Thursday, December 21, 2006

imagination, leadership and humming Mary’s song in the emerging church

Update: I have added below a somewhat excellent conversational email response to this post from Alan Roxburgh – reflecting further on imagination, leadership, emerging church and Mary’s song

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


This captures so much of the pain around the emerging church movement. The emerging church movement is gift as it embraces the work of generating new imaginative acts of church and worship. This is what drew me to the alternative worship movement back in 1995. I saw a picture of Visions in York in worship, projecting multiple slide images on church walls. Their imagination allowed my eyes to catch a glimpse of what it might mean to worship God body, mind and soul. Time and again I have seen in the emerging church glimpses of new ways of being church, renewed missional practices, Incarnational worship.

At the same time, I have seen emerging church groups remain profoundly distrustful of institution forming. Leadership and structures are often a dirty word. Listen closely and you hear stories of abuse. Yet Ward reminds us that our imaginative task is always two-fold. We need the breathe of new life and generative power for institutional life.

Equally, I have seen the emerging photocopied. The challenge is not to reproduce Visions worship on your wall. Instead it is to worship God body, mind and soul, Incarnationally in your context.

Creativity is never formless and void. It always looks for the containers of time and space that will mark day from night, form from void. Such institutions are never timeless, but rather contextual markers that best fit the new imaginations. Such is the hard work of the church emerging. It is easier to despise the church of your fathers and mothers than to hoe the hard yards that are the forming of contextual containers for a new day.

I have been working on Mary’s song in Luke 1 this week. At base it is a song. It is a creative response to the generative and birthing work of God. As the Spirit of God hovers over the waters in Genesis 1, so the Spirit of God hovers over Mary’s womb. The Christmas story in Luke offers 3 other new imaginations, the songs of Zechariah and Simeon and the angels, that hum into life around the birth of Jesus. Mary walks in a long line of Biblical woman, like Miriam and Deborah and Hannah, who sing in creative response to the work of God. Mary’s song invites us to respond to the generative work of the spirit with new imaginary significations.

Mary’s song offers a theological imagination. Mary seems little interested in singing in a song in response to sociological observations of church practice and church decline. Instead her song emerges from her personal narrative of excluded woman and young teenage. So must all our songs, for God dwells among the stories of the poor and dispossessed. But Mary’s song refuses to remain stuck in her moment. Instead it becomes a form, a contextual hum, that will shape a movement toward God for the poor and marginalised. Such is the task of mission today. To sing Mary’s song for our day, bounded by our context, listening to the stories of God in life, in response to the hovering work of the Spirit. May the power of God’s Spirit be twofold this Advent, to breathe new imagination and generate institutional life, for the sake of the poor we pray, Amen.

Update: A somewhat excellent conversational email response to this post from Alan Roxburgh – reflecting further on imagination, leadership, emerging church and Mary’s song

Thanks for the gift of these reflections. I have been working through Ward’s wonderfully rich book – it provides us with generative materials for framing the work we are about. I look forward to continued conversations around its content.

The lines you pick and connect with Mary’s song connect me with a conversation I had this week with three people from down the valley who’ve been planting an ’emergent’ church for the past few years. One teaches philosophy at a nearby university, another is a counsellor and teaches psych and the third is the relatively new ‘pastor’ of this group of 150ish people. Like a lot of emergent experiments they began several years back out of an awareness that many of the people they knew had left the church bruised, hurt and abused by the seven-day-week, programmatic and propositional nature of their experiences. They sensed there was something more to Christianity but could no longer sustain life in an existing congregation. You know the story as well as I. What strikes me about these stories is the depth of murmuring around loss and longing that hangs in the air. So many out there sense something is wrong with the story of Christian life they’ve been given. Week by week they come out of church services with a murmuring inside shaped by a grief and hurt which, I think, is a whole lot about hunger to know God in the midst of a people. It is less and less likely they find it in busy churches shaped by arguments and preaching that have little to do with their lives – so they leave.

The philosopher and psychologist sensed all of this. They set up a Sunday night meeting built around theological conversations coming out of people’s lived questions. People came, they kept meeting and grew. Their narrative background is a fairly conservative denomination formed in and by modernity.

These folk were meeting with me for a couple of reasons. First, they just felt lonely after three years. Their own denomination doesn’t get what they’re about. The conversations they have scare the modernist propositionalist views of Scripture and truth in that denomination so these folk feel like orphans and are searching for places to connect and belong. It was poignant to here them describe this desire to be connected, understood and blessed. Second, they were trying to figure out what to do next. They had so reacted to their church experience that, as you indicate in your note, they are deeply distrustful of institutions, programs and organization. This distrust goes down deep – so much so that they really are struggling to know how to form and organize themselves as a church rather than a dialogue and happening on a Sunday night.

Obviously, other issues are at work. But here is an example of Ward’s point. These folk have been experimenting with whatever practices of hope they’ve been able to figure out (inside their narratives this has to do with creating spaces for dialogue around people’s lived questions) and in so doing generated hope and expectation. At the same time they are so burned by and suspicious of institutions that they have no idea how to give form to the hope and imagination. I have a lot of time for these kinds of folk.

I find it fascinating that many emergent folk speak of ‘institutions’ in quite Platonic ways as if there is this reified thing out there that is just objectively destructive of creatively and imagination. This is modernity deeply embedded in imagination even when its considered ‘postmodern’ to be anti-structure (when, in acts, its very modern). But it is also an illustration of how good people with a deep hunger for God’s future are struggling to break out of the systems that have shaped them – because we’re in a place where it is hard to articulate alternatives most of the time these folk kick against what has shaped them. But then there is this murmuring going on. The kicking and critique is also this other song that seems unable to find form. You talk about humming and breathing as you reflect upon Mary’s song. I wonder about Mary and Zechariah and Simeon. They lived in a geography and time when each knew that the narratives were broken and destructive to life. And there was this other song going on under the surface, this background murmuring of God’s past promise of a future that was not now. In the midst of their ‘making do’ with life they must have felt this song in some way but it did not have form or voice, it was murmur and humming. When I hum its because I’m not sure about the song. I was never trained in music and have no ear for tunes yet inside me is this hunger to sing out loud. But I dare not because all that would come out is noise. So I hum and in the humming I’m listening and longing to find someone who knows the tune and can lead me in the song. Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and so many of my emergent and non emergent friends today are in this experience. When I can only hum I mostly can name what isn’t the song but just can’t find inside the way to blast out the song that’s rumbling somewhere in the universe. Don’t you think that’s what’s going on all over the place in so many people and so many churches?

Then there is Mary and her song – a song that comes forth from her womb. “My soul magnifies the Lord…” I love those words! She knows, in her humble estate (what an understatement of poetic form and power), that the humming has been given form and voice by He who is being formed within her womb. Her breathing has now found words because the blessed Spirit has filled her womb with God. So now she sings with words no young peasant girl in rural Palestine could utter (our social science makes singing this song an impossibility in this situation) but her womb is full and it is the Lord who has done this thing. What am I going on about? In the midst of all the murmuring and humming of people who know something is wrong and kick against their inherited structures the Spirit is at work. How might we be poets and midwives to the murmuring and humming? This is what I see you doing so well, Steve, in your context. As I listened to you talk a few weeks ago in Christchurch I was so moved because this is what you’re doing. How do we midwife others into this vocation?

Mary’s womb is the place of God’s creativity and life. Ordinary Mary – a young girl who becomes the handmaiden of the Lord! I can’t imagine God’s Spirit just invaded Mary’s womb. We call that rape; minimally it would be the denial of human choice and freedom. So I can only imagine that this girl said Yes to God. What could that have meant to her in that culture? What a massive risk of hope! In Mary I see God’s future so much more clearly than in the power brokers and elites of culture. In the ordinary, insignificant life of this girl God’s future is born. So, in this little gathering of people down the valley with no idea about how to be a church is God’s future. But in these seven day a week congregations where pastors have grand plans for big futures there sit ordinary men and women who sense its all so artificial and long for God – there too is God’s future shaping itself in the womb of their lives.

Mary’s womb is the place of God’s life for the world. Within her, beginning as simple undifferentiated cells and emerging into greater and greater hierarchies of complexity, is Jesus. Wow! The emergent creative future of God, the hope of the world formed through delicate and intricate structures of organiztional development and the complex formation of cellular hierarchies. In each womb, in every place, the form taken is always new, always different, always the place of God’s future. The womb is the location of Ward’s both/and – the new imaginary of God and the formed institutions that mark the particular signification.

God’s great joy to you and your community in this time of Advent. Thanks for the conversations and the partnership on this journey.

Posted by steve at 04:49 PM


  1. “It is easier to despise the church of your fathers and mothers than to hoe the hard yards that are the forming of contextual containers for a new day.”
    You have just stated an incredible truth. So how do we find people willing to hoe the hard yards? How do we get off the treadmill of simply complaining?
    A bit frustrated in Spain.

    Comment by LNQ — December 23, 2006 @ 8:06 am

  2. thanks (muchas gracias) Ellen.

    for me it is about creating space for people to express their discontent. Then it is a 2nd stage: of listening for where is God in the stories of discontent, including reading the Scriptures where God has always been in discontent (of exile, of advent). This allows us to discern the new and for imagination to be born and re-born.

    does this help at all?

    Comment by steve — December 23, 2006 @ 11:18 am

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