Sunday, March 30, 2014

Together toward life: when The Shaping of Things to Come is much more bleak

The Australian Association of Mission Studies tri-annual conference is in Adelaide in October 2014. With Anthony Gittens the guest speaker, it promises to be a rich mission feast. The theme is Margins, Mission and Diversity and the conference will also acknowledge the tragic death of Ross Langmead.

Here is my proposed paper in which I try to connect the conference theme with my research on sustainability and fresh expressions:

Together toward life: when The Shaping of Things to Come is much more bleak.

The 2013 Commission on World Mission and Evangelism statement on mission encourages the local church in Spirited experimentation, (Local Congregations: New Initiatives). This could be argued to be a discernment of the Spirit’s activity on the margins of the church, for the sake of the world.

Such a (marginal) call is not new to Australia. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21 Century Church (2003, first edition) is considered a seminal Australian text in missiology. In chapter two, titled “Hope of Post-Christendom”, Frost and Hirsch present six stories of new initiatives in mission.

Investigation ten years reveals that three of these “hopes” are now closed (two incurring significant financial loss, a third misrepresented).

Such levels of failure in experimentation are consistent with data emerging from New Zealand and United Kingdom. Of the five communities described in Threshold of the Future: Reforming the Church in the Post-Christian West (Gospel and Cultures) (1998) none now survive. In the United Kingdom, of twelve communities researched by the author in 2001, only five now survive.

If new forms of church are the shaping of things to come, how might we respond missiologically to such data? Three responses will be explored. First, Biblically, in the mission of Epaphroditus in the letter to Philippians. Second, historically, how The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died understands the rise and fall of Christianity. Third, theologically, how a hermeneutic of surprise, emerging from Romans 8:15 (The Message) and the Pixar movie Up, values adventure over sustainability.

Posted by steve at 08:14 PM

14 Comments

  1. Steve,
    Sounds a fascinating paper, in an important topic.
    Seeing that ‘Shaping’ has been re-released in a new 10th anniversary edition, while your overall point remains, it would be worthwhile, important and interesting to check if the new edition has new stories, of which the authors were unaware at the time.
    Tim

    Comment by Tim Hein — March 30, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

  2. Hi Tim,
    I’m sure it does. That’s not my point – my point is to establish that across 3 countries, based on data from 10 plus years ago, sustainability is an issue. So the first edition is gold in that sense.

    Given this shared coherence, my point of research is to ask what to make of that missiologically?

    There is a 4th and 5th option – say that fresh expressions is not bearing fruit and thus should be ditched or that fresh expressions is not bearing fruit and techniques can be improved. But those are technical solutions and I’m interested in considering the question missiologically – how has the church in mission in the past dealt with a lack of success.

    steve

    Comment by steve — March 30, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

  3. Hi Steve,

    Over the years, I have read all the books you referred to in the post. Working in a relatively traditional church context, (Church of Scotland) I have found each of the books helpful in their own way. Going back to one of your posts last week, I have found them a great help and inspiration in terms of experimenting in the green zone. While it’s important to evaluate the successes and the failures, I think these projects have had a prophetic dimension to them which have spurred many others forward, including many fresh expressions which never hit the headlines or make it into the chapter of a book. Thanks for your great blog which has been a regular encouragement and inspiration to me.
    Duncan

    Comment by duncan — March 30, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

  4. Thanks Duncan. The prophetic dimension is important and those books has that in spades. So also is the apostolic, the building of communities. In Christendom a future without a church could not be imagined. Yet we live in much more unstable, volatile times and we need to look again at our missional ecclesiology

    steve

    Comment by steve — March 31, 2014 @ 8:59 am

  5. hi steve, LOVE to read the paper if you write it. it should be mentioned also that when Alan visited LA for the shaping book, he asked me for a recommendation of an emerging church and I suggested Millenium arts coop in Pomona which, if i remember, helps to intro the book. that also is no longer running. but it should be mentioned also that many of the leaders of these groups have started even more interesting and sustainable communities since that time but many of them do not qualify as the typical “church” structure, being either a loose coalition of organic missional projects without a sunday service, for example

    one of the big trends recently in launching sustainable communities is the permaculture movement which got its start in australia with Mollison and some Quaker philosophy behind it by the Aussie Rosemary – who also taught in NZ

    I am in NZ right now, and apart from Catholic Workers and Quaker community, i really dont see the church very involved – they are too infatuated with going urban and cool.

    sorry for ranting. all that to say that the aussies are giving leadership to global movements that the church is ignoring. hope your research goes well.

    Comment by Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi) — March 31, 2014 @ 9:51 am

  6. hi steve, LOVE to read the paper if you write it. it should be mentioned also that when Alan visited LA for the shaping book, he asked me for a recommendation of an emerging church and I suggested Millenium arts coop in Pomona which, if i remember, helps to intro the book. that also is no longer running. but it should be mentioned also that many of the leaders of these groups have started even more interesting and sustainable communities since that time but many of them do not qualify as the typical “church” structure, being either a loose coalition of organic missional projects without a sunday service, for example

    one of the big trends recently in launching sustainable communities is the permaculture movement which got its start in australia with Mollison and some Quaker philosophy behind it by Rosemary from Perth – who also taught Quakers in NZ

    I am in NZ right now, and apart from Catholic Workers and Quaker community, i really dont see the church very involved at all.

    sorry for ranting. all that to say that the aussies are giving leadership to global movements that the church is ignoring. hope your research goes well.

    Comment by Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi) — March 31, 2014 @ 9:55 am

  7. ooh – I like it, and hope to read the paper in time.

    I am particularly intrigued by the possibility of valuing adventure over sustainability – and the linked idea (I think) that Duncan raises, of the prophetic nature of fresh expressions …

    and ditto the thanks to you for telling the stories, asking the questions, provoking embrace of the adventure !

    Comment by sarah — March 31, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

  8. Hi Steve. Good to see you getting ready to write this. When exploring Forge incarnational approach to church in Queensland I came across a reasonable amount of cynicism about the long term sustainability of experimental church. That didn’t turn us off innovation. It just made us more careful about the systems of support needed for new projects, and realistic about the conditions needed on the ground before launching into new territory. Now in NSW/ACT I’m working with a team to develop a body of learning around 6 “failed” projects and 6 “still running and effective” projects. Will be good to compare notes as we go.

    Comment by Duncan Macleod — March 31, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

  9. Duncan and Andrew

    Have you ever wondered if “failure” should actually be the norm and if in fact durability is an oddity of Christendom, which in fact has made the church less willing to risk, experiment, grow.

    In rapidly changing cultures, won’t we want lots of projects dying in order that others might be rising? Shouldn’t death be the hallmark of success – both in terms of Easter and in terms of missional life in changing worlds?

    steve

    Comment by steve — March 31, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

  10. Yes I have wondered that Steve. Check out a podcast conversation I did with Dave Andrews, Randy Edwards and Steve Drinkall back in 2008, on this topic. We explored the idea of sustainable discipleship as being more significant than the sustainable structures of any particular faith community.

    Comment by Duncan Macleod — March 31, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

  11. http://www.postcardradio.com/about-us/postcard-podcasts/45-are-simple-churches-sustainable-roundtable-1

    Comment by Duncan Macleod — March 31, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

  12. Yes Steve, [he says 3 weeks later as if the question was just asked] I have thought of that and I dont think fear of failure should be allowed to rule our strategies and ministries. I am also researching the movement, as always, in a few more countries than the big 3, and reaching back to the 80′s rather than the 90′s, but one thing I would like to become clear in the “failure” conversation is this:

    although many of the emerging churches/fresh expressions/experimental ministries quite possibly did, in some sense, FAIL – and with that failure . . . close up and cease to exist as an institutions . .. and here is my point . .. . the leaders and in many cases the leadership teams are still around, launching new expressions of church and mission that in many ways are more holistic, more sustainable both financially and in terms of manpower

    perhaps the focus should have been on the emerging leaders and not on their projects

    btw – i see 2009 as the year where much of the movement globally either closed or wound down . . . and 2014 as the year in which the new season began. as i write, many of the networks are re:birthing, often under new names and all happening at the same time. quite exciting really

    i should shut up

    Comment by Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi) — April 15, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

  13. Agreed Andrew.

    I’m working on 5 levels of assessment
    - gathered community
    - those involved
    - emerging leaders
    - product produced
    - denominational interests

    And using these as a grid to talk about sustainability. It is a very narrow view of church to suggest that church=gathered community

    You should keep talking,
    steve

    Comment by steve — April 15, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

  14. plz let me know if i can help your research, esp. after my recent 30+ country research trip

    Comment by Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi) — April 15, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

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