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.
In mission I often talk about the need to break the gravitational pull (just search “gravitational Pull for a shed load of posts on here around that) of church, and how we need to break out if we are going to engage people more meaningfully. I was wondering where the current centre of gravity was in the church, is it dispersed, centralised or on the centre, how we shift it so it becomes a centripetal force sending people out to love and serve rather than a centrifugal force that is self serving?
Yet in many ways I’ve been asking the wrong questions. When we think about the incarnation we see a move from the centre to the edge. We see a christ figure who by his presence completely shifts the centre of gravity from the religious community to the margins. The locus of God is on the edge, it is outside the church, beyond the institution, outside the doors. Jesus didn’t sit with the marginalised because by his presence the centre of gravity shifted and the margins ceased to be the margins by the presence of the incarnated God. (HT to John Swinton)
This completely shifts how real meaning making then can happen, and calls into question the validity of the meaning making that takes place within established religious communities. It completely challenges notions of discipleship based on banking knowledge within a structure. It pulls the rug out from underneath notions of sacred and secular, and calls the walls to dust.
I watched the film Meru recently. Spoiler alerts……
The story of three elite climbers attempt on Meru, which also tracks the story of the web of relationships that made the attempt possible. Part of the allure of the peak was that the lead, Conard own mentor Mugs had attempted the peak in the eightys and failed, and was killed on another mountain. The level of trust between the three climbers was something to behold. Conrad had mentored Jimmy and introduced Renan to the party when they made their first attempt. Jimmy trusted Conrads call even through he had not climbed with Renan before, and during their first attempt they were held back by a storm, ran out of food and had to turn back meters from the summit. Then before they make their second attempt Renan, suffers a massive ski accident,that in reality means he should not climb again, but where Conrad and Jimmy choose to trust Renan the youngest and least experienced of the three to make the call that he is fit enough for a second attempt. There is something really interesting in the mentoring relationships between Conner and Jimmy and Jimmy and Renan, around the autonomy that the younger climbers are given. On the final attempt on Meru it is clear that at times Conner has to lead certain sections, and whilst all have a part to play, he is still the Sesei.
How these different levels of experience and skills are played out in the final attempt is fascinating, the grace and understanding of one another, and the level of trust takes it way beyond my notions of mentoring. This is picked up at one point when Renan cannot speak due to some sort of mini stroke, and but presses up the mountain, and this is accepted by Jimmy. Spoiler..Then I love that Conrad asks Jimmy to lead the final climb and summit first.
We often talk about discipleship and mentoring in emerging church circles, there is a lot of coaching going on, and in most contexts we hope the mentee will go beyond us. Yet what I observed was in Meru was something different, the mutuality and autonomy that came from working together was fascinating. Even in organisations where mentors and mentees share space, work on projects etc it feels like the power dynamic was different. I think it was the recognition that the Sesei needed the younger climbers to make certain moves, a fitness and dynamic that made the relationship more mutual, built trust but at the same time held esteem, a calling to dust and reframing of the old model of power dynamic relationships. I’d be really interested to apply this to the FXs just haven’t got a clue where to start.
I am not musical but woke up thinking about polyphonics and following on from the last post I was reflecting on how we seek harmony in the gospel texts rather than embrace a more polyphonic approach. Indeed even if you google the definition of harmony In the OED it cites the gospels as an example of parallel narratives that combine into a continuous narrative text.
Wikipedia describes “In particular, polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, which is called homophony.”
We tend to read the gospel stories and are drawn towards harmony, and I wonder how much of this is due to the type of cultural conditioning I mentioned in the previous post. What is the gospel if our desire for a harmonious approach is a conditioned response? What if we resisted harmony and embraced a polyphonic read of scripture? Let’s take for example the Christmas story, with four different accounts, with different empathises. When did you ever hear a polyphonic read of the Christmas story where the Mark frames the story with Jesus as an adult, and the focus on shalom, a political challenge to Ceaser and a challenge to the very notions of power. Matthew uses geneology to connect to the tradition and the Hebrews to firmly locate Jesus in that narrative, he struggles drop the dream of empire, but writes a gospel challenging the religious order and embracing the religiously excluded. Lukes story is different with the focus on the marginalised, and reimagining the story challenging the economic order, embracing the economically excluded. Then in John the word becomes flesh, moves into the neighbourhood and collapses 100s of years of Hellenistic thought. They all push for different narratives, and in doing so collapse notions of harmony, but instead offer texture, hope and a deeper polyphonic landscape, where those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, can hear and see the Christ entering into thier culture, and challenging that culture like no one before. Something that is all too easily lost in the search for harmony. I’m all for holding in tension the different narratives, but we need people who are captured by the political challenge of Mark, sold out on reworking power, people who embrace a new economic vision of Luke, and the religious order challengers of Matthew. People who push these texts to their extreme, live out and champion thier calling, not because they follow Matthew or Paul, but because they are captured by Jesus’ radical message and are confident and comfortable playing their part in the polyphonic story. This is why the metaphor of polyphony works, because it isn’t about setting up walls between the different emapathies but releasing people to be free to sing with all thier soul and when I see people living that in fullness I can see its beauty even if it’s not my for me, and so crosses my cultural boundaries at a heart level. I wonder then if this might move us beyond the divisiveness that has resulted from all trying to sing from the same hymn sheet and instead see the church starting to make a noise worth hearing.
People often say the gospel never changes, but what is this gospel that speak of? For many Christians when it comes to questions about mission and culture, at the forefront are phrases like “how do we proclaim the gospel afresh to every generation? How can we speak relevantly with watering down the message? ” I wonder if these the host of other simular questions speak more of our own anxieties and cultural conditioning than we realise.
Any reading of Acts 17 will tell you that the reality is that the “how” of ministry is shaped by the “who, when and where” of culture. But maybe the question we should be asking is “what” is ministry?
Culture is thick with meaning, and we navigate culture both as individuals, (some with greater awareness of the impact culture has on how and why make certain choices) and as society (where individuals and the circuit of culture is always operating and forming). A person is both an individual and a member of society. Because of this, any personal relationship a person makes with their deity (namely God), it is a result of the relationship the greater society in which he belongs has with that deity. Our understanding is that religious belief originates in the mind of the individual, when it is actually a product of collective thought. (I nicked that last two sentences from here as its a good spin on Durkhiem but the link is broken for the whole article).
So when we use short hand like “proclaim the gospel” or “the message” It immediately slips us into a much more culturally conditioned way of operating than we think. Over on BiblePirate.com I love what Matt has been doing with the bible text in his unauthorised versions, and his playful podcasts, In particular Eve as hero rather villain (listen here) and I wonder how much that radical read of Genesis 3 should change the way we approach issues of contextualisation, and syncretism and the what of the gospel that we speak of.
In his Facebook podcast “how to get clients and extract their wealth” Pete Rollins playfully unpacks the idea of Transference, where an idea/construct that is key to you gets played out with one of your heroes or a guru or a leader, or I would add, even an institution. Transference works on the basis that we think this guru, this institution, has the answer to the secret, we follow them as we think they know the answer. He goes onto borrow from Lacan where the role of a therapist is to help you be freed from transference, and the disempowerment that it brings then traverses the fantasy that you have built up. He applies this to his work around Pyrotheology (see the divine magician).
I wonder if FXs have an uncovering role and empowering role, not to pull back the curtain for people but to them the tools, strength or even frustration to pull back the curtain for themselves. Too often the church unknowingly or knowingly projects that it has all the answers, like the myth of the wizard of Oz. This mythology of answers taps into people’s deep rooted desire and fantasy that someone else knows the answer. Whereas in reality for faith to be real we need to “know ourselves” that knowing ourselves is both about seeing that we have built up a fantasy that someone else has the answer, and recognising that we must do the hard work and pull back the curtain for ourselves. Otherwise what sort of faith are we peddling. This collapses the notion that church is the destination (noun), where people could allow themselves to be anethesised recipiants with the illusion that church has the all the answers and instead locates it firmly back in process(verb) the unfolding kingdom that is now and not yet, where the curtain is torn and we are coproducers in the process.
Innovation is one of those things that comes naturally to some people, and in my work it is less about an idea coming seemingly out of nowhere, but more a sense of feeling a way ahead, seeing half a dozen steps ahead feeling a way forward. Often people ask me to explain how I work, or what connections I am making, and it’s particularly problematic. Innovation is hard to explain, it’s a bit like when a weight is place on the edge of a wheel, and the movement is more jerky, a jump forward happens in response to a nudge. Innovation has a naturalality to it, it’s easy, fun, organic. Adaptation is hard work it, it turns innovation into a technological process, it means taking the time to explore the processes and reasons why an innovation worked, working out how to repeat and tweak it. On the plus side it means Adaption is easier to explain, someone has observered what’s gone before tweeked (often making it better) and then rolls out the adapted version. We need to the adaptors, but let’s not confuse the two, but more than ever the church needs to make space for and support the innovators, those making hesitant, jerky leaps forward.
The trouble is that too often the innovators are so far from the centre, and what they do is hard to explain and measure that they are overlooked by the centre or funders in favour of adaptors. Applications based on adaption are mistaken for innovation and don’t get me wrong often these adaptive change makers are often able to have improved outcomes, systemised processes that can be scaled etc, but don’t confuse the two.
I’ve always been intrigued not so much by the older brothers jealousy but by what was happening in the economics of the story. The prodigal had taken a third of the family income blown it, is welcomed back as a son, so when the father dies will he get a third of the two thirds left. Or perhaps if he did offer something new to the family on his return, and was the family eventually better off.
Either way if the father re-embraced the son, and full rights restored in the here and now. I wonder if the institutions ever really hear and value the contribution from the edge or if an older brother mentality gets in the way. If Fresh Expressions are the emerging churchs gift does the way FXs have been sanitised by the the insistution, made a little safer, less edgy, show the embrace of the older brother rather than father. The desire to protect what is already there and play it safe. So perhaps this is where we need the wisdom of the lost sheep and the emerging church had no problem leaving the 99 to go after the one. I’m sure the father would have run after the son given the chance, not so sure about the older brother and Perhaps this is why we are also leaving some of the most creative voices outside. So if the institution is serious about resisting an older brother mentality perhaps take a look at THIS
In the last post on the Prodigal I posted about the postures we may need when emergents return. One of the things I want to tease out here is did the prodigal leave or perhaps more accurately, who left who.
Im a big fan of stories and parables, particularly in how they stretch. I am left wondering if the parables work, as Jesus did as the still point in a turning world, but as Elliott says that’s where the dance is. So I am starting to see the parables maybe acting as a pivot point reconnecting Israel as a blessing to nations and Peters vision.
When Abraham was called as the father of Israel, he agreed to go with what he had, which probably wasn’t that much in terms of material wealth or in terms of knowledge of where he was going. As Jonny Baker brilliantly put he is commended in Hebrews for basically saying “I don’t know where Im going but whos up for coming with me!” In the light of what we said about the prodigal picking up ideas and wisdom from the culture that hosted him, did Abram do the same. Did he go through some rites of passage in his 70 and 80s? Was there a link between the journey of Abram and the destination of becoming Abraham, that one couldn’t happen without the other? And importantly wasn’t being blessed by Melchizedek all about the inclusiveness and presence of God in the culture (ie Abraham was told he would be the blessing to the nations but some dude turns up to bless him, and shares bread and wine with him)?
The trajectory of Israel being a blessing to other cultures is wrapped up in Abram being embraced by and embracing the gift from other cultures, and this more universal embracing shows us something about who and how God is revealed.
In the story of the prodigal the pigs weren’t unclean in the culture that the prodigal had entered. In my world it’s about the journey off the map to the spot marked here be dragons. Pigs were only unclean in his old land. He had crossed so many boundaries, and yet they were artificial boundaries that had been put up by law makers. So much so that God has to emphasise the point to Peter later on by giving him vision on the roof, and instructing him not to call unclean what God has called clean. Perhaps the embrace at the end is as much repentance on the fathers side as on the sons. The tearing of the curtain broke these boundaries ushered in the kingdom which was always the trajectory of Isreal. In killing the fatted calf, (the Christ) and eating together a new world without boundaries is created, the old walls are called to dust, the father and the son are Called to repentance and a new place.
so maybe it’s less about leaving and returning and more about a pivot around which shalom is formed as all things are made new, relationships restored and boundaries pulled down. Don’t forget the prodigal is part of a trio of stories and lost coin doesn’t have to shout “help” it simply sits there and waits to be found.
It seems several people from the emerging church are taking roles on the inside edge of the institution, some are embraced and others hesitantly recieved. So with a Hat tip to the wonderful Simon Succliffe for the spark and Johnny Sertin for the brief brainstorming session, This is going to be a couple of posts maybe even a mini series of posts putting an emerging spin on the prodigal. I’m going to be pretty playful with the text so don’t expect some sort of textual exegesis.
Firstly I don’t think those of us that left the insistutional church are prodigals in the sense of backsliders or any of those traditional interpretations, many of us left as part of a faithful search and found faith reinvigorated, and a depth of encounter with the Christ of today of the here and now, rather than yesterday or tomorrow.
So the leaving is part of the return. What if the prodigal leaving is part of a rite of passage and wether it is planned as in a formal rite, eg the boy who goes out to face the challenges in the wild and comes back when they are ready, or culturally normative eg an Amish young person on rumspringa, or for the middle class heading to uni. Perhaps in the prodigal it was more an unplanned rite of passage and like many people a series of encounters take place that help you grow up. So when it says “he came to his senses” was this the move from the youth, a coming of age, a recognition of adulthood. This raises the question what had he encountered, and how was his new sense of personhood going to be a gift and service to the community. NB I think this question of what he was able to offer still stands if you don’t think he had in anyway been involved in a rite of passage.
Coming to his senses and like a Masai warrior having walked through his exile here was a young man with gifts and talents and a different spirit, someone who had known the highs and lows, real hardship and starvation. There’s also a lovely hint in Luke that perhaps the father was open to this. The son had prepared three stances for his return, an acknowledgement of sin, a lack of worthiness, and a willingness to be treated as a servant. Yet the father only let him blurt out the first two before the re-embrace. So Once the party was over how did he re-inhabit the space he was given. Having been away to distant land had he picked up new farming techniques, was his renewed spirit of humility and way of being a gift, was he able to simply see things from a different perspective and offer these ideas to the family. As a son he was able to bring in these ideas whereas as a servant he might not.
So what stances do we need to take now. When and how we offer the new learning that has emerged from the emerging church experiences and what postures should we take. I think because the leaving is part of the returning I want to encourage those of on the inside of the edge to be themselves. This was the key advice my referees gave the bishop when I applied for the post, that I needed space and they would get the best out of me if they let me be me.
In the next post I’m going to riff on the importance of the son crossing boundaries.