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?

All models are wrong

It seems that the church is looking for answers. The decline and subsequent issues have undoubtedly created a level of institutional anxiety, and in that seems to be casting around for answers, so at one level is asking great questions, but at another level looking for quick fixes. In this process I keep getting asked about the models we use up here, which in itself is problematic as I agree with my colleague who says “all models are wrong but some are helpful”. I like this statement as an activist it means we can get on and do something, but as a practical theologian and change advocate also means we need to ask some questions. Which I want to suggest is really critical if we are not going to be swept along with the organisational anxiety.

There is critical question often overlooked in the process that people seem to fail to ask which is “what does success look like?”. and I don’t mean this in terms of short term numbers, but more in terms of wider culture change. In part success for me means building a culture where people are confident with change, ready to give things a try and learn and grow as they do so. Success measured by numbers and targets is a short term fix, we can resource models, franchise programmes, and grow projects, if we are given resources. The challenge is to do those things critically and playfully to promote a wider change. If you were push me on it I would probably add that anything less is empire building rather than kingdom. It goes back to what ABC said at synod about faithful improvisation, but I think it is also about balancing evidence with making sure that we not looking for success in our own image or short terminism.

Perhaps we too easily see success in the stuff that is more like us, and then these become the models we champion. I would like to think I have a bit of grasp on the emerging church youth ministry scene, and a reasonable track record. Recently I have raised a few questions about the duplication of a model based approach, not because I don’t think these models being looked aren’t good but because on balance I think there is stronger evidence for investing in a wider non mainstream approach. For example I know the stats coming out about of some of the church army youth projects like Sorted, or FYT and StreetSpace, or God for All and NYC are amazingly strong, they are faithfully improvising approaches to mission and church that are hard to believe. However they all take an all models are wrong approach, so whilst they bear some family resemblance they are perhaps not in the image of church that the powers that be want to see, indeed they may even be asking bigger questions which is why in part they are faithfully improvising so well and seeing good results. Most people do good things, but when it comes to a wider shift we need to make sure we do the right things. It is no good just duplicating models even if these are the ones I like! We need to be better than that.

The easiest way I can illustrate it is with the current conversations around Resource Churches. A High investment, High Impact approach to mission, some of the recent stats suggest a good track record of around a 30% increased connection with people without church background, with a reasonable but fairly narrow cross section of engagement. Fresh Expressions on average are more culturally diverse and 75% engagement with people with no church background but smaller and more niche. BOTH ARE EXCELLENT BUT ALL MODELS ARE WRONG THOUGH SOME ARE HELPFUL. So why are we not making it a condition that if a Resource Church is funded that a local pioneer is appointed and connected to the resource church, and be line managed by an authority dissenter, so they the freedom to work alongside and outside that resource church. Perhaps this is the type of faithful improvisation we need from the hierarchy.

Welcome to the spacious place

Ive been thinking a lot about the intersections of place, people and relationship. I am concerned in FX we have stopped wrestling with the WHY of we do what we do, and what kind of space are we seeking to create. It can too easily become like friendship evangelism where we make friends or create places to gather but are dehumanising because they approach people as a commodity to be banked. A friend told a story of guy who became friends with someone from a local church, they did stuff together, got to know each other, their friendship grew and over time this guy shared his faith. The friend came to faith and started to get active in the church, and after a while he joined an evangelism course. The course ran a session on friendship evangelism and he recognised that this was what had happened to him and that day he left the faith. Ill blog at some point how the four values of FXs Missional, Contextual, Ecclesial and Formational help us find a different type of approach.

A while back I created a formula People + Place x Relationship = Space. I wanted to revisit this in the light of this quote I came across from Barbara Glasson below. I wanted to respond with something practical about how we reconfigure our gathering spaces, but I was drawn back to feelings of spaciousness of the community that emerged around Flow. We tend to orientate our thinking around space as the place that we control, our events, our churches our homes, when I used that formula it was around being in the places with others, encountering people building real relationship that created a space for stuff to happen that was beyond my control or a particular place, it was a space in which we all just flowed. So I am afraid I have ditched the practical and gone with the flow, and just offer a few thoughts that I hope helps you encounter the spaciousness we felt. Do let me know.

“Our church instinct tends to want to gather people in and keep them. Postmodern society tends to configure gathering in a different way. People are wary of being trapped. They need to see their exits.”

Our life together was a space made up of many different places, this spaciousness of many places gave a newly discovered opportunity to be yourself, to find a new you, and rediscover in whose likeness we are made. There were places to be and people to see, not from a rushed consumption, but from a deeper desire to be in the spaciousness that being together created. Our space that although had its similarities (safe, welcome, friendly open) was always slightly different depending on who turned up at the time, co-creation was embedded in all we did and so spaciousness abounded.

Our space was bigger than the places we met, sometimes a place came with certain boundaries, yet the formula held and the unconditional relational Flow meant even when people felt they couldn’t stay in that place due a boundary they knew thew they weren’t leaving the space, because something other flowed between and beyond us.

The space extended beyond the people, and whist people came and went they still felt part of the space, tied with loose bounds that still draw us together.

Flow was beyond exits, beyond holding, more than gathering, more than meeting it was and always will be a spacious place…

Learning from the other side of Alcoholism

Who do share the rail with? As you kneel to meet your maker in the bread and wine who kneels beside you? The ragamuffin Brennan Manning asks ‘Do you believe that God loves you in the morning sun & in the evening rain- when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves you this moment as you are & not as you should be.’
If you don’t then maybe it’s time to find a few ragamuffins to share the rail with.

Brennans writing was so helpful to me in my early faith and as I came to terms with the alcoholism of my father. If you haven’t read his stuff read it. Meeting in the 90s is etched in my memory.

My mate saw an angel and ignored it..

I remember a friend telling me he was driving one wet and windy night and he saw an angel. Which he describes as a full on angel, big and bright type thing. The angel told him not to carry on this road but go a different way. Anyway he ignored the angels advice —-How what, Why, WHO THE HELL IGNORES A FRICKING ANGEL?—- anyway he does carried and crashed the car on a slippery patch!!! Serves him bloody right!

We were discussing participation a while back and I was struck by the voluntary participative nature of a lot of the bible stories. It seems people were never forced by God to take on the roles that go on to be described in the bible. It made me wonder, were there are whole raft of people who got asked by God to do something and basically said no so never made into the bible. The big bright angel shows up and people ignore it.

How many Marys did the angel approach before he found a Mary that was willing to say “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Was Jesus a both/and kind of dude?

Following on from THIS post I have a lot of conversation about both/and. I always seem to be in meetings, in classrooms, in churches, where when we are talking about change, doing things differently we kind of reach a polite “yes but it’s both/and”. If it’s about the focus of the work pushing out into riskier mission initiatives, Both/and is used so as it’s not at the expense of other. Wether it was when I was in YFC or in local situations, people used the both/and approach, perhaps as an excuse to keep pet projects going, maintain a level of status quo or just avoid upsetting people, it’s a phrase that always seems to pop up, and I’m not sure Jesus was a both/and kind of guy.

Recently I have been rethinking about change and my role. Now on the edge of the inside it is very easy to succumb to the both/and too easily but when the locus of activity is already centralised it can too easily maintain the status quo. I wonder if we need to resist a bit more this mentality, not out of awkwardness but as part of moving to the edge, redressing the balance. In the post Jesus didn’t sit with the marginalised the locus was relocated out of the system, which leads me to question the validity of the both/and. As mentioned in the Last post a deliberate strategy of leading edge innovation and third spaces has pulled us forward faster than I could ever have imagined. But I am still wrestling a lot with the comfort of my role, and it’s very different from the having time to hang out on the streets, so trying to find myself a new space at the edge. In a recent conversation where the both/and was used it was about changing the church and how as big ship it takes time to change direction and with people on the inside steering the rudder it will happen eventually. However I wonder if the ships already adrift if a few well placed tugs pulling from the front would be far more effective and quicker. Perhaps we need those with their hand on the rudder to let go and invest in a few tugs, these are NOT disconnected from the ship but have the distance and space to pull it in a new direction.

A new sort of resource church

Came across this article on Size Matters by Paul and reminded me that I had slipped in to the church commissioners report last year that our Mountain Pilgrims group (which was also cited by the ABC) was a new sort of resource church. What makes a resource church a resource church?
Mountain Pilgrims is tiny, but massive, it is shallow but deep, it is new abut ancient, it is open but centred, but most of all it is “allelon”, it is a shape and size that allows one anothering. If you want to know more on allelon read Pauls article or I have added a quote below.

Before Christmas we had our first Mountain Pilgrims leaders Tribal Gathering, in the room there were 9 people representing about 150 others, there were two tribes missing, and on the horizon we identified another three tribes were on their way to join us in 2018. We wrestled together on values, on shapes and words, we were challenged by each other’s theology and presence. The gathering included members and leaders as we are pretty blurry as to who is who, but we were one Anothering .

We have a brilliantly supportive bunch of people creating space up here for new things to happen in the county at all levels Including in the formal diocesian structures. Generally with the desire to try and find ways to make mission happen. I am so grateful to the volunteers and officers that work behind the scenes, they are brilliant people. Recently a committee for the diocese met and it was reported back to me that the question was asked About the financing of FXs. Whilst it’s small potatoes the finance officer reported that some members of MP had started giving to MP, and this was significant to the committee. It made me wonder if it is finance that makes a resource church, a resource church, as often scale is cited as a way to become self financing to resource mission? Then as I thought further maybe as we don’t have staff costs and buildings, of a normal resource church do those small potatoes mean we are already a resource church that pays its way? We are pretty much self funding, have gone from zero – 150 people in under two years with a total cost of about 2k and a bit of my staff time. So if it’s finance or numbers that makes a resource church a resource church do we fit the bill.
Maybe it’s resourcing mission that makes a resource church, We have resourced mission across the county, have new MPs groups springing up, and have resourced traditional churches to develop outdoor based mission opportunities. In the Spring one group is refounding a redundant church and starting a monthly Celtic type Sunday service that will be followed by a 4 mile walk and discussion.

Maybe a resource church has to have a big capital investment in staff and set up costs, because it’s about speedy growth. Mountain pilgrims we grew a further 20% this month alone, imagine what might have been if we had a couple 100k to play with instead of 2?

If what makes a resource church a resource church is up front investment imagine what we could have done with 100k instead of 2.

You might read this and think Richard is anti resource churches, I’m not but we do need to ask some critical questions about how change happens. If we are going to turn this big ship we need tug boats not new rudders, but you will have to wait for the next post on “was Jesus a both/and kind of dude?” When I can explain that.

Is there any theological insight into this question of church size? John Taylor in his seminal book ‘The Go-Between God’ explores the question of church size. His starting point however is not the church as we experience it, or whether this church or that church ‘works’, but the church’s essential nature as a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. For Taylor a primary spiritual nature of the early church is mutuality in community, expressed by the word allelon, ‘one-another’, a word that occurs frequently in the New Testament. Taylor he argues that church must be:

of a shape and size that enables this ‘one-anothering’. This is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is a hallmark of the church’s spiritual identity, about what the church is before it is about what it does
of a significant enough size to ‘be an embodiment of the life of the Kingdom’ but not so big as to tend toward a withdrawal from that sense of church alongside and amidst others in the world.
not so big that it has to be structurally organised to the extent that it thinks of itself primarily as an institution rather than a community.

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.