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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

gender and new forms of church

The last few days of sabbatical I’ve been finalising a complete draft of a chapter on gender and the emerging church. It now stands at 12,400 words and some 115 footnotes. It is the result of 47 survey forms of emerging church participants, in which comparisons have then been made regarding male and female perceptions. That data has been brought into conversation with three books that focus on women and faith development. Which has raised the question of how women around Jesus were fed, fostered and freed in mission. Here are two concluding excepts.

One way to read Luke 8:1-3 is to suggest that in this text, men are constructed as public speakers, while women are constructed as carers and homemakers. Such a reading would reinforce, to use the quote by John Drane, “bastions of male leadership.” (Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church). As a consequence, emerging churches will be led by men, within which women will find a place of service domestically.

However Bauckham (Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels) argues that such a reading is simply incorrect. “It is therefore quite mistaken to suppose that the women are here assigned, within the community of Jesus’ disciples, the kind of gender-specific roles that women played in the ordinary family situation.” “Schottroff (Lydia’s Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity) exposes the patriarchal bias of the scholarly tradition that gives the words διηκονουν∀ and διηκονειν different meanings in texts about women and texts about men: leadership functions when men are in question, cooking and serving at table when women (and slaves) are concerned.” Rather than prescribing gender roles, Bauckham argues that in Luke 8:1-3, the women are being portrayed as offering a way of following in relation to possessions. “Thus the true male counterpart to the women’s “service,” as described in Luke 8:3, is not preaching or leadership but the abandonment of home and family … Both the men and the women among Jesus’ disciples behave in a significantly countercultural way with regard to material resources.” Thus around Jesus, both genders are called to a journey of radical discipleship, of counter-cultural behaviour in regard to material cultures.

Which has then led to this conclusion.

Fifth, in the story of Jesus, we find a gendered community in which males and females are invited into a whole bodied following, a radical community of equals, in which mission as justice-making, apostolic witness and community building occur in ways that are never gender exclusive. Gender matters, as both men and women are fed, fostered and freed into mission. This becomes a strong challenge to any community positioning itself as a bastion of “male leadership” , as actually being a betrayal of the community of practice established by Jesus.

It’s been a lot of work, but a very rich experience to write and reflect. I will now have a quiet coffee in celebration, before turning to another chapter, on sustainability among new forms of church.

Oh, the three books on gender and faith development were

Posted by steve at 09:26 AM

Monday, May 21, 2012

Do women do it – ministry and leadership – differently?

Do women lead different?


And yes.

That is the conclusion from those who write in Presiding Like a Woman – Feminist Gestures for Christian Assemblies, a collection of 20 essays and 2 poems, reflecting on what it means to “preside”, to offer leadership in ministry, as a woman.

The argument of the book is that gender can be rejected – “Oh we’re all the same.” Or ignored – “It’s awkward, so let’s not talk about it.” Or explored, because, in the words of Ali Green, “By honouring sexual difference we can encourage and inspire others who … have felt excluded by their own culture, both within the Church and in wider society.” (109)

As I read, a number of themes seemed to keep appearing.

First, an embodied spirituality – for example the connection in so many essays to experience. In the words of Gillian Hill “women’s experience and an embodied approach challenge any retreat into abstract ideas.” (155)

Second, the whole of life – and to illustrate, a great example by Ali Green

“As well as being childbearers, woman are also oftentimes the carers and homemakers who look after the very young and old and put food on the table. Essentially, the Eucharist is a meal of companionship where everyone is invited to the table, and where the priest, representing Christ, feeds the guests. The woman presider offers a reminder of this very concrete and humble connection: the transcendent, unsearchable God, through the incarnation, becomes known to us in the basic staples of life.” (Green, 107)

Third, participation – a desire for interactivity and mutuality. A chapter by Nichola Slee explored this in depth, arguing that mutuality flourished when responsibility was taken up to attend to the care of the group.

“whether shared or exercised by one person, attention to the power dynamics within the group and careful management of those dynamics is essential if the community is to function well.” (160)

Four, leadership as gentle space-making – Grey describes how the presider is a midwife “that hears into speech, especially the inarticulate, the invisible, the excluded.” (55) This space-making is facilitated by an ethos of empowering leadership and the deliberate creation of safe space.

“The [teacher] does not create the community, but she is frequently the one to call the community together and to issue the invitation to the risky, adventurous process of learning.” (159)

What was fascinating was the chapter by Brian Barrett (one of the two male contributors) who placed this within a lovely mission frame. He argues that the traditional image of church as circle is not Biblical. Neither is the one person band.

Rather leadership is about movement, the constant shift between attending to the congregation and to the stranger on the margins;

to “move back and forth across and to the very edges and doorways of the space, enabling and encouraging the movement of others, and, in the process, making visible and tangible the ‘incarnational flow’ within the ‘space between.’” (Barrett, 173)

Much to think about in this book, as I lay it alongside Faith of Girls, Women’s Spiritual Development (here and here) and the emerging church data I am working with.

Posted by steve at 06:57 PM

Friday, May 11, 2012

“Finding Faith” and the serendipities of study leave

An odd set of serendipities yesterday.

I arrived home to find Richard Flory and Donald Miller’s Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation waiting for me. John Drane had recommended it to me, in light of some of my recent posts about faith and gender. On that recommendation, I ordered the book and it was waiting for me as I arrived home from work.

A quick flick through a book recommended by a colleague, and I find myself (The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change) being summarised over half of page 35.

[Taylor's] is a journey that is both descriptive of what other churches are doing, taking full advantage of both digital and live networks of innovative church leaders, and prescriptive in what churches can do to better minister within the emerging postmodern framework.

An interesting serendipity.

What was even more interesting was that during the day I had been reading Tony Jones The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (perhaps more on that soon). And I had been appreciating his use – without realising it was the book I had ordered – of Richard Flory and Donald Millers Finding Faith.  Another interesting serendipity – to hold a book that I’d just been reading about, wondering about – during the day.

Such are the moments that make up my study leave. (Yes, I probably need a life!)

Flory and Miller propose that we can understand the contemporary post-boomer spiritual quest under four headings

  • innovators – those who represent an evolving approach to religious faith and practice. (BTW that’s where my book is placed). Their focus is on building community and engaging with culture.
  • appropriators – those who seek relevance by appropriating, or imitating, from surrounding culture, ultimately forming “a particular from of pop-Christianity that is primarily orientated toward an individual spiritual experience.” (14)
  • resisters – those who resist incursions of the culture into what they see as historic Christianity.
  • reclaimers – those seeking to renew their experience of Christianity through ancient forms of Christianity. “These are converts, either from other nonliturgical forms of Christianity or from nonexistent or lapsed faith communities.” (15)

Flory and Miller use a “snowballing” sampling plan, following leads, networks and recommendations from those they initially contact. The result is 10 physical site visits and 100 individual interviews.

They conclude the book with a chapter looking toward the future. They argue that religious groups that practice an embodied imagination, and that organise organically, from the grass-roots, are more likely to have a future.They affirm the role of the

“organic theologian … [who] understands the importance and role of popular culture in the shaping of ideas and the communication of values” (190)

They conclude that while Appropriators have a greater natural audience (and thus a greater surface appearance of success), Innovators have the most potential for nourishing the contemporary spiritual search.

As long as they can survive the threat of routinisation.

Posted by steve at 10:47 AM

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

spiritual direction, mission and what the heck then is church?

Natalie Weaver, a 25-year-old musician who lives in Roxbury, does not go to church. But every three weeks or so, she visits a white vinyl-sided building on Dorchester Avenue, a former convent, to meet with her spiritual director.

Fascinating article in Boston Globe, looking at rise in popularity of spiritual direction. It notes

  • a rise in the numbers of spiritual directors, from 400 in one organisation in 1990, to 6,000 today
  • the popularity among young adults, including those with “little religious background [who] find themselves undergoing a spiritual awakening and do not know where to turn.”

Why the popularity? The article suggests it could be the increase in coaching relationships in general in our culture. It could also be the way direction is freed from organisational claims – “no pressure to join a group, make a weekly offertory pledge, or endorse a specific creed.”

So what are the implications for mission and church? Directors see their role as an outworking of mission:

“We really see ourselves as a safe mooring, a place where people pull their ships in, in good shape or bad shape, draw down their sails, unpack their stuff, and begin to restock up for the journey out” said one.

While participants see it as discipleship:

“It has really helped me understand what I believe in when I say I believe in God.”

But is it church? Well not if church is the gathering. Spiritual direction is simply another expression of modern hyper-individualism.

But if church is in the connections, the networks, the interrelationships – that the director themselves have, that are being nourished in the activity of direction – then perhaps this is church. (Applying here the work of Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory which I’ve been reading today. Plus Dwight Friesen, Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks).

Posted by steve at 10:03 PM

Thursday, April 12, 2012

wanted dead and alive: UK alt.worship communities

As part of my PhD research (what became “A New Way of Being Church”, University of Otago, 2004), I conducted research during March – June, 2001 into mission experimentation in the UK. This was focused on alternative worship communities and included both participant observation and interviews with both leaders and laity.

Some ten years on from that research, I have been reflecting on sustainability. As any parent will know, it’s one thing to birth a child. It’s quite another to do the early mornings and late nights, to piece your way through the ups and downs.

So I have begun a “Sustainability in new mission initiatives” Research Project. This first part has focused on the church that was the major focus of my research, Cityside Baptist. I have returned to participate in worship, to interview key leaders, to re-survey the congregation, and to conduct focus groups in response to reflect upon their data. Currently I’m writing up the results.

The next stage of the project involves wanting to explore the sustainability of the UK alt.worship communities I had researched back in 2001.

Here I need some help.  Some initial website research has revealed that of the twelve I researched, four six continue today (two three under another name). Two Four appear closed.  I remain unsure about six two of the communities. They look to have little web presence and so perhaps are closed.

So I have two requests. First, can any of my UK readers check the table here and provide any further information on the current status of any of these groups. I’m particular after information on

  • Late Late Service, Glasgow
  • Sanctuary, Bath (Updated: website found)
  • Resonance, Bristol (Updated: renamed as Foundation in 2005. Thanks Paul )
  • The Bigger Picture, London
  • Graceland, Cardiff (Updated: according to a blog comment (thanks heaps), has closed, although relational connections continue.
  • Holy Joes, London (Updated: Maggi Dawn thinks this group is currently in recess)

Second, I am interested in trying to interview all these groups, or representatives (whether dead or alive!). We need to learn from all our experiments, no matter their current status. I am working toward a research visit to the UK (December 2012-February 2013).  So I would like to locate folk, particularly from those that are closed, or appear to be. So can any of my UK readers provide any followup or contact details?

Thanks, in hope :)

Posted by steve at 02:31 PM

Friday, March 09, 2012

inking the stations of the cross

This takes the Stations of the Cross to a whole new level:

A pastor of a Montrose-area church recently challenged members of his congregation to live out their faith in an atypical way by getting tattoos that represent different Stations of the Cross, images of Christ’s journey from condemnation to resurrection. (Full story here)

Tattoing the stations of the cross on one’s person! (Lots of pictures here)

The church’s artist-in-residence, Scott Erickson, designed 10 distinct Stations of the Cross tattoos and as part of Lent, the church were challenged to chose one of the tattoos (all the designs are here). “The tendency we have as Christians is to skip past Jesus’ suffering. Not only do tattoos come with a bit of suffering, they are also an art form that has not fully been embraced.” (here) More than 50 folk decided to participate.

Here’s a radio station interview with the Pastor, Chris Seay.

Posted by steve at 08:42 PM

Friday, November 11, 2011

the messy early church: women, houses and churches

Recently I’ve been getting a bit grumpy about the phrase “messy church.” I’ve been thinking that all church all the time should be messy. Shouldn’t the normal be the involving of all the ages and all the senses and deal with the real stuff of people’s lives, while the abnormal is quiet, respectful, adult only church?

So I was most interested to recently pick up A Woman’s Place: House Churches In Earliest Christianity which looks at everyday existence in ancient households, with a special focus on women’s everyday experience. The book has chapters on hospitality, funerals and education. And the data points to messy early church indeed being the norm.

Messy hosts
Houses led by women in the New Testament include Mary mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:14, 40); Nympha (Col. 4:15). Married couples were “vital to the life and infrastructure of the communities.” (48).

But is this simply hospitality? The answer is no. There is evidence of women who acted as patrons, teachers and dinner hosts. They were presiders (and in an environment in which presiding meant a meal that interwove eucharist, food and conversation).

Messy meals
While there is a tendency to concentrate on the expectional woman of early church history, like Priscilla, Phoebe and Perpetua, recent research into Roman families allows us to appreciate the ordinary and domestic. In other words, “within the setting of early church groups, it is safe to assume that conversations about nursing and rearing children were part of daily life and were intermingled with conversations about what we would normally consider as more typical church concerns.” (247-8)

Messy church
What about messy church? well, “house-church meetings must have been noise and bustling places. The sounds of a woman in labor somewhere in the background, the crying of infants, the presence of mothers or wet nurses feeding their children, little toddlers under foot, children’s toys on the floor.” (67) “Children were present everywhere; nothing – not even sexual activity – escaped their gaze.” (93).

Messy worship
Which all leads to messy worship. “The attention given to such “liturgical questions” in later patristic documents as the placement of children during church meetings … reflects a commitment to the inclusion and valuing of children in continuity with the period of the house churches.” (93)

In sum, what emerges is a very messy early church, “a picture of church life that challenges preconceived notions of solemnity in favour of the boisterous and somewhat chaotic exchanges of household life. House-church meetings took place in a setting where midwives were hired, babies were born, nursed, and nurtured, and children grew up.” (246-7)

Posted by steve at 04:02 PM

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

UK adventures 6 – cliff college, emerging and fresh?

I’m at the lovely Cliff College. The views are fabulous and there are some lovely trees to hug. I’m here for two things.

First, to input into their Master of Mission programme, in particular their Emerging Church stream. Which has produced a fairly healthy twitter stream of folk debating how to define emerging church cf fresh expressions. Obviously quite a contested field in this part of the world!

I have gone with a world/God/church formulation; which provides a way to frame the Gibbs and Bolger definition –

communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures (Emerging Churches, 33).

I am then taking a mission perspective on that, using the six paradigms of mission in David Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (American Society of Missiology Series). I will animate that with six mission stories, ways that the world/God/church formulation has been made concrete in history. Which I hope will generate some real mission thinking around “emerging.”

The second reason I am here is to help kick of their new PhD in Missiology. This sounds an exciting development, a professional research degree in mission and to their first cohort, I’ll be offering them some of my recent research. More on that tomorrow. For now, I must pop outside once again and enjoy sun, views, trees. With a cup of tea!

Posted by steve at 11:17 PM