Thursday, November 29, 2012

Comprehending mission – history today

Chapter one is here. Chapter two surveys recent trends in missiology with a particular focus on the Bible and mission. Chapter three looked at mission history, the evolution through time, the shifting resources that shaped how the church understood itself.

So what of today? “Scholarly interest in mission history is remarkably strong today.” (62) The shift began in the 1980s with the realisation that mission history reveals remarkable data about boundary crossing.

Increasingly, studies point to the way missionaries sought to subvert imperialism, hand in hand with the remarkable role of indigenous people in cross-cultural encounter.

“Mission history can be controversial, especially when ideological or theological convictions are put into play. Apologetics on behalf of Christian mission, as a rule, cannot be substituted for serious historiography. Strident secularism, likewise, can impede understanding by deciding for others what religious beliefs and behaviours necessarily signify.” (66)

Another focus has been women in mission. First, their stories have been told. Second the place of mission in enabled women to offer their gifts has been uncovered. Third, the role of women in developing global movements of solidarity and partnership.

A new resource for mission has emerged – photography. The digitizing of photographs offers a rich resource for reflection, for example the Internet mission photography archive website. The Dictionary of African Christian biography offers a multi-lingual online archive. These are rich new resources that ensure mission history remains full of possibility.

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology.

Posted by steve at 08:37 PM

Monday, November 26, 2012

survey help please

If you are in Australia and have not attended Uniting College then read on ….

Uniting College for Leadership and Theology is currently conducting research with a range of people through a third party consultancy group, Capacity Builders. Uniting College is eager to hear honest feedback from people both inside and outside the College as we develop a strategic plan and explore how we can communicate more effectively with potential students, current students, graduates and church leaders.

If you live in Australia and if you have not studied at Uniting College, we would greatly appreciate you taking 15 minutes now to complete this anonymous online survey. No attempt will be made to identify you if you want to remain anonymous. If you do provide your contact details at the end of the survey, then we can contact you because there are 2 chances to win two movie tickets.

The Survey will be open until Wednesday 28th of November

Posted by steve at 11:15 AM

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Yoder (not Yoda) on church and society

John Howard Yoder popped up in a conversation this week. Yoder is an Anabaptist, so I always find myself doing a double take when he pops up in a Uniting Church context (which this conversation most definitely was). My surprise was quickly accompanied by the warm glow that happens as one finds one’s roots affirmed.

John Howard Yoder popped up again yesterday, in a footnote in John Swinton’s, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God

The distinction between church and the world is not a distinction between nature and grace. It is, instead, a distinction that denotes the basic personal postures of men [sic], some of whom confess and some of whom do not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The distinction between church and the world is not something that God has imposed upon the world by prior metaphysical definition, nor is it only something which timid or pharisaical Christians have built up around themselves. It is all of that in creation that has taken the freedom not yet to believe.” (Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism 116)

What is intriguing is the way that differences between gospel and culture, church and society, are located not in God, but in humans. People have choice.

What is also intriguing is how this allows creative conversations between church and society. Mutually learning is possible, discoveries of God in creation possible both inside and outside the church.

What is even more intriguing is how subversive this is of some expressions of Anabaptism, which very much focus on withdrawal from the world.

Posted by steve at 12:59 PM

Friday, November 23, 2012

a woman on women bishops

Remarkable essay by Sarah Coakley, Anglican Priest and Systematic Theologian at Cambridge University on women bishops. (I’ve engaged with her work previously – When non-priests pray: A conversation between Sarah Coakley and Bono Vox regarding incorporative pneumatology and priestly prayer. And here in relation to indigenous relationships.) She points to the absurb lack of logic in ordaining priests while not allowing them to be bishops -“an offence to theological truth, a running sore of incoherence in our theological life-world without whose resolution and healing no other, related, theological project in our Church can I believe go forward and flourish.”

What is fascinating is her demand for theological rigour and depth with the tradition of the church, yet in a way that (to my reading) is still giving enormous permission to fresh expressions.

Hooker’s perspective does indeed allow for novelties in the rational reception of Bible and tradition: the plastic nature of Hooker’s conception of reason, and its deep understanding of historical embeddedness, does allow for creative development in response to the primacy of Scriptural authority and the deposit of tradition, without the danger of a merely historical or moral relativism. There is nothing in Hooker, then, that would give credence to the slogan that “nothing new is ever true.” But there is everything to suggest the possibility of hopes for future creativity and renewal.

In other words, (my words) being “traditional” is never an excuse to block innovation. Rather being “traditional” is to be innovative, to expect a great depth of creativity, that emerges from the hard work of understanding context and one’s roots.

Posted by steve at 08:54 AM

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Comprehending mission – history (chapter 3)

Chapter one is here. Chapter two surveys recent trends in missiology with a particular focus on the Bible and mission.

Chapter three looks at history, all the way back to Luke. It argues for an evolution. Different approaches to the history of mission have been used in history. It analyses where each approach has drawn source material from.

  • Luke – is a narrative of beginnings. It attempts to make sense of how identity was formed and faith grew. In doing so, it becomes idealised. (Compare Luke’s account in Acts of the Corinthian church with some of the issues Paul actually works with in his letters)
  • Church – Eusebius and Bede are shaped by their institutions. More importantly, they are often shaped by particular groupings within their institutions
  • Hagiography – the lives of saints. While these neglect the “warts and all” they do ensure we today are aware of of individuals in mission and the shape of everyday life in history
  • Ethnography – an increasing awareness of culture and geography is evident, as the Catholic church expands into the Americas. “In part, these data are exotica, a surefire way to excite and sustain enthusiasm for the Jesuit’s work in North America within the mission’s support base … More fundamentally, one can see in this reporting an acknowledgement that mission history can no longer be written without attending to its cultural and physical context.” (55)
  • Rational history – a belief that theology and history can be separated is mixed with a desire for grand, overarching, global narratives
  • Critical ethnography – a focus on intensive research on a small scale, an interest in the margins, a passion for observable behaviours. Often reading occurs “against the grain”, looking for hidden themes. “Critical ethnography tends to disparage the missionary enterprise as a self-interested Western intrusion into the lives of others.” (62)

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology.

Posted by steve at 08:17 AM

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

a turning point in indigenous relationship

Earlier this year I was privileged to ask a question.

It began a conversation.

It led to a process.

Which I ended up in a room, watching indigenous people work on a translation of some communion words into their local language.

I described the encounter from my perspective prior, and after, here – We lift up our livers, the richness of culture crossing.

On Monday, I got the chance to read another perspective. Another person in the room has written up the encounter as a journal article and sent me the draft for comment. It is still in process, but it was fascinating to read the encounter from another perspective. Two quotes are worth documenting.

First the significance. This apparently, “it signifies a turning point in the relationship between at least a small group of Australian mainstream Christians and the local Aboriginal community. Almost 175 years after the first encounters of the local Aborigines with the missionaries, whitefella Christians had come to Aboriginal Kaurna people to ask for spiritual guidance, by translating a Christian liturgy into the Kaurna language that carries a completely different perception of life, world and faith.” That’s humbling. But also deeply disappointing, that it took 175 years.

Second, the challenge. “It will be interesting to see if, and to what extent, the students and lecturers at the Uniting Church College will engage in such an inter-religious dialogue.”

Since then, we’ve had 2 sessions of input from local indigenous folk into one of our classes. Since then, we’ve done work to make indigenous exposure a compulsory part of our Candidate formation and the first experience will be offered February 2013. Since then, we’ve continued an English as a second language pilot, exploring how to train across cultures. Since then, we’ve continued to build networks and relationships. Since then, we’ve put in a funding bid, seeking a partnership that might allow us to capture indigenous stories from key elders.

But we’ve only just begun …

Posted by steve at 09:23 AM

Monday, November 19, 2012

Comprehending mission – the Bible (Chapter 2)

Chapter one is here. Chapter two surveys recent trends in missiology with a particular focus on the Bible and mission. It argues for three fundamentally different trends –

  • faith sharing in the Bible
  • Biblical norms for mission
  • the Bible in mission outreach

With regard to faith sharing in the Bible, a key text is Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission who in two volumes focuses on Christianity in the first century and the reasons for expansion. A fundamental concern is to establish the reliability of the New Testament as a source of data for the mission of the church today. A number of methods are used in this regard. One is words, for example the recurring verbs (proclaiming, sending, gathering, making disciples, baptising, working). Second is narrative, exploring how plot and character are constructed. Third, social science approaches, in which the origins of Christianity are mapped against economic, ecological, political and cultural environments.

With regard to Biblical norms for mission, the search is for enduring principles. A variety of approaches are being used. Skreslet explores how missio Dei, so popular a term, is actually being used in different ways, with different understandings of mission, from the World Council of Churches through to liberation theologies pleading for shalom.

With regard to the Bible in mission outreach, Skreslet focuses on translation. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into 360 languages, at least one book of the Bible exists in over 2,450 languages. This gives rises to the mission theology of translatability – that in “God’s linguistic economy, all the world’s vernaculars were equally gifted with a capacity to receive the gospel.” (37) The result is empowerment. Local cultures feel affirmed. Local languages are more likely to be preserved.

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology.

Posted by steve at 09:27 PM

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Getting on with mission. Are you broad enough?

As part of my role as Principal, I am invited to write a 650 word column, to be sent to Uniting churches throughout South Australia. Here is what I wrote last week …

One of the highlights of my first few months as Principal has been visiting rural churches. As part of the Refresh programme, I’ve found myself in Lock, Laura and Robe. It has been a great way to meet new folk and to get a feel for church life beyond the suburban sprawl that is Adelaide.

My topic was Getting on with mission. Mission is a word with so much baggage.

For some it is linked with Stolen Generations. For others, it smacks of Billy Graham Crusades and the mass appeal of stadium preaching. Or the corporate business world, in which mission statements suggest programmes for church growth.

None of these make any sense of the Biblical narrative.

Being a mate – This expression of mission is best seen in the story of the woman at the well (John 4). An encounter with Jesus turns the Samaritan into a storyteller. What is striking is how she, not Jesus, is the primary agent in mission. Even though only minutes old in faith, she is willing to verbally share her moment of encounter with her neighbours who know her so well.

Having a yarn – This expression of mission is threaded throughout the book of Acts, thirty six times in which faith is presented verbally to a group of listeners. What is striking is how different each speech is – in setting, in illustrations, in ending, in effectiveness. There is never a “one-size-fits-all” repeated stock sermon or generic alter call. Instead there is a deep sensitivity to a listening audience and the unique cultures that shape their hearing.

Crossing the ditch – In Acts 8, mission occurs as the gospel jumps continents and the church in Africa is birthed. Ditches are being crossed. They can be cultural. They can also be generational. What is important is who takes the initiative in Acts 8. The primary agents are not the one on mission (Philip), but the Spirit and the Ethiopian. By implication, the first act of mission is thus an act of listening, of finding out where, and how the ditch is being crossed.

Sharing the load – In John 10:11, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life. Mission emerges in the context of “knowing a voice”, of relationships of depth and honesty. Mission takes shape not in words, but in sacrificial actions. When linked with Luke 15:3-7, we are reminded that mission expects shepherds to be wandering far from the walls of the church.

In summary, in the Biblical narrative, mission in the Bible has little to do with imposition, corporate programmes or manipulation. Instead it emerges in relationships, through listening and the sharing of life.

When I look around today I continue to see these images of mission.

Being a mate occurs as we hold a street barbeque, download the “50 ways to share your faith” Synod resource or offer Prayers of Intercession for the various work and play places which our congregations inhabit.

Having a yarn occurs through special services like weddings, Christmas or Anzac Day. Or in the example of a friend of mine, who in a few short sentences at his 50th birthday party, found words to name the changes that faith had wrought in him.

Crossing the ditch occurs in fresh expressions, as we join an Aboutface, through overseas missions exposure trips or as we teach conversational English to refugees.

Sharing the load occurs through the many forms of chaplaincy supported by the Uniting Church. This can be officially, through placements such as schools, aged-care centres,  hospitals etc. It can also be unofficially. Each of us have the potential to adopt an ‘unofficial’ chaplaincy posture within our surrounding community – to your street, sporting club, or the local cafe!

(Short advertising break – Have you heard about the new Diploma of Ministry (Chaplaincy) at Uniting College. Whatever type of chaplaincy, it may be an ideal next step for you or someone in your congregation. Why not contact the College to request more information!)

These are the words and image that define my understanding of mission.

What about you and your church? How are you giving expression to the breadth and depth found in the word?

Posted by steve at 09:19 PM

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Comprehending mission

What is mission? “the effort to effect passage over the boundary between faith in Jesus Christ and its absence.” (Jonathon Bonk, Preface to Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology, ix)

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology is a wonderful gift.

Skreslet provides an overview of recent trends in missiology. Books like these are gold. They allow a person and an institution to locate their questions, their research, their reading. In my case, as I research popular culture, how can it find a place in missiology? As I teach mission shaped ministry, how might the mission at work be located within global mission trends?

Chapter one. Who Studies Christian Mission, and Why?
The chapter begins with a resurrection story. It notes how in the 1960s and 1970s, missiology was in decline. “At many institutions, chairs of mission studies were reoriented and then connected to more politically correct areas of the curriculum, such as ecumenical theology, comparative religion, third world theology, intercultural theology, or world Christianity.” I can see many of those pressures still at play in the Uniting Church in which I currently work.

This decline was prompted by the evaluation of the colonial era. The decline also coincided with a growth in secularity in the West.

However despite unease in the West, Christian mission has grown, often generated by churches outside the West. “The astonishing and quite unexpected vitality that now marks Christian mission worldwide invites scholarly attention.” (2) There has been an explosion, especially since the 1990s, in mission studies, in new journals and new lecturing positions (including here at Uniting College).

Skreslet suggests two current approaches to reflecting on mission are at work.

First, curricular. Introductions in mission have developed in connection with particular training courses. Examples cited include Perspectives in World Christianity, Following Christ in mission and Missionaries of Christ.

Second, theological reflection. “[M]issiology is taken to be a shorthand term for theology of mission, theology of the apostolate, or sometimes the theory of mission.” (4) Examples cited include Transforming Mission, Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction, Concepts of Mission: The Evolution of Contemporary Missiology and (especially for Australian’s), Introduction to Missiology.

Skreslet is “not convinced that theology of mission [this second approach] is the best avenue by which to approach the field of missiology.” (9) He is concerned that it privileges certain data. “For modern theologians operating in the West, scripture, tradition and Christian expereince are the sine qua non of their craft … Issues of culture and the existence of other religious traditions may enter into these discussions, but they typically do in in the guise of environmental factors.” (9-10)

In other words, the abstract is more important than the particular. And theologians are more important conversation partners than historians, sociologists and anthropologists. “What we have today, by and large, are many introductions to mission theology but very few treatments of missiology as a whole.” (11)

Skreslet is encouraged by current patterns in dissertation research, younger scholars are pushing the boundaries of missiology ever wider. Every kind of scholarly enquiry can be, and is being, explored.

Having surveyed the field, Skreslet then defines missiology as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission.” (12) It is an intersection point of many disciplines, including secular. He argues for a “community of practice,” a set of “particular scholarly habits.” (13)

First, interest in crossing boundaries and how contact with cultures might transform senders and receivers.

Second, reality of faith and non-faith. It expects a critical empathy with what is being studied.

Third, an integrative impulse. “Christian mission is a social phenomenon that encompasses an unlimited number of local contexts, each of which may be affected by global trends. Every layer of culture – from the material to the conceptual – may be engaged when faith is shared across national, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries.” (14)

Posted by steve at 09:47 AM

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Argo: a cinematic theology of peacemaking

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for November.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“We did it peacefully.”

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In 1979, the US Embassy in Iran was stormed by an angry mob.  While fifty two Americans were taken hostage, six staff escape, hiding in the Canadian ambassadors’ residence.

Enter CIA agent, John Mendez (Ben Affleck). While watching TV with his son (where would popular culture be without “Planet of the Apes”?) he hits upon the idea of smuggling the six out of Iran disguised as a film crew.

Enter Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fading director, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together they peddle a faux movie, complete with poster, press and launch party.

Enter “Argo,” a science fiction script in which aliens attack Middle Eastern farmers. Mendez enters Iran as a location scout, prepared to navigate the missing diplomats as a Canadian camera and production crew, past Iranian security and into international airspace.

It makes for crackling tension. Real life TV footage of Iranian protests is spliced with the Iranian secret service steadily recreating, out of embassy shredded documents, photos of the missing embassy staff. Meanwhile the Iranian housekeeper, aware of the truth, must face divided loyalties as she encounters a questioning Iranian intelligence officer.

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Those who appreciate creativity will note the clever use of cartooning, both to introduce a potted history of Western interference in Iranian history and latter to storyboard the “Argo” plot.

No less clever is the use of sound. Angry voices in the bazaar are mixed with the quiet interrogation of housekeeper by Iranian secret service agent, the shouted accusations as sinister as the quiet questions.

Amid this international tension, New Zealand gets a mention. We as a nation are alleged, along with Britain, to have failed to hide the six embassy staff.

The truth really is different. According to the Canadian ambassador (“Our Man in Tehran”), New Zealand embassy staff played an important supporting role. This included providing food, renting a further safe house and transporting the “film crew” to the airport.

“Argo” is film about a film, a Hollywood film in which Hollywood stars. Is the result yet more American hype, another stereotype in which American quick wittedness trumps Middle Eastern mobs?  Not when it reminds us of the grubby side of Hollywood, global exporter of pornographer. Neither when it affirms the American need for international co-operation, their reliance on Canadian partners.  Nor when it celebrates peace.

The last words in “Argo” are left to Jimmy Carter, the United States President at that time. A Nobel Peace Prize winner (2002), his conclusion, as the credits role on “Argo,” provides a distinctly unAmerican approach to conflict resolution.

“We did it peacefully.”

Words which echo those of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So often dismissed by the cynical realist, in “Argo” they capture a truth that really is stranger than fiction.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, Australia. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 08:54 PM

Friday, November 09, 2012

2020 learning spaces

Help me please.

On Tuesday I will spend 3 hours with some architects. They will look at me and ask:

  • if you had a brand new building, what spaces would you need to grow leaders in innovation and invigoration?
  • what furnishings would you like inside those spaces?

So, my friends, help me ….

Posted by steve at 10:09 PM

Thursday, November 08, 2012

learning through listening

The last few months have included settling into a new role as Principal. The College has a team of 12 and we’ve all gone through the adjustment of a person within the team becoming a leader in the team.

One of my first goals was to find time to connect with the team. I did this by booking some time with each person to listen. I had four questions, which I’ve asked each person. I’d thought long and hard about what I wanted to ask. Here’s what I crafted.

  • Tell me about your sense of call (given I wasn’t part your interview as you began work at Uniting College)
  • Imagine a bathtub. It can be emptied, through a plug hole. It can be filled, through a tap. As you think about your sense of call, what about Uniting College enhances your sense of call?
  • What about Uniting College drains that sense of call?
  • Since I’m new, tell me what responsibilities and priorities you have with us?

I let the whole team know this process was happening before I began. I also let them know as a whole team the questions. I took them individually to a local cafe and listened.

It’s been gold. Absolutely gold. As a team member commented recently, I learnt more in 60 minutes than 3 years of corridor conversations. It was true.

People have felt affirmed. Often there’s been new insights for them, fresh connections about their unique fingerprint and how it’s being inked. I’ve gained perspectives on the organisation that I never would have had otherwise.

If mission is finding out where God is up to and joining in, then the first task of mission is listening. In this case, to people in our teams.

Posted by steve at 11:37 AM

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

colour wheeling into formation for ministry

Yesterday I spent an hour sharing the big picture of formation for ministry as we currently understand it at Uniting College. The thing that generated the most energy in the candidates seemed to be a colour wheel.

I began with two quotes, taken from our Formation Panel handbook:

“Ministerial formation is first of all an aspect of Christian formation; growing as a disciple of Christ and serving God in the world. It includes transformation, taking in the likeness of Christ as we respond to God’s work of renewing creation. Ministerial formation is grounded in formation for discipleship.” (Formation Panel Handbook, 2)

“Ministerial formation is a life-long process. It involves the whole person – integrating his or her spiritual life, knowledge, skills, attitudes, personal priorities and health.” (2)

After some interaction about our individual uniqueness, I suggested that one way to clarify formation for ministry was to see it as having three parts

  • study – lectures and topics
  • ministry practice – engagement in ministry
  • formation – the processes by which we are shaped organically

I had lots of colour wheels scattered around the space. Folk were invited to choose three colours, to fit them together and to think about their formation. When they first began to sense a call to ministry, how much study had they done, how much ministry practice had they been engaged in, how much life formation had happened?

As they shared in pairs, the insights began to emerge.

But hey, the two of us – we’re different. Exactly. Formation is a unique process.

The colour wheel moves. It changes. But so do I! Exactly, the seasons of our lives might well invite different patterns of formation.

Which allowed a rich conversation. About what we provide at College, an ideal framework that might be a way to ground and make ministerial formation practical – topics to study and different ways to engage ministry practice and various intentional experiences.

But how this could never be a strait-jacket, a one-size fits all approach. Because each of us come with different range of experiences. So each of us need a different type of course experience. Which requires a lot of discerning together. Which takes time. And gets messy.

But how else can we take the unique and individual processes of formation seriously? And all around the room, people gently wheeled their colours into formation for ministry.

Posted by steve at 10:57 PM

Monday, November 05, 2012

arrival of author copy of Gospel after Christendom

My author’s copy of The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions arrived today. At 370 pages, it is an impressive summary of the global shape of the emerging, missional church, with contributions from Germany, England, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Holland, Costa Rica, Norway, Latin America, Belgium and USA.

My chapter is second cab of the rack on, Emerging Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is one of 28 chapters, divided into five sections:

  • Peoples
  • Cultures
  • Practices
  • Experiments
  • Traditions

It also includes an Afterword by Eddie Gibbs, in whose honour is the book.

it is reassuring to know that there is increasing evidence of the survival of the church after Christendom, and that this survival arises out of rediscovery of the nature of the gospel and the reconnecting of ecclesiology and missiology … In other words, survival is dependent on spiritual renewal and a willingness to die to all that inhibits the church from embarking on its ongoing mission in a post-Christendom world. (Gospel after Christendom 361)

A feature is how every chapter includes sidebars, in which two of the contributors comments on another contributors chapter. So for example, my chapter has interaction by Darren Cronshaw from Australia and artist Troy Bronsink from USA. It also includes quotes from five of Eddie Gibbs books, I Believe in Church Growth; ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry; ChurchMorph: How Megatrends Are Reshaping Christian Communities; LeadershipNext: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture; In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity. It makes for a rich set of connections.

Posted by steve at 09:29 PM