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 | Comments (2)

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 | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

a yarn in the making

This is a most fascinating invitation, noticed in our local bookshop. Pre-loved jerseys are wanted – to document, disassemble and remodel. The expectation is that each has a story. So a mix of craft and story.

It made me dream of being part of a faith community like this – a place in which stories of what is precious is told, in which acts of telling and acts of creating are valued, in which the future is shaped from what is offered, to enter into a church, and church year, which was a “yarn” in the making.

It also reminded me of John Drane’s metaphor for the church, in his wonderful chapter, “Looking for Maturity in the emerging church,” in Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church (Explorations)

The image of weaving the cloth is a powerful metaphor for today’s church. So much of what we have inherited is like a comfortable sweater that is now unraveling around the edges. We can do one of two things with that sort of sweater: either we patch it up, to try and make it last a bit longer, or we pull at the loose ends to see what happens, with a view to taking the wool, washing it, and knitting it into a garment that will be fit for a new generation. No-one could possibly deny that the unraveling is happening. It is the creative spirits of the emerging church who are acting with missional intentionality to imagine, and then to create, unfamiliar shapes and patterns of faithful discipleship that are both old and new (Matthew 13: 52).

Posted by steve at 06:17 PM

Monday, March 03, 2014

Ecclesial practices proposals for American Academy of Religion

I was very excited to hear last week that American Academy of Religion, one of the largest academic conferences in the world, had added a new subject area – Ecclesial Practices.

While this is exactly in my area of current research, the deadline for papers was today, Monday 3 March. So I’ve been working most evenings, trying to knock something together. Each person is allowed to submit two papers for consideration. This involves a 150 word abstract, plus a 1000 word proposal, which if accepted need to be further developed for presentation (at the annual conference in San Diego in November). It’s a fair bit of work!

But I’ve been searching through my hard drive, and been pleasantly surprised to discover some bits and pieces of writing from a number of sources that can be massaged into something I think is cohesive.

For those interested:

Proposal for Ecclesial Practices and Practical Theology: Lost in translation: the priority of anecdotes in discerning embodied doctrine

This article explores one analytical method by which practical theology might attend to both the descriptive and the theological.

It applies the work of Van Manen (Researching Lived Experience), and his methodological categories of knots in the webs of experience and anecdotes, to an ethnographic study of an emerging church ten years on. The anecdotes present in the data will be catalogued and then a selection probed for evidence of their doctrinal content. This will demonstrate, both by presence and in function, that anecdotes as short stories connected to real life are a repeated source by which this community chooses to express their wisdom.

It will thus be argued that anecdotes uncovered in the descriptive mode that characterizes social sciences are equally a rich lode through which to uncover doctrine as it is embodied in ecclesial practices.

Proposal for Ecclesial Practices – An ecclesiology of natality: an emerging church ten years on

This paper takes a longitudinal look at an emerging church, drawing on empirical research conducted in 2000 and again in 2010.

It will be argued that natality has emerged as a distinct ecclesial practice. Grace Jantzen argued for the importance of natality in theology, as a way to reference a symbolic in which lies the potential for new beginnings. She suggested it is characterized by embodiment, relationality, hopefulness and engenderment.

It will be argued that natality is more evident in the life of this emerging church in 2010 as demonstrated in demographic changes, gender differences and a shift of community creativity, from artistic reflections on Stations of the Cross to Advent in Art.

This allows an ecclesiological turn. An Advent narrative in the Lectionary cycle and the ecclesiology of Rowan Williams (Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin) seem to affirm ecclesial practices that offer embodiment, relationality, hopefulness and engenderment.

Posted by steve at 11:00 PM

Monday, December 02, 2013

what our founding stories say about our identity

One of the richness of Uniting College is the diversity of students. Over the week I’ve marked work from a class that included a school principal, a chaplain, a church planter, an Anglican priest, a multi-cultural leader, a denominational worker – all working out how their ministry experiences have shaped their understanding of the practice of ministry. I’ve read about the spirituality of dissent, children’s spirituality, pioneer imaginations, leadership metaphors and gender perspectives. It’s been so rich.

Anyhow, one of the students was exploring the relationship between church, Kingdom and ministry. They began with tradition, including the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Article XIX defines how we view church on a local and global level:

‘Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So what does this found story say about identity? What has got me thinking is the second paragraph. The church has erred. Does this introduce humility, that we’re a group of pilgrims who will continue to err? And so all our ongoing ceremonies, all our “fresh expressions” of living and worship and theological writings, will have the potential to err?

Or does this introduce an arrogance, that they’ve made mistakes and so we should separate ourselves from them, because we’re more pure and holy?

Both approaches have huge implications for being one, worldwide, catholic church. Either you are part of an erring community, and so will see other denominations and churches in history as humble, fellow failing pilgrims. Or you will see yourself as better than other denominations and churches in history and will remain ever eager to point out their erring, while being forever eager to maintain your own purity through separation.

I find it intriguing to then lay this alongside the founding stories of the emerging church. There are many instances of new forms of church starting because they are aware of the erring of other forms. Does this, has this, led to a humility, an acceptance of the erring of other forms of church? Or has this led to a separation, a relentless pursuit of purity?

And, finally, does this Anglican ecclesiology, have any impact today on the development of fresh expressions, which owes so much to the energy and vision of the Anglican denomination in England?

Posted by steve at 10:06 PM

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

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

the challenges in fresh expressions: a counter spirituality

“For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation … requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent.” (Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Themes in the Social Sciences), 64)

I wandered my garden over the weekend.

Recently planted broccoli seeds are up, tiny leaves seeking light. The blessing of something planted days ago, which in time will yield nourishment for the Taylor table.

The leaves of kale, seedlings planted some two months ago, now stand proud, nourishment now for the Taylor table. The blessing of something planted months ago.

Some autumn bulbs have suddenly flowered. A dash of crimson, fragile and beautiful, has emerged from what was dry. The blessing of something planted years ago.

Pioneers like to plant. I noted last week the challenge of fresh expressions. How much of fresh expressions is simply the church entering into “the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative”? What does it mean talk fresh and emerging in a culture that plans obsolence, privileging the new in a relentless search of the next fashion trend?

Yet such analysis ignores a significant dimension of the practice of fresh expression. I’m talking about the emerging trend of recapturing the ancient, when what is new is in fact a deliberate reaching for what is old.

Doug Gay captures this superbly in his book, Remixing The Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology. He describes the practice of “retrieval”, the ways in which new forms of church cultivate ancient paths, retrieving from history and from the church worldwide.

This move stands at odds with Connerton’s analysis – of “the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent.” (Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Themes in the Social Sciences), 64)

(Although it could still be a problematic manifestation of postmodern consumer culture – for more on this see my discussion of the ethics of sampling in my The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change, Chapter 8, Postcard Samplers)

Which returns me to my garden. The bulbs are an ancient planting, the kale an earlier planting, the broccoli recent. They involve multiple moments of planting. They rely on more than one pioneer.

This is one posture by which pioneers might respond to the spirituality of our age. We will cultivate crops recent and ancient. We will consider as important the seeds that yield instant results as the seeds that might take months to grow. We will plant in expectation of seasons with rain and without. We will partner with other pioneers, honour their historic acts of grace, deliberately plant things we know that we will never harvest, glad that another will enjoy our fruit.

Such is God’s economy.

Posted by steve at 01:18 PM

Friday, April 12, 2013

the challenges in fresh expressions

“For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation … requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent.” (Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Themes in the Social Sciences), 64)

This raises the question – how much of fresh expressions is simply a reflection of capitalism? Are new forms of church simply a reflection of a cultural privileging of the search for the next new thing? Are we replacing the ever changing fashion hunt for clothes, gadgets, machines, neighbourhoods, with the fashion hunt for churches, spiritual experiences, worship ideas?

This, in a nutshell is a significant challenge to fresh expressions. We are all deeply enmeshed in this cycle, this economy. Our culture has deep and powerful subterranean currents that push us to prize innovation, the new.

As my family joke to each other as something new distracts us in the shops: “Oh, shiny.”

In our pursuit of mission, we need a depth of cultural analysis, an ability to more clearly recognise the deep and powerful subterranean currents that carry us as individuals and communities. The cultural tools to do this can be found in the world of mission, which has 2,000 years of experience in reading cultures.

We also need a theological understanding of gospel and culture, and awareness of the multiple postures by which the church in history has engaged with the deeper currents of culture. Mission history is a rich resource for such insights, for again, it has 2,000 years of seeking to find the Spirit in the outworking of cultures.

As we have these conversations, we can begin to frame a divine economy, a way of seeing our past, the places we walk, the people we engage that is neither free market capitalist nor historic rural idyll.

Armed with cultural awareness, mission insights and a theology of God, we might then begin to work toward a richer theology and missiology of fresh expressions.

Posted by steve at 09:43 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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

the advent of fresh expressions – the wilderness (part 2)


This Advent, O Lord, soften the hearts of parents toward the next generation
Part 1- the advent of fresh expressions – the bare barrenness of tradition

The Gospel of Luke begins with barrenness and soon shifts to wilderness. John the Baptist, camel haired and with locust wings in mouth, will emerge from the desert. The theme will continue with Jesus, who in preparation for ministry, will walk into the wilderness. In doing so, there are echoes with Israel, who found God in the desert, who were birthed as a community, their identity and practices shaped by wilderness. It will resonate with the words of the prophet Isaiah, who dreamed of rough places smooth.

So what is the place of wilderness in advent? What resources will sustain the encountering of God in the rough and tough? What does desert do to the demands for vitality and the dreams for health and growth?

Desert God
This Advent
May we be find fresh treasure in wilderness
Shade in the deep valley
Clarity from the rocky outcrop

Posted by steve at 08:00 AM

Monday, December 03, 2012

the advent of fresh expressions – the bare barrenness of tradition (part 1)

The Gospel of Luke begins with barrenness. An older couple. Faithful yet childless. It is like so much of the Church in the West today, older, faithful. Yet so often barren, with no living memory of church birth, no experience of participating in the life flow that is new communities.

The result is a wondering about one’s future, a quiet misgiving about the family line, the next generation of young people.

It is in this barrenness we glimpse the Spirit’s work. A promise of a fresh expression.

Luke 1:15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children.”

Interesting that last phrase. The hearts of parents need softening. So often this is the way with fresh expressions. Parents simply don’t understand. Congregations need convincing. Of course the present will shape our future. Church is reduced to historic ways, discipleship to a rigid patterning.

Hearts being softened, of course, is essential to the advent of this fresh expression. In the following verses, the child is born. Elizabeth wants to name him John. But tradition speaks. Luke 1:61-62 “But,” they said, “no one in your family is named that.”

With this fresh expressions, times they are a changing.

This Advent, O Lord, soften the hearts of parents toward the next generation

Posted by steve at 08:08 AM

Sunday, September 16, 2012

heirloom carrots and a missional mode

Browsing a local market on Saturday, we found a bunch of carrots. Not just your standard orange, but at least 3 other, different, types

  • purple (dark)
  • yellow
  • purple

Gorgeous. I walked home wondering if in this photo lies some key elements for a 21st century missional way of being church. Diversity not uniformity, multi-layered not mono-cultural.

This is the world of Heirloom carrots, available from places like Diggers

An exclusive Digger’s mix exploding with colours from red to white and purple to yellow. Succulent and sweet, these carrots hold their colour when cooked, adding an exciting dimension to meals and salads.

I’ve blogged before about the missional lessons at Diggers – the multiple ways they allow a connection with their community

  • A space:
  • A cafe:
  • A demonstration garden:
  • Seeds.
  • Workshops.
  • Festivals.
  • A committed core.

It’s such a practical list of possibilities, an illustration of the diverse ways that a church can create multiple access points and encourage many and varied ways to participate. Of course, the same applies to theological colleges. How can Uniting College encourage such multiple engagements?

If the mono-vision of churches is the worship service, I’d suggest the mono-vision for colleges is topics and courses. So what might be the “demonstrations”; “festivals”; “spaces” offered by theological educators?

Posted by steve at 03:37 PM