Saturday, January 29, 2011

listening at your local in Lent: step one in a fresh expression?

Updated: Feedback

“The good thing about this is that it’s a process. We’ve been offered in the past so many programmes, which people tend to resist.”

“The best thing about what you did is the homework. So many seminars just give information. You gave us something to do.”

On Sunday I am offering a Lenten mission challenge to a local Uniting Church. I am preaching and then offering an hour long mission seminar. The Lenten focus I am suggesting is not a study or some readings. Nor is it a chance to give some money. Nor even to engage some internal spiritual practices. Rather the focus is on some practical tasks in order to listen outside the church walls and into their community …

Task: Take a project. Decide on a time frame. Do it either individually or as a group. If as a group, why not meet fortnightly for coffee to encourage, pray for each other.

  • Listening project one – some growth questions to ask selected individuals
  • Listening project two – observation walks around the community
  • Listening project three – visual observation of the community, involving creating photo exhibits
  • Listening project four – some Appreciative inquiry questions

I am hoping it is practical and fun and people want to have a go. Why not enjoy a few summer walks around your community.

I am hoping that this becomes a first step in a process, that what they hear clarifies their next steps in mission; that out of listening comes some acts of intentional service, that such acts are designed not as programs but to grow relationships, that those relationships become conduit for gospel stories to be told, that those gospel stories invite an exploration of Jesus, first individually and then in community. (ie a fresh expression).

But those words – fresh expression – are often a step to far.  So first, hey, why not listen in your local ….

Posted by steve at 03:18 PM

Friday, January 28, 2011

a missional prayer emerging from a missional moment

So I am working with a group, planning a mission-shaped experience across the denominations in Adelaide in the second half of 2011. Today the planning group was meeting for a second time.

Three of the four arrived to find the venue locked. A church. And a sign “Alarm on.”

As they stood outside a cellphone rang. The mix-up was untangled, with the fourth person, who was meant to be hosting, finding themselves at the wrong venue.

Thankfully a cafe was close by. A drink as we gather. Hospitality being received. Time to catch up on Christmas comings and goings. A space shared with others. Time to pray, eyes open, in a public place. A group now gathering not only around strength, but also around human mistake.

May this experience be our mission-shaped experience
May we gather for your world rather than your church
May our ministry be from frailty as well as gift and passion
May we experience the hospitality of our culture
May our planning and our prayer be lived in and for the places in which our communities gather

Posted by steve at 04:53 PM

Thursday, January 27, 2011

spacing and placing transformation

Earlier this week I was asked to explain my job title “Director of Missiology, Post-graduate co-ordinator.” While I have a job description, for me the “big picture” is that my task is to

add strength to change process that Uniting College is going through, in particular to show that leadership can be theological and missiology can be transformative in the life of a local church.

In that vein, here are some links that I have been pondering.

  • the place of context in leadership. A gracious, gracious post by David Fitch, in which he argues that churches that rely on preaching, in particular a “fingerhead” type preach, are in fact a last gasp of Christendom. Such a form of ministry/leadership have a place, but have little chance of connecting with a post-Christian culture and thus of offering clues as to future leadership imaginations. (Full post here).
  • a local church running their own spirituality fair. Deceptively simple – three hours on a Saturday offering to interpret dreams, conduct spiritual massage. Apparently there were people queuing on a winters night. (Here).
  • a (UK) website charting spaces for temporary and pop-up projects – empty shops, church halls, fields, shopping precincts and old offices. A great way to think about running a mission experiment and an intriguing reminder of mission possibilities for temporary cultural engagement. (Here)
Posted by steve at 09:00 AM

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

emerging responses to For the Parish. A Critique of Fresh Expressions, chapter 2

For the Parish, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, is an extended critique of fresh expressions. Always good to listen to the critics, so I am engaging the book, chapter by chapter. The Introduction is here, Chapter one is here

Chapter two – Theology and mediation

This chapter introduces a second theological concept, that of “mediation.” This is (dictionary) defined by Davison and Milbank as actions that bring about a gift. They chart a number of implications for Christian faith

  • “the messenger becomes the message; we receive the gift of being gifts to ourselves” (30)
  • the priority of the sacraments as “the chief material means by which we are united to Christ (31)
  • “God works through our actions, words and communities because he is the active, speaking, communal God, whose image we bear.” (33)
  • God is “revealing himself in [human] language” (36)
  • the goal is the divine redemption of human culture

Having dedicated 11 pages to defining mediation, the chapter then finishes with three paragraphs in relation to Fresh expressions, which are accused of lacking this theology. However, no concrete evidence (eg quotes or examples) is provided to back up such accusations.

One way to examine a work is to look at the sources being used. So this chapter affirms culture, as it needs to by advocating a theology of mediation. So does it practice what it preaches ie use cultural sources? If so, what? This chapter does draw on culture, citing poet David Jones (35), Elizabeth Bishop (36), and an opera by Rossini (38). I will be keeping an eye on this as the book develops, but my initial observation is that this book is privileging certain forms of culture – it is quoting poetry but not pop music, opera but not film. In doing so, it might well reveal an exclusive, limiting understanding of what it is to be human and of what cultures can be part of mediation.

As with chapter one, I am again left confused with the fact that the themes being argued here are also being used in the Fresh Expressions discussion. When I teach on “alternative/emerging worship, I use themes of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, Ascension to argue for the priority of embodiment and thus the use of culture in worship. Pete Ward has written an book titled Participation And Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church in attempting to articulate a theology of pop culture emerging from his experiences in youth ministry. What is going on when a theology of mediation is being used in Fresh Expressions, yet this book is accusing it of lacking such a theology?

Posted by steve at 09:51 AM

Monday, January 24, 2011

a Bono version of Make me an instrument

This is pretty raw, but strangely moving. It is Bono (and Glen Hansard), singing at a funeral. The song is the Prayer of Saint Francis (full lyrics are here). The funeral is for Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corp.

For more of my thoughts on lament and U2, which is a recurring theme in their music, see here.

(Hat tip).

Posted by steve at 02:51 PM

Desert country: a poignant reminder from Aboriginal art on Australia day

Desert country is an art exhibition currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In the foyer is a huge (5 m high, 10 m wide) photo of the outback, red dirt, a road rolling into nowhere. It’s the standard Western perspective, a snapshot of a moment in time, captured from the viewpoint of the individual staring outward. The red road is surrounded by scrubby bush – better stick to the road, cos in the desert lies the possibility of slowly parched death.

Inside are six rooms, containing the first ever attempt to chart the forty year evolution of the internationally acclaimed Australian desert painting movement. The paintings are drawn entirely from the the Gallery’s extensive holdings of Aboriginal art.

The exhibition is a haunting reminder that there is entirely other way of viewing, and living, in desert country. (These are just my thoughts, as I wandered. I might be well be well of base in my interpretation, but here is what struck me).

The perspective is topographical, looking down, rather than from the perspective of a person looking outward. How a desert people can conceive of land as birds eye is remarkable and shows an active and powerful imagination.

This land is given shape, takes form, through dots, rather than lines. Dots suggest a different way to measure, to enscribe and appreciate scale.

Most pictures have a narrative, a story. Thus land is shaped by the past, by the interplay of human and history and it is this that gives meaning, value, identity. Or tells of bush tucker, the path of emu, the spots to sample bush oranges or plums. What to Western eyes is arid rock, is for Aboriginal a place of sustenance.

The paintings also suggests a radically different approach to time. Often European art captures a moment, a snapshot. In contrast, in this art, a narrative over time seems embedded in the painting. Thus time seems to not be linear, but to be shaped by a sequence of past events, that can all be represented on one single canvas, Desert country.

The standard of the paintings is variable. Some works looking decidedly amateur. Others are simply stunning. But everyone is a reminder that there is another whole way of looking at life.

Land need not be for exploring, fencing, settling, mining. It can also give us identity, tell our story, offer us sustenance, provide a different perspective on time and space.

Desert Country will be making it’s way around Australia. Well worth checking out when it comes by you – Western Australia (13 May – 31 July), Victoria (17 August – 2 October), Queensland (18 November 2011 – 30 January 2012), New South Wales (18 February – 6 May 2012). For more details, go here.

Posted by steve at 10:09 AM

Friday, January 21, 2011

Christ for us today: in pluralism, colonisation, environmental degradation

The blog title is a reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor seeking to be a Jesus follower during Hitler’s reign in Germany. He found his theology must address the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

The context today is not Nazi Germany.

Our context is one of pluralism, the challenge of how to name Jesus when my neighbours might be aetheist, Muslim or hedonist.

Our context is also one of colonisation, the challenge of the fact that the land I live on originally belonged to someone else, an indigenous community. It was pretty much taken by force, with the aid of gun and often by someone professing to follow Jesus. And the money that funds so much of the mission of the Anglo-church today is based on historic exploitation of indigenous land. To use the term of Chris Budden, how are we Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land.

Our context is also one growing environmental degradation. We live with growing talk of global warming, with acid rain and deforestation and decline of species and bio-diversity.

This is the Bonhoeffer challenge: who, what is Christ for us today.

All of this by way of saying that I am currently writing a distance course on the topic of Jesus. And I am looking for sermons. Have you preached a sermon that relates Jesus, or any part of the Gospels and New Testament, to the issue of either pluralism, colonisation or enviromental issues? Have you heard a sermon on this? Do you know of someone who might have preached on this?

Because I am looking for examples, with a view to inclusion (full acknowledgement will be given), to help students in the course think about how they will answer the the Bonhoeffer challenge: who, what is Christ for us today.

I am not looking for book chapters or readings, simply examples of how people are having such conversation in relation to the preaching life of the church.

Not am I hoping for a particular theological slant, simply examples of people having a thoughtful conversation between Jesus and the issues of pluralism, colonisation or environmental degradation.

Posted by steve at 04:23 PM

Thursday, January 20, 2011

a practical post: turning alternative worship stations into communities

I sat with a pioneer today. We reflected on a year of experimentation. An artist by charism, last year they thought “Stuff it, I’m going to create a quiet, still space. Populate it with stations. Have a start and end time. Advertise it as I can. And offer some resources to nourish people’s spirituality.”

After a year of experimenting, they are encouraged. By the growing numbers. By the engagement with folk they don’t see on Sunday mornings. By the impact of leaving the stations set up during the week, so that folk on Sunday morning get to see and engage.

It is proving a genuine missional innovation. Having visited (I love visiting pioneer innovations) I had some encouragements. And some suggestions

1. Think more about what people can bring into your space. How about providing a variety of things on the foyer (bits of material, stuff from $2 shop, coloured cards). Invite them to chose something that marks their week/mood/a relationships. This creates curiousity and builds individual participation.

2. Think more about what people can take away, something to tuck in their pocket as a reminder of their engagement – a stone, a thread, a symbol that connects with a station. This helps memorialise the time.

3. Have a map of church, with stations. As a newcomer, visitors always wonder if there are special “sacred” places. A map helps orientate me in a space, lets me know where to go and where the stations are. It lets me decide if I want to go in a liturgical order, or not. This map can be simple (station a, station b, station c etc) or more detailed (rose station, origami station, water station).

4. Think about next steps. People need space to come and go. And feel free to come and go. But some people might want next steps. They might want to suggest an improvement. Or know about future offerings. Or have a go. Or something touched a nerve and they want to talk. Sp provide next steps, sensitively.

5. What about a discussion space. Some people like to to process thoughts and ideas. They want to share how they engaged. And to hear how others engaged. Especially for people with aural learning preferences. So a dedicated coffee space afterward. Or the next Sunday. It must be optional. But this provides ways for events to become communities.

I note these ideas here, wondering if they might be useful to others experimenting with installation type, station based fresh expressions.

Posted by steve at 03:51 PM

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a emerging response to For the Parish. A Critique of Fresh Expressions, chapter one

For the Parish, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, is an extended critique of fresh expressions. Always good to listen to the critics, so I am engaging the book, chapter by chapter. The Introduction is here.

Chapter  one – The Union of Form of content

This chapter argues that Fresh expressions separate form (practices) and content (message, purpose, identity). The authors argue that such a separation is passe (so 19th century!), because “In the Church … the message is in the form.” (9) They offer some charity “Any particular Fresh Expression may well embody one aspect of the Church’s life and mission extremely well.” (9)  However the belief is that a parish, because it has a deep rooted commitment in people and place (ie doesn’t separate form from content) is more likely to have the resources to adapt and minister across the breadth of human living.

The argument about the inseparability of form from content is grouped in three sections.

First, they draw on Ludwig Wittengstein, a 20th century philosopher, who argued that language is thoroughly communal. “Our existence is a shared existence and it becomes intelligible only through distinctive, shared ways of life.” (12)  The implications for Christianity include the ordinary, everyday practices and disciplines of the Church as the place where faith is embodied.

Their concern is that Fresh expressions “do not appreciate how much the practices of the inherited church offer for mission and discipleship. They discount the forms of the inherited church without appreciating their potency for bringing the Faith to bear upon our time and space.” (17)

(I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the seeking of a more communal hermeneutic, for example Ben Edson, “An exploration into the missiology of the Emerging Church in the UK through the narrative of Sanctus1” and Guest and Taylor “The Post-Evanglical Emerging Church: Inovations in New Zealand and the UK”, both in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 6, 1, 2006)

Second, they draw on post-liberal theology, for example George Lindbeck and his use of the “cultural-linguistic” turn to urge the essential coherence between religious statements and community life. (And so again, content can no longer be separated from form).

“The meaning of the Christian faith is found in the forms of the Christian church. It is in the forms of the Christian church … any root and branh ‘re-expression’ of the Church, in new practices and forms of life, involves and equally thoroughgoing re-configuration of what the Church believes.” (23-4).

Their concern is that separating form from content, faith from culture, leaves fresh expressions appealing “to an abstract and cultureless deposit of the Faith that is is be enculturated here and now.” (23)  Thus fresh expressions are bypassing the tradition, the form and content of the church through history.

(Again, I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the turn toward spiritual practices.)

A third major section is that of the rise of a theology which stresses how mysterious God is. This demands a humility in our talking of God, an awareness of the limitations of human language. It requires us to “stress another sort of knowledge through art and ritual, shared stories, and shared forms of life.” (26)

(Again, I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the turn toward art, ritual, story and community).

I have five responses to this chapter. (more…)

Posted by steve at 12:02 PM

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

pioneer stories, learning with those who’ve gone before

I’m privileged to be serving among a denomination making some really interesting missional moves. This includes the desire to make intentional the training of pioneer leaders. To that end, I have been asked to facilitate a retreat in February with a focus on the implications of training pioneer leaders.

In starting to prepare, I really wanted the voice of pioneers to be heard, to let their experience shape our thinking going forward.

So today was V-day – video day. I asked four pioneer leaders to reflect, on video, on their formation and growth. A set of similar questions was used to kick-start the conversations:

  • The word “pioneer” is often used to describe someone with a track-record of starting things, sees possibilities, takes risks, willing to live with high degree of ambiguity. In what ways do those words make sense of your life and ministry?
  • Do pioneers take just one shape, or are their diverse models?
  • What’s the most important thing someone supervising you? forming/mentoring you? should know?
  • What’s the most important thing the various denominational structures (selection, formation, placement) need to know about you as a pioneer?

One person is beginning the “formal” part of their training (wanting to explore mission and innovation by enrolling in our new B.Min), a second has just completing their formal training (having spent the last few years pioneering a new community as part of their College Fieldwork), a third is well into their first pioneer church-plant, a fourth is into their 3rd major pioneering project. Some fascinating discussion has ensued.

As we all know, discussion is the easy bit! Now we have to cut the 75 minute video into something more manageable. But a fascinating exercise, to sit with pioneer leaders and hear them reflect on how God has formed them. To hear the differences. To sense the commonalities
– the shared passion for possibilities
– the need for flexibility and space to experiment
– the uncertainty of the journey, both becoming internally self-aware in the midst of trying to work that out in existing paradigms
– the desire for an relational accountability

And to begin to wonder about what it means for colleges and denominations to partner with what God is doing in the hearts and lives of people.

Posted by steve at 01:54 PM

Monday, January 17, 2011

When I am in doubt: a poem by Glenn Colquhoun

Looking for some summer reading, I re-dipped into Glen Colquhoun’s Playing God. Glenn is a doctor by day and a poet by night. He writes as a Pakeha (New Zealand born of Anglo-descent), but with a close relationship to Maori culture. He has written a number of books of both poetry and of children’s stories.

Playing God won the Reader Choice award at the 2003 Montana Book award and went on to become the only poetry book in New Zealand to sell platinium. The poems offer a human and compassionate account of being a caring professional. I kept making links between the caring side of being a doctor, and the caring side of being a minister, between the craft of poetry and the craft of leadership, which was occupying me back in December.

Here’s one, on the appearance of confidence and the humanity of doubt, that continues to sit with me.

When I am in doubt
I talk to surgeons.
I know they will know what to do.

They seem so sure.

Once I talked to a surgeon.
He said that when he is in doubt
He talks to priests.
Priests will know what to do.

Priests seem so sure.

Once I talked to a priest.
He said that when he is in doubt
He talks to God.
God will know what to do.

God seems so sure.

Once I talked to God.
He said that when he is in doubt
He thinks of me.
He says I will know what to do.

I seems so sure.

By Glenn Colquhoun, in Playing God

Posted by steve at 09:39 AM

Friday, January 14, 2011

President Obama’s speech

A friend wrote asking if I could comment theologically on Obama’s speech. I’m just about to head off for a camping weekend, but here are some thoughts.

Overall, the thing that strikes me is what a work of art it is. Consider some of the structural parrallelism at work.

One – He starts with hope into the future, drawing on Scripture. And he ends with hope, into the future, drawing on the life of child.

Two – Following the opening and just before the closing, is an structural parrallelism, opening and closing personalisations – the short vignettes of each person’s life, then setting up his conclusion with another personal vignette.

Three – he quotes Scripture twice, once from the New Testament, another from the Old Testament.

Four – he has an almost philosophical heart, (Tragedy demands explanations … Debate is essential in exercise of self-government … Scripture tells us there is evil.) This is set up by the intensely personal and emotional, the news he has visited the hospital. Thus he sets up the head by engaging the heart.

For me, the most outstanding feature is the way he has personalised loss. Prejudice is usually based on “they” statements – big bald generalisations. The speech is outstanding the way it lifts up ordinary, human people, and then asks us to consider how we treat every ordinary, human person we meet. (I might even use this as a case study in my July preaching and communication intensive – Living the text in a contemporary context)

He does this through a from of appreciative inquiry, in which he is looking through each person’s life for values and phrases that might sustain his argument. This is a theology of storytelling, in which he makes his argument through narrative. (Just hope his researchers got all the data right and that the “narratives” were authentic for those closest to the victims).

For those who don’t have time to listen to the whole speech (half of which is applause), here are my notes (of the more non-personal-narrative phrases) (more…)

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

the unbiblical banality that is mission-shaped church/fresh expressions

For the Parish, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, is an extended critique of fresh expressions. Always good to listen to the critics, so over the next weeks, I’ll be engaging the book, chapter by chapter.

The Introduction wastes little time; Mission-shaped church and fresh expressions are defective in methodology, inadequate in theology, and a capitulation to market values (page vii)! Fresh expressions are defined as “independent entities without any relation to the parish in which they operate … special interest groups … that defines the consumerist criterion of membership.” (vii) The book promises a critique on theological, philosophical and Biblical grounds. Fresh expressions is “unbiblical” (viii), a flight toward “segregation” (ix).

The abandonment of stability for novelty and given liturgy for ‘choice’, results in banality and pastiche, as well as a frail and atomized subjectivity. (ix)

Looking forward to chapter one arn’t we! Well, let’s all enjoy the weekend first 🙂

Posted by steve at 09:08 AM

Thursday, January 13, 2011

believing without belonging: the author retracts

Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives is an important book. It’s a collection of chapters that focus on the way ordinary people, in their everyday lives, practice religion.

It includes a most intriguing chapter by UK sociologist, Grace Davie. Grace coined the phrase “believing without belonging” to describe the idea that people can maintain faith and values, but not attend church. It’s a phrase used often in emerging church/Fresh expressions circles. But in her chapter “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge, Grace decides she wants to retract “believing without belonging” and replace it with “vicarious religion.”

the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who not only understand, but quite clearly approve of what the minority are doing (22)

She suggests that vicarious religion can operate in a number of ways. For example, church leaders can perform ritual, enact belief, embody moral codes and offer space for debate, all on behalf of wider society. More specifically, society expects churches to help them mourn in times of tragedy. Or church leaders to act in ways that the public never do. Or church buildings to stay open in a community, as “special places”, even as declining attendance makes them unviable.

Her examples are all drawn from modern Europe. She stresses how different and unique a case is the practice of religion and spirituality in the United States. She wonders if her notion of “vicarious religion” might work in the Southern Hemisphere?

It made sense for me of a number of moments in recent New Zealand history – the (Anglican) church involvement in the Pike River Tragedy or the funeral for Edmund Hillary. Or the outcry from a local (Mt Eden) community when a Methodist church decided to close it’s doors.

Theologically, what also intrigued me was when Grace suggested that the phrase “vicarious” was linked to “vicar” who does something on behalf of someone else. A way of being church based on a person doing religious activity for someone else! Is that really why people train to be vicars? How helpful is it as a notion of church-paid-staff today?

I remember a few years into paid ministry filling out a government census form. It included asking what I did for a job. After much pondering I wrote that I helped create community and resourced people’s spirituality. I didn’t consider this doing something on behalf of someone else, but rather of inviting people to participate for themselves in the Kingdom purposes of God.

Yet looking back now, I know there have been times when I have done something on behalf of someone else. For example, at a funeral, when the family are too shocked to bury their loved one.

A thought provoking read. Now I’m off to check how many emerging church/Fresh expressions books actually have used “believing without belonging” ! Not mine, (The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change) I employed the notion of spiritual tourism!

Posted by steve at 01:20 PM