Sunday, October 19, 2014

flipping good neighbours in community engagement

I was researching a community ministry this week, interviewing about a community garden planted on a rooftop, four stories high in inner-city Sydney. (It was part of my work on Urban gardens for the Urban Life together conference).

In telling the story of the community garden, the comment was made that in beginning the garden, they didn’t how to garden. As a result they reached out to local gardeners. Similarly, in establishing bee hives as part of the garden, they didn’t know how to keep bees. Again, they had to reach out to local book keepers.

It struck me as a fascinating approach to take to community development. Start with what you don’t know.

Later in the interview, I returned to tease this out further. “It sounds like your lack of knowledge was a gift. It involved the community to shape the environment.”

Absolutely was the animated reply. Start with what you don’t know and you ensure very different relationships with your community.

In Luke 10:5-8, Jesus instructs the disciples in mission.

‘When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. ‘When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.

What if Luke 10 is picking up on the same approach? Jesus sends the disciples with nothing (Luke 10:4), with no food for the night. When they approach the community, they approach with vulnerability, with a lack. In doing so, they invite a different set of relationships. Specifically, the person of peace, the one who opens the door, is being invited to become a good neighbour. The community is being invited to be generous, to be hospitable, to participate in partnership.

This is a risky strategy. It might not work, leaving the disciples hungry. Or it might come across as manipulative. (I think this is addressed by the offer of peace in verse 5 – see an earlier post on Sharing faith across cultures).

But it does totally flip the traditional understanding of being a good neighbour. What if the task of the church in mission is not to be a good neighbour? Rather what if it is to act in ways that enable our community to be good neighbours? What sort of relationships of mutuality and partnership might emerge?

It would be as practical as starting community ministry in the areas in which we lack some knowledge.

Posted by steve at 11:54 AM | Comments (8)

Monday, September 22, 2014

processing – projects, significations, institutions – Palestine

Today we drove from Bethlehem to Nazareth. The day began navigating military checkpoints in order to move from our hotel through the outskirts of Jerusalem and onto the motorway north. We spent time on the mount of transfiguration, visiting the Franciscan church. At Cana, souvenir museums offered us wine. In Nazareth, we visited churches erected over potential places of institution.

Monastic movements from Europe now camped on Holy land mountains, souvenirs targeting religious tourists, churches fighting turf wars – and a line from theologian Graham Ward has helped me discern a thread.

“There is then a twofold work for those projects involved in developing transformative practices of hope: the work of generating new imaginary significations and the work of forming institutions that mark such significations.” (Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, 2005, 146.)

It’s a tightly coiled quote. Three words help me make some sense – projects, significations, institutions.

Projects are the future. They are what we are working toward, the dreams we carry that are in the process of being grounded in lives, actions, communities. Significations are the visions, the zeal, the beliefs and values we hold dear and close. Institutions are the groups, constitutions, buildings, schools.

My experience of the Holy Land is of encountering institutions – the buildings, the tourism industry, the complex politics, the religions that fight for their pieces of turf. Each began as projects, a band of monks that arrived from Italy, an idea to make a living, a small community that planted a church. Each would point back to a signification – a set of visions, zeal, beliefs and values.

So what?
- Change involves attention to all three, to projects, significations and institutions.
- Institutions need to keep strong, clear, transparent links to their significations. Storytelling is a key here.
- Projects are the lifeblood of innovation. Wise institutions will keep funding them.
- Significations are deep and powerful. They can be life-giving. They can also be toxic. Practices of discernment are essential.

(For an application of Graham Ward to emerging church, go here).

Posted by steve at 02:14 AM

Sunday, August 31, 2014

mission then, mission now

I’ve just finished marking a set of assignments for my Mission, Evangelism and Apologetics intensive I taught in Sydney in July. I’m delighted with how the first assignment question worked.

Assignment:
Each student will, at the start of the class, be given a missionary. They will then use the Essential texts
for the course as a beginning point to find out more about their missionary. (These texts are Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today or Dewerse, R. (2013). Nga Kai-Rui i Te Rongopai: Seven Early Maori Christians. Rotorua: Te Hui Amorangi ki te Manawa o Te Wheke.)

The student will submit a biography (300 words) of the individual, a summary of how this person understood either evangelism or mission or apologetics (400 words), followed by a discussion of the implications of this understanding for either evangelism or mission or apologetics today (300 words).

Note: If students have other learning styles, they are welcome to submit this assignment verbally, by submitting a 10 minute podcast on a mailed USB stick or uploaded to a website and emailing the relevant URL to the lecturer. The lecturer will be assuming that at 100 words a minute, the spoken length of the podcast is similar to 1000 written words.

I set this type of assignment for a number of reasons.

Fist, stories have power. One way to enthuse and engage about mission is to tell stories. By asking students to do this assignment, I am introducing them to stories, that they might use. (Throughout the intensive, I offered a number of examples – Caroline Chisholm an Australian pioneer and Maori peace stories – to enthuse the class and model the assignment.)

Second, biography as theology. As James McClendon has argued (Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology), people’s lives embody doctrine. We see truth in actions. So this assignment was a way of doing biography as theology missiology.

Third, the common perception is that mission in the past has been all about colonisation. This assignment helps them realise that history does include tragedy, but it also includes some outstanding examples of servanthood that brought great benefit to indigenous cultures.

Fourth, it enabled mission to be placed as global, to place our talk about evangelism and apologetics alongside the stories of Maori in mission, pioneering in Japan, India and Europe. It allowed mission to be so much more than Euro-centric.

Posted by steve at 11:29 PM

Sunday, August 17, 2014

bowing to a buddhist monk: a meditation on the Syro-phonecian woman

Here is the sermon I preached this morning at Blackwood Churches of Christ. The lectionary text was Matthew 15:22-28, the story of Jesus encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. The reading helped me explore a set of circumstances a few weeks ago, in which I found myself bowing to a Buddhist monk. In other words, how do we encounter people of different beliefs and opinions?

……. (more…)

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wood school: imagine if this was church

At Wood School church we see curiosity as the foundation of learning. We aim to inspire curiosity with stories and activities that explore the woodland world and extend out into the world beyond.

We aim to foster confidence, creativity and problem solving skills in our children. We do this through a learning environment that is primarily outdoors.

We have an emphasis on play, child-led learning and fostering relationships.

Through these we aim to develop in our children all of us a strong sense of self, combined with an empathy and compassion for other people and the natural world.

We aim to develop life skills for sustainable living – helping develop in our children all of us the attitudes and skills we need in order to live in harmony with the environment and other people.

We have a focus on: responsibility; making a difference; conserving resources; growing food; crafts; cooking; making and laughing!

From Woods school in Manchester, England.

Posted by steve at 06:38 PM

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shed Church as fresh expressions of church

Phil Smith is planting a new form of community in Caloundra, Queensland. He’s also a journalist and learning with us at Uniting College through the possibilities around blended learning. For a unit this year on “Evangelism, Conversion and the Mission of God,” he created this excellent video about how Christians have engaged in the Men’s Shed movement across Australia.

I played this on Friday as I concluded my Mission intensive at United Theological College, Sydney. It was hot of the press, it was an Australian story, it brought together many of the themes of the course, it did great work linking Biblical narrative, in this case Luke 1:1-12.

What I found particularly intriguing was the work Phil did around what is church, at the very end.

Is shed Church? Or could it be church? Luke’s benchmark for church is followers gathered around Jesus and sent by him to express the Kingdom of God. If a shed is only men gathered around a bbq or a work bench, it doesnb’t measure up, as a fresh, stale or any other expression of church; if however some of these blokes are parts of Christ’s body, connecting with others, investing time and others to grow alongside them, if this is more about Incarnation than recreation … then we’ll see the transforming work of God. And that does look a lot like church.

Posted by steve at 06:43 PM

Friday, June 13, 2014

being a missionary church in the early church

In the gospels, Jesus is recorded as doing many miracles. What did those who were healed do after they had encountered Jesus? While some followed, many returned to their homes and lives. What did they do as a result of their Jesus encounter? Would that encounter translate into an ongoing set of practices and beliefs? How would that set of practices and beliefs mix and merge with the set of practices and belief that would become Christianity?

Sometimes, I try to imagine what might happen if two people who had experienced a miracle of Jesus ever met. What might trigger the storytelling which would suggest they had both experienced an encounter with Jesus? What resources would they use to assess each others practices and beliefs?

Let me provide a specific example. What might happen when the healed leper in Mark 1 met the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8?

John Wilson, in his book on the history of Caesarea Philippi, notes that in history, for some 300 hundred years after Jesus death, Caesarea Philippi was a city with a celebrated statue. Residents of the city understood it was a statue of Christ, erected by a woman whom the Lord had cured of a flow of blood. (Wilson, John F (2004) Banias: The Story of Caesarea Philippi, Lost City of Pan I.B.Tauris).

So imagine that the healed leper of Mark 1 – brought up God-fearer, monotheistic, no graven images, Jewish – sets out to share the story of his encounter with Jesus.

Goes on a missionary journey, enters Caesarea Philippi ready to preach the message. Spots a statue. Potential outrage (being a God-fearing, monotheistic, no graven images, Jew), turns to confusion as he recognises the hands of the statue are like the hands of the person that touched him.

Locates the statue owner, a woman. She has shared her experience of God’s touch with people, who now gather weekly around this statue to share stories of being touched by God.

How do these two people, very different, begin to realise they are part of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? If the group in Caesarea Philippi have developed a different set of practices and beliefs than the group of mobile missionaries, how will convergence begin to happen? Who gets to decide what is out of bounds church and what is not?

Posted by steve at 10:30 AM

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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

a Catholic take on mission today

I spent Saturday among folk from the Catholic ArchDiocese of Adelaide, speaking for about 90 minutes at the Orientation day for Ministry Formation Programme. It is the 3rd time I’ve spoken to Catholic groups, in this case lay leaders for church ministry, since I’ve been in Adelaide. It was not something I expected when I arrived, but a real privilege.

I was asked to offer something in relation to mission and ministry today. After some internal to-ing and fro-ing, I decided to repeat my Getting on the Mission presentation which I did a number of times at Refresh, around South Australia in 2012, plus in Melbourne with Manningham Uniting.

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.

What was intriguing for me was first, their responses to the “detox” question and second the engagement around fresh expressions (part of Crossing the ditch).

The “detox” question comes at the beginning, when I ask people to name the words that come to mind when they hear the word mission. Normally these are overwhelmingly negative. This group were no exception. Intriguing was how similar the conversation was to Protestant groups – linked with Stolen Generations, Billy Graham Crusades, lay-clergy divides, overseas, fire and brimstone.

It both saddens and intrigues me how raw and unprocessed is church responses to mission, when the discipline of missiology has so much to offer. Part of me thinks its a natural consequence of Colleges not employing missiologists. It means that our Biblical and theological thinking within our communities is being refreshed, but we remain stuck with antiquated attitudes toward mission.

Second, in preparation, reading contemporary Catholic debate around mission, revealed some interesting conversation around the theme of new evangelization. Here is Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Louisville, speaking at Conference on new evangelization, Mexico 2013

We need a new order, new expression and new methods.

Posted by steve at 01:31 PM

Saturday, December 21, 2013

An excellent writing week

I’ve had an excellent writing week, holed up in our shack/bach, no wireless, a flock of black swans for company and inspiration.

I’ve got my head back into the emerging 10 years on research project, which I’ve not been able to engage since Dad died. I’ve written three frames for analysing various aspects of the data. I’ve now got four almost complete chapters, with good work on another three. I’ve now written 40,000 words in relation to the 20 UK interviews.

Key moments this week included

  • Finding a way to link the local stories with the recent World Council of Churches statement on mission and evangelism
  • Finding five layers of church in Philippians
  • Framing the local stories around images of God, patterns of growth, understandings of mission
  • Realising again how rich the data set is
  • Loving the humanity of each fresh expression story – like the moment when one community moved the photo of Rowan Williams to make way for their data projector screen!

It feels like a book.

Posted by steve at 02:17 PM

Sunday, November 03, 2013

the changing landscape of agencies and mission

David Bosch is one of the worlds finest thinkers on mission. His Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission is a remarkable book, surveying 2000 years of mission. The book is divided into five paradigms. Bosch borrows here from Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory

  • Primitive Christianity
  • Patristic Period;
  • Reformation;
  • Enlightenment;
  • and Ecumenical (or postmodern)

Bosch argues that as a paradigm changed, mission changed. In changing times, the mission of the church took different shape. His argument is strengthened by the research he does, asking what Scriptures were being quoted in these paradigms to motivate mission. He argues that each paradigm was shaped by a different dominant Biblical text.

  • Primitive Christianity – the letters of the New Testament
  • Patristic Period – John 3:16 in the patristic Period; the love of God, seen in the sending of Jesus, is extended by God’s messengers
  • Reformation – a shift from Luke 14:23 in the Middle Ages; compel them to come in! to Romans 1:16; God’s rightliving means grace and mercy, not punishment
  • Enlightenment -the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)

With regard to the ecumenical/postmodern, Bosch suggests the immense challenges of our contemporary world are signs of a transition into a new period. This has huge implications for churches thinking about mission today. There is widespread agreement that culturally we are going through another paradigm shift. The world of today is vastly different from the world of 40 years ago. So any discussion of church and mission today needs to keep stepping back, keep watching the paradigms.

Stanley Skreslet (Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology and Picturing Christian Witness: New Testament Images of Disciples in Mission). He notes how not only the motivations (the Scriptures used), have changed, but so also have the forms of mission. So, pushing Skreslet into the paradigms of Bosch, we get something like this

  • Primitive Christianity – the radical communal compassionate care for the sick
  • Patristic Period – the monastery
  • Reformation – religious orders
  • Enlightenment – the voluntary society, based on the shareholder model, by which lay people became voluntary participants. And the institution, the large scale constructing of schools and hospitals, which offered care and cure.

Which of course, raises the question, what might be the modes for the ecumenical/postmodern period. Skreslet argues for the NGO – the Non-government organisation. He cites examples like Greenpeace and Amnesty International. These offer a physical presence, based on a extensive networks and clear, instant lines of communication. These NGO’s harness public opinion, building pressure to bring about change. They thus offer a very different model for mission.

Over the last few days, I’ve been part of debates about the changing landscape of agencies and mission. All the time, I kept wondering if these debates are part of the same worldwide questions about the forms of mission into a new ecumenical/postmodern paradigm. Bosch writes:

“The transition from one paradigm to another is not abrupt … This produces a kind of theological schizophrenia, which we just have to put up with while at the same time groping our way toward greater clarity … The point is simply that  the Christian church in general and the Christian mission in particular are today confronted with issues they have never even dreamt of and which are crying out for responses that are both relevant to the times and in harmony with the essence of the Christian faith …. The point I am making is simply that, quite literally, we live in a world fundamentally different … The contemporary world challenges us to practice a “transformational hermeneutics”, a theological response which transforms us first before we involve ourselves in mission to the world.”  (Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 188, 189.)

What will it look like to see the shape of the church and mission formed by NGO models? To prioritise smaller bodies, with a premium put on their ability to be nimble, to cultivate networks and communication? Skreslet notes a number of advantages of the NGO paradigm: “a new model of mission would also have its own distinctive organizational structure” (“Networking, Civil Society and the NGO: A New Model for Ecumenical Mission,” Missiology 25 (1997): 307-319, p. 310). These can apply globally, to international mission. They can also apply locally, to how a local church might operate in their community. Networking as a mode of action contrasts with the worst parts of colonial mission. It encourages behaviours that are flexible, egalitarian and wholistic in orientation. They allow multiple partnerships, at local, regional, national, global levels.

Posted by steve at 04:43 PM

Thursday, June 13, 2013

missional readings of Scripture: widow of Zarephath

The missional conversation expects us to read the Bible with missional eyes. That means we pay attention to the edges. We read texts asking – who are the marginal people, what are the marginal places? That then allows us to focus on encounters – the interactions between edges and centres, outsiders and insiders, powerless and powerful.

Take for example, 1 Kings 17, the story of the encounter of the widow of Zarephath with Elijah.

There is a geographic edge. As a consequence of the drought, Elijah heads to Sidon: 1 Kings 17:7-8: “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. 8 Then the word of the LORD came to [Elijah]: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there.”

Sidon is a town mentioned in the previous chapter: 1 Kings 16:30: “Ahab …. married Jezebel daughter of [the] king of [Sidonians] and began to serve Baal and worship him.” So Elijah, God’s agent, heads to Sidon. To the place where Jezebel, the Kings wife was born, to the place where Baal worship is strong and thriving. This is a fascinating response to encountering a diverse belief system. You go to it.

Second, the people on the edge. Elijah finds a woman gathering sticks. To quote from a Bible commentary: There were many widows in [Elijah’s] Isreal and the surrounding areas because of war and famine. Traditional family and village systems of support for widows had broken down since the king … had started buying up the land and corrupting village leaders. Prices for oil were high because they were chief export crops. This widow could not afford them anymore.

They talk in the news media about needing to find the human interest story. Well here in 1 Kings is the human interest story. YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, has a human interest in widows.

Third, the interaction. Having gone to the edge, in place and person, we can now consider this story from the viewpoint of the widow. From this perspective, she is a most extraordinary example of hospitality and faith. She offers her last to a stranger. She says yes to a prophet, no matter how illogical. This is discovered in the “Baal” worshipping town. A redeeming God will always be found in the places the centre considers unlikely!

Finally, this text offers an insight regarding community empowerment. I am fascinated by the way that Elijah doesn’t give her a handout. Instead he empowers her. Invites her to simply give what she’s got. One book noted that “The key [to 1 Kings 17] is that [Elijah] does not do the miracle for [the widow] [Instead he] enables her to do it for herself.” Here’s a way to work with the poor, in ways that do not leave them victims, but invited to use what they have got – the twigs they can collect, their flour and oil.

This is a missional reading. The people of God are encouraged to journey to the places complicit with economic oppression. In this places, they are to concentrate of human interest. They are invited to look for God’s prior activity in those places, to seek those who already have the capacity for extraordinary faith.

Posted by steve at 09:01 AM

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ageist mission?

On Friday, I ducked away to a seaside cafe to do some writing (another 1,000 words on the Sustainability and mission project).

As I took a break, I looked at those around me in the cafe. At one table was a grandmother, struggling with two lively pre-schoolers. At another was a group of friends, grey-haired, sharing travel plans. At yet another was a similar group, obviously regular weekly gatherings.

The day prior, I’d been part of a presentation of NCLS data on the Uniting Church in South Australia. The average age is 62. That Friday morning, I’d found parking at this seaside suburb outside a local Uniting Church. It is a church I’ve been a few times, to find myself surrounded by a good number of elderly folk.

Cause for concern?

Not if you consider the demography of those surrounding me in the cafe. Surely a denomination of retirees is superbly placed to incarnate the Gospel among grandmother struggling to babysit, retirees planning a worthwhile future and searching for relationships.

Fresh expressions can, frankly be ageist. It can assume that the new, young, hip are the future. Well, the young and hip will struggle to meet those seated around me on Friday.

It reminds me of the claim by Mark Lau-Branson, that Pentecost is for the geriatric.

Posted by steve at 10:04 PM

Friday, May 31, 2013

model missionaries: Centurion in Luke 7

During team devotions yesterday, we explored the lectionary reading for the week – Luke 7:1-10.

The Bible text is placed in an envelope and before we read it, we try and piece together what we can recall. This engages us a group. It builds curiousity. It provokes questions.

Then we read it aloud together and ask each other: What surprised us? This often exposes our blindspots, makes us aware of the bits we have historically skipped over.

Finally we ask each other: What might this text mean for us as a College? What might this text mean for us, individually?

Yesterday, the discussion wandered into the cultural layers at work in this text. And then how different cultures have different attitudes to authority. Which led us to wonder if the centurion was a model cross-cultural missionary. He loves where he is planted (v.5). He has obviously built strong relationships (v. 3). He has partnered in community building (v.5). He knows how the culture works (v.6).

A centurion, a Gentile, as an example of mission! A lovely challenge for us to ponder, as we as a College think about what it means to train disciples in mission.

Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, visual images on themes of pilgrimage). For more resources go here.

Posted by steve at 01:02 PM