Side-by-side in the Minefields

In the light of yesterday’s post it seemed appropriate to repost this video:

Gill discovered this song on our 15th anniversary.  We were 19 and 21 the year we got engaged…

We’re hoping to see Andrew performing in the UK later this year.

Posted in 2.0, Doxology, Music, Videos Tagged with: , ,

Priscilla & Aquila Today? – Supporting Side-by-side Leadership

In the early 50’s AD, the apostle Paul travelled from Athens to the city of Corinth and commenced his ministry there. As he arrived, Acts 18 records one of those divine appointment moments.

…Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Act 18:1-3 NRSV

We’re not told how Paul came to know of them, but he seeks out a “Jew named Aquila” and his wife Priscilla. He shares in their tentmaking business venture, he joins their household, and they work together in gospel ministry. These companions of Paul are invariably referred to as a couple. They are “Priscilla and Aquila” or “Prisca and Aquila.”

Priscilla and Aquila accompany Paul when he leaves Corinth (Acts 18:18). They part ways in Ephesus (Acts 18:19) as Paul travels on to return to Jerusalem. In Ephesus their leadership role is clear. When it happens that Apollos arrives in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila offer him both hospitality and guidance:

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts 18:26 NRSV

Paul sends them greetings when he writes his letter to the Romans. He refers to them as ones who “work with me in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3) to the point of risking their lives. Tradition has it that they were martyred together upon returning to Rome.

What an intriguing couple! They are lovers, co-workers, co-ministers. We do not know if they had their own children, but they certainly opened their home and hearth and “parented” (as it were) some of the leaders of the church.

Priscilla and Aquila are indeed a side-by-side team, in it together, and always spoken of together. We know of many couples who would seem to be of a similar kind. Gill and I are a couple in ministry. And, while we don’t want to inappropriately lay claim to Priscilla and Aquila, they are before us as an example and something of an inspiration.

So what can we learn from them? How can we think about this sort of side-by-side ministry in our own times? It’s something we want to explore more.

To explore it, we need to define it, or at least to describe it:

  1. We are talking about couples, married couples. There are other duos in Scripture who minister together – e.g. Peter and John (Acts 3-4), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13), Paul and Silas (Acts 16). These partnerships exhibit synergies and complementarities, but for Priscilla and Aquila there is a sense in which the charism extends to the marriage identity also. What I mean is this: when we consider Paul’s apostolic ministry we can conceive of it not just in terms of function but of person; he embodies the gospel in a 2 Corinthians 4 sort of way. With Priscilla and Aquila that embodiment extends to who they are as a married couple and is expressed in their relationship and their home. Their family is apostolic in this sense; it certainly was for Apollos.
  2. We are talking about something other than “I’m right behind you” partnerships. By this we mean the form of partnership where either husband or wife (or both) releases the other into their individual ministry.  This is much more than the unfortunate stereotype of housewife looking after the children so that a Reverend Gentleman can be about the “the Lord’s work.” We know husbands and wives who self-sacrificially provide the financial, familial, and moral support necessary for the other to be released into ministry. This is genuine partnership and of great value. The demarcation might be blurry, but the side-by-side partnership of Priscilla and Aquila in home, work, and ministry seems to be distinct from this by more than just a matter of degrees. They are relased into their shared ministry.
  3. What we are talking about is perhaps indicated by the increasing phenomenon of couples who are both ordained but this is not just about ordination. We know some ordained couples who minister effectively apart, as individuals, in entirely separate contexts. We know lay couples who operate side-by-side, and similarly couples where there is a difference in ordination or institutional training or recognition. We know side-by-side couples who are remunerated differently, and often inequitably. Institution finds it hard to recognise or respond to them, rather, the side-by-side togetherness often derives from a deeply shared journey in the real world.

The subjective indicator is this: when we think of a couple who minister among and with God’s people, do we first think of “X” and “Y” or do we first think of “X and Y” together? As an exercise, Gill and I went through our experience, naming those who we thought of in this way. Invariably they have blessed us. Priscilla and Aquila, side-by-side, exemplify the people that we were thinking about.

Church History is usually a useful discipline to consider methods and manners of ministry; there is nothing new under the sun and we can learn from those who have gone before. But in this case, it is more difficult. The predominant influencers in early and medieval church history are mostly unmarried, and usually men. Perhaps Martin and Katharina Luther are an exception and mark a turning point, although they are rarely spoken of in the same breath. Early Protestantism through the 17th and 18th Centuries record male leaders who are married, but there is no sense of them being together in ministry. Both Wesley and Whitefield had unhappy marriages, unsurprising given their treatment of their wives.

It’s not until the 19th Century that there is a clear emerging sense of partnership. William & Catherine Booth are often described as founder and “mother” of the Salvation Army, and similarly Hudson & Maria Taylor with respect to the China Inland Mission. In the 20th Century, the number is beyond counting (although Loren & Darlene Cunningham, founders of Youth With A Misson are a personal favourite of mine). The 20th Century might correlate with the advent of Pentecostalism, but I suspect other cultural shifts as well.

Question for feedback: Can you think of side-by-side couples in Christian history?
Let us know in comments or contact me. 

So, on the face of it, we have a fundamental form of vocation that has biblical precedent and contemporary reality, but with little historical understanding or reflection.  So how do we offer support to couples who are in ministry in this way? What issues do they face?

Some of the issues are internal:

Nearly everyone wrestles with vocational questions: Who am I? What is this God-given gospel-shaped passion, longing, yearning, that calls me forward? How refined and redeemed is it? What selfishness and sin does it feed when I do not approach it in submission and surrender? How must I lay it down? How must I cling to it in fervent faith?

The same questions come to the side-by-side couple. They must wrestle with them as individuals, but also together: Who are we? What is this God-given gospel-shaped passion, longing, yearning that calls us forward, together – which neither of us can follow on our own? How refined and redeemed is it? How do we express it healthily or unhealthily? How do we lay it down? How do we cling to it?

It’s often a journey of discovery. In our ministry life Gill and I have had to learn to be close: drawing boundaries, negotiating the wedge issues, laying down self and individual ambitions not just for the sake of the other, but for the sake of “us together.” We have also had to learn to be open: letting others in so that we’re not a “closed shop” but are properly connected with the wider body, and freeing each other so that we can grow as whole individuals. It involves a lot of emotional and relational risk! But that’s the stuff of life.

We have had mentors and helpers on this journey. However, there are few general resources to draw upon.

Some of the issues are external to the couple:

Institutional systems simply don’t cope well with couples. It’s true with secular systems (e.g. tax and immigration) and so it is in ecclesial institutions. Generally speaking in mainstream institutions: Individuals, not couples, are selected for ordination (the least effective selection processes give little consideration to the marriage relationship, most give some). Individuals, not couples, are authorised for ministry. Individuals, not couples, are remunerated (and usually only one of them).

There are exceptions, often torturous. We know of a ministry couple who were able to argue for remuneration for the wife’s contribution to the work of the church, but only after the husband was formally released to attend to an external ministry part-time. We know of a large parish in which the ministry team structure slowly evolved to recognise what was actually the case: the vicar and his wife were placed in the same location in the team diagram, an internal document.

There are misconceptions. One of the most deflating comments that side-by-side couples hear is, “Ah, two for the price of one!” It’s usually well-meant but not helpful. The “price” of a minister to an organisation isn’t just about money – it’s about giving that minister understanding, support, and an appropriate voice – a place in the family. “Two for the price of one” usually means one or ‘tother, and therefore both together, are not going to have that place.  Underneath it is, “thanks for tagging along.”

Of course, some institutional wariness is warranted. There are unique issues relating to family welfare, safeguarding, and professional supervision. Of course, there are also couples who are vocationally broken, co-dependent and operating out of injury reflect a negative synergy; there are couples who internalise all decision-making and exclude those who should have a voice; there are couples who are inconsistent, double-minded, and you’re not sure where you stand with them; there are couples who haven’t done the vocational and emotional work. But all of that can be said of individuals also.

So how do we help institutions respond to side-by-side couples, and how might we support and help such couples with these internal and external issues?  This is something we want to explore.

To that end, if you are a couple in ministry, we would love to hear your story. What follows are some questions that might help you tell it. If you are able to, please contact me, we would love to hear from you. We would also love to hear from you if you have experience of a side-by-side couple in ministry, maybe as a co-worker, a church volunteer, but especially as a child of such a couple.

TELL US YOUR STORY

  1. Please give us an outline of your story.  What is your history, individually and as a couple?  Where are you located now?
  2. How much do you see yourselves side-by-side in ministry like Priscilla and Aquila?  Do you agree with how we’ve described it here?
  3. How do you describe your vocation/call/purpose, individually and together?
  4. What have you learned about being together as a couple/family in ministry, but also maintaining your individual identity and vocation? How did you learn those things?
  5. What have you encountered that has frustrated you as a couple in ministry? What support have you found?
  6. Please let us know how confidential you would like your story to remain: i.e. don’t divulge anything, share anonymously, happy to have it shared in full etc.
Posted in 2.0, Ministry Tagged with: , , ,

Review: The Day of Small Things – An Analysis of Fresh Expressions of Church…

If there was any sense in which we were once starry-eyed about the Church of England it had something to do with what we now call “fresh expressions of Church.” Gill and I were church planters once, inspired by the Mission Shaped Church report and the growing call for a “mixed economy church.” The Church of England was, from an outside perspective, a place where missiology could be lively, and the ecclesial machinery would even appoint a bishop to lead a Fresh Expressions team.

The Day of Small Things is a recent report from the Church Army’s Research Unit.  It’s a statistical analysis of fresh expressions (they abbreviate to “fxC”).  It considers their number, their size and shape, and the manners and means of their missional and ecclesial effectiveness. It draws on over two decades of data; it is thorough and informative.

It is an encouraging picture in many ways. The crucial role of fresh expressions in the Church of England is revealed.  They may not be definitive metrics, but headline numbers such as 15% of church communities being fxC attended by 6% of the C of E populace show that the effect has been far from negligible (page 10, Executive Summary). It also indicates that much more can be done.

There is no need to summarise all the detail of the report here. It’s impossible to do it justice in a blog post.  Church Army have, themselves, put together some excellent resources, even producing a lovely infographic (see to the side).  I do, however, want to record my own observations, highlighting some of the aspects that are close to my heart and our experience:

#1 – This report helps us understand what a fresh expression actually is.  On the ground, this has both a positive and a negative component.

From the negative side, I note with a growing cynicism, the propensity for churches, even if well-meaning, to borrow “off-the-shelf” language and so avoid some of the deeper challenges of mission activity.  The survey invited responses from dioceses regarding activity that was classified as fresh expression and more than 40% of these activities simply had to be excluded as not only being “not an fxC” but not even readily identifiable as an “outreach project” (Section 12.10, pages 202-204).

Clearly there is confusion about the term “fresh expression”, and the excluded activities are not without value.  But I share these sentiments:

We detect a disturbing tendency for increased use of any new label that becomes popular to be in inverse proportion to accurate understanding of its meaning. The same coule be said for the use of the word ‘mission’ in parish and diocesan literature. It is almost now there by default, and as has been said: ‘when everything is mission, nothing is’. (Page 204)

This tendency is disturbing. In our experience, we have seen those with a heart for mission be led up the garden path towards projects and positions that were only whitewashed as such.  We have seen those who would otherwise be fully on board with a fresh expression baulking at the idea because of a previous negative or insipid encounter with a project that wore the name only as a brand. Experiences such as these are damaging and stultifying.

The report, however, brings a positive initiative.  In pursuing the complex and difficult work of classification of an entire ecosystem of missional actvity we are given clarity. That clarity is not simply technical, narrowly encapsulating branded programs, but reveals, in both breadth and depth, the essence of what fresh expressions are seeking to be.  The discussion in section 2.4 and further development in 12.10 is worthwhile reading.

The ten indicators of a fresh expression that are used as criteria for inclusion in the survey are of great value. They draw upon classifications in Mission Shaped Church and are simple observable ways of ensuring that we are talking about groups that are missional (“intends to work with non-churchgoers”), contextual (“seeks to fit the context”), formational (“aims to form disciples”), and ecclesial (“intends to become church”).  Church Army have a single-page summary of the ten indicators, but a summary is worth reiterating here:

1. Is this a new and further group, which is Christian and communal, rather than an existing group…
2. Has the starting group tried to engage with non-church goers?… understand a culture and context and adapt to fit it, not make the local/indigenous people change and adapt to fit into an existing church context.
3. Does the community meet at least once a month?
4. Does it have a name that helps give it an identity?…
5. Is there intention to be Church? This could be the intention from the start, or by a discovery on the way…
6. Is it Anglican or an Ecumenical project which includes an Anglican partner?…
7. Is there some form of leadership recognised by those within the community and by those outside of it?
8. Do at least the majority of members… see it as their major expression of being church?
9. Are there aspirations for the four creedal ‘marks’ of church, or ecclesial relationships: ‘up/holy, in/one, out/apostolic, of/catholic’?…
10. Is there the intention to become ‘3-self’ (self-financing, self-governing and self-reproducing)?…
(Page 18)

A personal impact for me from this is a re-evaluation of Messy Church. I have only seen Messy Church run as an outreach project at best, often merely as an in-house playgroup. The fact that so many of the included fxC’s (close to 33%, Table 11, Page 41) were denoted as Messy Church has made me ponder them anew, especially with regards to criteria 5 to 10.

#2 – The diversity of leadership raises provocative questions.  But one of the most crucial questions is absent.

Section 6.13 and Chapter 10 give the data on the forms of fxC leadership, looking at details such as gender, remuneration, time commitment, and training received. Much is as expected. For instance, male, ordained, stipended leaders predominate in traditional church plants; female, lay, volunteer leaders predominate in child-focussed fxC such as Messy Church (Table 53, page 106 and Table 74, page 176).

The report does well to highlight (in Chapter 11) the phenomenon of the so-called “lay-lay” leader who “has no centralised formal training, or official authorisation” (page 181). A leadership cohort has manifest without a clear reference to the institutional centre.  I wonder how much this is a “because of” or an “in spite of” phenomenon: has the centre created space, or has it simply become ignorable? There is a gentle provocation for the institution in this:

Writers in the field of fxC have urged that the size of the mission task facing the Church of England will require many lay leaders and this is evidence that it is already occurring. The wider Church may need the difficult combination of humility to learn from them, as well as wisdom to give the kind of support, training and recognition that does not lead to any unintended emasculation of their essential contribution. (Page 189)

I note with interest that the correlation of lay-lay leadership with cluster-based churches (Chart 39, page 184) and its association with discipleship (page 187) demonstrates the crucial role of missional communities (as they are properly understood) in the development of fxC and the Church more widely.

A striking and concerning part of the data is the relative diminution of Ordained Pioneer Ministers (OPMs) with only 2.7% of fxC leaders (Table 76, page 177) being classified as such. In the seminal period of the early 2000’s, OPMS were seen as a key innovation for mission development, a long-needed break away from classical clerical formation that was perceived to produce ecclesial clones emptied of their vocational zeal and disconnected from the place and people to which they were called.  Anecdotally, our experience is that missional illiteracy is dismally high amongst the current cohort of ordained persons. The traditional academy can do many good things, but the action-reflection-based contextualised formation of OPM more readily leads to the deeper personal maturation upon which adaptive leadership rests.

The absent question in the data on leadership is this: there is no recognition of couples in leadership.  This is a dismaying oversight. The number of clergy couples would, I suspect, be a growing phenomenon.  Similarly, in our experience, much innovative practice (particularly forms of ministry where the home or household is a key component) is led by lay couples. The Church in general, and the Anglican variant in particular, is all but inept when it comes to adequately recognising and supporting couples who lead together. It would seem to me that fxC would be the best place to explore and experiment with what this might look like. To have no relevant data, therefore, is a significant oversight. This is a topic on which I will be writing more.

#3 – Ongoing structural concerns are indicatedStructurally, fxC remain at the periphery.  Moreover, while the contribution of fxC in themselves can be measured as independent units, more work needs to be done to see fxC as an integral part of the system.

The headline statistic in this regard is that 87.7% of fxC have no legal identity (Table 91, page 206).  The report does well to reflect on how this increases the insecurity of the “continued existence” of an fxC.  A more general point illustrates the key concern:

An analogy, designed to provoke further discussion, is that many fxC are in effect treated like immigrants doing good work, who have not yet been given the right to remain, let alone acquired British citizenship. There is active debate about whether they are to be regarded as churches or not but little to nothing is said about giving them rights and legal identity within the Anglican family, unless they can become indistinguishable from existing churches, a move which would remove their raison d’etre…  We recommend that this present imbalance of so many fxC having no legal status, and thus no right to remain or not working representation, be addressed. (Page 206)

It has been an aspect of our experience that much is demanded of fxC – Success! True Anglican identity! Numbers! Money! – in order to perpetually justify institutional existence. It’s a rigged game. Existing forms of church happily, and without comment or query, lean upon legal standing, guaranteed livings, central administrative support, legacy bequests, and even the provision of curates/trainees.  It has a propensity to keep them missionally infantile. Yet, without this support, are fxC unfairly expected to run before they can even crawl?

I think of the concerning admission that in some cases “numbers of fxC attenders were deliberately not reported in order to avoid parish share, on grounds that these early attenders do not yet make a financial contribution” (page 49).  Even metrics like “attendance” presuppose a structural shape that may not apply, “not counting a wider fringe” (page 57) and unfairly diminishing the value of fxC.

Perhaps the report’s suggestion that a “control group of existing parishes” (page 215) be included in subsequent reports, would go some way to balancing the picture.  Such a control group would at least allow a comparison. What would be even more valuable would be a way to assess integration, i.e. to consider fxC as part of a system.  Two particular aspects of this that are worthy of further consideration are:

1) The nature and need of so-called “authority dissenters.”  The report recognises the importance of the diocese within the ecclesial system (page 62). It also points out that “local visions for growth have always been more common that a diocesan initiative, welcome though the latter is” (page 192, emphasis mine). An “authority dissenter” is a person or office that covers and connects new initiatives into the system.  Does the high level of “localness” indicate that such provision is not needed, or that it has not been forthcoming? I suspect the latter.

I have a growing sense that the Deanery is the ecclesial unit that can most readily provide a covering.  Chart 46 (page 194) demonstrates at least some sense of this: Current fxC that are not “in benefice” or “in parish” are far more likely to be “within Deanery.”  The “cluster church” fxC type intrigues me the most – 41% of these are classified as “within Deanery.”

Deaneries are peculiar ecclesial creatures.  When they work, they work.  But they generally have limited authority, overstretched leadership, and few resources – almost the exact opposite of the three-self maturity they might want them to foment!  Yet they are uniquely and strategically placed between the local and the large to nurture fxC and to protect them from diminution from both above and below as we learn to “think both culturally and by area” (page 96).  An exploration of how Deaneries have fitted (or could fit) into the fxC picture would be helpful.

2) The impact on sending and surrounding churches.  The report does well to distinguish between the sending team, and the participation of non-churched, de-churched, and churched cohorts.  A more detailed picture would be helpful in a number of ways.

Firstly, it would help inform those who are considering being a “sending church.”  The cost of an fxC in terms of financial and human resources can often be readily counted.  It would also be good to know how to look for benefits, and not just in terms of the kingdom contribution of the fxC itself (i.e. it’s own sense of hoped-for “success”).  A sending church is also changed in its act of sending.  From a stimulus to looking “outside of ourselves” through to being able to learn from the fxC as a valued “research and development” opportunity, it would good to be able to describe and measure the sorts of blessings that attend to those who generously produce the fxC.

Secondly, it would help inform those who are wary of new kids on the block, so to speak.  A typical fear is that an fxC would “steal sheep” away from existing structures, and the zero-sum calculations are made.  What data exists that might address these fears?  Do fxC have impacts, negative or positive, on existing surrounding ministries?  What mechanisms best work to allow mutural flourishing to occur?

Finally, discipleship is key.  And some personal thoughts.

The correlation of fxC mortality with “making no steps” in the direction of discipleship (page 208) is well made.  The “ecclesial lesson” (page 214) is a clear imperative: “start with discipleship in mind, not just attendance… it should be intentional and relational.”  It seems Mike Breen‘s adage has significant veracity: “If you make disciples you will always get the church but if you try to build the church you will rarely get disciples.”

To conclude my thoughts, though, it is worth considering New Monasticism.  It’s a new movement that the report has only just begun to incorporate.  “Their focus is on sustaining intentional community, patterns of prayer, hospitality and engaging with mission” (page 222).  But here’s the interesting part:

More often the instincts for this [new monasticism] are combined into another type of fxC, rather than existing on its own. (Page 222)

I note with interest that the type of fxC with the largest proportion of leaders that had had prior experience with fresh expressions is the New Monastic Community (48% – Table 70, Page 166).  This intrigues me.  As Gill and I continue to have conversations about pioneering and fresh expressions, the longings and callings that we discover in ourselves and in those we converse with, invariably sound like new monastic characteristics.  Watch this space.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Church Planting Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Liminality and the Enterprise

We Christians use some weird words.  Sometimes we make them up, sometimes we borrow them.  Often they are shibboleths that stamp us into a box.  You know what I mean: If I use the word “anointed” a lot you can guess my churchmanship.  Similarly if I emphasise words like “biblical” or “exegetical” or “missional” or “priestly” or “liturgical” etc. etc.

With some light-hearted light-cynicism, then, I’m well aware the word “liminal” might conjure up some stereotyped attachments—an instant imagining of spiritual faces of profound empathy glowing with a maternal understanding of some unspeakable shared understanding.  Some of my friends love the word.  It causes others to roll their eyes.

For what it’s worth, I like it.

From the Oxford Dictionary:

liminal ( /ˈlɪmɪn(ə)l/ )  adjective

1. Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2. Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

Late 19th century: from Latin limen, limin- ‘threshold’ + -al.

“Liminal” means being in-between, an existence that straddles a then-now-not-yet situation.  An anthropological application applies it, say, to a child experiencing a rite of passage: In the midst of that rite, the person is an in-between no-longer-child and not-yet-adult.  They pass through liminality, and while transitory, it is real, necessary, and often involves pain, grief, and letting-go.

Now before eyes start rolling, think it through.  This is real human experience we’re talking about.  We all experience transitions: new jobs, new relationships (what is “engagement” if not a confrontingly liminal time?), and shifts in our stage of life and responsibilities.  These shifts can be perplexing, painful, rug-pullingly awkward.

They can be done well, and result in significant maturation.  Or they can be done badly, which usually results in someone being two-people-at-once—an impossible task which results in a double-minded lack of integrity, even if it’s subtle.  We all know the grown man who has failed to transition from being the lost boy of a dominant or absent father.  We usually see in it ourselves, or those we’re close to.

Books, many books, have been written about this stuff.  I won’t go into it.  But I do want to mention the image that got me thinking these thoughts: Star Trek.  

Bear with me, I am a geek.

More specifically, it’s about the Star Trek transporter system by which people are “beamed” from one place to another, with twinkling stars and similar sound effects.  It’s a wonderful deus ex machina plot device and not something you think about too much.  But the implications are explored from time to time: I was watching a TNG episode in which a character baulks at using the device.  She doesn’t want to be converted into energy, bounced through outer space, and rematerialised.  It’s a thought picked up on by youtubist CGP Grey who points out that a teleporter is basically a device that kills you in one place and reassembles you in another. Shudder.

But perhaps that’s the power of the analogy I’m attempting here.  In a liminal moment you’re both dead and alive, killed and not yet re-born.  While the beaming is happening: you’re still you, but not solid, amorphous, transitory.  In fact, in Star Trek world, during transport you can change: bio filters can be applied, diseases and DNA flaws can be eliminated, or things can go horribly wrong.

Things can happen to you, and with you, in that liminal unformed stage.  But you can’t get from there to here or here to there without passing through it.  Liminality is the necessary point of crisis, the necessary volatility of change.

Perhaps, then, the best attitude with which to approach our liminal crises is one that boldly goes—not with fear but with the positive imperative: “Energise!”

Posted in 2.0, General Tagged with: ,

Review: Forming a Missional Church – Creating Deep Cultural Change in Congregations

We have noticed a welcome recent trend in thinking about church life.  It is a movement away from a fixation on processes and programs, traditions and techniques, mechanistic deliberations about an organisation.  It is towards considering the culture of the church and understanding it as a social and familial system. It is towards recognising (perish the thought) that God the Holy Spirit is actually thoroughly and presently involved; church leadership is more a matter of sharing spiritual discernment than reliance upon managerial expertise.

Two books I have recently read—Patrick Keifert’s We Are Here Nowand the Grove Booklet Forming a Missional Church which Keifert has co-authored with Nigel Rooms—do well to advance this trend and make it accessible to local congregations.  The two overlap in content and I will concentrate on the Grove booklet here.

The need for cultural change is often recognised and touted albeit somewhat impotently.  Rooms and Keifert seek to actually get to a practical outcome.  The groundwork that gets them there takes a number of forms:

Firstly, they engage with postmodernity.  Cultural connection within a postmodern world necessarily requires pushback against such modern influences as individualism, propositionalism, and didacticism.  It means advancing modes and manners of being church that value real and shared experience.

The categorization of faith as private is among the reasons why many Christians do not speak and act as if God were living and active in the here and now of our every days lives. (Page 4)

This basis for their approach is not novel: the juxtaposition of church and the postmodern world has been around for at least two decades.  Keifert is right not to be morose about the changing world.  Rather than phrases like “post-Christendom” he prefers a “new missional era.”  This obvious and positive sense only adds to my bemusement that such cultural thinking has been largely left behind in academia by church leaders in the field.

Secondly, they bring insights from systems theory.  Keifert and Rooms recognise that churches like all “living, feeling, learning human organizations… are not simply machines to be fixed or problems that respond to technical solutions” (page 5, emphasis mine).  Our tendency for off-the-shelf solutions makes us ill-prepared for “those challenges or problems or complicated situations for which there is not a ready or known fix.”  Instead, we must attend to adaptive change.

Adaptive challenges require change and transformation on the part of those facing them, in contrast to technical problems where there is a known solution and no change is required… (Page 6)

Indeed, technical “solutions” can be used to insulate ourselves from the costly self-reflection and honesty that is necessary for the mission of the church to be taken seriously.

Our task is being born into our world, our culture and context, and dying to all we do not need to be God’s church in, but not of, the world—and then living into God’s preferred and promised future. Mission, missional life, missional churches… the missio Dei is cross-shaped. (Page 6, emphasis mine)

I have found the language of “adaptive” and “technical” to be reasonably useful as a “way in” for people to begin wrestling with the sorts of issues at stake.  It is quite managerial in tone, however, and some might find liturgical or reflective language more helpful.  After all, as long as the tendency to apply it only to individuals can be avoided, “adaptive” language speaks to concepts such as “being refined”, “amending one’s life”, and being “transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Thirdly, they ground everything on robust missiology.  The beginning of this is the now famous adage, which they do well to quote:

It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world but the God of mission who has a church in the world. (Page 10)

Missiology in practice emphasises the centrality of discernment in the mode and manner of being church.  “We cannot simply bless every good thing” (page 11), they say, clearly understanding the propensity of churches to equate their programmatic busy-ness with effective outreach.  Rather, “the main skill individuals and Christian communities require to lift anchor faithfully and sail into the unknown, adaptive, exciting, challenging journey of the missio Dei is discernment… asking and finding answers to the question, ‘What is God up to?'” (page 11).  Such a journey can seem uncertain and therefore unprofessional or irresponsible for some, but from experience we know that it is, in the end, an exciting journey that is literally mission-critical:

…rather than doing mission by conducting a programme of mission activities (Alpha courses, holiday clubs for children and young people, invitational  events etc), none of which are unhelpful per se, the church becomes so caught up in the missio Dei that its members are naturally ‘detectives of divinity.’  The church’s very being becomes missional so that all it is and does serves the mission of God. (Pages 11-12)

I was astounded, however, by the claim that in 2008-9 “the missiological concept of the missio Dei was only just taking hold at the level of theologically trained clergy” in the English context (page 10).  It makes me aware of how ahead of the curve things have been in other less-established contexts around the world.  But the fact that it is on the agenda is fruit of the Mission-Shaped Church report from 2004 (which they mention), and seminal works such as Wright’s The Mission of God from 2006.  It elevates the importance of works such as these and other significant efforts (Forge Network etc.) around the turn of the millennium.

These three forms of engagement coalesce and have their natural conclusions in what it means to live and act as a church community.  Clearly it also challenges some of the precious ways we have viewed leadership.  The challenge for church leaders can be personal and overwhelming; it’s one thing to talk about missiological concepts in theory, or even to bring some sort of analysis to the church as an institution, but adaptive change cannot be led except by example.  It means dealing with the “trap” of modernity that makes the “professional” leader “the primary basis of identity for both the community and the leader” while at the same time recognising that there is a role for “spiritual discernment, spiritual leadership” (page 13).  To avoid this trap the leader must take a “personal spiritual journey, sometimes called a rule of life” (page 14) that faces and avoids “our own desire for control and certainty, especially in choppy waters” (page 15).  Personally speaking, I have known the pain and frustration that comes from falling into this trap, seeking a vain fleeting peace in control and drive and avoidance, when the call is to trust God even as impotence and anxiety loom.

In the end, Room and Keifert present “six missional practices” (page 20). These should not be seen so much as steps in a recipe but practices that found and inform a “diffused innovation.”  The hope is that through them cultural change might advance throughout the community while naturally responding to strengths and weaknesses and the very real human aspects that will either welcome or resist it.

dwelling in the word – a shared method of Bible that seeks to heed what God is saying in his Word, recognising that the Holy Spirit will speak in Scripture not only to individuals but through the members of the body, one to another.  It sounds simple but, when taken seriously, allows a shared experience of being undone and remade by the Spirit of God through the Word of God.

dwelling in the world – involves the shared journey of listening and hearing what is happening within and around the community.  It allows hard things to be heard, and undiscovered ways to be revealed.  It anticipates the activity of the Holy Spirit in the real world who calls us beyond ourselves.

hospitality – is engagement beyond the community that comes neither from above or below, but both gives and receives, “taking turns hosting and being a guest” (page 22).  It recognises that the best place to encounter both world and word is at the point where relationships open up.  It turns us towards those “people of peace”—”friendly looking strangers”— that we often ignore, who are right in front of us, who are possibly not what we had expected or hoped, but who are open to heed and be heeded.

corporate spiritual discernment – is placed not at the beginning, but in the middle, as the shared experience of dwelling in word and world begins to develop a sense of “What is God’s preferred and promised future for our local Church?” “Who is God calling us to join in accomplishing that preferred future in our community?” (page 22)

announcing the kingdom – recognises that there is a gospel to share, and a Saviour to speak about.  It is adaptive, not impositional: Putting words to the recognition of how the Spirit of Christ is already at work, it invites others to join him, and to enter into the kingdom not as some abstraction but in how he is present in the here and now.

focus for missional action – urges a further and clearer pursuit of the journey of discernment:

“Every ministry setting has more good things to do and more good things to love than any local church can rightly or well take on.  Without the practise of discerning a focus for missional action, the sixth missional practice, the others lead to a kind of disorderly love and dissipation of energy and life into nothingness.  St. Augustine refers to this pattern of behaviour as sin and it is a very common practice in most local churches.” (Page 23, emphasis mine)

These six applied practices require further thought on my part to fully understand how they are meant and why they are emphasised over other actions and disciplines.  The groundwork on which they are based certainly matches my own experience.  By laying this groundwork Rooms and Keifert have helped answer my own questions of “What is going on?” in a mission-adverse church.  In the six practices they also attempt to answer the “So what” question: “So what can we do about it?”  Given the veracity of their starting point, they certainly cannot be lightly dismissed.  Criticial and biblical enquiry would serve to strengthen what should be strengthened, and correct what might be askance.  This is something I hope to attend to at some point.

My main caution (which is not insurmountable) is this: behind these books is an ecclesial product.  Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) is a church consultancy framework through which churches who want to explore these practices can “buy in” facilitation and support over a three-year process. Monetisation like this isn’t necessarily bad; it is akin to 3dm (focussing on discipleship and missional communities) or NCD which takes an inventory based approach to balanced growth.  But there is a little discordance when a framework which resists a culture of faddish quickfixes is promulgated as something that literally needs a ™ symbol.  Nevertheless, PMC does better than most to transcend the irony; a non-linear messy frustrating journey of discernment is not the stuff of populism.  To the extent that it will play its part in the developing trend—changing culture until mission is a natural rhythm—it will do itself out of a job and, in that possibility, it would rightly be seen as a success.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ecclesiology Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

The Dirt of Deeper Change

I remember a time when Gill and I moved into a new home.  It had a backyard!  With my farmboy zeal I got stuck into turning the yard into a garden.  Some things were already in place – mature fruit trees, a tap for the hose.  Some things had to go – obvious things like weeds and rubbish and rusty forgotten tools, but also some healthy plants and shrubs that were simply in the wrong place; they had had their time and now their fruit was waning, their shade was blocking the sun, and their suckers were running amok.  After a hard days labour with all manner of tools and a lot of sweat, digging and hoeing and raking, I proudly revealed the outcome to my young wife.

She was not impressed.  “Well done,” she said with a subtle friendly hint of mockery, “you’ve made some… dirt!”

We had discussed the grand plan, of course – how we could have new fruit trees and a veggie patch.  But some of the in-between steps were unclear to her, and also to me.  I couldn’t have predicted that a pipe was in the way of where I had plans for a plum tree.  Some new beds needed borders, and we’d simply run out of money to line them with something nice; rough outlines from pruned branches would do for now.  And of course, I’d been delayed in starting; the season was getting on and some of what we hoped to plant would need to wait for next year.

The lush garden was going to happen!  It would grow in its own good time.  It would shift and develop as new ideas came along.  It would become something like what we had thought it would be, and a whole lot different as well.

But, for now, I had just made dirt.

The metaphor in all this, I hope, is obvious.  There are ways of leading organisations (and my experience is with churches) which are akin to maintaining a garden.  They are effective and necessary: rotating crops, mowing lawns, pruning in season, timing the harvest, and even making improvements and modifications.

But deeper changes are changes of identity; they shift things, they are akin to making a yard into a garden.

These changes tackle the deeper questions of who we actually are, and the essence and application of our mission and calling.  On the ground it often comes with a sense of stagnancy (“everything is always the same”) or of urgency (“we’re not doing what we need to be doing, we’re wasting ourselves”).  This leads us to re-examining the old, both embracing and letting go of the things we’ve inherited.  It leads us to dreaming some dreams about what might be, even as we realise that it might not turn out exactly as planned.  It allows significant change.

And early on in the process, it can often look like all we do is just make dirt.

Leadership at this point can seem fraught and complex.  It requires assertion because some things must be done away with. It requires courage, because some of the “systems” of the organisation will begin to fail or fall as they no longer have their normal referents.  It requires vision, because what is imagined must be first and foremost.  The temptation is to retreat from the plan: to patch things up by making adjustments to a rota, or tweaking a job description.  But this will not be enough, the leader must show the way to “go into the soil and die” in order to live again.

At this point, a leader may feel that everything is collapsing around them.  And they will need to grieve and mourn along with everyone else.  Because things are less predictable, they will often have to do a lot themselves, or with a close core team who can hold to the sense of identity and call that has motivated the change in the first place.  Others, who knew what to do the way things were, may feel idle or unwanted.  They will need to be encouraged to have a well-earned fallow season, and to then find the place where they flourish in the new.

Slowly, as green shoots appear – in God’s timing not ours – the time of dirt fades away.  Amorphous plans begin to take a shape in reality.  And the systems for maintaining and enjoying the new thing will come more easily.

But you can’t go directly there.

Sometimes, it looks like you’ve sweated hard, and worked yourself to the bone, just to make dirt.

Photo by Nigel Chadwick licensed under CC 2.0 SA

Posted in 2.0, General, Ministry Tagged with: ,

Holiness, Worship, Discipleship

Have you noticed our tendency to mechanise the human and Christian experience of life?

Back in our church planting days, we noticed that much of the relevant theory viewed a new church as a mechanism which could be adjusted by programs and processes, techniques and good management.  These things weren’t bad ideas but they were more suited to expanding the existing, effective at cloning the sending church and often doing little towards connecting with the disconnected.

It was more useful to think of the church truly as a plant.  Leadership would thus turn towards more organic things such as nurture and care, and a responsiveness that recognised that ultimately we were reliant on Someone Else to provide the growth.

One of the current buzzwords in church life at the moment is discipleship.  The tendency to mechanise has accompanied it: discipleship is conflated with programs and processes, techniques and good guidance.  Again, these things have value, but they primarily help individuals and churches expand and improve the current, existing rhythms of life.  They are less effective in fathoming new depths of ourselves and how we are called by God.  At the extreme of it, we equate “discipleship” with spiritualised self-help programs that actually hinder our call towards a richer faith, a deeper transformative trust in God.

The growing wisdom that counters this tendency places discipleship on the foundation of worship.  This is a thoroughly biblical idea.  Everything from the Ten Commandments to the Lord’s Prayer and the prevailing narratives in between acknowledges first and foremost God’s Sovereignty, Lordship, and the simple worthiness of his adoration.  It is the beginning of our response to him. Passages like Romans 12:1-2 demonstrate how the “living sacrifice” of discipleship adheres to worship.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Discipleship derives from worship.

But finding the foundation of worship doesn’t totally avoid our waywardness.  After all, forms of worship in every tradition can also be treated mechanically and become emptied and disconnected.  In the extreme, we are warned in these last days to be aware of actions that “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”  (It strikes me as less and less odd as I get older and more cynical that the list of blatant vices that precede this statement in 2 Timothy 3 could ever have been mistaken as a “form of godliness”).

What, then, does our worship draw upon?

To be sure, it is a grace of God, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that causes us to groan and cry out Abba Father!.  Here, as Romans 8 shows us, is a point of connection, the “Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  This is an organic, relational, responsiveness.  Our worship draws upon a childlike reaching out to God.  It is the same spirit as Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

Such a thirst for God in worship is much more than a transcendant experience or a moment of inner awareness.  The framework of the Old Testament places this worship in the dust of every day, and a longing for a Torah-shaped shalom.  To thirst for God, is to thirst for his holiness, to have his righteousness written on our hearts.

Discipleship derives from worship which derives from a thirst for holiness.

The renewed pursuit of discipleship is a welcome development within the church.  There is a recognition that it isn’t the pursuit of programs, but of cultural change.  As we fathom the depths of what that means, we find the pure springs of God’s glory.  How do we bring discipleship to his church?  We need to thirst for him first, and hunger after his righteousness.

Photo by Mohammed Moussa licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Posted in 2.0, General Tagged with: , ,

Deep Joy

I’m currently reflecting on suffering as an essential, unavoidable part of what it means to live and follow Jesus.

This song by Page CXVI renders it one of the most profound ways that I’ve seen and heard.

Now, how to express it in dry, non-musical, words…

Posted in 2.0, Doxology, Music, Videos Tagged with: , , ,

Review: Setting God’s People Free – A Report from the Archbishops’ Council

“This report concludes that what needs to be addressed is not a particular theological or ecclesiastical issue but the Church’s overall culture.  This is a culture that over-emphasises the distinction between the sacred and the secular and therefore fails to communicate the all-encompassing scope of the whole-life good news and to pursue the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to make whole-life maturing disciples.  We will not raise up cadres of godly leaders unless we create communities of whole-life disciples.” (Page 2)

The Archbishops’ Council has released this report under the Renewal & Reform agenda. Hot off the presses (it is dated February 2017) it is refreshingly and provocatively titled “Setting God’s People Free” and is based primarily on the work of the Lay Leadership Task Group.  It is perceptive in outlook, insightful in analysis, but self-admittedly limited in application.  It provokes a degree of excitement with just a hint of cynicism.

From my “outsider” perspective, reports like these from the Church of England have stimulated and encouraged mission and discipleship in other contexts.  This was the case with significant works such as Mission-Shaped Church.  It is similar here; the leadership of the church is saying what needs to be said, giving a voice and lending language to those who desire a deeper Christian community that is more active and effective in doing the things that matter.  The simple encouragement that this gives to those on the edge cannot be underestimated.

With my slowly developing “inside” view, these documents now seem a little starker.  It is still immensely encouraging that these things are being said, but there is also an awareness of why they need to be said.  A report like this reveals behind (or in front of) it some sense of the inertial malaise that can be found in the Church of England.  It envelopes a justifiable sense of urgency.

So what does this report give us?  It’s not really anything revolutionary.  It’s a couple of things that make deep sense, and, if taken seriously, come attached with a whole bunch of difficult but positive implications:

This report identifies the need for two shifts in culture and practice that we see as critical to the flourishing of the Church and the evangelisation of the nation.

1. Until, together, ordained and lay, we form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.

2. Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation.

We believe that these two shifts would represent a seismic revolution in the culture of the Church.  The first is about the focus of our activity and the scope of our mission, the second is about the nature of the relationship between clergy and lay.  They are both vital.  And they are both rare.
(Page 2, emphasis theirs)

This is an exemplary act of ecclesial self-reflection.  These assertions about church culture are based on some decent quantitative and qualitative analysis.  It is a conversation that is well and truly at the missional and cultural level.  Personally speaking, we have been bewildered in our observation and experience of how these issues are usually avoided or mishandled.  This includes misalignment over the meaning of crucial language such as “discipleship” and “mission.”   This report not only clarifies terms (“Discipleship is not a course of study but is determined by circumstances”, page 7) but unpacks what that clarity reveals:

Today… the Church of England finds itself in a situation where the significant majority of the 98% of people who are not in ordained ministry are neither adequately envisioned, nor appropriately trained, nor consistently prayed for, nor enthusiastically encouraged for mission nor ministry in the ~90% of their waking lives that they do not spend in church related actitivites. (Page 3)

Yes, huge numbers of lay people serve in positions of influence and leadership in the church, community, workplace and society.  However, few claim to have been given a theological framework or to have the confidence to express biblical wisdom, in both word and deed, in these contexts.  We will not raise up cadres of fruitful godly leaders in every sphere unless we create healthy communities of whole-life disciple-making disciples. (Page 4)

What is needed, first and foremost, is not a programme but a change in culture. A culture that communicates the all-encompassing scope of the good news for the whole of life, and pursues the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to form whole-life maturing disciples.  And a culture that embodies in every structure and way of working the mutuality of our baptismal calling and the fruitful complementarity of our roles and vocations. (Page 5)

Our contention is that the motivation for Christian leadership must arise not from a slightly greater willingness to ‘do jobs’ but from a compelling and positive vision of the redeeming work of Christ for all people.  It is when people become aware of the great things that Christ has done for them and wake up to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on them that a joyful and willing leadership emerges, for it is out of communities of disciples that cadres of leaders will appear. (Page 8)

To all this I give an understated Anglican “Amen, brothers and sisters!”  Here is a vision for a missional church that resonates with our own hopes and passions.

It is not an unrealistic vision.  The report is aware of “constraining factors” and rightly names as primary a “theological deficit” (page 13) of “robust and incisive… thinking” (page 14).  The counter offer is a “theology of the laity as grounded in the centrality of mission and evangelism” (page 14) made with full awareness that parochialism and other factors work to prevent such vision from “achieving long-term currency, let alone significantly informing policy and practice across the Church of England” (page 14).

Mission is not about removing people from the world to seek refuge in the Church… but about releasing and empowering all God’s people to be the Church in the world in order that the whole of creation might be transformed and restored in Christ. (Page 14).

I am sympathetic to, but not entirely yet convinced by, the engagement with the clerical-lay divide as a primary problem.  The report portrays both sides of the frustration and that is useful: some congregations try to make their clergy into messiahs, some clergy already think they are!  Nevertheless, the engagement with the issue assumes and perhaps unhelpfully reinforces the division. After all, the clergy are subset of the laity, not a separate category.  And one of the problems in our formation of clergy is that we don’t also (and especially) disciple them as people.  A discipleship culture is rarely prevented by a lack of theological knowledge; it is resisted when leaders are unable to share of themselves because of insecurities, fears, emotional immaturity, inexperience with suffering, or simple lack of exposure to the deeper things of life with Jesus.

Few churches have developed the kind of learning culture that would illuminate the resource and support that is required to develop lay people.  Few churches are equipped with the kind of ‘action reflection’ approaches that we see in Jesus’ disciple-making and in best practice adult learning models in wider society. (Page 18)

Good reports make recommendations and here “eight levels of cultural change” are proposed (page 19).  They are only really applicable to “Dioceses and the National Church”, which is understandable as these are the atomic ecclesial components from the point of view of the Archbishops’ Council.  I am not particularly familiar with the sort of machinations that happen at that level, but the principles seem sound: theological vision, increased lay voice, episcopal priorities, centralised resourcing, liturgical development, structural reform and so on.  I’ll be watching the commentary on these things with some interest.

There are two recommendations for action in the short-term that attract me.  The selection of “pilot dioceses” (page 26) to model the culture has me hoping that my own Diocese of Oxford will be one!  And, the provision of resources through a “national portal” (page 26), particularly “the facility for people to join small affinity/learning groups for support, discussion, and accountability” recognises a crucial lack of communal learning that should be happening at Parish, Deanery and Diocesean level, but usually isn’t.

The emphasis remains however: cultural change is required.  And that is a fraught exercise.

I have sat on enough boards and committees in my time to understand that clarifying the situation and identifying the problem is one thing; putting forward achievable and appropriate proposals is another.  This is only amplified when the problem is a cultural one.  There is always an aspect of catch-22 and chicken-or-egg.  How do we use culture to change culture?  Are the available options – the levers that can be pulled – able to transcend the culture or are they products of it?

There are all manner of obstacles to cultural change.  It will take more than this report to overcome them.

For instance, cultural change is resisted by allowing symptoms to control the remedy.  Our natural tendency is to alleviate symptoms, and it is often not efficacious.  Consider how the report points out that there is “no sense of any centrally-coordinated strategy for the support and development of lay leaders across the Church” (Page 11).  This is clearly a symptom of something that’s wrong.  But it may not follow that the answer is to rely on a “centrally coordinated strategy.”  Rather, it is likely that cultural change is achieved by some other means, which then results in a centrally-coordinated strategy.  What comes first?  Here, while not wanting to “institute a top down approach” (page 1) we still have a “clear implementation plan” (page 9) from a high-level body!  Catch-22.

In general, there are other obstacles to cultural change.  There is the presumptive existent: “We exist, therefore we’re on the right course.”  There is semantic deflection: “Of course we’re doing X; when we do it it looks like…”  By embracing the buzzwords the real engagement is avoided.  We’ve seen this happen with words such as “discipleship”, “fresh expression”, “leadership”, “vision”, “mission”, and “emerging”.  Cynicism can easily abound.

I’m not sure the report totally avoids these obstacles.  For instance, in trying to articulate a picture of lay ministry in terms of the “sent church” there is an emphasis on volunteerism.  However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is often a cultural disconnect between the social action of individual parishioners and the movement and mission of the church to which they belong.  The report mentions Street Pastors (page 10), but how much can we say that that ministry belongs to the institutional Church?  There is a danger of stealing the fruit of others in order to avoid our own barrenness.

Nevertheless, I was both encouraged and moved by this paper.  I am grateful to know that people are thinking these thoughts, and even dreaming these dreams.  It’s the right conversation in the right room, and it speaks a vision that needs to spread to every room in this House of God.

Posted in 2.0, Anglican Church, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , ,

Four Levels of Church Conversation

There’s something to observe when Christians get together and talk about themselves in meetings, in groups, or even over coffee.  It’s an observation that relates to the question of “what is this meeting for?” and “what are we not talking about?”

Here is how I’ve come to answer that question: by identifying four levels of conversation.  It’s an oversimplifying categorisation, for sure, but hopefully a useful way to discern what page a conversation is on.

The top level of conversation is mechanical and operational.  Like coats of paint, it’s this top layer that is on the surface and is often the easiest level to enter into.

It is at this level that we find ourselves talking about operations: planning services, organising rotas, remarking on how good the flowers look, the size of the congregation, the clarity of the sound, and the feel of the sermon.  These are all necessary things to discuss and it’s not for no reason that such topics dominate the agenda of many meetings, and make up the bulk of a minister’s emails and phone calls.  Things need to happen, programs need to run, and coordination and conversation is required to do that.

Conversations at this level, however, presume and rest upon an understanding about how the church operates.  That’s the topic of the next level of conversation:

The second level of conversation is managerial and organisational.  At this level, it’s not so much about keeping the church operational but improving those operations.

These are conversations that deal with priorities, financial allocations and budgets, improving efficiencies, and responding to hiccups and crises.  A good engagement at this level keeps things running smoothly.  Most complaints and criticism are also at this level because they usually relate to how things could supposedly be done better.  Boards and oversight committees often spend time talking at this level.

These sorts of conversations inform and found how we talk about the operations of the church (the previous level), and presumes the church’s mission and purpose:

The third level of conversation is missional and cultural.  

This is where questions of identity, purpose, and values are considered.  It’s a level of conversation that is both reflective and strategic.  

It is reflective, in that it involves questions about ourselves:  Who are we? Where are we going? What are we for? What’s really important? What are we struggling with? What is good about us that needs to be affirmed? What is wrong that needs to be addressed? Where are we clinging to idols that we should put away?  What gifts are we ignoring that we should cling to?  What is our culture? Where are our blind stops? What makes us tick?

It is strategic, in that it involves questions about mission and calling: What is God doing in with and around us?  Where is he leading us? What is his heart for the people and place in which we find ourselves?  What is the culture in which we find ourselves, and how do we bear witness to the gospel in the midst of it?  It is in this sort of conversation that vision and purpose are tussled through and articulated.

Conversations at this level can be quite rare.  Such engagements are usually motivated by passion or crisis, or both!  Where the context is marked by stability, or even stagnancy, these topics are rarely broached; the presumed answers suffice for the sake of management and operation.  This is understandable; for conversation at this level to happen well, there needs to be a willingness to embrace the challenge that these sorts of questions generate, and that often requires facing fears and insecurities and daring to dream and be imaginative.

Conversations at this level inform and shape how we talk about the management and organisation of the church (the previous level), and presumes a theological and doxological basis:

The base level of conversation is theological and doxological and deals with spiritual foundations.  

These conversations can sometimes feel a bit academic or esoteric.  This does not necessarily mean that they are not delightful, dynamic, and life-giving.  The main contributor to my own theological formation was coffee with fellow students!  I have wrestled with fellow colleagues about things like Neo-Calvinism (when it was a new thing) and New Perspectives (which still is).  There might be no clear application for such discussions, but they do shape the foundations upon which all other conversations rest.  What do we believe? And why?

Of course, “theological” doesn’t just mean cerebral things.  Theology cannot be divorced from doxology.  The conversations at this level are also intensely spiritual.  I have had delightful conversations with deeply contemplative folk who make use of art, symbolism, metaphor, and even silence.  Shared spiritual disciplines are located here.  It is at this level that our conversations come close to the heart of worship.

Again, these sorts of conversations can be few and far between, even in a church setting.  There is often an intense sense of privacy and vulnerability that prevents the dialogue.  We often tend to mitigate this by relegating these sorts of topics to a didactic sermon or by speaking in abstractions so that awkward conclusions can be avoided.  Yet this sort of engagement is the stuff of life, it is where we discover a common root for our passions, a base level unity that founds a true and open community, irrespective of disagreements at the other levels.

Diagrammatically, it looks like this: 

It is a simplification, but it does help as we ponder how we ourselves engage in dialogue about the church.

I suspect that every one of us is more comfortable engaging at one level more than another.  And sometimes we try and do things at the wrong place.  This is the situation where a conversation about hymn selection is not about the operation of the music ministry, but actually a commentary with regards to priorities, purpose, and base values;  the issue is rarely the issue!  This can help discern where the conversation needs to go.

But it also reminds us of the conversations that we need to have but sometimes never get around to.  The management meeting that spends all its time on minutiae and forgets the important things is a well-known experience.  The old analogy of the church that forgets that it is a lifeboat station is a failure to have the deeper conversations at the right time and in the right way.

The thoughts, and hopefully the conversations, continue.

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