Thursday, July 17, 2014

‘Urban Life Together’ Conference

A great initiative in Melbourne, with a call for papers for an ‘Urban Life Together’ Conference, 17-18 October, 2014. It hopes to bring together Christian activists, thinkers, leaders and practitioners to interact around urban mission.

Input is invited from practitioners, leaders, activists, researchers and students to explore themes or relate issues or case studies. Either a 30 minute paper, or a 10 minute presentation. I’m keen to encourage this, so in a somewhat playful mode, have offered two presentations.

Presentation one – Fresh or failed? Sustainable practices in new forms of church

Perhaps, the biggest challenge is not starting but sustaining for new forms of church. This presentation will tell the story of new forms of church ten years on, based on longitudinal research in Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom.

It will identify three sustainable practices – ember theology, shifting from key leaders to key values and building catholicity. Biblically, it will dialogue with Epaphroditus and the Philippian church, outlining five layers of sustainability. Finally, it will consider the impact of climate change, first sociological, in recent sociology of religion trends and second denominational, in the advent of Fresh Expressions as a movement.

Presentation two – Gardening with Soul

This presentation will explore two movies to suggest insights for urban mission.

Gardening with Soul (2013) tells the story of New Zealander Gardener of the Year, Loyola Galvin, honoured for her work in turning the lawn of Our Ladies of Compassion, Wellington, into Common Ground, a community garden for local apartment dwellers. Grow your Own (2007) explores the impact of Asian migrants on a well-established British allotment.

Together, these movies offer insights into urban mission, including the priority of place, soil as sacrament and the stranger’s gift. These insights will be tested against the reality of inner-city Australian community gardens in central Adelaide and Kings Cross, Sydney.

Posted by steve at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska: a brief book review

Holiday reading began with Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain. Set in Papua New Guinea, it follows a set of characters first in the lead up to independence and second, in the twentyfirst century.

Modjeska is known for weaving fact with fiction and this beautifully written reflection is not exception. The Mountain emerges from her own story, a period of time in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s and a recent return to develop an art-collective. It circles stories within stories, applying the eye of an artist to the complexity of interactions across times and cultures.

The mountain, from which the book is named, is an isolated site of undiscovered beauty. It becomes known to us first through the gaze of the anthropologists, as English-born Leonard and his wife, Dutch-born Rika visit. Second to post-colonial scrutiny, as Jericho, caught between cultures returns to find himself.

In between these personal journeys swirl a rich ripple of contemporary issues, including environmental battles, the impact of development and the search for identity.

As I read, I became aware of theological undercurrents. Whether intentional or not, the book offers a number of intriguing insights into the Christian understanding of Incarnation. Christianity claims the Word made flesh and this gains particular resonance in The Mountain, as the gift of a child becomes redemptive both for individuals and for a tribe, as it seeks to navigate between ways old and new.

The ancestors give us Leonard. We give you to Leonard. And now you return. Ancestor gift. The child who left us, who we called Jericho, has returned, the man who can make a great noise, blow down the walls. Jericho, the name from the ancestor story of Leonard.

This makes The Mountain both fun and an illuminating insight into the complexity of crossing cultures.

Posted by steve at 09:34 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jesus and the religions

I’m teaching Theology of Jesus in Semester 2, both weekly in Adelaide and by intensive at New Life Uniting Church, on the Gold Coast, in November. Plus I am teaching on Mission as an intensive in Sydney in July.

So today I was doing some preparation, which included reading Bob Robinson, Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World.  It is a brilliant conceived book. It asks how Christians should approach other faiths by exploring how Jesus engaged other faiths.

It begins with three Gospel stories – Jesus and the Roman Centurion, Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Doing theology, bringing together themes from the three encounters it argues that their are implications for how contemporary people engage plurality.

  • Be open to surprise, in the same way Jesus was surprised by the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian  and the Samaritan woman.
  • Affirm what surprises you, again in the same way Jesus affirmed the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian  and the Samaritan woman.
  • In particular, look for faith and humility. This includes the role not only of faith, but of the content of that faith. In all three examples, their “faith appears to include more than heart-felt hope or desperate concern.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 116).  And so by implication, “Might examples of faith, humility, and insight, wherever they are found in the contemporary world, be affirmed by disciples today – even when they contrast less than favorable with their own.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 117-8).
  • The exclusion of vengeance. For example, Jesus response to the Roman Centurion is a moment of love of enemy. Moving to other Gospel stories, one might note the rain falls on the just and the unjust, or the banquet parables which include, rather than exclude.

What is even more intriguing is an initial chapter in which Christ becomes an exegete.  The focus is Luke 4:16-30, and how Jesus engages Scripture. Robinson concludes that there are fresh readings, new performances of Scripture as Biblical texts are encountered in the power of the Spirit.  This opens up an exemplary Christology, in which the church reads for direction in how to live its life of witness in the world.

All of which makes for a rich teaching resource.

Posted by steve at 09:23 PM

Monday, March 24, 2014

Please, tend the green zones

I was asked to be the opening, after dinner speaker at the National Presbytery Ministers conference here in South Australia. With folk arriving from all over the country, tired, carrying heavy workloads, it was a difficult assignment. I decided to offer two stories.

My first story was my experience of an Adelaide Fringe Festival show, Henry Lawson goes to Princeton. I built on my blog review and after further conversation with the artist – Ian Coats, suggested that the show was a God at the fringe moment, a rich example 21st century mission – how will we live, told contextually, told publicly, with an invitation to consider God.

I also told a 2nd story. Since Presbytery ministers have significant church leadership responsibility, I told them about my research into Rowan Williams and how he provided leadership, first as Bishop, second as Archbishop, in Fresh Expressions. Based on my research (hauling out a draft chapter from the book project), I suggested that Rowan had

  • a clear theology – grounded in the life of the church;
  • intentional practices – to spend time on the fringe
  • a change strategy – tell stories of how the green zone changes him.

In between I offered Al Roxburgh lifecycles of an organisation as a frame by which to reflect on the two stories.

The Three Zone Model … visualizes the organizational cultures congregations and denominations form at various periods in their lives. It represents a dynamic of continuous change in organizational culture relative to the external environment. Church systems living in the discontinuous change now characterize Western societies will be continually shifting through these zones

After two stories and one frame, I made one request: Please, as leaders, tend the green zones.

So much of the life in Uniting Church congregations is red. So much of our Synod whole church life is blue. Please don’t get stuck there. Please go looking for the green. Please bring those stories, in my case Henry Lawson at the Adelaide Fringe, into conversation with the centre.

Posted by steve at 10:45 AM

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

a tale of two churches

I was teaching on church today in my Introduction to Christian Thought class. I have been thinking a lot recently about the vision of church and the reality of church. So I pulled together a tale of two churches. I took the vision, the ideal, four Biblical images of church as explored in Paul Minear, Images of Church in New Testament. That is one tale of church.

I laid that alongside a second tale of church, the reality, the who is the church, the how did the church act, as explored in Kirsteen Kim’s survey of the church in global history, in Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission

It generated some excellent connections, as we realised how much church changes over time and space, and how that frees us to think about fresh expressions of church today.

Posted by steve at 09:47 PM

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

resourcing mission as fresh expressions

Here is a list of some of the resources I used at Offspring, the inaugural New Zealand Presbyterian gathering around new missional ventures. The gathering over the weekend included four stories, of new missional ventures by New Zealand Presbyterian churches. I was asked to resource the conversation. I chose to do this by telling stories of mission in other times and places, and inviting participants into processes by which they could make links between what was happening in these local mission stories and ways mission has occurred in other times and places. I told stories from the UK (my recent research into fresh expressions 10 years on) and then from global mission history.

My hunch was that stories are a great way of making missiology accessible. And by offering missiology as story it might dignify and frame the local stories being told.  But in case folk think storytelling is not “theological” or “well-researched,” here are some of the behind the scenes resources I drew on.

  • The definition of mission

the effort to effect passage across the boundary between faith in Christ and absence

was from the introduction in Stanley Skreslet, Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology

  • The Tarore story as an expression of missio Dei in New Zealand mission was from Rosemary Dewerse, Nga Kai-rui i te Rongopai: Seven Early Maori Christians, published by Te Hui Amorangi Ki Te Manawa O Te Wheke, Rotorua, 2013.
  • One way to explore the place of the ancient and historic in fresh expressions is the Sanctus: fresh expressions of church in the sacramental tradition DVD (from here).

I’m hoping to find some time to write up my reflections on the mission themes I saw emerging in these four stories of innovation in mission and New Zealand and the parallels I saw them and between Luke 10:1-12.  But first, the day job!

Posted by steve at 10:08 PM

Friday, May 03, 2013

Festival spirituality stories: Spin and Fibre Festival

I’m starting a research project, wanting to collect stories of Festival spirituality. It is an extension of a brief idea I sketched in my The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (emergentYS) and which I recently developed further.

Festival spirituality (working definition): an occasional period of community gathering for celebration, in which Christians intentionally participate, seeking to make the shalom of God more visible.

This Festival spirituality story – Spin and Fibre Festival comes from Frontier News, May 2013, 8-10. It relates to the 35th Bothwell International Highland Spin In and Fibre Festival, a biennial event held in Tasmania and comes from an interview with Rev Meg Evans, Patrol Minister, Midlands, Tasmania.

Held every two years, Meg is the unofficial chaplain for the festival, which was started by a group of Uniting Church women who were spinning wool to raise funds to restore the church tower. Bothwell is one of the smaller communities in the Patrol located in the Central Highlands, 70 km northwest of Hobart. It has a long history in Merino wool production and the festival remains a huge event for both local and international visitors showcasing crafts and skills associated with superfine wool.

“On the Friday, we shear a sheep for the fleece, and then we hold a ‘Blessing of the Fleece.’ The wool is given out to people to spin during the weekend. On the Sunday I hold a service in the school gym, surrounded by all this wonderful creativity. It is just a great community celebration.”

“People come and tell me how much they enjoy it. I think the fact that the Church is there speaks to people.”

Some interesting things to note

  • gift – the involvement of the church begins with “Blessing”. This suggests a thankfulness. What is blessed (the Fleece) is then given away to participants
  • risk – This clearly involves risk, that the gift might not be “unwrapped,” might not be utilised. Or it might be “wrapped” in a way contrary to the values of the giver.
  • theology of creation – the connection to wool, as the product of local industry, as the lifeblood of what this community, this land, produces. A celebration both of the gift of wool, but also of the creative gifts that surround wool – “crafts and skills associated with superfine wool.”
  • being church as spun (interwoven) presence, first in being close enough to the land to be aan initiating participant, second in being a worshipping presence through the festival, both from the initial blessing through to the service, third in the theology of Meg, “the fact that the Church is there speaks to people.” The church began this event, but was willing to give it away. The church is willing to be one of many participants, many strands, in the fibre of this event. It does not need to own it nor control it.

So this Festival spirituality is mission as chaplain, celebrating creation, with particular attention to presence, participation, gift and risk.

Questions for discussion

  1. I wonder what things might be worth celebrating in your community – what gifts of “creation” and “creativity” you could bless?
  2. I wonder how you might take risks and invite people to participate in these gifts?
  3. What might an authentic presence look like? Think about this both from your perspective as a church and from the perspective of visitors and locals.
Posted by steve at 11:08 AM

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Festival spirituality, mission and ministry

I’m speaking tomorrow at the National Uniting Church Rural Ministry Conference, at Barmera, which is about 3 hours drive north of Adelaide, in the Riverlands.

My topic is festival spirituality. It’s a significant development of some ideas I sketched in my The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change. I will begin by looking at Old Testament patterns of gathering and how it relates to worship, mission, community and interconnection. I will then do a drive by of a number of articles from Rural Theology, contemporary research on belonging and participation, along with research into current festival patterns in the UK.

Here’s my conclusion.

I have wanted to engage with two problems. First, the perception of Christianity as urban, a move which can downplay the vitality of rural ministry. Second, the perception of church as building, geographic and Vicar led.

I have deployed the Old Testament to suggest different modes of gathering, around sacred sites, on pilgrimage, in festivals, around tables. I would suggest these are more congruent with the needs of rural folk, in current patterns of belonging, in ways of participation and the existence already of festivals.

Finally, two examples have been provided, which show current examples of rural churches embracing these new/old forms. My suggestion is that these patterns are more likely to be life-giving for a rural church. Rather than a weekly habit, they provide ways to participate in the rhythm of a community, to embrace sense of place and to offer spirituality for the road trips so integral to rural life.

It should be a fun day.

Posted by steve at 09:37 PM

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comprehending mission – chapter 4 – Theology mission, culture

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology is a wonderful gift. It provides an overview of recent trends in missiology, allowing a person and an institution to locate their questions, their research, their reading in light of other thinkers.

Chapter one, on the who and why of the study of mission, is here. Chapter two, on trends in the Bible in regard to mission, is here. Chapter three part a looked at mission history, the evolution through time, the shifting resources that shaped how the church understood itself. Chapter three part b, on the history of mission today is here.

Chapter four – Theology, Mission, Culture

“Within the realm of missiology, culture becomes a primary conversation partner.” (69)

This includes communication across cultures, agencies of social change, the complex formation of innovation and new contextual projects. (This makes so much sense of my interests and why I find myself reading from change management to social innovation, to indigenous and popular culture.)

The chapter begins with theology, in particular current research on salvation and ecclesiology. This includes the shift to see mission as an aspect of God rather than as a function of the church. It also includes the recent search for a more developed pneumatology, the place of the Spirit of God.

A second section explores the growing importance of social sciences (again this makes sense of my methods, using ethnography and interviews, plus my interest in the ecclesiology and ethnography project). Mission played an active role in the development of ethnography and anthropology. The 1910 World Missionary Conference pleaded that sociology be included as one of five necessary subjects for all candidates in mission training. (It certainly is at Uniting College, where we teach Reading cultures/Sociology for ministry, as a core introductory topic).

“Not fully appreciated, perhaps, is the way in which sustained research on culture has served to keep missiology closely connected to everyday life, which lessens the risk that its theological concerns will be treated only in the abstract.” (95)

A third section explores gospel and culture, the quite deliberate participation in both arenas at the same time. “The doctrine of the incarnation has also been taken as an invitation to think deeply about human culture as the particular sphere within which Christian outreach necessarily takes place.” (86) There is a rich coverage of the development of research in contextualisation and intercultural theology.

“Writing about fifteen years ago, Lamin Sanneh perceived that Western theology was just about the last discipline in the modern university to show serious interest in missionary experience.” (94)

However, in recent years, writings from Timothy Gorringe Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, Max Stackhouse Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization, and Mission in Theological Education and Kevin Vanhoozer To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge, have drawn on missiological research.

Posted by steve at 06:08 PM

Monday, February 04, 2013

Sustainability in mission

Sustainability in mission is not about preservation, whether of mission, pioneer or denomination.

This is certainly so if you consider the use of the word “sustainability” in other disciplines. In Ken Greenberg’s Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder he defines the term in relation to development. The term was popularised in 1983, by a United Nations body concerned about the environment. The commission asked all nations to establish sustainable development approaches. The invitation was “to take a completely new view of damaging practices we have developed.” What is needed is a “fresh vocabulary that is about synthesis and overlap. And conservation – using less in the first place, not consumption and planned obsolence.”

So when one begins to consider sustainability and fresh expressions, the focus must be on damaging practices. And the lens must fall on the entire system: denominations, training colleges, leadership both denominational, local and lay, church gatherings and the people of God in mission. The aim must be a fresh vocabulary and the seeking of synthesis.

This was brought home to me the first time I visited the mouth of the Murray River (see here and here, with some practical followup here and here):

Suddenly our guide bent down and started digging. In a few minutes, he offered us fresh water. In the middle of these desolate sand dunes, there was water. A bit further on, he showed us the piles of cockles, and the eating place of the Ngarrindjeri people, who have been the traditional custodians of these sand dunes for over 6,000 years.

I stood there astounded. Put me in that place, amid those barren sand dunes and I would die. Yet other humans have learnt to live within this environment.

I pondered the implications for spirituality.

It led to the change in my blog – to sustain-if-able – and to this study, of new forms of church ten years on.

Posted by steve at 12:25 AM

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

mission as the great learning experience of Western Christianity

Following on from my mission as a “converting” ordinance, here is related wisdom from one of the finest missiologists the world has seen, Andrew Walls. Saying the same thing, as mission as a “converting” ordinance, just applied to the whole of Christianity!

The missionary movement was the great learning experience of Western Christianity. By its very nature it brought the Christian faith, when it had become thoroughly accommodated to the life and thought of the West and the conceptual categories of western Europe, into massive interaction with totally different styles of life and thought. (Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, 238)

This is what is happening (or needs to happen) with Fresh and emerging expressions of church. It is bringing of missionary learnings, that are distant, over their, far away, into our suburbs, networks and homes.

Posted by steve at 08:40 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

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