Monday, March 21, 2016

Rejuvenation in the Church: some theological notes (Candour repost)

(This is a piece I was asked to write for Candour, a blog for Presbyterian Church leaders, in January this year. )

Much of my thinking about a theology of rejuvenation was shaped during the early days of a difficult change process. I was working with a traditional church experiencing steady decline. Expecting resistance, I referred often in my sermons to the numerical decline of the last few decades. After a few months, an older gentleman commented quietly, “It wasn’t all bad you know.”

The comment got me thinking. Were my references to decline working against our shared desire for rejuvenation? I found myself reflecting on the change images used by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus begins his ministry by declaring himself an agent of transformation, anointed by God to initiate shalom. [Luke 4:18-19] He describes his ministry using images of mustard seeds, yeast and grains of wheat. [Matthew 13; specifically 31-32; 33; 45-46; John 12:24] He commissions the church – as the Father sent me, so I sent you – as an agent of rejuvenation, to partner with the shalom of Jesus. [John 20:21]

Challenged, I threw away my graphs of decline. Instead, I gave out sunflower seeds. Creation grows and changes. Humans grow and change. I found myself tapping into what I now understand as a Trinitarian theology of rejuvenation.

As Christians we understand God relates to us in relationships: to create, reconcile and make all things new. Let me apply this pattern to rejuvenation.

In Genesis 2, God is pictured as creating a garden. The words used to describe the activities of God include

Maker,

Former of people,

Breather of life,

Planter,

Pleasant to look at.

Into God’s garden, humans are placed, to work and care. [Genesis 2:15] Rejuvenation begins when we recognise ourselves as gardeners with God, creating environments of visual pleasure and practical nurture.

On Easter morning, the first encounters with the Resurrected Jesus are in a garden. A body is transformed, hope is updated, all of creation is reconciled. [Colossians 1:20] At the same time resurrection challenges a theology of rejuvenation. We see this clearly in John 12:24. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In Christ, rejuvenation is only entered through death.

Revelation ends in the garden. “Behold, I am making all things new,” is a song of rejuvenation. The verbs of Revelation 21:5, when placed alongside the list of verbs in Genesis 2, give a sense of the Revelation garden completing the Genesis garden.

Maker -> Making

Former of people -> All things new

Breather of life -> Healing

Pleasant to look at -> No curse

The harmonies begun with Creator God, heard in Re-creator God in Resurrection, are completed in the Revelation making of all things new. The trees are for rejuvenation, the “healing of the nations.” [Rev 22:2]

This provides a theological and relational pattern for rejuvenation. It is one based on the three persons of the Trinity. Another pattern is present in the processions of God in mission. In the Creeds, the Church declares both “God from God, Light from Light” and the Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is how God rejuvenates, in the mission of the Son in the incarnation and the inspiration of the Spirit who draws creation together in grace. This pattern allows us to discern what it means to participate in God’s rejuvenation, whether inside or outside the church. [I am summarising the work of Paul Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context]

Let me end by returning to the story I began with. Three months after I gave out sunflowers, I was shown a photo, of the older gentleman’s grandson, standing dwarfed by a sunflower, planted from one of those seeds. Such is the power and potential of a theology of rejuvenation. For the church, it means that

  • Rejuvenation has a theology when it finds itself within this arc of creation, redemption and the making of all things new.
  • Rejuvenation has a shape, as it expresses the patterns of the mission of God in Incarnation and Integration.
  • The rejuvenation of the church is a subset of God’s work in creation. The Genesis garden is for humanity, God loves the world redemptively in Jesus, Revelation is for the healing of the nations.
  • God is the active agent, initiating and sustaining rejuvenation.

This was the good news my church needed to hear, not my bad tidings of great decline.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. This article is developed more extensively in his forthcoming Built for Change: Innovation and Collaboration in leadership (Australia: Mediacom).

Posted by steve at 08:58 AM

Friday, August 28, 2015

missional theology of sacraments and the church

Thesis 1 – The sacraments are about the Spirit, not the church. This initial move establishes God as the rightful author and agent of sacramental theology.

Thesis 2 – The Spirit can fall on who and whatever it wants. This is consistent with the Biblical data, in which God keeps surprising. We see this in the ministry of Jesus, most particularly the encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. Interestingly, this has links with sacramental theology, in the reference to crumbs from the table. We see this also in Peter’s encounter in Acts. Again, I note that this also has links with sacramental theology, in the invitation to eat.

Thesis 3 – The role of the church is thus not to define sacramentality, but to discern sacramentality. The church remains essential to a sacramental theology, not as a definer and defender of boundaries, but as an ongoing discerner. David Ford, in Self and Salvation: Being Transformed notes that the Eucharist is “true to itself only by becoming freshly embodied in different contexts.” This is a way of understanding “rightly ordered”, as an invitation to authentic embodiment.

Thesis 4 – This requires a rich and complex set of tools. We see this move (struggle even) toward discernment, in both the narratives mentioned above, as Jesus affirms the great faith of the Syro-phonecian woman and Peter discerns freshly the work of God. Both of this moves require a process of reflection – in community, by grace, with coherence to the interweaving of experience and tradition. The role of missional theological education necessitates developing skills in these processes. It is this that will enable sacramental practice to emerge from those gathered in community gardens, around skate parks and amid the tables of messy church. The result will be that indeed, in bread, wine and water, Christ will feed the church.

Posted by steve at 10:18 AM

Sunday, May 03, 2015

research memo: How to evaluate mission? Using processions of mission in Preamble

Research memos describe what is being processed during a research project. They allow you to describe the research process and what may be emerging in the data. They can be written during and after research. They can be a few paragraphs or a few pages. Here is a research memo in relation to tomorrows’ presentation:

The Trinity as two processions in mission: a post-colonial proposal for evaluating ecclesial life
Monday, 4 May, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology Research hour, 4-5 pm

As I begin to analyse my data, the question of evaluation emerges. Simple measures for evaluation are numeric and financial. Do these communities grow? Do they survive? How are they sustained financially? I find these problematic. First, they don’t account for the richness of my data. Second, my methods are qualitative and numbers are quantitative. Third, the standards of numbers applied to fresh expressions are not consistent with those applied to inherited churches.

So I am looking for more explicitly theological measures. I wonder if a Trinitarian mode might help. First I consider God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. This is promising. I can argue that my data shows a high degree of creativity and a high degree of faith sustaining, but less of an overt redemption. However when I read my widely, I note a wider theological unease with God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. It runs the risk of turning God into a doing, not a being; of cleaving the immanent Trinity from the economic.

Then, by a process of curiousity, I discover the work of Bernard Lonergan, Neil Ormerod and Robert Doran in regard to the processions of mission. I read over eight journal articles and two books. This is most promising and a framework develops, by which I can assess my data. It would allow quantitative measures to be held with a qualitative frame. It unites the immanent Trinity with the economic Trinity.

However, I remain aware that I am reading men, from a Catholic and Western tradition. Thus there is an (inevitable) particularity about where they are doing theology from. I continue to ponder this. Is there any work done on the processions of mission from a post-colonial perspective?

Not that I can find. However, I can still work from first principles and primary data. The source closest to hand is the Uniting Church Preamble. While on Walking on Country, among indigenous people, I read again the Preamble. This is a most promising direction. There are indeed two processions of mission in the Preamble. However they yield quite a different framework by which to consider my data.

At this point, I remain undecided about whether to try and synthesis the two frames (Lonergan et al and the Preamble), or to keep them distinct. I suspect a way to progress my thinking might actually perhaps lie in my data. Thus my next task is to see what emerges from my data when these two frames are applied. But as it stands, I certainly have enough to present in my paper tomorrow.

Posted by steve at 09:22 PM

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The complexity of authenticity in religious innovation: “alternative worship” and its appropriation as “Fresh expressions”

Yes, yes, yes.

I was delighted with the news today that my journal article The complexity of authenticity in religious innovation: “alternative worship” and its appropriation as “Fresh expressions” has been accepted for publication in mcjournal, an online peer-reviewed journal of Media and Culture. It will be published in late March, 2015, as part of an edition devoted to the theme of authenticity.

There were some lovely comments from the reviewers – “good quality … insightful points … well-researched … the analysis is innovative … an original use of Charles Taylor’s concept of the ethic of authenticity combined with Vanini’s parsing of the word.”

Here’s the abstract for my article:

Philip Vanini’s theorising of authenticity as original and sincere helps parse the complexity of contemporary religious innovation.

Ethnographic research into new expressions of church (“alternative worship”) showed that authenticity was a generative word, a discourse deployed in these communities to justify innovation. Sarah Thornton’s research (Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital) into club cultures similarly demonstrated an entwining of marginal self-location with a privileging of authenticity.

Such acts of self-location, so essential for innovation and identity, were complexified when appropriated by the mainstream (“Fresh expressions” of church). The generative energy therein became focused not around originality but in maintaining the sincerities of existing institutional life.

This article began life as part of a foray I did late last year, taking my research on sustainability and fresh expressions into a sociology context. I had been reading in sociology of religion and so wanted to get some feedback from that particular discipline in terms of how I was utilising their categories in my research.

So I presented two conference papers, this one on the complexity of innovation, and a second one on the sociological parsing of fresh expressions. I was very encouraged with the response to my two presentations. I worked over my study leave in December to turn the paper into an article. And now the news of acceptance for publication.

This was one reviewers concluding comment – “I get the impression that this is part of a wider study, and, if so, it is one that I look forward to reading.” Too right :)

Posted by steve at 08:32 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, March 15, 2013

a play me faith

Faith seeking understanding; Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of prayer is the law of belief”; we act our way into a new imagination (Al Roxburgh).

All of these are reminders that Christianity is something in which you participate. And as you participate, you are formed, shaped, moulded in the way of Jesus. A “play me” faith.

One of my delights in London was discovering the “play me” piano’s – bright pink, well signed “Play me”, standing at places like St Pancras Train Station and Heathrow.

And the constant bursts of noise, as young and old had a go. Simply played. Sometimes it was simple, a Chopsticks. Other times it was beautiful. Isn’t that the way of faith. It has both simplicity and depth; both Jesus loves me and the indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity in a perichoretic dance of love.

Sometimes it was a first time, the delight as a three year realised their finger could make that noise. Other times it was a regretful caress, a sixty year old remembering a past, a skill not practised, a talent not developed. Again, isn’t that the way of faith. It needs to be rich enough to evangelise first timers, wistful enough to beckon the dechurched, rich enough to nourish the overchurched. So often churches rush for one of these positions, proud of their front door or glad of their theological precision. But a “play me” faith is surely for all, not a narrow band.

A “play me” faith has theory. Embedded in every chord is a mass of musical knowledge, let alone the psychics by which black and white keys produces notes. But you don’t need to learn the theory to play.

During my recent UK Sustainability and fresh expressions research, a “play me” faith was a feature. Worship as something we do rather than is done to us, mission as a chance to encounter God in explore prayer.

Posted by steve at 10:20 AM

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Dragons’ Den: Ecclesial

This is some of what I wrote today, part of an introductory chapter in Biography of an innovation [working title] project.

In sum, this book is about the sustainability of fresh expressions. What lessons are emerging, from expressions that survive and from those no longer present? How helpful are the support structures, of denominations and from Colleges? What insights might emerge as wider, sociological shifts are considered?

These are not asked as pragmatic questions. I write not as an investor in some Ecclesial Dragons’ Den, tossing up whether to invest the money of a previous generation in either a new monastic dream or suburban youth plant, expecting a return calculable in a Diocesan head count

I write because this is personal …

and so I shift into practical theology, the place of personal narrative, in theological reflection.

Posted by steve at 05:55 PM