Monday, October 04, 2021

“a unique contribution”: Andrew Dunlop reviews my First Expressions book

Another (7th) international academic review of my First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God is out in International Bulletin of Mission Research, Vol 45, Issue 4, 2021, 441-442, here. The review is by Andrew Dunlop, who is Tutor in Context-Based Training at Ridley Hall and oversees pioneer teaching for lay and ordained. The review is a highly accurate summary of the book, with many affirmations.

Since the review is behind a paywall, here are some of my highlights
– “a first — a longitudinal study” of new Christian communities
– the empirical research of new Christian communities is “particularly engaging” with my “woven ecclesiology” (90–91) offering a “reframing” of sustainability in fresh expressions of church. (Instead of longevity, numbers, and finance, I argue for leadership development, inter-generational faith formation and creative resource making).
– “a huge amount of deep missiological thinking”, particularly as from the empirical date I develop themes of authenticity, ambient witness, creativity, sacramentality, and governance, explored through the credal framework of the church being one, holy, catholic, and apostolic
– noting my conclusion, that “innovation is what makes church “church,” enabling it to remain faithful to this credal structure (232)”

Andrew concludes that First Expressions makes a “unique contribution” to ecclesiology questions around resourcing and sustainability. The book is of “particular interest to those studying new Christian communities.” First Expressions also provides “a valuable addition to theologies of innovation.” Thanks Andrew for such an accurate review, along with such a range of compliments.

This is the 7th substantive review of First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God. The other reviews (that I’m aware of) are summarised by me –

  • here in Theology;
  • here in Church Times;
  • here in Ecclesial Futures;
  • here in Practical Theology;
  • here in Ecclesiology;
  • here in Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal.
Posted by steve at 09:26 AM | Comments (0)

Monday, June 14, 2021

navigating leadership transitions in innovative communities

A few weeks ago, an email with a question – how to navigate changes in innovative communities?

navigating changes in first expressions from steve taylor on Vimeo.

A church pastor, who after reading my book First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God, asked if I could share some wisdom with their leadership team about navigating changes and transitions in innovative communities. The community were losing a key leader. New communities by nature have little experience of leadership transitions, so what wisdom could I share?

So I made a short video, reflecting on some of my own experiences (including my “have you grown” story). I also made a leadership transition bingo card, to reflect on innovation theologies and different church systems. I concluded with 3 tips drawn from research I did for First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God, lessons from 10 innovative communities I researched over an 11 year period

  • storyforming
  • flexibility
  • situation awareness.

Resources – leadership transition bingo card

Posted by steve at 09:09 PM

Sunday, May 23, 2021

“important data”: Emma Percy reviews my First Expressions book in Theology Today

“The book is a useful read for those engaged in Fresh Expressions and Pioneer ministry and those making decisions about what and how we support such initiatives.”

Emma Percy reviews my First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God in the latest edition of academic journal Theology 2021, 124 (3): 215-216. Theology as a journal considers itself the best journal available for students in ministerial formation, for theological educators and recent ordinands, as well as for laity and clergy keen to keep in touch with developments in Christian thought and practice. So it’s great to have the book reviewed!

Dr Emma Percy has research interests in feminist theology and ministry and is Chaplain and Welfare Dean, Trinity College, in Oxford. She affirms my research has generated important data and considers the book a useful read that is beginning a needed conversation, particularly when new initiatives are linked to financial grants. She considers my theological conversation partners (Janet Soskice and Julian of Norwich) are interesting and notes how I’ve chosen them because of the gendered nature of the formal Fresh Expressions movement of the Church of England. She affirms my questioning of the overvaluing of permanence in ecclesiology as “important” and requires further “nuanced theological reflection.”

She has some critical comments. First, she thinks the book has too many theological strands, with a need for greater coherence. Second, she wanted more engagement with the more critical voices in the debates around Fresh Expressions. Third, she ponders the reality that metaphors have limits. She considers how the birthing theologies I develop (from feminist theology) work given my data and how to understand the closure of first expression gatherings in relation to death of babies and infants. At the same time, metaphors have potential, which is clearly evident as Percy begins to work with my metaphors of craft and compost in seeking to think about the ecclesiology of first expressions.

Foregrounding some of his other metaphors from ecology or craft may have enabled him to play with the idea of things springing up and then being dug back into the ground or a faulty pot being remade into something new.

Finally, a conclusion, that the book is timely and important for the Church of England, particularly given current financial constraints. Thanks Dr Emma Percy, for a really thoughtful review, that helps me keep thinking, particularly about metaphors of craft and compost.

…….

This is the sixth substantive review of First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God. There have been five other reviews (that I’m aware of)

  • here in Church Times;
  • here in Ecclesial Futures;
  • here in Practical Theology;
  • here in Ecclesiology;
  • here in Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal.
Posted by steve at 10:45 AM

Friday, February 12, 2021

Lockdown ecclesiologies: the limits and possibilities of enforced online first expressions

And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt. 18.3)

In April last year, in the midst of lockdown here in Aotearoa New Zealand, I was invited to offer some theological reflection on being church online, with the hope of an online publication. Then in July, the request came for me to expand the writing, from 3,000 words to 5,000, with the possibility of the work appearing in a book project.

News this week that the book project has found a publisher – SCM/SCM/Westminster John Knox – and a time frame for publication – November 2021 – in time for American Academy of Religion launch. The book has around 13 contributors, reflecting from diverse contexts including Ghana, Switzerland and Thailand, along with the usual UK and USA. Tentatively titled Ecclesiology for a Digital Church, it examines the impact of being digital on church thought and practice.

Here’s the title for my chapter, along with my current 1 sentence summary —

Lockdown ecclesiologies: the limits and possibilities of enforced online first expressions

Enforced online first expressions are an invitation to attend to our enfleshment, appreciating ourselves as child-like, making visible the kingdom as we learn a new (internet) language.

My writing was shaped by a Nurturing faith online community of practice I had started as lockdowns began, seeking to support church leaders. Sensing the struggles, I had initiated the offer of a supportive environment to encourage action and reflection. As a result, I had the privilege of walking alongside some 25 leaders, from 5 different countries, all wrestling with the challenges of lockdown. This became an invaluable resource, informing my own struggles as I sought to lead a theological college community into enforced online formation and innovate with online education across the wider Presbyterian Church (called Bubble courses).

It’s a delight to see some of my theological ponderings – particularly the work of 11th century theologian Rupert of Deutz – find a published outlet.

Posted by steve at 11:47 AM

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

radical re-conceptualization of the marks of the Church – First Expressions book review

There is a review of my book First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God in the latest edition of Ecclesiology 16, 3 (2020), 429-431 by York St John (UK) theologian, John Williams. Ecclesiology is an international, ecumenical and fully peer-reviewed theological journal. The main focus of the journal is on the mission, ministry and unity of the Church. So it’s great to have the book reviewed in that context.

There are lots of affirmations by the reviewer. My book is”substantial” (429) and I’m at my best when engaging in “critical theological and practical reflection on his empirical research” (429). While First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God is considered “particularly useful for those involved in Fresh Expressions” (429) it also deemed to provide a “stimulating contribution to the conversation right across the ecclesial spectrum” (431).

There are some critical questions. My methodology is overtheorized (although better to be overtheorised than under, particularly when it comes to new areas of ecclesial research) and my fourfold typology for ‘innovation’ is confusing (need to be clearer that I am working with metaphors, which by nature require different ways of thinking).

So a mirror on my strengths as a thinker (theological and practical reflection on empirical research) and weaknesses as a writer (over-theorised). And some helpful pointers for further research and writing, for which I am grateful.

And an opinion – that I am offering something distinctly original – “an alternative paradigm for ecclesiology” (431). Across 20 centuries of Christian thought, what I am proposing is a “radical re-conceptualization of the ‘classical marks of the Church” (430), an ecclesiology distinct from paradigms of the church enshrined in historical continuity, hierarchical structure or ecumenical agreement. So that is very high praise – for my book and for Fresh Expressions/emerging church.

Posted by steve at 10:50 AM

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Imagining a New Normal

During lockdown one of the projects and communities, I’ve been involved in is Imagining a New Normal.

Within each Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand there are Mission Catalysts. Some are employed, some volunteer with a passion for God’s mission. During lockdown, these Mission Catalysts have gathered online, brought together by PressGo. The group is becoming a learning community, providing support, encouragement and sharing resources and ideas. As long-held assumptions about church services have been confronted and challenged, there are opportunities to talk about the possibilities of igniting a missional imagination, asking “what if?” questions and taking some risks.

Generally, the future unfolds in small steps. Change involves experiments, from which learnings are gleaned. This enables discernment toward the future. Mission Catalysts know the power of the story. Stories can ignite the imagination, evoke curiosity and help people to think differently.

SO … the Mission Catalysts set themselves the task of telling “what if” stories. We started from “what is” and then told forward where that might lead. Each story was then submitted to peer review. What are the mission practices embedded in each “imagining”. The stories have been collated and a first edition is here. I’ve got one, imagining local church wanting to simplify and seek to stay online. I also did some work, peer reviewing some of the peer reviewing, a way of me offering my missiology skills to the ongoing life of this important learning community.

safe_image

The aim is to give permission, offer grounded mission and so to spark more stories – for local communities to “out tell” us with their real life “what if” …

The next stories are yours. We want to hear from parishes, faith communities and small groups about the things that God has been stirring up. About the things you have tried that worked and the ones that didn’t. Stories that start with the seed of an idea, ask “what if” and then, with a playful demeanour, give it a go.

Posted by steve at 03:24 PM

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

being church as public gatherings are shut down

In 2005, I wrote a book about a future church. In one chapter, I pointed out that the Bible shows that faith is transmitted in many ways. One way is through the Jewish synagogue pattern of meeting weekly.

However, the Old Testament provides other ways by which faith was transmitted. There were festivals, large scale community events that celebrated life over numbers of days. There were pilgrimages, with Psalms of Ascent to sing on journeys. Upon return, there were kitchen tables at which the experiences of festivals past was retold. At significant landmarks, stones were gathered in piles so that when curious children asked “What’s that,” stories of God active in the past could be shared.

In other words, there have always been other ways to transmit faith than by weekly gathered worship.

The COVID19 pandemic is an opportunity to explore these other ways. There are so many possibilities other than live streaming that weekly pattern. We are being freed to minister Word and offer sacramental leadership in other ancient ways.

Design do at home Easter services with recipes for feasts around the family table. Create prayers to turn the pilgrimage from the front door to letterbox into Psalms of Ascent and Descent. Design ways to share digital stories of God’s actions in times present and past. Offer asynchronous lectio divina using open source software.

Posted by steve at 09:38 PM

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The missio dei embodied in local community ministry in Scotland

IMG_7973 Leading a Listening in Mission class a few weeks ago, with highlighters in hand, working with a case study, some things clicked and a conference abstract – with a colleague – for the International Association for Mission Studies, Sydney July 2020 (IAMS) emerged.

The missio dei embodied in local community ministry in Scotland
Mark Johnston and Steve Taylor

This paper examines the use of missio Dei in a local community context. It outlines a missology of discerning that provides a way to interpret the birthing of the Blue Horizon Youth Charity in South Aberdeen, Scotland.

Our paper works with the assumption that the missio Dei is axiomatic for a missional ecclesiology. In John 5:29, the Son can only do what the Father does. In Luke 10:1-11, a naming of the Kingdom occurs after acts of healing, suggesting a contextual particularity. Hence listening and discernment in local contexts are essential to mission.

The missio Dei is theorised by applying three frames – neighbourhood listening, diagnosing local narratives and discerning God and the gospel – to a case study of the development of a local community ministry. Listening involves activating presence and seeking immersive relationships of curiosity and proximity. Diagnosing occurs through visual tools, utilising metaphors of icebergs and bridges. Diagnosing enables discerning, evident as documents describing the ethos, beliefs, values and practices of Blue Horizon are critically examined with hindsight. A continuity between listening, diagnosing and discerning is developed, suggesting that for community ministry today, doing what the Father does requires action-reflection on community ministry, pays attention to vulnerable voices in the community, works ecumenically and partners with non-church actors in ways that are inclusive while affirming gospel values.

This research provides tools and outlines practices for the local church, interpreted missiologically. Missiology is returned to the local church as the missio Dei is embodied in local community mission.

Posted by steve at 01:25 PM

Thursday, October 31, 2019

in the editing cave

I am in the editing cave.

And it is dark.

IMG_7847

The copy edits on my first expressions book arrived a few weeks ago.

I took some time to sit with the joy – of seeing the actual size of the book; of holding a complete manuscript of 240 pages, of leafing through and admiring how the multiple tables worked to clarify; of seeing how the haiku I wrote for each chapter work to ensure white space for creativity.

But the copy edits came with a deadline. Please undertake a final read and return any corrections by 4 November.

In order to begin, I needed to break up the task. There are 13 chapters, so over 3 weeks; that means 4 chapters a week; 4 days a week with a day of grace for the unexpected/travel etc.

In order to begin, I needed to find a new spot. Normally I begin each day writing in a cafe. For m, it is a profoundly important time, a time to ideate, to be imaginative with ideas and creative with words. I’m more fully human after an hour of writing.

I have a local cafe with big windows opening onto green space and the distraction of voices talking. In that space I am creative.

But copy edits require not big ideas but focus and careful attention to detail.

The University library has some chairs under the first floor stairwell. This is a confined space, perfectly suited for focus. There is free 2 hour parking close by. That also provides confinement – I only have 2 hours; this concentration has a time limit.

There are no neighbours. This also is important, as I edit by reading aloud. Speaking the words helps me concentrate, be more attentive to what is actually printed, not what my brain thinks should be printed. Under the stairwall, I can talk to myself, hear only myself.

In this cave, I am able to work differently. I miss (terribly) the invitation to be creative and ideate. But in the confines of their stairwall, there is hope. This has limits. This is not forever. This will end.

And in that, there is satisfaction.

Posted by steve at 05:57 PM

Monday, January 29, 2018

tiny text of Church in Mission: Theology in Changing Cultures

A tiny text is a miniature version of the whole. It has been applied to academic work by Pat Thomson. So here is a tiny text, a summary of what I was trying to do in Church in Mission: Theology in Changing Cultures, the week long intensive I taught last week for University of Otago/Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (in partnership with Doug Gay) . I offered it to students as the course progressed and as I challenged myself: could I, in around 350 words, summarise the week of teaching, including linking to assignments, course learning outcomes and each of the course readings.

globe-trotter-1-1531337-640x480 Mission can be defined as joining what God is up to in the world. This human response emerges from the conviction that God sends the Son and Spirit. Humans partner with God, including in resistance of evil, the making of all things new and expressing God’s life in the indigenous particularity of local contexts.

This understanding of mission defines the church as willing to be sent beyond existing locations into liminal spaces; to pay attention to contexts; and to participate in discerning the patterning of God’s movement. However, the sheer complexity of our global world suggests that no one size fits all. Further, the ongoing unfolding of our cultural contexts requires us to listen afresh to context and to respond appropriately in change.

Analysis of history, for example in Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity, enables a global and in-depth understanding of the resources of the Christian tradition (Assignment 1). One way to categorise the range of church responses is using the headings of resistance, innovation and indigeneity. Because of the unique relationship between theology and culture, each of these responses will have strengths and weaknesses.

As we learn from the past, we gain insight for the present. We can understand the present as we engage in mapping cultural hermeneutics: listening to the cultural complexity of New Zealand today, including at micro, meso and macro levels (Assignment 2). Mapping is then followed by discerning which of the responses – resistance, innovation and indigeneity – the church might adopt. The re-forming that results is part of the churches ongoing participation in the unfolding mission of God (Assignment 3).

Hence the three assignments will demonstrate a theologically rigorous and culturally informed understanding of re-forming Christian communal identity: past and future. The three assignments will bring together perspectives of global theology (Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity), contemporary cultures (mapping cultural hermeneutics) and ecclesial study of resistance, innovation and indigeneity in a critical and constructive dialogue.

Posted by steve at 09:42 AM

Sunday, June 04, 2017

The emerging church in transatlantic perspective

Just out in the latest edition of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2017: 1-11) is a really interesting article on the Emerging Church by Matthew Guest, of Durham University. Matthew did his PhD in the area and we shared a joint article in 2006. (“The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 6 (1), 2006, 49-64).

In The emerging church in transatlantic perspective, Guest offers a first attempt at sketching the “global dimensions” of the Emerging Church movement (1). He notes that such cross-national analysis remains “substantially under-researched.” (The exception is Marti and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014), which examines only the relationship between US and Ireland). As a result, appreciation of the sociological influences of global flows of economic and cultural capital are underdeveloped.

Guest notes the now extensive number of existing sociological studies that have adopted a case study approach to the ECM at a local, regional or national level. These now provides a “wealth of empirical data” from which to theorise the movement as a global phenomena (2).

“A global perspective calls for a theorisation of its contours that takes seriously the particular cultural and historical experiences that framed its emergence” (2).

The ECM is defined as prioritising a conversation over a body of doctrine, valuing an authenticity in dialogue with culture, offering a creative ritual expression that tends toward pick and mix and fostering inclusive spaces for those damaged by mainstream Christianity (2). Guest points to a “single master narrative” (1), that of postmodernity, used as a trope to emphasize the novelty of the movement (1). This trope is enhanced by the “expert theorisers” whose “intellectual capacities in critiquing church and culture contribute to the illusion that they … have effectively disentangled themselves from the institutional and cultural constraints that limit the efforts of the mainstream.” (2, citing The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity ( 2014:81)). The ECM becomes an extension of the entreprenurial tendencies of contemporary evangelicalism, made distinct by this positioning in relation to gospel and culture. Having established this commonality of “entrepreneurial evangelicalism” (3), Guest however argues for national differences, shaped by different denominational structures and local histories.

First, he notes how ECM in Australasia emerged from Baptistic-type churches. This was made possible by their focus on the local expression of church, which gave space for innovation to happen and made sense as an early rapid response to cultural change. Many of these early adopters were central city churches and/or nourished by artistic communities. He contrasts this with the UK, in which many early adopters groups were attached to Anglican churches.

Second, he reflects on the gradual mainstreaming of the ECM. This is sociological, as groups have aged, settled into careers and had families. This has opened up a generational gap. Recent research among university students in the UK suggests that ECM’s priority on authenticity is not shared by today’s Christian young adults (5). “Faced with the much more visible, vibrant, and populous evangelical churches that affirm a clear, accessible and explicit theological essentialism, few young people are attracted by the subdued, small-scale, meditative tone of ECM worship.” (5)

Third, he examines national differences, in particular in the US. He notes the strong reaction against the religious right and megachurches in the US. This produces a stronger sense of identity among ECM adherents. Hence “the ECM localizes most coherently and most enduringly within contexts in which a dogmatic evangelical Protestantism is also a culturally salient presence” (7). This is enhanced by the strong voluntarist culture of the US.

In conclusion, Guest notes the global flows of entrepreneurial capitalism and conversionist Protestantism. ECM benefits from these cultural resources, including individual self-expression and the forming voluntary associations, magnified by the high levels of IT competence, artistic creativity and theological literacy. At the same time, Guest argues that clusters of cultural affinity as essential vehicles for the transmission of identity (8). He suggests a cluster of affinity between US and Northern Ireland, based on being a counter-sectarian response to dogmatic evangelical Protestantism. This is not shared in UK and Australasia, which share a more heavily secularised contexts.

I have a number of points of nuance and critique, but that is for another post. What is interesting is that the emerging church continues to enjoy academic research.

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The church in question: from 3 Kiwi songs

church-in-question

Last week I was in Wellington for The church in question: A conversation, an event cohosted by Victoria University and St Johns-in-the-city. The aim was to provoke a broad-ranging conversation about the state of the church. Hence the venue was a pub, more likely to engender an open, lively, public conversation than a church hall. Format wise, there were four short (8 minute) talks from a panel of four, Dr Doug Gay, Dr Matthew Scott, Dr Susan Jones and myself, followed by Q and A. (Although for a few it was imore statement than question).

Church people talking about church people can become quite inward. So I got thinking about the questions the music I’m currently listening to is asking of church. I was surprised how easy it was to find songs – recent Kiwi music – in which the church is in question. So much for secular NZ society. So here is what I said:

world-church

There is a saying – “It is better to sit in the inn thinking about the church, than sit in the church thinking about the inn.” So it’s great to here tonight – in an inn – thinking about the church.

I want to think by listening to 3 NZ songs – all recent – all thinking about the church in question.

I could’ve taken a theological angle. As Principal of a theological College, this is favoured terrain for my students. I could’ve taken a new forms of church angle. I do in my 2005 book, The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (emergentYS). I could’ve taken a leadership in change angle. I do that in my 2016 book, Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration. But in honour of being in an inn, I want to look at some NZ music. Three contemporary Kiwi songwriters, all reflecting on the church in question.

The first song is Waiting for a Voice, by Dave Dobbyn. It is from his Harmony House album. His 8th solo album. His first in 8 years. Released in March.

The first verse of the opening song has the lyrics

“I saw a stranger on the opposite shore
Cooking up a meal for me
And what’s more I Hear Elijah. Get into the water man and lose your sin.”

So there is food (cooking up a meal). There is religious themes (Elijah). Which drives into the chorus (Heaven is waiting for a choice, Waiting for a still, clear voice.)

So this is good news – there is divine encounter. But there are question. In a pew-based, front-facing performance, where is the place for “cooking up a meal” and see the stranger and listening for “still, clear voice.” A first Kiwi song. Divine encounter, but the church in question about the forms and practices by which we hear the “still, clear voice.”

The second song is One hand by Little Bushmen. It is off their Te Oranga, 2011 album. Their 3rd studio album. The final song, the lyrics of the first verse are as follows:

One hand raised up high
is it to ask a question, or to deny?
And one hand can turn the tide
from sorrow to divine

As with Dobbyn, the divine encounter is not in question – “And one hand can turn the tide from sorrow to divine.” It comes when there is room to raise the one hand to question.

The second verse brings the church into question

Two hands raised to worship
your deities wait in slumber
Those two hands, building Rome
seedy senate self implode

So there’s questions about 2-handed worship and about a church that partners with Rome, perhaps a reference to Constantine and Christendom. The bridge continues to bring the church into question. This time theologically:

I want to love my neighbor
though he’s a non-believer
He ain’t no sinner man.

Can the church practise love the neighbour and hold to belief in “sinner man”? So again in NZ culture, the church is in question. The divine is a reality, but only when linked with one hand raised in question, not two hands raised in worship. Can the church allow dissent and activism, a love of neighbourhood beyond a “sinner man” theology?

A third song is from SJD – Sean Donnelly. From his 7th album. Released 2015. As with Dobbyn and Little Bushmen, there is plenty of space for the divine. It begins with the album title – Saint John Divine – referencing presumably the 15th century Spanish theologian and mystic.

The second to last song on the album is titled “Through the Valley” and the chorus rifts off the Lords prayer “It will be accomplished on earth as it is heaven (chorus).” The song starts sounding hymn like. Lest we think this is only about funerals – singing the Lord is my shepherd – as a loved one goes through the valley, the lyrics describe what could be Pentecostal church.

“The laying on of hands will commence with the prayer
Still you stumble to the front,
When we call out,
Call out backsliders and sinners.”

But SJD often has his tongue in his cheek. He tells the NZ Herald that the song brings the church into question – “As a teenager I had some involvement with churches … it wasn’t really for me, and the song is about that disconnect.” So once again, in contemporary NZ culture, allegedly secular, we find the church in question; linked with funerals and Pentecostal altar calls, but disconnected from young people.

At the risk of offering nothing more than a questions -What forms of church cultivate hearing the still clear voice? Is there room for 1 hand raised in question? Can faith be more than alien to young people? -let me end by turning to the research from Nancy Ammerman, (Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) one of the most comprehensive contemporary studies of spirituality.

She concludes

  • First, that contemporary faith is a lot more interesting than counting prayer and church attendance. As we see by listening to 3 Kiwi songs
  • Second, that religion and spirituality are not binary opposites but overlapping quests. Hence the struggles we hear in each of our 3 Kiwi songs
  • Third, that the stronger the connection between everyday life and community, the richer. Hence the plea in Little Bushman, for a faith in which the one hand can question and activate.
  • Fourth, that for many, many people, life is more than ordinary. As we see with Dave Dobbyn.

Some thoughts as I sit in the inn, thinking about church, in the inn, listening to contemporary Kiwi music.

Posted by steve at 07:09 PM

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

the potential of deconstruction: Emerging churches grow people

This is not how you do research! I was at a professional development course on Tuesday, upskilling in the area of writing for publication. The lunch exercise was to find a journal we might be interested in publishing in. The venue, a modern secular University, had few journals in the area of missiology and theology. So I pulled out a journal on sociology of religion. Flipping it open, I found an article researching spiritual growth in the emerging church. This is not how you do research. But it is a great resource.

Sally K. Gallagher and Chelsea Newton, “Defining Spiritual Growth: Congregations, Community, and Connectedness,” Sociology of Religion 2009, 70:3 232-261.

This is a fascinating piece of research. Gallagher and Newton note the claim that religion is good for people. Sociologists like Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, (2003) have explored how religion is a spiritual capital. It provides relational networks. It offers meaning through the opportunity to volunteer. It provides frames by which to interpret experiences.

What has not been researched is how the notion of spiritual growth can be good. Nor whether spiritual growth looks different in different types of churches.

Gallagher and Newton researched four congregations in NorthWest Pacific, one of which is an emerging church (the other three are conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox). Their focus is ordinary people in these congregations, whom they interview in order to understand how they define, articulate and experience spiritual growth. The congregational focus is consistent with the desire to explore the social nature of spiritual growth.

Every congregation shared a similar understanding of spiritual growth as a process. Yet each of the groups expressed ideas around spiritual growth that were consistent with the theological tradition in which they operate. Mainline Presbyterian emphasised tolerance and respect for a diversity of beliefs, conservative Presbyterian focused on bible teaching, participation in church and an identity distinct from the surrounding culture, Eastern Orthodox on practices that connect with ancient traditions in order to love and care for others.

They describe the emerging church as based on “authentic relationship, dialogue, community.” (253) Core messages include an emphasis on deep and authentic relationships and a culturally connected faith that “resonates with a generation that deeply values diversity and authenticity” (257). Growth happens through processes that include worship services that use diverse elements like arts, science, nature, a range of service opportunities and adult education offering theology and film, medieval spirituality, Hebrew and spiritual formation outdoors. “Individuals in this group placed somewhat less emphasis on what happens Sunday morning as a source of spiritual growth than people in other congregations.” (253)

“At the Urban Village emerging church, a consensus around spiritual growth centred on relationships with God, family, and friends within the church and broader community. Authenticity in each of these areas was both a means of spiritual growth and an end in itself. To be mature in this congregation was to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with trusted others in much the same way as in a personal and authentic relationship with God.” (258)

They note that while the emerging church emphasised “the deconstruction of tradition in order to reclaim a more authentic faith – we heard the echo and rephrasing of historically traditional themes that find expression within well-established Christian traditions.” (260)

In sum, emerging churches are distinctive. The emphasis on authenticity of relationship with people and the surrounding culture produces a distinctive approach to spiritual growth. What is intriguing is that the deconstructive element is actually working to enhance connections, albeit rewired, to different aspects of the Christian tradition. What is also instructive is that the processes of spiritual growth are more de-centred from the Sunday gathering (in contrast to other groups). “One other facet of spiritual growth that was central … was the place of the physical world in facilitating spiritual growth …. part of its broader mission to include teaching and activities that focus both on global as well as local social concerns.” (254)

Posted by steve at 10:34 PM

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Authenticity in Religious Innovation: “Alternative Worship” and “Fresh Expressions”

My journal article – The Complexity of Authenticity in Religious Innovation: “Alternative Worship” and Its Appropriation as “Fresh Expressions” – has now been published in Media and Culture. Because it’s not only a publication that is peer reviewed, but also online, it is available for free – here.

In the article, I begin with an introduction to three thinkers who analyse the place of authenticity in contemporary culture. They are Charles Taylor (The Ethics of Authenticity), Philip Vanini (in Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture) and Sarah Thornton (Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital).

I then explore the rise of alternative worship and Fresh Expressions under three heading:

  • Generation of Authenticity-as-Originality
  • Mainstream Appropriation
  • Consequent Complexification

This generates what I think is the guts of my argument –

Both “alternative worship” and Fresh Expressions are religious innovations. But Fresh Expressions defined itself in a way that conflated the space. It meant that the boundary marking so essential to “alternative worship” was lost. Some gained from this. Others struggled with a loss of imaginative and cultural creativity, a softening of authenticity-as-originality.

More importantly, the discourse around Fresh Expressions also introduced authenticity-as-sincerity as a value that could be used to contest authenticity-as-originality. Whether intended or not, this also challenged the ethic of authenticity already created by these “alternative worship” communities. Their authenticity-as-originality was already a practicing of an ethic of authenticity. They were already sharing a “horizon of significance” with humanity, entering into “dialogical relations with others” that were a contemporary expression of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic (Taylor The Ethics of Authenticity, 52, 48) …. The value of authenticity has been found to exist in a complex relationship with the ethics of authenticity within one domain of contemporary religious innovation.

A colleague who read it last night called the article “brilliant.” A practitioner responded that it made sense of a ministry context they were part of. So that’s very encouraging.

I’ve blogged about some more of the journey to publication here. But in essence, during Presbytery and Synod last year, I pulled together a paper proposal from a part of my PhD thesis that I’d always wanted to develop further. The abstract was accepted, which forced me to write a 1500 word paper for TASA (The Australian Sociological Australian). The feedback was very positive and that gave me enough momentum to turn the spoken words into written words. The peer reviewers used words like “insightful … well-researched … innovative … an original use of Charles Taylor’s” and it was accepted with minor editorial comments.

It is the first publication resulting from my fresh expressions 10 years on research project and I hope becomes a spring board to complete the book (just write Steve). Or in the words of one peer-reviewer – “I get the impression that this is part of a wider study, and, if so, it is one that I look forward to reading.”

Posted by steve at 06:18 PM