Friday, March 11, 2011

defining fresh expressions: a local pastor speaks

I sat with a pastoral friend the other day. We were shooting the breeze – talking funerals and spiritual retreats – as pastoral folk do!

And he suddenly talked about a new initiative with families that was happening in the church. And he made what I think is on the best definitions of fresh expressions I’ve heard in a long time.

I think its about people being together, doing stuff around faith and
relationships and something emerging from that, rather than simply a

Posted by steve at 08:59 PM

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

gender, ministry and church on International Womens Day

It’s the centenary of International Womens Day. In honour of this significant occasion, I want to point to two historic posts on my blog.

The first is a more Biblical reflection on women and apostolic leadership, which explores one of my favourite missional leaders, a women called Joanna (Luke 8:3).

The second is a podcast interview (it’s one of my very first, so it’s not great quality) in which I interview Jenny McIntosh about women and the emerging church. She reflects on the struggles of women to have voice and explores some possible reasons. Is it about the way the Bible is used? Is it about 50/50 representation? Is it about the way gender’s know, relate and include – and so we need not just an emerging church, but an emerging change of culture?

Posted by steve at 04:09 PM

emerging responses to For the Parish, chapter 5 – flight from tradition

“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 is here. Chapter 3 is here. Chapter four is here, including a lengthy and very helpful set of comments

These posts seem to be getting longer and longer. My excuse is that I do want to take seriously the questions being raised!

This chapter offers an extended reflection on the relationship between faith and tradition. It begins with the assertion that the Anglican church originates with an priority of common prayer. Thomas Cramner “producing a prayer book for all to use, not through a common confession.” (98) So For the Parish take issue with Fresh expressions practically, ethically, theologically and grammatically.

Practically, if you have diversity as encouraged by Fresh Expressions, does this not make it hard when people shift.

“The person who has come to faith through a ‘skateboarding church’ or a ‘greetings-card-making church’ is very unlikely to find anything on offer in a new locality that even approaches what will have been his or her only experience of church life up to now.” (99-100)

Ethically, Fresh Expressions seems to value novelty, and to value novelty is simply a middle-class luxury.

“Only those who are rich in this world’s goods are likely to side with ….[the] … postmodern thinker, who looks forward to a future that is like the present ‘only with more options’.” (102)

Theologically, faith is a given gift. “It is notable that every Fresh Expression starts with what is chosen, wheras the inherited church is more likely to start with what is given.” (102-3) Thus For the Parish frames tradition as something that comes to us “from beyond ourselves.” (103) In so doing, the the tradition gives us an “exteriority” (103) with which to judge ourselves, a breadth and depth that is both “wide-ranging and specific.” (105)

Grammatically, For the Parish is concerned about the loss of “the” in the language of Fresh Expressions. They offer examples including phrases like “faith” rather than “the Faith” and “Fresh expressions of church” rather than “Fresh expressions of the Church.” Apparently this makes the church into an abstracted idea, rather than the inheritance of the past. This is a “flight from locality, temporality and particularity.” (117).

The chapter offers one extended example – the use of compline. It is worth pondering in relation to tradition. (more…)

Posted by steve at 11:04 AM

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

a little pause to celebrate: the missional masters begins

Yesterday was for me a bit of milestone, which at the risk of being self-indulgent, I am pausing to mark.

Yesterday the Missional Masters cohort began and for 2.5 hours, I sat with a group of church leaders. Together we wrestled with Luke 10 and found ourselves both encouraged and challenged by the expression of mission. We began a conversation with Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice searching for theological themes that might make sense of our passion – to be change agents, fueled by a Kingdom vision, in and amongst ordinary churches around Australasia. We agreed on a common practice, to spend the next weeks collecting stories of the Kingdom being near in the lives of ordinary folk.

In August last year I was flying to Tasmania to work with their Synod. At 30,000 feet my brain started to do some free wheeling. For a number of years, Uniting College has been offering a Masters in Ministry. It is an exceptionally well-designed course, offering collegiality, flexibility and a practical theology focus.

At the same time, I have, for the past five years, taught a one-year course on Missional Leadership. Generally by the end, students feel like they are just starting. I don’t think this is because I am a poor teacher. Rather, I think it is a reflection on the long haul nature of being missional in leadership. The course needed more time, more years – not so much in lecturing from the expert, but more in accountable, collegial relationships.

At 30,000 feet I began to wonder what it would look like to apply this existing degree to the challenge of developing missional leaders in context.

  • To shape the existing thesis into an action/research journal documenting missional innovation
  • To shape the existing entry level papers on research design into a focus on action research
  • To shape the existing theological reflection paper into a leadership evaluation process
  • To shape the existing colloquim into a cohort specifically focusing on supporting each other in missional change
  • To shape the existing Guided readings into a shared experience of reading mission texts together.

The last five months have involved moving this through academic processes, writing some thought pieces on the methodology (here and here and here and here), recruiting participants, seeking inputers.

Yesterday the work became a reality. I had hoped for 5 to 8 (adventurous) participants in first year, and then to add 4 to 5 each year after, which over a part-time 4 year degree, builds nicely toward a cohort of around 15 to 20.

Well, we began yesterday with 4 folk and expect another 3 more joining mid year, so looking on track.  (This should include 1 in NZ, 2 in Queensland, 2 in rural South Australia, so certainly the distance thing seeming to be helpful.)

At the same time, numbers in our existing Masters/Doctor of Ministry have increased, an overall doubling of our enrolments, with over 30 folk involved in study. (That still leaves the PhD programme, of which we at Uniting College are involved in supervision of more than 10 candidates). The existing part of the programme began last week, and also started exceptionally well, a group of students reflecting on images of God in relation to disability and depression. Grounded, thoughtful and honest.

Hence the little, slightly self-indulgent, pause. Yesterday was a moment to celebrate.

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM

Monday, March 07, 2011

mission begins with two ears

Written for a local church newsletter, and for a new distance course I’m writing for Semester 2 – Equipping in Christian mission.

“Sorry, I wasn’t listening.” Sadly, it’s a comment that I hear a bit too much from my family at the moment! Yet we all know what happens when we take time to listen.

In December I met with the leaders of a local church to talk about mission. They felt stuck, trapped, ineffective, out of touch.

Mention the word mission and images come to mind: perhaps sending people overseas or trying to recruit people to attend church. I suggested to this leadership team that in the 21st century, mission starts in neither of these ways. Instead, it starts by listening.

Why listen? First, it is common courtesy which people appreciate. It shows they are valued, important, recognised as unique. Second, our world is changing. So listening helps us keep up with that change. Third, we have preconceptions. So listening ensures we start with the needs of others rather than our prejudices.

How to listen? I wanted to be practical, so I suggested a number of different ways this church could listen – take photos, conduct neighbourhood walks, practise appreciative inquiry, interview people. Different strokes for different folks. These were introduced at a seminar in January.

What happens when we listen? Two stories might help. The first is from New Zealand. The church I used to pastor walked the streets of our community at Pentecost. Our task was to listen to the history of the community. One year, as we listened, someone mentioned that a community group needed funding for a new heater (this was Christchurch in winter after all!). We prayed. The next week we heard our prayer had been answered. Listening helped us know what to pray. And it strengthened our relationship with our neighbours.

The second is a story from Australia (told in “God Next Door”). Jane moved to Melbourne with two kids. She was struck by how empty her suburb felt during the week and the lack of interaction outside the school gate. Rather than complain, she placed a note in her local school newsletter, inviting other parents to meet at the playground on a Wednesday on the way home from school. Within a month, 20 or 30 parents were attending. For Jane, “There’s this whole new level of interaction in the neighbourhood that just wasn’t there before.” A new initiative in the community, that began with listening.

There is a lot more to mission that listening. But it’s an important, and respectful, place to start.

Posted by steve at 08:29 PM

Sunday, March 06, 2011

mission in a quakezone

My current vocation in life is to reflect on the shape and nature of the church’s mission. I primarily do that in South Australia, which involves a lot of thinking about appropriate mission in the suburbs of ease and affluence which dot Adelaide.

But my heart remains firmly in Christchurch, in which suburbs that were formerly affluent now lie broken and twisted by nature’s force. What might be the shape and nature of the church’s mission in that city?

The dilemna is that I am now an outsider. I think from afar. So I risk being like the two old men in the Muppet Show, nothing more than a empty voice.

But I also have some space and distance and so perhaps one of the few things I can do is think. So when we discovered that the church we turned up to visit today, which according to their website was open, was actually meeting at another time and somewhere else, I tried to capture some thoughts. (more…)

Posted by steve at 04:45 PM

Saturday, March 05, 2011

lenten creativity: clay for the wilderness

A creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary. For more resources go here.

This is a fantastically creative Lenten activity. Methodist minister, Ric Stott, has made 40 clay figures (link with Ash Wednesday) and located them in and around Sheffield (into the wilderness) for 40 days (one for each day of Lent) to see what happens as they interact with the world. Ric blogs here

This gets towards the heart of what I am trying to explore with this project, when I finally gather up all that remains (which may well be very little) we will be able to see what effect the world has had on these fragile figures. Some will be worn down by rain, wind and time, some will have been swept away by street sweepers or stolen, or crushed underfoot. One remains in a church where, I suspect, it will stay safe and unchanged.

I remember when my first child was born – he was so fragile and perfect, untouched by the rigours of life. I was aware as soon as we stepped out of the sterile hospital into the cloud of smokers congregating at the entrance that moving out into the world meant becoming polluted, becoming dirty and damaged. But what kind of life is spent in a sterile space? It’s when we start to get dirty that we change, grow and become more human.

Each has a note inviting those who find them to take a photo and email it. It’s tactile, it’s public, it’s potentially interactive, it’s curiousity rousing. Good stuff.

Hat tip Jonny.

Posted by steve at 08:07 PM

Friday, March 04, 2011

missional church. what are you reading?

I’m in the process of putting together some books for a course on mission and leadership for a group of ministers. They are in context, they have some exposure to the missional conversation, they live in Australia and they are keen to actually put some legs on their passion. Here are the six books I’ve selected. A mix of voices was important, as was the sense of being both theological and yet grounded in existing congregational ministry.

What do you think? What have I missed?

Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People, Zondervan, 2010.

Helen Lee, The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home & in the World, Moody Press: Chicago, 2011.

Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Baker Books, 2011.

John Koenig, Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation, Morehouse, 2007.

Paul Kelly, How to make gravy, Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

Ann Morisy, Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission, Continuum, 2004.

Posted by steve at 06:36 PM

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

when meals become mission: learning from 9/11

A recent post at prodigal Kiwi is asking for resources to help churches think through their response to the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.

It caused me to recall the research done by John Koenig on how the church in New York responded after 9/11, which is written up in Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation. The book begins by interviewing Lyndon Harris, the priest at St Paul’s chapel. Manhattan’s oldest public building, the church closest to twin towers. Lyndon recalls how in the chaos after 9/11, the “many New Testament stories of Jesus’ words and actions at table came quickly to mind.”

So the church simply began serving food. First with volunteers running a street barbeque to feed the clean up crews. Once the church was deemed safe, they turned to serving meals in the shelter of the church.

They made a conscious decision to be a generous host. For them, this involved forming a partnership with a local restaurant to serve food and drink of the highest possible quality.

Some ten days after 9/11, they served communion. They offered this as an option, the liturgy up at the altar table but in a church filled with tables, heaped with food, around which everyday conversation continued. This moment, of food mixed with faith, proved an important and transformative moment of healing for numbers present that day.

Koenig concluded that one of the most healing thing done by churches through out New York in response to 9/11 was the decision to simply eat together. He wrote

“we have seriously undervalued our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for mission … to realize this potential, we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, must have our eyes opened by the transforming presence of Christ at our tables.”

Another chapter in the book offers an interesting checklist on what it might means for meals to become mission. It suggests a new set of habits will be required. Mission meals is no slapping of food on a cold tin plate in a chilly church hall.


  • This is serving graciously with human contact. Koenig cites the example of one the busiest church food kitchen in New York, in which each volunteer is expected to find ways to encourage eye contact and genuine conversation.
  • This is setting tables, serving food, eating in patterns and places that speak of God’s abundance and creativity.
  • This is encouraging role reversals by finding ways for all, helper and hungry, to contribute through a diversity of gifts.
  • This is committing to a long-term, intentional project, a willingness to eat together a lot, because in that eating good things will happen.

So, for those wandering about how to be church in Christchurch, how to deal with so much physical loss, so much psychological trauma, so much grief and fear – start by simply eating together.

Posted by steve at 09:56 PM

Why are mainline churches in decline? could it be theology?

In my last post I engaged the question of why mainline churches are in decline (full post is here). I pointed to a blog comment which suggested the answer was because the church had lost touch with culture.

This is supported by a number of sociologists of religion, who point to the fact that many voluntary groups, not just the church, are in decline as they lose touch with cultural change. As I wrote last year in a post on being church in a time of cultural change (and drawing on some work by Kevin Ward:

So, consider that alongside the decline in church, is a widespread decline in all voluntary associations: from Lions to labour unions, from political parties to bowling clubs.

In New Zealand in 1970’s about 400,000 people played rugby. By 1990’s it had plummeted to 100,000.

Why? Factors include authoritarian and controlling environment, rigid structures, high institutional overheads, dress code, conformist culture, lack of choice, repression of individual for sake of community.

At the same time, touch rugby, while only started in an organised sense in 1990, had by the year 2000 over 272, 000 registered participants.

Why? It is minimalist, gender inclusive. Individuals can choose their own team, while teams can choose their uniform and name. Time is limited and there is a high value on socialising and fun.

In other words, traditional structures based on long-term commitment and exclusive loyalties are less attractive than single stranded, less formal, smaller groupings.

But another answer to the question of mainline church decline is to point to theology. This comes in two directions.

First, some see the mainline church as liberal. So the church just needs to get beliefs right around notions of conversion, gospel, etc.

Second, some see the mainline church as conservative. This was summed up delightfully in a conversation I had during the week. After I presented on Fresh expressions I was asked if surely a person needed to give up on belief in an interventionist God in order to be part of a fresh expression. My conversation partner wondered if there was a need for a fresh expression not only of church, but of theology. This was defined as moving away from historic notions of a three tier universe and God as an intervenor in people’s lives. In other words, the mainline church is in decline because of theology – it’s too conservatively old-fashioned.

Posted by steve at 10:48 AM

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

why are mainline churches in decline?

I teach a course here at Uniting College called Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry. It’s at an introductory level and is compulsory for our candidates. It starts on Thursday. The aim is to equip participants to explore issues at the interface between society and ministry and develop greater social sensitivity about the ministry process. The assessment involves the students, as a group, constructing a field report (based on real life case studies) reviewing a local church’s ministry in the broader community.

So it was interesting to read Tony Jones blog, with data on the continued decline of mainline churches in the United States. The two denominations closest to the Uniting Church of Australia are the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent. Which raises the why question – Why are mainline churches in decline?

To which Jeff, who blogs here offers a response.

As a UCC pastor, I think that a lot of it has to do with local churches being very slow to adapt to the new cultural reality in which we find ourselves. And it’s something way bigger than video screens in worship or whatever…it’s a failure to recognize that we’re not in the same social place that we were in in the ’50s and ’60s, and thus the same social and organizational mentality no longer addresses what the church needs to be about today. Fortunately, some corners of these denominations have recognized it and there is renewal happening, but we’re still going to lose people and churches along the way. The key is that such renewal needs to happen at the local level rather than the national level, which I think my denomination sort of gets, but it also gets in its own way. I imagine there’s a similar thing happening in other mainline churches, too.

Which sounds to me like Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry – gaining tools to listen to our communities, skills in discerning the systems and powers which enmesh individuals, sensitivity to new media, awareness of themes emerging in poetry, arts, film. And if Jeff is right “such renewal needs to happen at the local level”, then perhaps the class should be compulsory not just for candidates, but for all local Uniting Church leadership teams?

For a more recent post – raising the topic not of culture, but of theology, see here.

Posted by steve at 07:58 AM