Friday, October 14, 2011

finding voice attracts media coverage

I didn’t blog about this, but in early September I was asked to deliver an address at the annual Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA) conference. Given that I share, with one of my daughters, an ARPA silver medal, for a review of another medium, I was delighted to be able to personally meet and thank these wise and discerning folk!

For the occasion, I decided to play with theme of Finding voice. I began by discussing The Kings Speech, and applying it to the church today.

And sometimes it feels like the church shouts. That’s it finds voice but in a way that sound loud, brash, ugly. That simply alienates people. So, sure we have voice, but it’s actually not helping.

Other times it feels like the church is stammering. Not really sure what to stay. And sure, we have voice, but it’s just embarrassing.

Other times it feels like the church is no more than background noise. That our voice is no different from any other voice of any other group. So sure, we have voice. But it’s nothing distinctive, or wise, or winsome.

So King’s speech invites us to think about finding voice. What it means for us to speak?

I drew on Stephen Webb’s Divine Voice, The: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound and then did some storytelling about people finding voice. It was a talk that I wrestled with for quite some days, but seemed to gel in the end in a way that I was pleased with.

Anyhow, the talk seems to have attracted some media interest. Christianity Today (Australia) has an article here, titled – Providing a voice – Telling the Story and naming some of the stories I told – Brooke Fraser, Parihaka, Paul Kelly.

And very excited one of my students brought me in another article in the paper based October edition of Melbourne Anglican, although I can’t seem to be online. It gives a fairly fair summary of what I said, focused not so much on the stories, but on the theological themes I tried to develop, around finding voice and a theology of sound.

Posted by steve at 07:49 AM

Thursday, October 13, 2011

a visual theology for mission 1

Sometimes theology comes with words. But why not visuals. How about this?

a theology of mission

And further, what words would you offer? What are the needs in your local community? What are people wanting to “rip” off? More overtly theologically, what is the gospel, good news, in your community?

Posted by steve at 05:01 PM

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

the contemporary spiritual search and the Blake Prize 2011

The Blake Prize is one of the more prestigious art prizes in Australia, awarding annual prizes for works of art that explore the subject of religious awareness and spirituality. It also courts controversy, including the recent attack by atheist John McDonald, concerned about the lack of clearly recognisable religious Christian symbols. Normally a charge made by the religious church, rather than an atheist critic.

Which has drawn a response from Rod Pattenden, Chair of the Blake Society.

McDonald reveals a complete lack of understanding of the role of images within the religious imagination, as well as the positive role of creativity in the expression of contemporary spirituality.

Looking at the 1140 submissions for this year’s Prize leaves me with the impression that the religious imagination of artists in Australia provides a visually exciting contribution to our cultural life that explodes McDonald’s understanding that this is simply the ‘self-indulgence of “spirituality”.’

Pattenden then goes on to offer an excellent reading of one Blake Prize entrant, Them and Us, by Malyasian Muslim migrant, Abdul Abdullah. He traces how a tattoo and a worn pair of jeans places us on edge.

The artist has in this image achieved two things. He has sympathetically helped us find our way alongside the skin of another. But, secondly, he offers us a way to bridge the space of separation by imagining something new – a Muslim Australian identity that broadens our sense of who ‘we’ are, that invites inclusion and an expansion of our definitions of identity.”

Pattenden then concludes with the delightful line, “Sorry John, your idea of God is too small.”

The entire article, let alone the 1140 submissions for the annual Australian Blake Prize, are fine examples of a way to explore the contemporary spiritual search. Once again we are reminded of the need to include new media – whether it be the video work of Angelica Mesiti, or the tattoos of Abdul Adbullah – in our search. And the question remains, whether the church and theological colleges, as religious body, dare “open our eyes wide enough to truly see”?

For the full article go here. For more of my reflections on the Blake Prize, see here and here.

Posted by steve at 10:07 AM

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

a T-Mobile theology of hospitality

Arriving passengers being given a welcome home to remember at Heathrow Terminal 5 (Just want to say this was NOT my experience recently in UK. While it was just lovely to see Ben Edson at Manchester Airport, he didn’t sing like this!)

So a theology of hospitality

  • welcome the alien in your midst.  Not because you are the host. No, rather because you yourself were once yourself alien – in Egypt.
  • practice hospitality. But not in your space. No, instead look for public space, the third place (in this case an airport). It’s so easy for hospitality to default to us being nice in our homes
  • and these third spaces will then call for creativity, in the welcome, in how we engage

The result is public space being transformed into a participative, joyful occasion – a theology of hospitality.

Posted by steve at 08:50 PM

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Part of coming to a new country, part of reading cultures, is enjoying the literature. That Deadman Dance: A Novel, by Kim Scott, is a fine example of Australian indigenous literature. It tells the story of early encounter between indigenous and coloniser through the eyes of Bobby, a young indigenous man growing up in a rapidly changing world.

It burrows down into the early settler mindset, offering some painfully honest reflection on how they sought to view and control the world. “He ascertained their bearings. Soothed himself, as any observant bystander could see, in the handling of compass and paper. The oilskin wrapping and journal.” The use of maps to control, subjugate, assume ownership. All the time, they are actually helpless, entirely dependent on indigenous wisdom and insight.

Yet over time, that worldview would overpower another, indigenous, worldview. “The old [indigenous] man claimed it was his right, that it was his town! Papa laughed recounting it, said it was true in a way. And it was also true, as [the young indigenous man] apparently claimed (shouted, she’d been told, and slapped the policeman), that the old man had received a ration of flour from previous authorities, and had even been dressed, accommodated and fed at government expense. Why? Because he was the landlord. It might even be true, in a way, but to what use do they put this ownership as against what we have achieved in so short a time?”

And thus different attitudes to land clash. What is fascinating is how the inter-cultural clash is framed. Not by bitterness, although that is deserved. Rather, their is a quiet dignity in the method, (a deep theology of hospitality), spelt out in the appendix-

I wanted to build a story from their confidence, their inclusiveness and sense of play, and their readiness to appropriate new cultural forms—language and songs, guns and boats—as soon as they became available. Believing themselves manifestations of a spirit of place impossible to conquer, they appreciated reciprocity and the nuances of cross-cultural exchange.

Some 200 years later, words well worth pondering – They appreciated reciprocity and the nuances of cross-cultural exchange.

Posted by steve at 09:54 AM

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Lily Allen on the shape of missional pastor care

Hooray for local ministers who care not just for their own, but for any, who extend pastoral care to any in the community, who don’t wait for folk to come to them, but make the effort to connect beyond the walls of their church.

Such simple acts, might one day be shouted by rockstars in fame mags that ripple though the internet.

“People wouldn’t have thought I’d have a church wedding, but since I had the really traumatic experience last year, our local community all pitched in … Our vicar said a similar thing had happened to his family, so he would come over and sit with me. It feels really nice. We feel protected.” Lily Allen, here.

Posted by steve at 09:18 AM

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why are mainline churches in decline? could it be theology?

In my last post I engaged the question of why mainline churches are in decline (full post is here). I pointed to a blog comment which suggested the answer was because the church had lost touch with culture.

This is supported by a number of sociologists of religion, who point to the fact that many voluntary groups, not just the church, are in decline as they lose touch with cultural change. As I wrote last year in a post on being church in a time of cultural change (and drawing on some work by Kevin Ward:

So, consider that alongside the decline in church, is a widespread decline in all voluntary associations: from Lions to labour unions, from political parties to bowling clubs.

In New Zealand in 1970’s about 400,000 people played rugby. By 1990’s it had plummeted to 100,000.

Why? Factors include authoritarian and controlling environment, rigid structures, high institutional overheads, dress code, conformist culture, lack of choice, repression of individual for sake of community.

At the same time, touch rugby, while only started in an organised sense in 1990, had by the year 2000 over 272, 000 registered participants.

Why? It is minimalist, gender inclusive. Individuals can choose their own team, while teams can choose their uniform and name. Time is limited and there is a high value on socialising and fun.

In other words, traditional structures based on long-term commitment and exclusive loyalties are less attractive than single stranded, less formal, smaller groupings.

But another answer to the question of mainline church decline is to point to theology. This comes in two directions.

First, some see the mainline church as liberal. So the church just needs to get beliefs right around notions of conversion, gospel, etc.

Second, some see the mainline church as conservative. This was summed up delightfully in a conversation I had during the week. After I presented on Fresh expressions I was asked if surely a person needed to give up on belief in an interventionist God in order to be part of a fresh expression. My conversation partner wondered if there was a need for a fresh expression not only of church, but of theology. This was defined as moving away from historic notions of a three tier universe and God as an intervenor in people’s lives. In other words, the mainline church is in decline because of theology – it’s too conservatively old-fashioned.

Posted by steve at 10:48 AM

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

why are mainline churches in decline?

I teach a course here at Uniting College called Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry. It’s at an introductory level and is compulsory for our candidates. It starts on Thursday. The aim is to equip participants to explore issues at the interface between society and ministry and develop greater social sensitivity about the ministry process. The assessment involves the students, as a group, constructing a field report (based on real life case studies) reviewing a local church’s ministry in the broader community.

So it was interesting to read Tony Jones blog, with data on the continued decline of mainline churches in the United States. The two denominations closest to the Uniting Church of Australia are the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent. Which raises the why question – Why are mainline churches in decline?

To which Jeff, who blogs here offers a response.

As a UCC pastor, I think that a lot of it has to do with local churches being very slow to adapt to the new cultural reality in which we find ourselves. And it’s something way bigger than video screens in worship or whatever…it’s a failure to recognize that we’re not in the same social place that we were in in the ’50s and ’60s, and thus the same social and organizational mentality no longer addresses what the church needs to be about today. Fortunately, some corners of these denominations have recognized it and there is renewal happening, but we’re still going to lose people and churches along the way. The key is that such renewal needs to happen at the local level rather than the national level, which I think my denomination sort of gets, but it also gets in its own way. I imagine there’s a similar thing happening in other mainline churches, too.

Which sounds to me like Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry – gaining tools to listen to our communities, skills in discerning the systems and powers which enmesh individuals, sensitivity to new media, awareness of themes emerging in poetry, arts, film. And if Jeff is right “such renewal needs to happen at the local level”, then perhaps the class should be compulsory not just for candidates, but for all local Uniting Church leadership teams?

For a more recent post – raising the topic not of culture, but of theology, see here.

Posted by steve at 07:58 AM

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

hard questions about Christian mission

Every generation has challenges. One of the challenges for our generation is how we respond to the injustice of the past. Last Wednesday was Australia Day, which is a celebration of a nation with a history of dispossession of indigenous people. Sunday in New Zealand is Waitangi Day and the subsequent failure by settlers to honour that treaty.

This has implications for being Christian. We talk of a God of reconciliation who heals the past. How do such claims make sense for this generation?

In recent days I have been reading Remembering Jamestown: Hard Questions About Christian Mission, which explores how the church in North America might live in the face of historic injustice and mistreatment of indigenous people.

The final chapter is by Amos Yong, a theologian, Malaysian born, now working at Regent University, USA.  I have engaged in this blog previously his extraordinary book on Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity and also his excellent Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor).

Yong argues that “it is important for us not to quickly forget the offenses that were part and parcel of the missiology” of the past. (163). He advocates a post-colonial theology of mission based on the many tongues of the Pentecost narrative.

  1. “As many tongues were empowered by the Spirit to speak about God’s deeds of power … so also are many languages required to bear witness to the glory of God today.” (164)
  2. This requires us to listen to many voices as a first move in mission.
  3. The expectation is that the encounter with those different than us will lead to “mutual transformation” of both parties (166).
  4. The many tongues of Pentecost assume a multiplicity of missionary modes of engagement, a diversity of approaches to being Christ today. “We need to creatively participate in the work of the Spirit to develop many more liturgical forms and other social practices that facilitate the healing and salvation needed to respond” to the past (166). (Anyone else hear echoes of the call to fresh expressions!)
  5. It expects a theology of hospitality in which Christians become not hosts, but guests. (Anyone else hear echoes of Luke 10? – for more on this go here and here and here and here and here and here)

Thought provoking stuff for all those who care about mission in Australia and New Zealand.

Posted by steve at 06:24 AM

Thursday, January 27, 2011

spacing and placing transformation

Earlier this week I was asked to explain my job title “Director of Missiology, Post-graduate co-ordinator.” While I have a job description, for me the “big picture” is that my task is to

add strength to change process that Uniting College is going through, in particular to show that leadership can be theological and missiology can be transformative in the life of a local church.

In that vein, here are some links that I have been pondering.

  • the place of context in leadership. A gracious, gracious post by David Fitch, in which he argues that churches that rely on preaching, in particular a “fingerhead” type preach, are in fact a last gasp of Christendom. Such a form of ministry/leadership have a place, but have little chance of connecting with a post-Christian culture and thus of offering clues as to future leadership imaginations. (Full post here).
  • a local church running their own spirituality fair. Deceptively simple – three hours on a Saturday offering to interpret dreams, conduct spiritual massage. Apparently there were people queuing on a winters night. (Here).
  • a (UK) website charting spaces for temporary and pop-up projects – empty shops, church halls, fields, shopping precincts and old offices. A great way to think about running a mission experiment and an intriguing reminder of mission possibilities for temporary cultural engagement. (Here)
Posted by steve at 09:00 AM

Thursday, December 23, 2010

commercialism at Christmas? postures worth pondering (part 2)

Further to my commercialism at Christmas? An ancient story worth pondering, I came across this quote:

“Christmas celebrations …[are the] embodiement of consumer culture,” according to Russell Belk, 78.

So Christians need to be thinking carefully about how to respond to Christmas. As we plan, is our Jesus been co-opted, consumed even, by the marketplace? In the midst of canned carols, what’s our posture?

Anti: We choose to stand with the Gringe and moan. We wring out hands at the consumerism, the secularisation, the hype, the excess.  Despite such rhetoric, we will all continue to shop over the next days. Such is the enmeshment of the consumptive system we part of.

Alternative: “The very fact that consumerism continues to draw upon and inhabit religious ideas and events for its own ends also means that religion continues to quietly peddle its countercultural message … the sentimentalizing of the nativity story at the height of consumerist indulgence creates alternative spaces for different meanings.” (Martyn Percy, Engaging with Contemporary Culture, Ashgate, UK, 58)

In other words, we see a sort of symbiotic relationship, in which the very consumerism of the culture in fact opens up a space which makes elements of the Christian story more appealing, more present. In practical terms

  • the earlier the carols, the greater the importance of Advent themes, candles, resources
  • the more the stress, the more the chance for churches to provide quiet, reflective spaces
  • the more the pressure to spend, the more the chance to offer simplicity in card-making workshops or home-made gifts
  • the more the hype, the more the chance to offer community meals on Christmas Day
  • the more the family emphasis, the greater the chance to offer Blue Christmas services or carol sing to the elderly and lonely.

Such a posture still leaves us open to the charge that we are tilting at the surface, and not dealing with the systemic injustices of global consumerism.

Affirmation: Much exists in Christmas that Christianity might want to affirm. Charitable contributions peak at Christmas, while far flung families connect and reconnect (Russell W. Belk, “The Human Consequences of Consumer culture,” in Elusive Consumption, 67-86). All of these are reflections of God’s goodness in and through humanity and surely reasons for Christians to affirm parts of Christmas.

In a Western world, awash with consumption, what other “Christian Christmas” postures are you seeing?

Posted by steve at 12:10 PM

Monday, December 20, 2010

commercialism at Christmas? An ancient story worth pondering

A world-denying Jew heard the call to asceticism. He thought it a part of the commandments that he must do without good food, good wine, and the company of good women and friends in general. He took no place at their festive tables; he heard no good music and did without great art. All of this he did with an eye on the promise of paradise for the renouncer.

He died. He did indeed find himself in paradise.

But three days later, they threw him out because he understood nothing of what was going on.

Posted by steve at 03:19 PM

Sunday, August 15, 2010

a sociological reflection on the growth of fresh expressions

Interesting article by David Allis, exploring growth (numeric) in new forms of church/fresh expressions.  David is a Kiwi, who withdrew from the more Pentecostal end of church life to focus on a home church in his local neighbourhood. The article is a few years old (2007), but makes some good points. David suggests that when we look at new forms of church we need to realise that:

  • The drain created by existing models. “The existing church models are the norm, and people (both churched & unchurched alike) think this is the only way to do church.” This means that alternative models require people to have thought through new forms, or with new converts. Further, “It is difficult for a new small tree to grow under the shade of a large tree, as the large tree drains the nourishment from the ground and; also shades the light.” Yeah, all you light shaders! :)
  • Exhaustion. Potential leaders are most likely to come from people who leave the organised church structure. They are often more ready to want to ‘take a break’ from church activities, rather than throw themselves quickly into something new. (I can certainly relate to this one. I’ve struggled to stay afloat in the last 6 months, let alone have energy for something else.)

(The full article is here). I think the points are well made, and as always, value any comments.

Posted by steve at 08:40 PM

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

church for the (kiwi) man in the shed

My interests include the relationship between church and society, gospel and culture. What is the role of the church in the world? How does the world see the church?

I’m currently enjoying The man in the Shed, a collection of short stories by Kiwi writer, Lloyd Jones, published in 2009, a commercial follow-up to the success (Commonwealth Writers Prize and shortlist for Man Booker Prize) of Mister Pip.

One story, Lost Cities, begins with Alice, who is painting her (rural Canterbury) town, building by building.

“And after the theatre, she plans an eating house and, next to it, a bar, and across the street a police station and gaol. And at the end of the street, a church of sharp cheekbones and high forehead. Within view of the church Alice adds the farmhouse.” (52)

A typical rural town, complete with to be expected church. The pages of the short story continue to turn.

Over time, Alice’s husband dies and her son, Mark grows. In time, Mark leaves for the bright lights (of Sydney). All the time, Alice continues to paint, the same picture, touched and re-touched, a visual reflection on her changing life in changing times. She paints and repaints. The tree grows, the buildings are modernised, threatres and restuarants are added, the city crowds are coloured in.

“Milling among the crowd over the ‘historic’ flagstone area are hotdog vendors, jugglers, pickpockets, thieves of all descriptions. There are yellow cabs, policemen on horseback, a flotilla carrying a beauty-pageant queen.” (59-60).

It’s a gorgeous sentence and a fascinating way to visualise change. The painting work as the still point, the canvas which captures change. So what will be the place of faith, the church, as times they are a changing?

“Over the church hovers Alice’s paintbrush. She hesitates to demolish it because the city will need a soup kitchen for the lives stranded short of the promised land.” (60).

It’s a fascinating glimpse, one perspective, on the future of faith in a culture of change. In the imagination of Kiwi author, Lloyd Jones, the future obviously needs a church. The reason is based on what Lloyd sees as the role of the church in contemporary society – to care for the broken and dispossessed. As it does that, it earns the right to remain in a contemporary painting, as it exists as a beacon of hope.

Yet such a place for the church, remains for Alice simply a painting. She might be grieving, she might be oh so creative. However, church remains for her an object painted for “them.” Never, for creative, middle-class, grieving Alice.

A fascinating way to paint the body of Christ into society today!

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM