Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’

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Is there a difference between being ‘missional’ and ‘mission minded’?

When I first heard the term ‘missional’, I thought it was a made-up word; one of those pieces of jargon that would have its day then fade away, much like a lot of trends.

But the term is here to stay, and as time has gone on I have fallen in love with it.  One reason is that those I first heard using the term were those whose missiology (way of thinking about mission) I most respected, and whose ecclesiology (way of understanding the nature of church) resonated most with mine.

So what is it that makes a church ‘missional’, rather than just ‘mission minded’?  To my way of thinking it’s all to do with mindset. A ‘mission minded’ church understands itself fundamentally as a worshipping community, with a commitment to reaching out to others, serving them or inviting them to come and join. A ‘missional’ church is one which sets down  roots and creates identity within its cultural context; and it is developing from that context that members gather for worship and spiritual nurture.

One of the best books about being a ‘missional’ church is Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come. First written in 2003, then re-edited and republished in 2013, the premise of the book is that, for a church to be fully ‘missional’, it needs to be ‘incarnational’.  In simple terms this means that it models itself on the identity and actions of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch identity four features of the incarnation which, for them, are key to modelling a church fit for today’s world:

  1. Through the person of Jesus, God identifies with humanity, down to the smallest, seemingly most insignificant person;
  2. As fully human, Jesus’ identity was shaped, both by his context (first century Galilee) and his relationships (with Mary and Joseph, the people of Galilee, his disciples and those whom he encountered during his ministry);
  3. In Jesus, heaven and earth meet, opening up access to God for all, not just the educated or those in positions of power or authority; and
  4. In Jesus we see the human image of God – and therefore the ultimate example of whom we should follow and how we should live.

As a consequence they argue that, for a church to be missional, it should reflect these four features.  It should be:

  1. For everyone, regardless of age, social background or educational ability;
  2. Fully alongside the people with whom it minsters, engaging in, and being impacted by, their cultural context and life experiences;
  3. An experience of heaven meeting earth; where Christ is encountered in transformative, life-afirming ways; and
  4. Modelling itself on the actions and teachings of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch are critical of many forms of church, suggesting that, all too often, they “make the gospel synonymous with a bland, middle-class conformity, and thereby alienate countless people from encountering Christ.”   They even go as far as suggesting that Jesus himself might struggle to fit in with the vast majority of congregations today.  (p.58)

Instead they call for churches to adopt a way of being which is formed through relationships rather than activities.  Gathering and worshipping become the organic consequence of a growing sense of relationship, with Jesus and between one another, rather than an activity to which people who might be interested are invited.  They describe their vision for the church thus:

An incarnational mode creates a church that is a dynamic set of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances. It enhances and “flavors” the host communities’ living social fabric rather than disaffirming it. It creates a medium of living relationships through which the gospel can travel… a group of Christians infiltrating a community, like salt and light, to make those creative connections with people where God-talk and shared experience allow for real cross cultural Christian mission to take place (p.62)

When they speak of ‘cross-cultural mission’, they do not mean working with ‘others’ in foreign countries. They are actually speaking about their own – in this case Australia. The mission, which they believe is called for by God, is needed within their own communities and with people they know – the majority of whom have no knowledge of, or encounter with, the Jesus whose gospel message they so desperately want to share.

The Shaping of Things to Come might make uncomfortable reading for those who love, and are immersed in, traditional church culture – in fact it does come with a health warning at the beginning.  It is a rare person who wishes to read a book so highly critical of that in which they are so heavily invested – and perhaps at times it is over-critical. However, it does have some important observations to make, and I challenge anyone who reads it not to see merit in the radical change for which they argue.

The question remains, what are we in the church to do?  As I said at the beginning of this article, I do believe that transforming from being ‘mission minded’ to ‘missional’ is chiefly about mindset.  The challenge to us is not dissimilar to the one issued by Jesus to the disciples who were present at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8//).

When Peter discovered himself in the very presence of the Transfigured Christ, his instinct was to build a tabernacle – a dwelling place for Jesus and each of the prophets.  He wanted to stay there, keeping the experience where heaven and earth collided forever up a mountain.  But Jesus was having none of it. He insisted that the consequence of such a sacred experience was to go back down into the valley and to abide there, serving the poor, the dispossessed and those most in need of healing.

In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes that Jesus, God made human, dwelt (literally ‘pitched his tent’) among us (John 1.14). It was from that dwelling place that he sent out his disciples to be his hands in the world.  Again and again throughout Bible we read accounts of transformational encounters between individuals, about relationships forged and communities formed. They were not without issues – and at times Paul is scathing about the way some of the earliest believers treated others. But the earliest churches were, by and large, vibrant, egalitarian communities, sharing worship over meals in people’s homes; with believers and enquirers sharing something of their own, of themselves, with those to whom they were bound by faith.

It seems to me that, in The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch recapture some of the vision of the early church. Such visionary endeavour is not limited to their writing, nor to their methodology. But it is worth a read.  And it is worth reflecting on whether, in the future – or indeed in the present – we wish our churches to be ‘missional’ or ‘mission minded’.

Suggested Reading:

Frost, M. and Hirsch, A, 2015 (2nd ed.) The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)

 

‘Imaginality’ as the key to transformation

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One evening in September 2011, six women met in a room in Cullompton High Street.  All of them had either been personally invited or responded to a poster in a shop window. The meeting was to explore the possibility of starting a spiritual support group “for the world, for the town, for you.”

We began by introducing ourselves and saying why we were there. All of us were interested in mutual spiritual support;  but just as importantly, we wanted to be part of a group that existed for the benefit of others.

After the introductions, we held a time of silence.  Participants were invited to pray, reflect, meditate, practice mindfulness – whatever was their habit. It lasted about ten minutes; then afterwards we shared what we had discerned.  We had a flip-chart, on which the aspirations of the group were recorded. The images we shared after the prayer time were also drawn on the paper.  It quickly became clear that Cullompton was to be focus of our energy: to bring about transformation through prayer and action.

Over the months we continued to fill our flip-chart paper with words, images, pictures and diagrams.  The image which emerged became the basis for our name (Hug Cullompton), our logo (a hug heart) and our mission (one-off projects through which we could serve and touch the hearts of others).

As an organisation our habit has been to focus on one key activity at a time: a community fair, an art exhibition for local artists, a venue for the new food and drink festival, a Men in Sheds initiative. Once a project gains momentum and a life of its own, we will bless it and let it go.  Our one exception is ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’. Each week we throw open our room, offering refreshments, hugs, friendship, holistic treatments and prayer.  In addition to our community projects, each of us has our own personal discipleship, serving the town in different ways.

One of the Hug Cullompton members likens our way of working to the ‘imago’ process through which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  The caterpillar enters the pupa, a place of transformation, enabling it to spread its wings and leave the pupa behind.  The butterfly then blesses the area which first facilitated its existence, pollenating the plants on which it once fed as a caterpillar.  

‘Imaginality’ provides a good analogy for this pioneering story.  I’m not saying Hug Cullompton should take all the credit – everything we do is in partnership with others, and there is a host of amazing people doing incredible things for the sake of the town – and anyway, we are simply joining in with what God is already doing in our community. But I do think that the way we function is worth sharing, as it is such a positive example of transformational activity.

I have learned so much from my fellow huggers: about grace, patience, dignity, generosity, inclusion and most of all, love.  We certainly wouldn’t qualify to become an official congregation of a traditional church denomination, nor would we want to.  But if ‘church’ is about being called out to be Christ in the world – about living in relationship with others and sharing the love of God – then Hug Cullompton has it sussed.

For more about how Hug Cullompton has influenced my ecclesiology, click here.

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.

In the footsteps of Ezekiel…

fullsizeoutput_138e… creating a mission methodology for emerging new church communities

In September 2009, I sat down at my desk and tried to work out what I was going to do. I was the first official URC Pioneer, tasked with making sense of this new fangled concept ‘Emerging Church’.  It seems such a dated term now, but then it was all very new.  My remit was to emerge a new church community, preferably one that had some resemblance to the United Reformed Church, of which I am a minister.  The question was, how on earth was I going to get started?

At that time I happened to be reading through the book of Ezekiel in my Bible for my daily devotions. I identified in him a true pioneer, someone called out by God from his religious institution, to be a lone voice in the wilderness.  His actions are at times most bizarre. Yet Ezekiel is marked out by his faithfulness, and after a time of isolation he is given a vision of hope for the future – a picture of a new community, with new life breathed into it by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The key turning point for Ezekiel is a vision in which he wanders through a valley strewn with dry bones, a picture of lifelessness and despair (Ezek. 37.1-14). It is God who then asks the question one might expect Ezekiel to utter: “Can these bones live?”  Thus begins a cyclical process of engagement, prayer, prophecy and activity, through which the process of restoration begins.

I identified within the passage a missional process consisting of dialogue with God, intervention by the Holy Spirit, and periods of activity (movement, observation and prophecy).  It presented me with a mission model holding together a close personal relationship with God, dependence on the activity of the Holy Spirit and the anticipation of transformation of a community. It held a strong appeal so I decided to adopt it.

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The next stage was to decide how to start.  The amazing Richard Passmore, then working with the Frontiers Youth Trust, was on my strategy group.  He let me have a copy of his soon-to-be-published book, ‘Here Be Dragons: Youth Work and Mission Off the Map‘. The book suggested a nine stage process for emerging churches with young people, using a method called symbiosis.

Symbiotic youth work is an experiment in cultural mission, which holds humility as a core value, alongside the desire to learn from those we are engaging with.  At a time when the notion of ‘church’ and the connotations surrounding this notion are often negative, restrictive and prescriptive, it is a reimagining of what community, informed by Shalom principles could be… It is living out, engaging in and wading into the messy stuff that is important, not just trying to bring ‘truth’ to a situation or even trying to journey to a fixed destination.

(Passmore and Passmore, 2013, pp.12,14)

For a pioneer with a mission methodology founded on prayer, discernment and allowing the Holy Spirit to work, this principle seemed a natural next step.

And so I began. After a time of observation I began to start identifying people with whom I might emerge a new ecclesial community.  It was here I learned a valuable first lesson: mission cannot be hurried.  All of my reading had counselled patience. Bishop Graham Cray, who was at that time the Archbishop’s Missioner, had advocated taking time to “listen to God and listen to the community”.  Another very experienced pioneer for whom I had great respect advised me “not to expect there to be anything to look at for at least two years.”  They were both right  The activity God wanted at this stage was relationship building, not action.  Ezekiel’s role is to observe, to prophesy,  to speak of God’s promise, and to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the situation – not kneel down and try to identify which bones should go with which. (Ezekiel 37.1-4)

In training I had been taught to conduct a community audit. This consisted of meeting with, and talking to, key figures in the town: the vicar, the manager of the doctor’s practice, the community police, the town clerk.  The Synod Moderator, who was my line manager at the time, also suggested this.  Somehow  this didn’t fit with a  symbiotic mission method.  Instead of listening to those who already had a voice, I wanted to get alongside the voiceless, hearing their stories.  I attended pubs, hung out in local shops, walked my dog, took up yoga and joined the Community Association. In addition I joined a book group and started a film club. After a few months I began a pub discussion group. 

And yet, after almost a year in Cullompton I still hadn’t worked out what I was ultimately there to do. I very much liked living in Cullompton.  It was incredibly welcoming with lots of talented residents, all of whom had interesting stories to tell.  However there were also stark contrasts in the community. Paradoxically, Cullompton was both growing and declining.  It was growing in population but losing its historical identity as a rural market town. 

As I got to know different people and listened to what they said, I could sense a yearning for something new to happen, for Cullompton to rediscover its heart.  With a population of just over 8,000 at that time Cullompton had seven pubs, six hairdressers, several beauticians and three alternative health practices.  The local surgery had just opened what it described as an ‘integrated practice’, offering complimentary as well as traditional health treatments.  There was also a not insignificant minority exploring what might be described as ‘alternative spiritualities’. All of these were a stark contrast to what was on offer at the churches and there was a huge gap. It was in that gap that I felt a call to locate my mission.

In the summer of 2011 I wanted to carry out a piece of research for my MA on the spiritual activities of the town. The study I wanted to undertake was based on the research of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead in Kendal. One of my proposed research subjects was Cullompton’s Natural Care Centre. I phoned the number on the website and the owner, Sue Keeping, invited me over for a cup of tea.  And, in that hour, over a cuppa and a chat, the idea for what eventually became Hug Cullompton took form.

More next time …

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!