living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.

learning to search for common ground

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

One Easter the local Baptist Church hall was transformed from preschool into Art Exhibition. On Good Friday, I agreed to steward, on the proviso I could nip out when the joint churches ‘Walk of Witness’ arrived so I could do a reading.

That morning the other volunteer steward arrived to be greeted by crowds at the door. She hurried inside, wondering what was going on.  On finding the exhibition deserted, she came out just in time to see me, sporting my clerical collar, reading the story of the Crucifixion.

Afterwards, we sat and talked. We had met through a previous Hug Cullompton art exhibition, and had become friends. Over previous cups of tea she had shared with me her childhood experiences of church – where she was told not to ask such awkward questions, and was sent off to play elsewhere as she was thought disruptive to the other children.

Her questions had, in my view, been quite typical ones. She had wondered why God should be described as a man and how ‘he’ had created the universe.  What I would consider a healthy curiosity had been deemed by her Sunday School teachers insolent.  As a consequence my friend had rejected the church, much as the church rejected her, and taken her own, rich, spiritual path, totally away from formal Christianity.

As we drank tea and ate the homemade cakes she had brought, we discussed the meaning of the Easter story. She said:

“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be sat here talking about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. Nowadays I even find myself praying to him.”

What my friend described was not a ‘conversion’ experience. That’s not what this was. Fundamentally my friend’s views had not changed. Her belief in a divine, benevolent, creative power remains, as does her passion for nature. She continues to understand Jesus as a powerful energy to whom she can pray. Her issue is not belief; it is the accompanying doctrines of the church with which she cannot identify.

I have found it is often the doctrines and practices, which we ‘in the church’ take for granted, that present huge problems for those struggling to articulate and make sense of their beliefs. Language that rolls off our tongues without a second thought can alienate and exclude, to the extent that many walk away from Jesus, rather than try to work out what they consider to be unfathomable concepts.

I have often been heard to say, “I find that what people believe tends to vary a lot less than the differences in the way they describe it.”

As fewer and fewer people associate with the Church and its way of articulating itself, missional conversations are increasingly going to require delving beneath the surface, listening for what people actually mean by the language they use.  I often find that people who speak about their beliefs in very different ways to me actually believe the same things.  If Christians are to communicate successfully what they hold dear, it is for them to step outside the comfort of their own doctrines and traditions, and listen without judging. I suspect that, if they did, they would often find they are standing on common ground.

For more about the how to go about sharing the faith in secular England, click here.

 

Walking the journey from despair to hope…

beach-sea-coast-sand-ocean-horizon-531737-pxhere.com… or, facing the reality that the church needs change and working out how

I remember the day I first discovered that the church in Great Britain is in decline.  The year was 2007 and I was sitting in my first MA seminar.  The module was entitled Secularisation and the Church, and on the screen was a graph charting the decline of the different denominations. The United Reformed Church (URC) line was the steepest.

I remember feeling angry. I was a relatively newly ordained minister, with a church maintaining its numbers, despite a number of deaths among older congregation members. As a church we generally blamed our lack of substantial growth on the church down the road, attendance there being a prerequisite for admission to the  local church school.  As I stared at the line-of-decline I felt as though I had been deluding myself. Our failure to attract new attenders had less to do with church school policy and more to do with societal and cultural changes to which we, as the church, weren’t responding . It seemed I had dedicated years of my life, and my future, to a failing organisation.

For the next few years debate continued on whether or not Britain had become secularised  – as though denying a truth would make it go away.  The way I see it now, even if it wasn’t the case then, we are living in a secular age – if we mean, by the term ‘secular’, an age in which British people generally no longer understand the world through the lens of formal religion.  What the sociologist Peter Berger (1990) termed the ‘sacred canopy’, under which people make meaning in England, has indeed been seriously compromised, if not fractured.

Which raises a question: what is the Church to do about it?

A book which tackles this subject is Mark Ireland and Mike Booker’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (2015).  It is a follow up to Evangelism: Which Way Now? published in 2003, which outlines and assesses a variety of evangelistic courses.

In Making New Disciples Ireland and Booker begin by acknowledging the societal and cultural changes which have impacted the church since the publication of their first book:

  • Increasing secularisation in Britain has resulted in the marginalisation of the church in public life;*
  • Britons claiming to identify as Christians are now a minority, and even fewer align themselves with any particular denomination;
  • People are less likely to join institutions of any kind, including the church;
  • Many of those who do not relate to Christianity see the Church as “repressive, sexist, homophobic and often associated with child abuse”;
  • Research has shown that Christians are less likely to attach importance to passing on their faith than teaching manners and a moral code.

*although sociologists such as Grace Davie and theologians such as Elaine Graham are arguing for the reverse of this – labelling it a ‘post-secular age’

They suggest that what they call ‘standard’ churches no longer appeal to the majority of British people.  Grace Davie suggests that, for those now into a third generation of non-participance in institutional religious life and hardly any understanding of the Christian narrative at all, Church as a concept holds virtually no relevance.

Despite all these negative facts about the state of the institutional church, my personal experience is that there is still an interest in, if not thirst for, that which is beyond human understanding.  Whether it manifests itself in going to church, performing occasional internet searches, or attending Mind, Body, Spirit fairs, I have found that the urge to identify with, and find some comfort in, a benevolent creative power and sense of an afterlife, is very much alive and well in Mid-Devon.

The question, then, is how do we harness this interest in a belief system among those who wouldn’t even consider ‘going to church’ to find the answers? An even more profound a question is, do we need to?

For Ireland and Booker the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. They are, after all, committed members of the Church of England.  Their suggested method is what might be called a ‘blended economy’ of church – a variety of different expressions, united in a relationship of mutual prayer and support:

Fresh Expressions and inherited mode churches together, listening to one another and working to see what God is doing, have the potential to grasp a new understanding of the Church of God. It is less a case of ‘traditional’ and ‘fresh’ running in parallel but separate from each other, and more one of a changing, emerging shape, with both old and new being changed by mutual understanding, respect, listening and care. The future could be a new shape of church for all of us. (pp.152-153)

Ireland and Booker are realistic about the ability of evangelistic courses, so popular a decade ago, to bring people into encounter with the church for the first time.  They suggest that people who have no church background are more likely to be attracted through being invited by someone whose faith inspires them, than by seeing a service or course advertised and being enticed in.  They also argue for a richer variety of means of delivering worship, citing Messy Church, New Monastic communities and other forms of Fresh Expressions (experimental ways of worshiping),  as valid ways of doing this.

In a society which is increasingly secularised, there is a need for the church to respond to the variety of beliefs expressed by those around us, with openness and grace. Through reading the book I have identified four key influencers for someone considering exploring the Christian faith for the first time:

  • Example: many of those who come to faith do so because they have been inspired by someone known personally to them, and want to know more about that person’s motivation.
  • Invitation: it is an immense step for anyone to walk into a church or activity which is completely unfamiliar to them. If they are invited by someone who will accompany them throughout it is made much easier.
  • Welcome: there isn’t a Christian I know who hasn’t had one of  those bone-crunchingly awful experiences of going to a new church and being made to feel wholly unwelcome.  Being accepteded and valued from the start is key to a successful introduction to church.
  • Accompaniment: the journey to faith is often a long and complicated one, made much less confusing and challenging for someone if walked alongside someone who is there to love, support and pray for them.

Making New Disciples is a great resource for those looking for ideas and initiatives to attract new people to the church.  The authors highlight the importance of prayer and spiritual development, alongside committing to following Jesus day-by-day (discipleship), and developing the habit of sharing faith with others.  At the heart of it is their assertion that the future of the church lies, not in developing church-shaped-disciples, but a disciple-shaped-church.

Suggested Reading:

Ireland, M. and Booker, M., 2015, Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (London, SPCK)

Brown, C, 2009 (2nd ed.), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (Abingdon, Routledge)

Berger, P, 1990 (2nd ed.), Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, Anchor)

Davie, Grace, “Religion in Public Life: Levelling the Ground” in Theos Think Tank, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2017/10/28/religion-in-public-life-levelling-the-ground, accessed 31/07/2018

Graham, E, 2017, Apologetics without Apology: Speaking of God in a World Troubled by Religion (Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock)

Learning the art of intentional listening

adolescent-converse-all-star-converse-all-star-1021145Recently I responded to the Facebook comment of someone at an early stage of pioneering.  He said he was concerned he wasn’t being productive enough. I understood exactly what he meant, so I responded with this:

I remember that phase so well – there’s only so many times you can walk the dog, sit in a coffee shop or try out yoga before you start wondering whether you’re being a fraud. The answer is, you’re not – and that bedding in time is essential if you are going to do something truly contextual.

When I was at ‘minister school’ we were trained into expecting to work huge numbers of hours.  In practice a lot of us seem to feel we haven’t done a proper job until we have worked ourselves to the bone, collapsing, exhausted, on a Sunday evening, wondering how we ever managed to get through the week.

So when we go to a pioneering role, it seems to be against our very nature to do what is most required: listen, wait and pray.

The reality is, that initial phase is essential.  If growing church is all about building relationships, then it cannot properly emerge without first forming them. I remember in the early days, writing reports full of endless possibilities. I was desperate to prove I wasn’t sitting around idle. Every time I met someone interesting, I dreamed about what a new church community might look like with them in it. I was bursting with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, and I wanted to provide my strategy group with measurable outcomes.

But they were wise enough to insist I put the breaks on; that I spend more time listening, learning and praying. My strategy should simply be that.

Eight years later I am so thankful my strategy group made me do it. For one thing, what has emerged, the amazingly wonderful Hug Cullompton, looks nothing like any of my original suggestions. But more importantly, I can see how the time spent getting to know my town and its residents has borne fruit long term.  I have unwittingly become a networker, a facilitator and a resource mediator in the town. When God inspires us to do something, I already know who we need to speak to and how to get it done.  And  I see, reflected in the sense of love and reciprocity we have fostered, the mutuality of the Trinitarian God who is the “source, guide and goal of all that is“.

There is a a retired minister of a different denomination who apparently goes round saying that I don’t do anything. Well I guess, in his understanding of ministry, I probably don’t. I don’t fill buildings with singing congregants for an hour on a Sunday morning. I don’t spend my time visiting members of my ‘flock’ or threatening people with impending doom unless they ‘give their life to Christ.’ But I have accompanied individuals through their darkest hours, supported people coming out of prison, prayed for and with people who have told me they are atheists, and even suggested to the odd person that they might benefit from attending church!

And it is in that relationship building, in being Christ’s hands in the world and sharing God’s love with a level of intentionality, that I experience ‘Church’ – being done, being experienced, being lived.  It may not be the life to which I thought I was being called when I candidated for ministry in 1998, but it’s definitely the one God wants for me now – and I love it!

To read more about the methodology I adopted for pioneering in Cullompton, click here.

Starting to see the church through the eyes of others

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A few weeks ago I went to the County Show with my husband and daughter. It was a massive event. Although we were there over six hours we really didn’t get to see everything.  

One stand we visited was the ‘Churches Together‘ area.  It was a wonderful haven in a sea of very expensive attractions. There were free refreshments, a band playing, a ‘mini-ring’ set of bells to try, children’s activities area and a bouncy castle.  After having a quick look at the stalls (all Christian organisations) I found a place to sit in the large, cool barn area.  I looked around. On the wall was a screen with a rolling set of Christian images. Banners adorned the walls.

It felt a bit like being at a church coffee morning.

As I sat, I wondered. What was the target audience for this area? Was it aimed at Christians, or at anyone who would benefit from hospitality? It was well thought through, and certainly it was an excellent attraction for families with young children.  But I wondered how attractive it would be to those unfamiliar with church culture.

The genuine difficulty for Christians attempting to reach non-Christians is that we find it very difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of somebody who isn’t one; and because we are so used to being comfortable in our Christian subculture, we forget that non-Christians may well respond very differently.

As an Emerging Church Pioneer my remit has intentionally been to step outside the institution of the church, journeying alongside those who would never engage with the churches where I live. Part of that journey has included learning to live in a culture which, for me, was very foreign – one where people don’t do church, think church, or speak church.

To do evangelistic mission successfully in today’s context requires first, recognising the state that the church is in, then (perhaps after spending some time in mourning) committing to do something about it.  A major aspect is learning how to speak about Jesus without using Christian jargon.  It’s not always easy, and may well require sacrifice.

But it is also important to remember that it is not without precedent. Christianity is a faith which should, in human terms, have died on Good Friday.  But ours is a story of fall and redemption, death and resurrection, despair and hope. It is a story of a God who loves all of creation, who became incarnated in Jesus, and who passionately wants the faith, hope and love of those who follow him to play their part in redeeming the world. 

And following Jesus never was meant to be comfortable…

To read more about communicating Christianity in a strange new world click here

Communicating Christianity in a strange new world

fullsizeoutput_138cHave you ever thought about the sheer strangeness of the church? As an institution it has so many particularities: the way its customs are practised, the terminology that is used, the many assumptions made about all sorts of things, from the beliefs one must have to the way furniture is placed.  While these things are food for the souls of many regular churchgoers, to those visiting for the first time they might seem, well, just plain weird.

Pioneers wrestling with trying to breach the gap between church practice and common cultural experience tend to use the language of “unlearning”.  However, as one Hug Cullompton volunteer pointed out, “You don’t want to unlearn everything you believe. What you need to decide are those things on which you won’t compromise, then stick to them. Everything else becomes open to discussion.”

Existing missionally in the gap between a clearly defined set of Christian doctrines and the experience of people who have no knowledge of, or background in, the church, has had interesting ramifications for me.  To be open to encounters with people outside the church, and managing not to not baffle them with Christian language or concepts, requires a level of generosity in hearing – not only people’s faith stories, but also their attempts to articulate their beliefs.

As I have listened to, and conversed with, people in the community who have no historical association with the Christian faith, I have realised two things.

  1. Many of their beliefs are similar to mine, but they either have no language to articulate them them or do so in terminology that might be described as ‘folk superstition’ or ‘alternative spirituality’. 
  2. For people to sense that I value their beliefs, they have to feel I respect them, whether I agree with them or not. 

I therefore decided on a personal policy of never telling anyone they were wrong.  I could disagree with them if I felt it would be helpful, but I couldn’t disrespect them.

People experience the divine in different ways, and have profound questions about the meaning of life. But often they struggle to articulate these thoughts and experiences, and feel as though there is nowhere they can safely explore them. For many with whom I have walked this journey, the story of Jesus is as foreign as the Greek Classics, and the last place they would look to find meaning is the church.  Some consider it a bigoted and outdated institution, others have had negative childhood church experiences, some reject the church because of the way it is portrayed by the media; but mainly, they just see Church as an irrelevance that has nothing to do with them.  To turn the tide requires walking, not only into today’s culture as it is, but trying to do so whilst looking at the church through the eyes of someone else.

A fascinating reflection on speaking of Christ into a foreign culture is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered (1970, 2nd ed. 2001). Donavan was an American Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to the Masai Mara in Kenya.  He arrived at the church compound, with its huge church, hospital and school, all virtually empty. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “They don’t come,” was the reply.  Disconsolate, Donovan tried to work out why the Masai didn’t want free education or hospital treatment, and why they didn’t come to church. Eventually he decided the only way to find out was to ask them.

Donovan bought an old truck and headed out into the desert. When he located the Masai, a nomadic people who existed using centuries old practices, he joined them.  Over a period of time they told him about their god, ‘Engai’.  Donovan heard elements of his own faith reflected in these descriptions, and gradually he was able to begin speaking about Jesus.  He told them about God made human, a God present with them there in the desert, a God who is love.  Donovan’s ministry did eventually result in the emergence of a Masai church community. But they never did develop the habit of visiting the compound. The European culture they experienced there was just too foreign to them.

Donovan’s is obviously an extreme example of inculturating church into a culture utterly different from his own experience. However, what he learns about meeting people where they’re at, and communicating the gospel in a way they can understand, provides a useful reflective tool for those wishing to work with people who have never ‘been to church’.  Where we go, how we live and the way we speak all have implications – and unless we can speak into our culture in a way those we want to hear can understand, the prospect of success is always going to be limited.

So how do we go about equipping ourselves to take on the task?  There are all sorts of resources: books, websites, training courses.  Here are a few:

  1. The London Institute of Christianity has a huge number of free resources for those wishing to start thinking about sharing their faith in the community.
  2. The URC’s Walking The Way initiative has lots of helpful suggestions of how to develop a whole-life sense of discipleship, including sharing one’s faith.
  3. The Church Mission Society publishes a variety of devotional texts and courses on the theme of mission and discipleship.
  4. Robin Greenwood’s book, Sharing God’s Blessing: How to Renew the Local Church, has great advice for churches.
  5. Aimed particularly at those working with young people, but which is just as relevant to anyone wanting to communicate Christianity to those with no church background, is the excellent Here be Dragons by Richard and Lori Passmore.
  6. If you’re looking for a good survey of a number of well known resources try Mike Booker and Mark Ireland’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism.
  7. For inspiration you could try Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration.
  8. If you’re only going to read one thing to challenge and inspire you, do read Vincent Donovan”s Christianity Rediscovered. You won’t regret it!

It is my belief, however, that you can’t ‘learn’ talking into a culture from a book, however good and worthy that book is.  The only way to do it is by getting stuck in: go out into the world, listen to what people are talking about, and respond. For those not used to explaining their faith it might sound really difficult – and to start with it probably will be. But I promise, it does get easier.

A few weeks ago I was conversing with a deeply committed Christian who wasn’t used to speaking about her faith. She asked how she might do it.

My response was, “Practice. I assume you are here (at church) because it makes a positive difference to your life.” she nodded. “I assume you’d like others to experience it.” She nodded again. “Well, they’ll never know that unless you share it with them. So why not just be honest and tell them what it is about being a Christian that’s so great?”

I haven’t seen her since. I wonder how she’s getting on!