undermine the Character, the method and the message must match. The nature and context of working with young people who are in transition, growing, and changing, makes the connection of the Mode and Character vital.

However Taffs the separation of the concepts has been really helpful and I think I will play more the notions of Unfolding habitas as core to the character and how this ends up I am yet to work out.

From the Street and towards a new term

For some time I have thinking we need a new term to describe what a particular set of christian practitioners called Relational Youth Work, and I have in part been exploring this in Still Meeting Them Where Theyre At. The current thread of conversation has reinforced this. Taff’s start point about the term being redundant and Allans comments made me think again about this. Nick desire to return “street theology” also bring us towards this.

Relational youth work began in a context of practitioners largely working with young people on the edge of society, and grew to become a way of engaging more generally with those outside of church as we know it, and perhaps now as Allan suggests it is recognised that it is an anathema to not see youth work as relational. However as the strands have converged, the context has become more post christian, and the language of church is shifting, some of the informing values have evolved and some have been lost.

I spent a lot my early days talking about Incarnational Youth Work, as a metaphor that was beyond both simple contextualisation and moving into a particular area. It encompassed for me something I couldn’t articulate about my wholeness being wrapped up in the shalom of the community, the ongoing journey, the restoring of creation, and the powerlessness I feel much of the time and need to be reminded of if I am going to see the kingdom to continue to emerge. However this term is particularly christian and potentially dualistic which is something I am keen to avoid as it could undervalue places where the kingdom is emerging with young people unintentionally.

Over the past few years, I have been building on ideas around Inculturation, Transitology of Sobornost as all of these have the sense that we ourselves and our emancipation is wrapped up with other. I particularly like the notion of reciprocal approaches to youth work and mission, that together we see something new emerge. So this leaves a conundrum of which term to use, Reciprocal Youth Work, Emerging Youth Work, but probably the term that encompasses most of where I am coming from (but might mean the least to those outside) is Sobornostic Youth Work, where we journey with young people towards wholeness for all of society, creation, ourselves and others, to unfold a new way of living and being. This bring us full circle to Nicks previous post as sobornost is what I learnt from the street.