Eyes wide open: the value of participation

I read recently that if one of a kitten’s eyes is kept closed during the first few weeks of life it will be blind in that eye, even though the eye is perfectly normal. That got me thinking about which of my ‘eyes’ have been opened and which have remained closed, resulting in blindness. It also got me thinking about which of our ‘eyes’ have been opened regarding the things we are currently discussing in this series of blogs about fresh expressions. What has been learned – particularly in my case from youth work practice – in our fast moving culture? My thoughts quickly focused on the matter of ‘participation’.

Around 25 years ago a group of us in Frontier Youth Trust began to focus and take seriously what youth work might look like if young people’s participation was elevated to the place of paramountcy. When talking of participation I mean that, ‘affirmative value, focused on creating settings that enable people —whatever their identities, backgrounds, or institutional positions—to thrive, realise their capabilities, engage meaningfully in … life, and enable others to do the same.’ We consulted young people, changed our practice, wrote books, spoke at conferences, ran workshops, and most importantly, looked to enable young people to participate in the things, decisions, and initiatives that were about them.

We endeavoured to stop doing things to young people, and focused on doing things with them. Whilst others journeyed with us, it was initially an uphill struggle. The ‘adults know best’ sacred cow was a big idol to compete with. I am pleased to say, that young people’s participation has come a long way since those early days. In the church it is now thankfully mainstream practice in many places; albeit an ongoing work in progress. Eyes have opened and the blindness of ‘youth worker knows best’ amended.

Perhaps because some of the early ‘participation’ pioneers went on to start fresh expressions of church or perhaps because many were simply convicted that effective participation was essential for the future of the church it has become important in fresh expression thinking. It’s considered a better, more humane way of communally existing. Stuart and Sian Murray-Williams note that many churches promote passivity as the norm. However, multi-voice approaches enable a more liberating, empowering and dynamic participative approach. The fresh expressions web site encourages people to move from ‘audience to participation’. It encourages participants to experience and engage with others and join in with what God is doing. It advocates listening and finding out what needs are; connecting heads, hearts and hands.

Whilst lots of progress has been made regarding participation, there is still some way to go across the church before we can truly claim to be a fully functioning, including community and priesthood of believers.

British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil writes about colonialism and race and how exhausting it is to always be an outsider in a culture:

“It’s exhausting to be a guest, In somebody else’s house, Forever.”

In his introduction to this series, Richard talks about how for the last 20 years it has felt as though championing things like participation has caused many pioneers to feel as though they are swimming in a different sea to most in the church. Many times it has felt like we are guests at the mercy of the hospitality, and in the clutches, of the institutional church. Whilst I am sure it has not been as crushing as how white privilege and exceptionalism has crushed people of colour, it has been exhausting and wearying. Quite why some would want to resist involving people so – as our definition above states – they can thrive, realise their capabilities, engage meaningfully in life, and enable others to do the same, is a mystery.

The challenges we still face are aptly illustrated in the current debates about online communion that are taking place in some of our mainline denominations. Those with power are preventing the participation of those with no power. How the sacraments are made available has always been a challenge in those fresh expressions where the sponsoring denomination has particular theology and rules about ‘presence’ and the function of the priesthood. Many people have been denied communion because a powerful priesthood has prevented participation in something Jesus indicated should be a daily reminder over a meal. Quite how something so accessible and so simple has become something so controlled and complex is a mystery. Many of us just get on with it and share ‘bread and wine’ as and when. We eat our contemporary contextualized and cultural equivalents of whatever bread and wine might be. My prayer is that eyes will be opened.

If we don’t manage to keep increasing participation so that all eyes are opened then I am less hopeful for the future. In my own setting I have seen very painfully what happens when people are systemically not encouraged to participate.

Another church group recently decided to join something I was facilitating. After they had come along a few times, I deployed my participation values and asked the leader of this group if somebody from their cohort would like to contribute something; share something, tell a story, or offer a reflection. Their leader went away to ask the group. Despite most of this group being in church for decades (some 50+ years), the reply came back that ‘they weren’t quite ready for that sort of thing yet’. I went away (muttering some very bad language) wondering when if they would ever be ready. Decades of non-participation had rendered them voiceless; eyes were closed.

On the positive side, anecdotal experience suggests the current use of online platforms has increased participation in church settings. Conversations seem to have flowed more easily and people have felt more at ease to participate more fully. So long as we don’t embed broadcast power in the hands of a few, then I am hopeful for the future. I have noticed how those of us who championed participation in face-to-face settings have continued to do so via online platforms. Whilst the future has arrived, we need to be mindful that all are not yet quite equally participating in this moment, but platforms like zoom can help with this.

A while ago, I wrote about some tools to help our participation. I noted that God – despite many reasons why she might not – has continually trusted people to fully participate and be his agents, ambassadors, co-creators, and advancers of the Kingdom. I still hold to that view and hope God will continually open our eyes to the delights of participation.

Dr Nigel Pimlott
Expressing a personal reflection especially for Sunday Papers
S. Sturm (2012) https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/full-participation-and-arts-culture-and-humanities
S and S Murray-Williams (2012) Multi-Voiced Church

Vision Events


B. Kapil (2020) How To Wash A Heart
N. Pimlott (2009) Participative Processes