Thursday, November 28, 2013

when listening expects speaking: a proposal for a theology of evangelism

I sat in a conversation yesterday. The person shared, deeply, openly, vulnerably. I asked if they felt they had been heard and they said yes.

But it wasn’t enough. My listening seemed to have created space. A space that demanded more than my ongoing silence.

A space in which I needed to speak. For me not to speak would have left the person who initiated the sharing feeling vulnerable – that they had shared, that they had opened up, but that they not been given a gift of my vulnerability in return.

There is a power in withholding. My perceptions remain untested, my prejudices unexplained. These needed to be exposed, tested, tried. I needed to be vulnerable, not by listening, but by speaking.

The co-creation of meaning was not possible unless my listening was followed by my speaking.

At times the church has not spent enough time listening. Equally at times the church has spent too much listening at others.

The church needs to listen. It also needs to learn to speak, vulnerably, haltingly, of what little we do know and have experienced, to test our perceptions and let our prejudices be named, heard, examined.

In other words, the church has a faith to share, in order to remain respectful of the vulnerable space created by listening.

Posted by steve at 06:32 PM

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

seeking Director of Christian Education and Discipleship

Due to one of our team being called by another part of the church …. we at Uniting College need to find a Director of Christian Education and Discipleship. It’s a crucial part of our life as a College – we took the risk in 2009 of moving away from the traditional academic divisions of Bible, Theology and Pastoral – to four streams – Bible, Missiology, Leadership and Christian Education/Discipleship. So this role is crucial in ensuring the formation, discipling, learning piece. Here’s the brief advertisement, if you want more information, contact me on steve dot taylor at flinders dot edu dot au

Essential to Uniting College is a commitment to placing discipleship and faith formation at the heart of learning, leading and living. We seek a Director of Christian Education and Discipleship (0.7-1.0), to equip for Christian discipleship and resource congregational formation for Christian living in daily life. The role includes academic leadership, teaching and co-ordination of VET. Applications close 5 December, 2013.

Posted by steve at 10:10 PM

a pilgrim church needs pausing places

One of the three main images of the church is that of the pilgrim people (the other’s are people of God and body of Christ, For a full 99 images of church in the New Testament, see the amazing Images of the Church in the New Testament (New Testament Library)).  Behind the image of pilgrimage is a metaphor – of movement, of journey, of travelling light. The Biblical saint of pilgrimage is Abraham, who in Hebrews 11 is commended for his faith in making “his home in the promised land.” What is intriguing is that the pilgrim finds a home. They settle.

Yesterday I was in a meeting discussing future property needs. The phrase pilgrim people was used and it got me thinking about the Biblical tradition. (Bad Principal, I was meant to be thinking property and there I was, lost in a fog of theological and missiological reflection of pilgrimage as a practice.) I began to wonder about the settledness, the pausing places in the Abraham narrative.

So here they are ….

“So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.” Gen 13:18

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Gen 18:1

“Abraham … lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar.” Gen 20:1

“Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” Gen 23:4

“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre … was deeded to Abraham as his property.” Gen 23:17

So there we are, even the great saint of pilgrimage had property. The narrative has numbers of different pausing places – to rest, to encounter God, to bury your dead.

Which dare I say it, sounds a lot like the reasons I hear today for church buildings! When you lay this alongside the commendation in Hebrews, to make homes in promised places, it suggests that a key spiritual practice of pilgrims still includes theologies of Incarnation.

Posted by steve at 07:49 AM

Monday, November 25, 2013

seeking birth in death: a new way of discerning fresh expressions

I’m currently reading The Faith Lives of Women and Girls. Qualitative Research Perspectives. Edited by Nichola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, recently published by Ashgate, it offers 19 chapters of original research on key aspects of women’s and girl’s faith lives. It uses a range of approaches – ethnographic, oral history, action research, interview studies, case studies – to help explore faith from a feminist perspective.

I’ve got stuck on the chapter by Jennifer Hurd, “The Relevance of a Theology of Natality for a Theology of Death and Dying and Pastoral Care: Some Initial Reflections,” (Chapter 17, 195-205). Hurd is a minister, aware from her experiences in recent years that there are changes in attitudes and practices within church and society concerning death and dying. She sets out to research the pastoral and theological relationships between birth and death.

As a theoretical frame, she uses the work by Grace Jantzen on natality, who has argued that the predominant choice of western civilization from Graeco-Roman times to the postmodern age has been characterized by violence and death. Jantzen calls this “necrophilia.” The result has been destructiveness, fascination with other worlds to the detriment of this one, and an antipathy toward the body and sexuality.

Jantzen suggests an alternative, which she terms “natality,” one characterized by beauty, creativity, new beginnings, flourishing and love of life. Her focus is the potential to make new beginnings, evident in new birth. But not only about birth. All beginnings that are becomings that make for creativity, life, health and wholeness.

Hence the Christmas Carol, Angels from the realms of glory
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar:
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen his natal star:

Hurd then interviews people experiencing death and dying and argues that in these narratives is the presence of natality. She draws out four threads from Jantzen – embodiment, engenderment, relationality, hopefulness.

So why am I stuck?

  • First, I read Jantzen in my PhD and it has been helpful to my current writing to re-find her.
  • Second, with my dad dying, I’ve recently been through the valley of the shadow of death.
  • Third, I’m concerned about gender and leadership development.
  • Fourth, I’m fascinating by how change does, or does not happen. Hurd comments how “often, feminist theology has responded to the necrophilia of patriarchal church and society by declining to address death.” (Hurd, 199).

So why am I stuck? Well it’s got me thinking. You see, it’s so tempting, especially in church circles to avoid the hard conversations about death and decline, and it’s fascinating to read how Hurd argues that both death and natality are threshold experiences, a shared liminal experience.

“Undoubtedly, natal elements have always been a major part of Christian theology and pastoral care.” (205).

But Hurd finds natal elements not after the death, but in death, dying and bereavement. This includes a continued relationality, “contrasting with the ‘letting go’ which is sometimes part of pastoral care in bereavement.” (205) Which for me  is truly fascinating.  This is not a “letting go” of declining bodies (and by extension, dying churches). This is finding a new becoming in their midst.

What I’m pondering is not a “inherited church” dies, so that “fresh expressions” live. Rather lets explore natality in all of life – in ways that offer relationality, hope, embodiment, for all.

It also means that while death is inevitable, the process will not be seen as failure, but as a pathway through which new life is possible.

Posted by steve at 01:29 PM

Friday, November 22, 2013

connecting networks: a sausage, a story, a space

At Uniting College last night, we played host to the Urban Mission Network. Drinks and nibbles began at 6 pm, followed by a bbq in the common space. The 60 people present were then divided into three groups and inviting to participate in three different learning spaces, around which they rotated every 15 minutes. In each space was a different dessert and a different presentation.

One was our new Vanier space, in which the story of it’s birth was told. Another was a lecture room in which three Faculty presented in 5 minutes each something from a recent lecture. In a third space, highlights from the 2013 year were shared, linked to our Strategic plan.

The approach allowed lots of participation from the College team, it got people into the range of learning spaces that make up the College, it allowed for variety in presentation.

Finally we gathered for worship, concluding at around 9 pm.

It was wonderful to be hosting folk from the church, to be telling the College story, to hear the buzz of conversation and questions as people engaged and participated.

The Uniting Church in South Australia has around six active mission networks. Each meet regularly, moving around different churches, who take turns to host and to tell their story.

Hence the obvious idea, to suggest to each network that they consider us as a church. Could we take a turn to host, to tell our story, to participate in the natural rhythm of their life? So we asked, and the Urban mission network were the first to respond and a great night was had by all.

We hope in the future there will be more mission networks, willing to let us offer them a sausage, a story and space.

Posted by steve at 06:29 PM

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mahara tutorials – a 21st century College

As part of commitment to quality education at Uniting College, next year we’re making Blended learning a focus. We want to maximise the mixing of students face to face and online.

As part of that, we’re experimenting with a programme called Mahara. In a few sentences, Mahara is a personal learning environment mixed with social networking, that lets you to collect, reflect on and share your achievements and development online. It’s a student space, perfect for collecting all their work over the space of a degree, perfect for a lecturer to point to an essay, or a paragraph and say “You really should make that public for the class to see.” It lets you build your resume, it syncs seamlessly with Moodle, it lets you blog, it lets you decide what to make public and to whom.

We are running some introduction sessions on this side of the summer holidays.

  • Thursday the 21st Nov 1:30-3pm (Common Room at Uniting College)
  • Thursday the 28th Nov 1:30-3pm (Common Room at Uniting College).

An opportunity to get going with a Learn! Lead! Live! tool over the summer holidays!

Posted by steve at 01:27 PM

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I journal religiously twice

I journal religiously twice. Religiously because it is a paired set of spiritual practices, that keep me in grounded, reflective and in community.

I journal religiously once, publicly, on this blog. It is a place to collect what I’m reading and doing. It’s been a discipline for over 11 years now. I began because I wanted to connect beyond Sunday with my congregation and to explore this new way of being human that is a digital world. It helps me reflect on ministry. I regularly think about stopping but then a helpful comment opens up a new insight and I realise the gift that is communication in community.

I journal religiously a second time, my own handwritten journal. It’s been a discipline from when I began formally training for ministry. I never think about stopping, for handwriting grounds me, connects me. I need to save insights, to record my pain, to jot down the spiritual insight of a moment walking or reading.

Over time, I’ve introduced new practices. Every Saturday I try and collect the achievements of a work week in a few simple dot points. This is essential, for my current work is overwhelming and relentless and I need to remind myself of progress. Or I use Celtic knots to untangle the complexity of an issue. Sometimes these notes can be worked up for public consumption, an insight becomes a sermon, a section allows me to capture a moment.

I handwrite much more than I used to and it’s such a precious space. The increase in handwriting has been a fascinating byproduct of the job. I think it’s because I need to find myself in the rush of a 7 meeting day.

I began to reflect on journalling because one of my handwritten journals is coming to an end. I’m always sad. I’m losing a familar friend and I hate the starting of something new, those first fresh pages speak of no life lived. I often leave the first page blank. A space for God to be God. And a way of beginning, of saying I’ve simply started.

This finished journal will be filed, along with others. As I come to year’s end or to an annual performance review, I will pull out my journal and read through the year. I will begin to catch patterns I’d not seen before. It helps give shape to my becoming, to the work of God in the hard places of life.

I journal religiously twice, a paired set of spiritual practices. But what is really interesting is that I have written this here – digitally – not there – in the handwritten journal.

Posted by steve at 07:10 AM

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Year Out Co-ordinator Appointed!

Uniting College is pleased to announce the appointment of Dan Anear as the Co-ordinator of the new Big Year Out program.

Dan is a strong Christian, with a Diploma of Ministry and broad ministry experience working with young adults. He is also a very experienced VET educator, and will compliment the strong Faculty inputting throughout the program.

Dan says: “I’m thrilled to be beginning in this role, launching this exciting new program. I understand the dynamic and exciting journey that faith can consist of in the young adult years. Big Year Out is an excellent opportunity for young adults to deeply explore the Christian faith, partnering with their church.”

Big Year Out is a unique 1-year discipleship program for young adults, either alongside other study or as a gap year experience. It involves interactive study, community sharing and unique missional experiences. In 2014, it is likely to include partnerships with groups in two other states of Australia, making it a genuinely national growth opportunity.

Those with young adults interested in the Big Year Out, can view the brochure here, or come to the Info night on 3 Dec at 7:30pm at Uniting College, 34 Lipsett Tce, Brooklyn Park.

Posted by steve at 05:32 PM

Monday, November 18, 2013

Christianity and the University experience chapter 1 and 2

Introduction is here.

Universities are different. I’d never thought of that before but that’s the claim of Chapter 1 of Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith. This chapter places the context – universities – in historical and cultural context. It suggests six different groups of university, based on their founding story. The suggestion is that the founding story will shape the story, which in turn will shape the experience of being Christian. It’s obvious, but for me, quite illuminating. Each campus will thus require a unique approach, based on it’s story and physicality.  The chapter describes how during the 1960s, higher education was the fastest growing industry in UK. Then again in the 1990s, the number of universities jumped from 50 to 100. Then in the last decade the impact of marketization, diversification and globalization. The term “university experience” has become a driving force, positioning students as customers in a competitive market. The result has been McDonaldization (for more see The McDonaldization of Society: 20th Anniversary Edition) of education – calculable, efficient. This phrase, “university experience”, becomes a way to understand the way society has changed and the resultant impact on faith, in this case, in the particular context that is the university.

In other words, one way to understand the mission challenges of today is to research the contemporary university experience.

In Chapter 2, we settle into the question of what makes a Christian student. This is qualitative research (over 100 indepth interviews), so it begins with three students – Grace, Jerome and Eva. They share an affirmation of Christianity as their religion of choice. They view their identity as shaped by social relationships (rather than doctrine). This faith is something that is evolving in dialogue with their experience being University students.

Alongside the qualitative research is the quantitative data gained from surveying over 4,500 students. This is analysed by examining the practical expression of Christian commitment. A particular part of being a university student is that one belongs in two places – campus and home. This allows a mapping of how Christian identities are expressed in transition. From this emerges five categories:

  • active affirmers (26%) – are involved at church in both home and campus. They often have a theological and intellectual expression of faith, in which they are confident. Features include a belief in substitutionary atonement.  “This is the only category that includes unequivocally positive references to evangelism, although even these are few and far between.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 42)
  • lapsed engagers (9%) – attend frequently at home but infrequently during term. They tend to include a disproportionate number of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and independent Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Being a Christian involves living a good life and following the example of Jesus.
  • established occasionals (14%) – includes a consistently occasional attendance whether at home or on campus. Yet, “[i]t is the category that includes the most Christians who have volunteered for political causes within the previous 12 months.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 44) A degree of theological sophistication was evident in those interviewed, as was a following of Jesus example.
  • emerging nominals (16%) – this group attend occasionally at home but not during term time. While there is little evidence of a cynical from Christianity, for many certain aspects of Christianity lack sense.  However Christianity remains a ultimate framework for life.
  • unchurched Christians (31%) – this group attend neither at home or during term time. They make a moral association with the Christian life. They are critical of the Church as betraying these ideals and are uncertain of their childhood connections to faith.

Some summary conclusions are offered. These include the fact that “the more persistently and regularly engaged students are with church, the more likely they are to affirm doctrinally orthodox beliefs.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 49)  This should not be overstated however, given that there are significant numbers in each of the five categories who believe they have become more religious while at university.

Posted by steve at 09:44 PM

Saturday, November 16, 2013

faith development of women pioneers

If I had time, if I had money …

I’d like to do a research project exploring the faith development of women pioneers in not-for profit projects, who are motivated by a specifically Christian outlook. It would conduct qualitative research into women who exercise leadership in three contexts – larger evangelical/charismatic churches, ecclesial pioneering contexts and not-for profit projects – comparing and contrast the processes by which they develop their leadership, the impact of their situatedness in context, and the implications for their faith and spiritual development.

Anyone want to join me? More importantly, anyone want to fund the data gathering?

Posted by steve at 11:14 AM

Friday, November 15, 2013

crowdsourcing evangelism in Australia today

In April 2014, Uniting College are hosting a one week intensive, titled Evangelism, Conversion and the mission of God. In preparing for this course, I thought it would be helpful to gain some wider feedback on what people consider to be the issues that need to be explored in such a course.

So, could you give me a few minutes, to provide, from your perspective –

What are the 3 biggest issues regarding evangelism, conversion and the mission of God in Australia today?

Responses by Tuesday 19 November please …

Posted by steve at 09:25 AM

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bible and pop culture summer school intensive

Posted by steve at 10:11 AM

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

we are two more

Exciting day today, as we welcome two new members to our Uniting College team.

Kelly Higgins is our Marketing and Promotions Officer. She will initially be at 0.2 FTE, moving to 0.4 in March 2014. She has an undergraduate degree in communications and multi-media and nearly ten years experience in Communications, Promotions and Marketing, in a wide range of work places – private business, local council, SA Health, Department of Education. She will help us tell our story, as a College, in clear, compelling, relational and contemporary ways.

Adam Jessep is our Blended Education Design Officer, working 0.6 in what is a Faculty position. Adam has over 10 years of experience, with Ministry of Defence and then a range of educational providers, in the area of adult education. He has a Masters in Ancient History, a Graduate Certificate of Education Leadership & Management and a Graduate Diploma in Educational Multimedia. He also has a Bachelor of Theology and is currently enrolled in Bachelor of Theology Honours. Currently, social media and digital technologies are inviting massive changes and we want to be a pro-active, theologically and pedagogically, in processing how these changes impact on our teaching and learning. Adam will work with both students and staff in these changing times, and as we move toward blended learning across all of our topics in 2014.

Both Adam and Kelly’s appointments are designed to resource the essential growth we need to see as a College, in helping transition to digital education and in enlarging our student base. They emerge out of two reviews, a Distance review tabled in July and an Organisational Capacity Review, tabled in August.

Good times.

Posted by steve at 10:54 AM

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

the pain and peril of living in exile: a theological film review of White Lies

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November, of New Zealand film, White Lies.

White Lies
“White Lies” has the same producer (John Barnett) and original writer (Witi Ihimaera) as the now celebrated New Zealand film “Whale Rider.” Yet “White Lies” offers a far darker exploration of New Zealand’s bi-cultural identity.

The era is early twentieth century and Maori medicine woman, Paraiti (Whirikamako Black) gathers native herbs and provides medical care for her people, scattered throughout Te Urewera wilderness.

On a rare trip to the city, she is furtively asked by Maori housekeeper, Maraea (Rebecca House), to help her wealthy mistress, Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble), keep a secret. Together, these three women generate the emotional heart of the movie, an interwoven pairing of life with death and death with life.

Initially, Paraiti refuses to help, chilled by the alien whiteness of the world in which Maraea and Rebecca live. Her mind is changed by subsequent events, a child birth gone wrong, during which Pakeha display a callous disdain for Maori patterns and practices. All of which is history, for in 1907 the New Zealand Government passed the Tohunga Suppression Act, which limited the services Maori could provide to their communities. For Paraiti, her actions will be an act of resistance, a way of restoring some justice.

This is an acting debut for well-known Maori singer, Whirikamako Black and she is superbly paired with Antonia Prebble, best known for her portrayal of Loretta West in TV drama, “Outrageous Fortune.”

Plaudits are also due to other New Zealand artists. The house in which Rebecca lives is a triumph for film designer, Tracey Collins, while the forests in which Paraiti gathers herbs and the room in which Rebecca gives birth, allow the well-honed atmospheric skills of Alun Bollinger to unfold in all their gloomy cinematographic glory.

Written and directed by Mexican born Dana Rotberg, “White Lies” significantly reworks Ihimaera’s novella, “Medicine Woman.” Maori carvers return to their work, reasoned Ihimaera, so why not writers? Despite the re-carving of words, the early scenes of the movie lack pace, failing to provide momentum the emotional centre deserves.

What unfolds in “White Lies” are three contrasting approaches to dominant Pakeha culture, each embodied in the three women: marginality in Paraiti, accommodation in Maraea, ultimate assimilation in Rebecca.

What is thought provoking is to then lay “White Lies” alongside the First Testament. Israel’s experience of exile offers another perspective on how minority communities activate resistance. We see marginality in the return of Nehemiah to a Jerusalem destroyed. We see accommodation in the book of Esther, her willingness to parlay her sexuality in exchange for influence. We see assimilation in Jeremiah’s injunction to build houses, plant gardens and take wives.

“White Lies” a century on offers little hope. Rebecca’s final decisions are chillingly bleak, while the forest gathering ways of Pariati are, in twentyfirst century New Zealand, long gone.

All that remains, as the movie tagline declares, is the reality that redemption comes at a price. Christians will ponder the crucial birthing scene, in which Rebecca hangs in a crucifix position, arms spread wide, supported by a watching woman, in the painful journey through which new life will eventually be won.

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

Posted by steve at 08:22 AM