Can Churches Be Too Churchy?

iglesia-y-retrovisorWhat is a church? I don’t mean as a denomination, or as a theological entity.  I mean in terms of the local church: the St. Somebody’s that’s in the town, or village, or just down the street.  What is it?

It’s a place of worship, for sure (one hopes). For many it’s where the milestones of life – births, marriages, deaths – are marked and solemnified.  And, of course, it’s not just a building but a community which provides fellowship, companionship, and belonging.

But all of this only speaks to one aspect of the local church.  In technical terms, this is the church as a modality: the universal church expressed in a local mode.  Each particular geographical place is cared for by one local expression of the one church.  It’s why we think of “parishes” and why even non-established denominations still have local congregations with the name of the town in their own name.

But there is another aspect of church.  In technical terms, it is the church as a sodality.  This aspect reflects more of the sense of a church as a movement.  The word itself comes from the latin sodalis meaning “comrade” and so portrays a group of people moving with common purpose.  When we think of things such as monastic orders and mission agencies we are thinking of sodalities.

There has often been tension between the two: from historic power plays between monasteries and local bishops, through to a local pastor bemoaning yet another appeal for energy and resources from a parachurch organisation.

But my reflection here is about this: our churches are too churchy.  The modal aspect has become the overwhelming characteristic; we need to learn to act more like sodalities, like movements, like purposeful communities.

To be sure, there are many blessings in modal ministry.  At its best the church acts truly as the community’s chaplain.  It is a steady presence, available in season and out of it.  It is a refuge for people with busy lives.  It’s a place where the solace of word and sacrament are regularly offered for regular folk.  It is a provider of pastoral care, particularly for those who would otherwise be forgotten.  In this, those who serve the church (in everything from flowers to singing) can rightly see themselves as also serving the community in which the church exists.

But the purely modal church has missed something major: the church’s task is not simply to serve the world, but also to change the world.  There have always been those who have caught a vision for some sort of renewed mission, evangelism, or social activism.  And many times they have found the local church unwilling or unable to embrace this form of movement, and they have formed a parachurch organisation.

A consequent phenomenon is the “hidden” mission of volunteerism.  Christians are by and large excellent volunteers, devoting resources and energy to worthy causes.  They will give time and energy to the church in its modal chaplaincy mode.  And they will also give much time and energy to “sodalities”: other charities, agencies, and programmes that bless and build the wider community.  This is excellent in so many ways!  But it does mean that the various forms of activism are divorced from church life, they are merely competing opportunities to serve.  A volunteer can serve the church, or they can seek to change and bless the world by volunteering with other groups; the two don’t go together.  I have known a congregation where a significant section of the membership was doing wonderful good works together through another organisation; but this common movement was simply not a factor in how they worshipped and shared in fellowship.  The church simply did not matter for that part of their lives.

These days it is further amplified.  As the church’s chaplaincy role in society wanes, so service to the church begins to feel more and more like self-serving.  Anecdotally, there is an increasing numbers of those who are “done” with church.  They want to serve the Christian community, but towards an end.  Without that missional movement, the church seems self-referential.  Things like, “we were just playing at church,” “we were talking the talk but not walking the walk”, “devoted to Sundays and nothing else”, “we just never did anything”, “a nice friendly church that in the end was an inch deep”  is the sort of language that gets used.  It is usually a justifiable critique.

The reflection is simple: a local church must recapture a sense of “sodality”, not content to simply just be in the place, but to be an active movement.  Collectively, a church must be seeking to answer the question of how it is being called to engage, confront, and improve the world.  It must therefore not just offer solace, but also good and godly provocation.  It must be more than a place of solidity, but a generator of instability, of discontent with the status quo, providing the tools, language, and opportunities to push ahead down gospel-shaped paths.  The church needs to not just be a worthy end of charitable acts (amongst many) but an effective means for them.  We must be a movement, shedding our churchiness so that we can truly be the church of God.

Posted in 2.0, Ecclesiology, General Tagged with: , , ,

Disagreeing with a Judgemental World

6249833748_9d9f815fc7_oThe touchstone of contemporary apologetics is not rationality (“Is belief in God logical?”) but ethics (“Is belief in God morally wrong?”)

Often, a religious person is portrayed as a caricature:  It is supposed that belief in God involves submission to absolutist and outdated moral stances.  This necessarily involves the believer repressing both their naturally inquisitive mind and their naturally tender conscience.  It is concluded that the religious believer has therefore embraced a sociopathy that has some good but a lot of bad and is ultimately reprehensible.

It is an understandable picture.  Much has been done in the name of God that is reprehensible.  Some fundamentalist frameworks do lead to the repression of intellect or conscience or both.  This is the case, however, for tyrants of both religious and non-religious persuasions.  It’s enough to make you sceptical about the natural goodness of humanity!

But the caricature remains.  It is simply presumed.  The other day a young Christian I know was accosted out of the blue with the assertion, “You hate me because I’m gay and you’re a Christian.”  It’s not just a sexuality thing.  Replace the word “gay” with some other descriptor (e.g. “muslim”, “atheist”, “scientist”, “person who likes to have fun”) and the dynamic remains.  It is how young people of faith are treated in the prevailing popular mood.

Ironically, of course, those who assert the caricature are actually reflecting it.  It’s a gavel-banging declaration:  “I judge that you are judging me and so I condemn you for it.”  There is no enquiry in this statement, no generous observation or gracious listening.  The caricature is projected onto the “other” irrespective of whether it fits or not.  The particular dignity, principles, thoughts and feelings of that person are irrelevant: they are guilty by association with an abstraction!

We need to lead our young people into understanding this dynamic and responding in an opposite spirit, one that truly demonstrates gentleness and grace without conforming to the pressures and assumptions of a judgemental world.

The real danger is that we Christians come to agree with the caricature ourselves.  We can come to accept the judgement that “we” (for some definition of us religious folk) are, by that very fact, dangerously judgemental.  And then our judgemental reflection, our projection, is placed on God himself. Our wrestle with the Bible and with godly principles of Christian living collapses into a capitulation: “What God does and says is judgemental and so I judge him worthy of condemnation.”

In some ways this is no surprise. It is not for no reason that the the biblical account of humanity’s fall begins with a questioning of God’s character. “Did God really say?  God knows that you would become like him.

We capitulate to the caricature when we agree with its assertion. “You’re right, the Bible is clearly outdated and doesn’t speak the truth as we know it.”  When we do this we are simply making God in our own image.  The end game of that is tyranny and philosophical anarchy: There is no higher authority or principle to appeal to; we have a cacophony of individuals asserting that what they say is true is actually what is true.

We capitulate to the caricature when we reinforce the assertion by combatting it on its own terms.  “You’re the one who is wrong, the Bible condemns you! You must submit or be damned!”  By this we become part of the tyranny, just another one of the voices claiming that their truth wins.

We can only avoid capitulating by turning not to ourselves and some sense of self-righteousness, but by embracing confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s character.  That is, by growing in faith.

The way forward is to deliberately choose a posture of trust in God as a good parent.  Trust is earned, and can be nurtured.  It involves honesty, and takes risks: “Yes, this part of the Bible is difficult to read. But let’s wrestle with it, let’s grapple it. If we stand over it we will not learn anything, but if we begin on the foundation that God is good, how then are we confronted, provoked, taught, and grown by what we read and see?”

We know from our own experience as children of the times when we questioned our parent’s character, particularly when we were being disciplined, or when a family decision takes a difficult path.  But we grew to trust.  And we came to understand what was going on, and to even respect and agree with what we were taught through those times.  Our trust grows, and we are shaped, corrected, and transformed as we go on that journey.

This posture helps us, then, to relate to others.  We don’t meet judgementalism with judgementalism.  We respond with the truth (“What you say I believe is not actually the case.”) and an invitation to journey (“This where I’ve come from, this is what I’m learning at the moment.  Where are you coming from?”).  Or, as St. Peter did saith:

…in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

[Image by Anton Novosolev licensed under CC – BY]

Posted in 2.0, General, Society Tagged with: , , ,

Review: Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism

9780141009544Cultural assumptions have historical roots.  It is incumbent upon anyone who takes part in public debate or social engagement to explore them.  In the current moment there is a growing appreciation that when it comes to the self-evident truths of the Western world – things like human rights and democratic values – our roots are firmly and inextricably embedded in our Christian heritage.

This conclusion is not simply the stuff of political rhetoric of the Christian Concern variety, nor even of decent apologetics like that of CPX or the recently released Jesus the Gamer Changer series.  It’s the stuff of thorough historiography.  Larry Siedentop, formerly professor of Intellectual History at Sussex University, and fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and Lecturer in Political Thought, gives us this stimulating monograph.

Like any careful teacher, Siedentop précises himself throughout.  His epilogue, “Christianity and Secularism” contains a summary of the basic building block of his argument:

More than anything else, I think, Christianity changed the ground of human identity.  It was able to do that because of the way it combined Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism that had roots in later Greek philosophy.  By emphasizing the moral equality of humans, quite apart from any social roles they might occupy, Christianity changed ‘the name of the game’.  Social rules became secondary. They followed and, in a crucial sense, had to be understood as subordinate to a God-given human identity, something all humans share equally…  In one sense Paul’s conception of the Christ introduces the individual, by giving conscience a universal dimension… Through its emphasis on human equality the New Testament stands out against the primary thrust of the ancient world, with its dominant assumption of ‘natural’ inequality. (pp352-3)

Siedentop is not, nor does he read like, a New Testament exegete or biblical theologian; he’s a political philosopher.  But his grappling with biblical texts is robust and fair and his understanding of early and middle Christian history is useful as a history text in its own right.

His last chapter, “Dispensing with the Renaissance” reveals his programme.  The fundamental tenets of Western liberalism (moral equality and “natural rights” of individuals, representative government and institutions, and freedom of enquiry) were not novel discoveries of the modern age.

…I am not suggesting that the Renaissance did not matter, that it did not channel human thought, feeling and expression into new forms… But what I am maintaining is that as an historiographical concept the Renaissance has been grossly inflated.  It has been used to create a gap between early modern Europe and the preceding centuries – to introduce a discontinuity which is misleading. (p337)

His preceding chapters justify a continuity.  Upon the Pauline building block of the salvation of “individual souls”, which counters the priority of aristocratic or familial obligations, he notes the “demolition of ancient rationalism” that was eventually completed by Augustine (p104).  Early monasticism avoids compromise with the “aristocratic world” (p93) and implements an “utterly new form of social organisation” based on “voluntary association, in individual acts of will” (p94).  By the time Charlemagne attempts to reprise a Roman-like imperial rule, the “individual began to emerge as the unit of subjection, a social role as well as a moral status” (p154).

It is intriguing to see how the role of the church in the post-Carolingian feudal period prevents a recourse to an aristocratic illiberal world.  Concepts that might now be caricatured as theocratic overreach were actually forms of emancipation.  The church’s insistence of marriage as a sacrament undoes the last vestiges of absolute slavery (p171) by preventing men and women being bartered and bred.  The sense of “divine right” of kings is actually a great leveller (p174); the king is not king by some ontological natural attribute, but by divine providence, and is therefore obligated to God as much as any other individual.

It’s a flip-side consideration that has contemporary impact. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a thoughtful person who was well versed in anti-discrimination law.  In conversation about how I would approach a certain subject I began with the words, “Well, we’re all sinners.”  To her look of dismay at such an unfortunate premise, I noted that that this understanding is fundamentally egalitarian:  No one can claim moral authority in and of themselves, we are all sinners.  The crescendo of self-righteousness on all sides of contemporary debates indicates the value of humility that a mutual recognition of the divine could bring.

Siedentop’s consideration takes us through the Cluniac reforms, in which the “purity” of monastic houses, and the freedoms of their volitional, individual members, were reinforced against local, feudal pressures.  He demonstrates how the developing sense of papal sovereignty extended the moral sense of the “individual” such that it became a primary social role “shared equally by all persons” (p219).  This inherently “bottom-up” conception shaped the development of canon law, as it grew to support the centralised papacy, bringing a form of universality of rights and obligations.  Civil structures were only later to catch up and, in so doing, moved the social framework away from realms towards nation-states with an embryonic social contract.  And finally, the philosophical pieces of liberalism are fully in place as the Franciscan movement, countering the scholastic infatuation with Aristotelian rationalism, emphasised divine freedom (free from the constraint of a more fundamental essence or ideal) and a consequent human agency.

And all of this before the Renaissance!

It is only in the tumult of the Reformation, as the enforcement of belief becomes a prevalent political and social reality, that Siedentop sees the liberal ideas becoming manifest as an anti-clericalism, sowing the seeds that germinate and grow throughout the modern period and even bear fruit today.

Sidentop’s history-telling is compelling and convincing.  All would do well to ingest it, certainly before rejecting fait accompli the Christian world view as inherently repressive and totalitarian.

But the bigger question this raises for me is something of a “so what?”  There are two aspects to this:

Firstly, to the extent that liberalism is virtuous, how much does the current irreligious age put our liberalism at risk?  Christian origins might be apparent, but not conceptually necessary for many thoughtful liberals.  What do we lose if we lose the understanding of origins?  What difference does it make?

I suspect the difference at this point is not sociological but epistemological, and we must perhaps consider different instantiations of liberalism in the contemporary setting.  You can have multiple points of view that share Siedentop’s liberal characteristics, but which vary greatly in application.  The current differences on gender and sexuality are the prime example.  For some, (ironically both traditional conservative and classical feminist), individual freedom is found in embracing and defending the biological aspects of human being as an essential part of identity. For others, individual freedom is to transcend or reject not just social constructions but the biological realities to which they attach.  Both are “liberal” in their own internal sense, but are also at odds.  From either point of view, the other constrains individual freedom.

I can therefore understand the argument by which the rejection of the Christian epistemological ground is seen as a path toward an illiberal “liberalism.”  This is evident in current popular rhetoric (the “intolerance of tolerance,” “slippery slope” etc).

Secondly, to the extent that liberalism is not the gospel, what correctives are needed?  We do well to focus on individualism, and recognise its primordial rejection of familial aristocracy.  But where do concepts such as community and family and plurality enter in?  There is power in introspection, but the gospel is more than just alleviating the anxiety of the introspective conscience, it is about the commencement and completion of a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” in which there is an interdependence of persons.

The postmodern reprise of both relationship and experience is a necessary corrective within the grand flow of philosophical history, and one that the Christian worldview is yet to adequately inform or harness.  Any attempt needs a view of history that would learn a great deal from Siedentop.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Progress and Pluralism Tagged with: , , , , ,

A Parentless Church in the Orphaned West?

1280px-salar_uyuni_bolivieWe have an ongoing task of considering the culture around us for the sake of the gospel.  We “live in the world” but do not act like the world.  Rather, we “take every thought captive”, which is not about our inner thought-life and has more to do with the task of simultaneously participating in and pushing-back at our surrounding culture.

The task involves this: What are some of the defining characteristics of the West?  Where is the church capitulating to or, alternatively, subverting our cultural narrative with the gospel?  They are the rubbing points of our mission, our proclamation, our relevance.

One Western characteristic we have encountered is the prevalence of fear.  The fear of falling, particularly in the middle classes, is a point of contact for the gospel of trust and hope.

A second characteristic is a peculiar individualism with an honour-shame shape.  You’re individually placed within a herd in which you are ranked by some descriptor such as school results, bank balance, or postcode.  Honour and shame pertains to perceived movement in that rank.  Perceptions as to where you stand matter as much as reality, and poor presentation can become self-fulfilling.  This a point of contact for the gospel which honours individuals as image-bearers of God and values the body life of a renewed Jesus-shaped community.

A third characteristic is the subject of this post:  It is a collective sense of parentlessness.  Our society exhibits aspects of orphanhood.  And the greatest concern is the extent to which the church which prays “Our Father…” readily adopts this same sense in thought and practice.

What do we mean by it?

In vague and limited terms, some observations that describe this characteristic are:

You are on your own.”  The community spirit, that vague but certain sense that we each belong to a “team” of some sort has waned.  This does not preclude interaction, or times and places where people can connect and share in anything from frivolities to more serious causes; but in the end I am not my brother’s keeper, and my neighbour and I owe each other nothing.  “Pulling together” is only of utilitarian value, and not an end in itself.

Cynical Leadership.  Political leadership is a stark example.  Here, leadership is not about inspiration, it is simply an algorithm, a feedback loop of wedge issues, focus groups, and the bartering of winners and losers in which principle is irrelevant.  We have ideology but no ideals.  We are called to self-interest but not to shared identity or purpose.  Statesmanship has been deconstructed.  Our debates and votes have become mechanical spins of a sloganeered poker machine.

Fearful Silence.  Perhaps as an overreaction to bygone paternalism, we lurch between fear of ourselves (that we might impose and control) and fear of rejection (that our pearls will be treated as swill).  And so we tend to simply stop saying anything, one generation to another and each to their own.   No one is raised up to purpose or vocation.  Rather than being covered and nurtured and raised up into their potential, all must fight for their place, seek their own sustenance, and justify their value. Elders are just old people, and young people have a divine right to not only “find their way” but to do so from first principles, standing at the feet of fading giants.  Withholding insight, we hold unthinking belligerence to be self-evident.  The concept of “Founding Father” is extinct.

The end result has society bearing the hallmarks of orphanhood:  An uncertain identity, an unanswered questioning of who we are; and a fear of rejection lingering as a subtle self-centredness that orbits the numbing false-comfort of entertainments.  Our world is uncontrollable, and so we curl up into passivity, only bothering to be moved when there’s something that “they” should do.

Now this is social commentary, not an observation of how well or otherwise mothers and fathers raise their children. Nevertheless, it does inform how family-life is pressured by prevailing assumptions of how things should be.

And it also informs the church’s application of the gospel.

The gospel begins with a good good Father, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and sends his Spirit by which we can respond with the rejuvenating childlike cry of “Abba, Father.”  The gospel invites us to turn to Christ, and so enter into the spiritual family that he heads.  There we have a certain identity, love that overcomes fear, and a call to purposeful action.  Our heavenly Father knows us, takes risks for us, calls us into the fullness of ourselves in him, and so binds his people together with love, affection, mutual recognition and godly provocation.

The most inspiring Christian movements model this family.  Irish band Rend Collective grabs hold of the Great Commission, and as family they go.  We’ve seen people try to emulate the energy of youth festival Soul Survivor – big music and loud lights – and fail to see that it only works because those who make it happen do it as family.

Families share life, spur one another on, and know one another.  Parents don’t just instruct and teach, they breathe life, they feel the wellbeing of each member in their own bones.  They pour themselves out and are wearied, for sure, but they delight and are rewarded by the family’s growth.  And all the while they hold their Father’s hand.

Read Paul’s letters and you see his apostolic father heart beating the whole time.  He never goes alone.  And he speaks of his people:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 1 Thessalonians 2:19

Yet for so many, the loneliest place on earth is the church pew.  Church can be many things – a product to buy, a message to contemplate, a program in which to participate.  Our strategies can be clever, and our structures professional and proper.  Our job descriptions can be precise, and our line management clear and fair.  But without a sense of family, our Christianity is paint-layer thin, deep gets swallowed up by shallow, and we are yet another dusty bowl in the world’s wilderness.

The recent re-attention on discipleship steps towards the deeps we need to recover and re-dig.  Discipleship involves a recognition of “household”, the sharing of life, and training through apprenticeship.  It invokes the “band of brothers” family as the outward mission is pursued.

The next step perhaps, is deeper yet; it is towards an apostolic adoptive heart, which doesn’t just train, but calls and covers.  This next step can’t be manufactured.  Perhaps it’s simply what happens when the Father heart of God stirs us anew.  But we know we need it, this world and ourselves.

[Image by Olywyer used under CC BY-SA]

Posted in 2.0, General, Society Tagged with: , , ,

Pioneering Mission and Authoritative Dissent

IMG_2466It’s always great to get in conversation with stimulating people who understand the dynamics of mission in the church and all that’s in play and at stake when pioneering is needed.  One of the things that happens is that words and phrases get used that state a concept or an experience that you’ve always been aware of but have struggled to describe.  With new words comes an opportunity for reflection.

Recently we had cause to reflect on the concept of “dissenter.”  It’s in two parts, “pathfinding dissenter” and “authority dissenter.”

They’re not terms we’ve coined.  You’ll find reference to it books such as Arbuckle’s Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership, which I haven’t read but plan to.  It’s in a whole bunch of pioneering ministry material, which you can google for, but which I also haven’t read.  All that I say below are my thoughts, capturing our experience through in these terms.

The concept of “pathfinding dissenter” is readily grasped.  Everyone understands that for something new to happen there needs to be a form of leadership that is constructively discontent with the status quo and simply refuses to agree that the way things are always done is the best way forward.  This form of leadership, when done well, pokes and prods, questioning assumptions and the cultural “givens.”  The discontent is entered into and wrestled with, preferably in a gathering community of the like-hearted, and a pathway forward is discovered and followed.

To others, it may not look like a path.  Indeed, it is sometimes the task of the dissenting explorers to “toss their caps” over an impossibly high wall so they can find their way.  But this is why dissent is a good word to use.  It’s a disagreement with the presumed impossible, it blazes a trail, it gets new things done.

Gill and I have had the joy of walking with pathfinding dissenters.  For us, the phrase was “damn the torpedoes” and for an all-too-brief season it was the way of new things.

It’s the term “authority dissenter” that has intrigued me.  But, of course, it makes sense also.  The authority dissenter is the one who interfaces between the pathfinder and organisational structures.  They have authority, and they recognise, release, cover and connect with the constructive pathfinding dissenters.

They have institutional authority but a pioneering spirit.  They also share the same constructive discontent.  They also dissent from the cultural presumptions of the status quo.  They also understand viscerally that new paths ahead need to be found and forged.  And they champion and support the pathfinders, without getting in their way.  They take their hands off, create the space, and protect where needed.

An ineffective nerdy analogy perhaps:  It’s the wisdom of Gandalf, and then Aragorn, who allow the ringbearer and his friends to forge their own path, while they get on with the jobs that need doing and the wars that need waging, all the while watching, believing, and drawing away the enemy fire.

Without the authority dissenter, the pathfinders will still go ahead – the pioneering spirit cannot easily be quenched – but they will do so disconnected.  Their task will be harder and the pathfinders will struggle.  But most importantly, the organisation will also be disconnected, without a way to follow along the new ways forward, and with a diminished sense of “blessing and being blessed in return.”

The authority dissenter is a permission giver, but of a particular sort.  Many effective leaders will hear proposals and the creative ones will give permission to make it happen.  But the authority dissenter doesn’t just give permission to what can be known (“Go and do what you have said you will do.”), they give permission to the unknown (“Go, and may the Lord show you your path.”)

Authority dissenters can cover the pathfinders in all manner of ways, from providing resources, to dealing with and removing bureaucratic overheads, to bringing people into community with one another.  They are the champions that justify the pioneers to whoever sticks their nose in, so that the pioneers are released from the ever-present weariness of having to justify every step (and mis-step) to eagle-eyed naysayers.

And here is an important dynamic: the authority dissenter does not demand primary loyalty.  The relationship with pioneers is not that of patron-client.  It is a parental-release dynamic.

The analogy is this: I expect a certain high degree of loyalty from my children.  But as they forge their own path, those loyalties will rightly and appropriately shift, most clearly towards the formation of their own family.

In pioneering it is the same: as pathfinders scale their walls and go through fire together there will be a mutual loyalty which should not be tampered with.  As a pioneer leader passes through trials and moves in the charism that necessarily follows, their chief loyalty will be towards those they serve and serve alongside.

At this point, without an authority dissenter, the organisation will try and claim it’s prize, or like a clinging mother-in-law, try to put it in its place and demand its dues.  But the authority dissenter is there to make more room – the space given to the pioneer at the beginning of the journey is now extended to those who have been found at the end and along the way.  Because it is clear: the new thing will expand in God’s grace, and the old will either move and embrace it, reject and abandon it, or be cracked and broken by it.

The authority dissenter is there to be the point of embrace, taking upon themselves the points where it rubs and wears, mending the cracks, and helping the blessings flow both ways.

Gill and I have had “authority dissenters,” whose authority was episcopal.  It was a foundational blessing.  In other ways, though, we’ve had to cover ourselves: arching our backs against church machinery that would squash the fragile new things that were growing.  It’s wearisome and wrong to run up and down the path, pushing with the pathfinders at one point, pushing back at the machinery at another.

My reflection concludes: The authority dissenter, the cover of the apostolically hearted, is not just important, it is essential.  We look for innovative pioneers to push us outwards.  But that’s not enough.  We must also incorporate into ourselves, and give authority to, those who can recognise, release, cover and connect with those who will do what we need to do next.

Posted in 2.0, Church Planting, Ministry Tagged with: , , , ,

Remembering Jesus: Soul Survivor and Sacramental Singing

20160823_193428We’ve just been to Soul Survivor.  For the uninitiated, it’s a Christian youth festival, held as five separate weeks in various places around the UK.  We went to the last week in Shepton Mallet, Somerset together as a family with our church youth group and with 6,500 other people.

It was fantastic.  Uplifting, moving, healing, restorative, life-giving, fun, peaceful, worshipful.

But I had an initial concern that it would be all about the hype and the froth.  I had had a passing observation of Soul leader, Mike Pilavachi, and he has, shall we say, a large personality.  Would the big top and the light show make it just another spiritualised buzz for young people, to dry up like the mud in the fields as the tents are pulled down and the cars drive away?

It wasn’t like that. While rightly being the centre of attention at times, Mike, when it mattered, constantly put the attention back to Jesus.  He was not afraid to turn off the light show and simply ask people to pray in quietness.  People weren’t asked to come forward to receive ministry from the big holy guru, but to simply to pray for and care for one another.  I saw people moved with contrition, with love, with peace, with joy.

And there was music. Lots of it.  Some loud, some repetitive, some light, some profound.  It carried people away without getting carried away, if you know what I mean.  And while the lyrics were not 18th Century theological treatises, they were meaningful and biblical.

It reprised me with an ongoing thought I’ve had about charismatic worship of this kind, the sort that’s done well.  What does it do?

Firstly, it expresses an obedience to the Scriptural injunction to build one another up with “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” and to “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Secondly, there is a sense of expectation that this form of worship is an effective means of encountering the grace of God in particular, life-giving ways.  This is the charismatic sense in which the worship incorporates prayer, healing, restoration, and a growing intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

These are two marks that characterise sacraments.  The two canonical Sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are done in obedience and are an effective administration of God’s grace.  We encounter God in the Sacraments, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Musical worship is not a Sacrament, but in this sense it is sacramental.  In the midst of musical worship we can encounter the grace of God in a particular way as the Holy Spirit ministers to us.

What struck me at Soul Survivor however, was another aspect of this.  The two Sacraments also have the characteristic of being a memorial, in the broad sense of the word of “an aid to memory.”  Jesus commands that the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine and the sharing together should be done “in remembrance of me.”

As I watched over six thousand young people singing about Jesus it was clear, by this they were remembering him, and they were remembering who they are in him.  It was truly a memorial.  It was kerygmatic.  It was a connection with and a proclamation of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And my prayer is this: that as the young people dispersed into their year, that they would take the remembering of these songs, this worship experience, with them.  In whatever stresses and strains they experience, that they would be led to remember Christ there, away from the big top, in the midst of reality.  That they would do life in remembrance of him, and so bear much fruit for his glory. Amen.

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

Review: Ministry in Three Dimensions

min3dThe church often wrestles with the times in which it finds itself.  It’s a good and godly thing. Identity and purpose are reappraised as eternal foundations are sought out in the midst of shifting cultural sands.

Over the years Gill and I have been a party to this wrestle, at local congregational level and also within wider networks and systems.  Invariably, at some point that wrestle faces a particular collision: One that is between the sense of vocation and call that Christians experience individually and collectively, and the historic structures of ministry in the Anglican Church.  As we grapple with the mode and manner of ministry of the whole body (laity), questions arise about our particular threefold ordering of deacons (diaconate), priests (presbyterate), and bishops (episcopate).  What do they mean? What are they for? What do they do? And how might they help (or hinder) the mission of the whole people?

This is often a constructive collision.  It can assist innovation and avoid disconnection.  We have, for instance, seen the creativity of “locally ordained ministry” in which long-term locals are authorised to exercise ordained ministry as part of a “local ministry support team.”  We have seen the value of ordaining not only those who will serve the church in its modal, geographical form, but also where the church is a sodality, in chaplaincy, advocacy, and education.  We have walked the “normal” paths of affirming a call to ordination: academic training then being deaconed and priested within a curacy. We have also trodden forgotten paths in which a call to the distinctive diaconate is affirmed from within the integrity of life experience.

I have been ordained as a deacon and a priest in the Anglican Church. Gill has been ordained as a deacon.  We are both members of the people of God.

In this ecclesial wrestle, this vocational collision can often be a churning confusion of language and expectation.  It is a touchstone of the malaise of the western church: we don’t know what we’re for anymore.  As well as the different emphases of each individual’s (lay or ordained) sense of ministry call, there are often wildly different expectations that attach to the ordained ministry and its offices.  Throw into the mix the usual divisors of churchmanship and talking about the three orders becomes a fraught topic.  Many avoid delving in too deeply, preferring that safe ambiguity which is the usual descriptor of default Anglicanism.

I am delighted, then, that Steven Croft, soon to be my new diocesan bishop here in the Diocese of Oxford, has dared to delve into and delight in the threefold order.  His Ministry in Three Dimensions is apparently standard fare for ministry training here in the UK. This was my first time picking it up; I read the 2008 new edition of the 1999 original.  I’m glad I did.  It’s a useful stimulant for some ecclesiastical torpor.

Bp. Steven speaks of three dimensions rather than orders and this is helpful.  It allows him to describe and demarcate diaconal, presbyteral and episcopal distinctives, without being restricted by the boundaries of the orders.  It means that throughout he can not only remind us, for instance, of the diaconal dimension of a bishop’s ministry, but also of the episcopal dimension of a deacon’s.  This is helpful.

For Bp. Steven, this “three-dimensional” ministry is for the “proper ordering and care of local congregations” that is “different and parallel” to the “‘charismatic ministries’ given to different individuals by the gift of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the whole body.” (p38).

I am not entirely convinced by the distinction this makes.  It is helpful with respect to the general list of charismata in, say, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  However, I would have liked to see a tighter interaction with the the five-fold gifts of Ephesians 4:11-14 where Paul is being quite particular and deliberate.  His framework places a demarcation between “proper ordering and care” (3-d) and “building up the whole body” (5-fold) that prevents some useful correlations.

Nevertheless, the focus on the three dimensions allows us to turn “not to the broken cisterns of secular management theory, but to our springs of living water; the God who speaks through Scripture and has continued to speak in new ways through Scripture throughout the history of the Church.” (p41).  As one who shares the “deep dissatisfaction” (p25) with the pop-psych pontifications of programmatic pastoring, this is encouraging.

The book is divided into three parts for each of the dimensions of ministry:

Bp. Steven’s treatment of diaconal dimension dignifies what is often overlooked.

The diaconal tradition within the New Testament can be traced very easily directly to Christ himself and to central strands of Jesus’ own self understanding; to the pattern of the incarnation; and to the Old Testament background which helped form Jesus’ own identity.  Of the three concepts which we will explore and which came to be used as titles for Christian ministers, that of deacon has the richest and the deepest theological tradition of all.” (p45)

He is convinced of the theological arguments for the restoration of a permanent diaconate (p59) and expounds something of this in the new edition’s chapter on mission-shaped church.  There he identifies a “natural connection between pioneer ministry and the tradition of ministry as diakonia” (p201).  This connection springs from the characteristics of diaconal ministry which he identifies as:

  1. Simple, hidden, practical acts of service(p68).
  2. Outward focused service to the wider community (p70) which resists the “centrifugal” self-referential tendency of church organisations (p70).
  3. Competent and careful administration (p72).
  4. Listening to others (p73), including the “story of the church… as told by a cross-section of different people… to lay a very necessary foundation for any common vision which may arise.” (p75)
  5. A servant-hearted attitude and integrity. (p76)
  6. Expressing a spirituality of trust which “waits upon God and listens to God for his priorities and his way forward for a particular local church…” (p78).
  7. Serving and being served allowing “other people to care for us”and therefore expressing mutual service (p81).

Gill and I always welcome any attempt to deepen understanding of diaconal ministry.  We have come across so many situations where it is reduced to a liturgical function, or considered to be merely menial with tasks pertaining to a first-year curate only!  Rather, there is a form of diaconal leadership that when embraced and released is a phenomenal resource, as it connects to and extends the operation of the other dimensions.

“Leadership alongside” is a key aspect of the distinctive diaconate.  Perhaps it’s best instantiated when archdeacons lead alongside their bishops.  A deacon not only supports episcopal leadership practically, but by drawing that leadership forwards into and with the awareness of listening and discernment, and the spirituality of trust and waiting.  This can look like encouragement, sometimes like challenge and godly provocation.  But diakonia and episcope need each other.  Disconnected from diakonia, episcope strives, often with hollow diminishing returns.  Disconnected from episcope, diakonia shrivels and dies, or simply bursts with uncontainable awareness.

There’s a line from a song, about a husband and wife remembering and celebrating their pioneering life.  One of the lines describes the mutual service of husband and wife and says: “If I forget my name… remind me.”  Applied more generally, that is what diaconal ministry brings.  It reminds all dimensions of ministry of who we are, even (and especially) if we don’t want to hear it.

Bp. Steven’s consideration of the presbyterial dimension draws on pastoral/shepherding aspects of Christ’s ministry and, unsurprisingly, emphasises the ministry of word and sacrament.  What he is able to avoid is a reductionism:

The ministry of the priest does not consist of only that which a priest and no-one else can do. To argue this is to shrink priestly ministry only to presiding at the eucharist and pronouncing absolution. Rather, priestly ministry is better seen as a particular combination of ministries, clustered around the ministry of the Word and of the sacrament. (p106)

His consideration of Word ministry moved me as I am only sometimes moved.  Here is a consideration of preaching and exposition that is antidote to the prevailing “nice sermon, vicar” dilution in common church life.  Not only does he emphasise the depths (and privilege) of bringing “a congregation into contact with that living word of God; and the word of God into contact with the congregation through regular biblically-centred preaching” (p114) but he also recognises the importance of proper apologetics and teaching on “the great issues of life”, applying the Word not just “in-house” but to the “whole of creation” (p115).

His consideration of sacramental ministry not only picks up on Baptism and Holy Communion but on reconciliation and leadership in prayer and blessing.  He draws out the presidential aspects of this dimension (although he rarely uses that language) by which a congregation is lead into an engagement with God’s grace through imitation and participation.

Of greatest importance, however, is the section which emphasises “hidden intercession” (p133).  It is here that the very real burden of pastoral ministry is acknowledged.  I have often associated this with an apostolic burden as it is a hallmark of the apostles’ ministry in the New Testament.  But the attachment to eldership is sensible.  Certainly, when I look for those who will join a true leadership team, i.e. one that is concerned with purpose and direction more than management and maintenance, I look for those who are finding themselves strangely moved with a spiritual burden for God’s people.  Such as these will step off the vocational cliff, so to speak, and find God lifting them up.

Bp. Steven does well to refer to the New Testament language of a presbyter “agonising” and “wrestling” (p134) for individuals and for the church as a whole.  Such things are integral to this dimension of ministry.  It is in the gift of tears, that we encounter the sufferings of Christ for his people, and can place the church (and therefore our hopes and dreams, our reputation, and energy) in his hands and not cling.  It is a parental burden, in the best sense of it, which leads to that “particular quality of holiness which we find in Christ: joyful yet long-suffering and compassionate; righteous yet not judgemental; free yet disciplined; accessible yet profound.” (p137)

With respect to the episcopal dimension Bp. Steven identifies aspects of ministry that are increasingly be expected of “ordinary” ministers (lay and ordained) and not simply those who hold the office of Bishop.  He sums it up:

“…the mission context in which the Church now finds itself is calling for a shift in the balance between the different dimensions of ministry.  Gifts which have not been traditionally part of the diaconal or priestly calling are increasingly demanded of the clergy: the gifts of intentionally enabling and building community; the gifts of discernment in identifying the charisms of others and enabling them in ministry; gifts of collaboration, of vision; and of guiding a Christian Church through a period of change.” (p141)

Drawing on the famous Acts 20:28 in which Paul exhorts elders to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” he does very well, in the new edition’s chapter, to locate “watching over yourself” at the forefront of the episcopal dimension (p205).  This self-watching is not only essential for self-care and avoiding burn out, but for the maintenance of the essential spirituality of episcope.  Bp. Steven notes the spirituality of diakonia as “learning to listen to God” characterised by integrity, of presbyteral ministry as intercession characterised by holiness, of episcope as discernment characterised as responsible initiative.  Watching over oneself gives attention to these crucial aspects of spirituality.  In the end the overseer must know to trust God that responsible initiative will be vindicated, and so resist the tainted and dangerous waters of disillusion.

The other foci of the episcopal dimension are profound in that they highlight a paucity in many contemporary churches.  Many churches these days resist a “vicar does everything” only to “take on a concept of ministry in which the ordained decide everything” (p170).  Against this, the episcopal dimension works towards a dynamic unity through the enabling, developing, and sustaining of the ministry of others (p143).

There, is therefore, an interaction with that fundamental wrestle of the church to be who it is called to be… without being lost in itself.  Bp. Steven helpfully identifies a paradox in which the focus on mission can end up, ironically, as a cause of self-focus! (p169).

A local church is never a static community but, ideally, on which is moving forward together towards common goals. Catching, developing, articulating and sharing common vision for that process is a vital part of the exercise of this kind of leadership. (p155)

There is a tendency for growing churches to become centrifugal in respect of the energy of their lay members as well as of their clergy, and for the horizons of effort and of personal development to shrink to that which benefits the life of a single church.  Part of the task of episcope is to ensure that a congregation’s horizon in respect of their vision is clearly set upon the building of the kingdom of God throughout the world, not simply the development of a single congregation in a single place. (p167)

The image of “rhythm and road” (p158) is a brilliant framework for avoiding this paradox.  Here, the rhythm of the church is its worship in word and sacrament especially.  The road is that of “discipleship and of learning the Way” (p158).  It is the episcopal dimension to help the church meet the challenge to “weave and shape its life around both rhythm and road.” (p159).

In the area of discipleship Bp. Steven is a respected voice.  His insights into the need for structures to service discipleship and not vice versa (p175) are welcome.  Similarly, he embraces discipleship principles such as having “low initial training, high ongoing support” (p178).  It will be interesting to see how and where he applies these sorts of things in his Episcopal (with a big E) ministry in Oxford.

If there is one area he could have emphasised more, particularly with regard to the area of maintaining unity in mission, is that of spiritual warfare and the related area of conflict.  In our experience, it is in these bitter times that we have come to rely more closely on the Spirit and trust the witness of Scripture.  It is helpful, in our view, then to connect the episcopal dimension with the apostolic witness more than Bp. Steven chooses to, even though he refers to “those who are called and sent by God are themselves to be senders and enablers as that mission is extended in each generation” (p165), which is the very essence of an “apostle”, i.e. a “sent-one.”  There is a sense in which episcope travails beyond concern for the church but in itself encapsulates an apostolic kenosis, a weakness through which God is glorified. That willingness to be made “fools for Christ” (and worse) that we see in 1 Cor 4:1-13 and the like is the ground of episcopal authority, that would both answer the enemy, and lead the church, with the way of the cross.  In short, in the episcopal dimension the cost of mission is counted in a unique way, where moving forward is to die a death and receive life as a gift.

As the church wrestles with the reality of itself, there is a need for the deep thoughts presented in this book.  Too quickly we run to titles and labels and structures as self-evident, when it is the substance not the form that counts.  This book is useful for those training or exploring their own vocation (in whatever dimension).  But it has best benefit for those who are participating in that fundamental wrestle with reality – who are we? And how do we be the people of God?

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

Home, the Long Way ‘Round

clockworkI’ve recently had cause to reflect on my mortality.  I can now count myself amongst that (rather large, as I am finding) cohort of people who have had the doctor gaze and use the “c-word.”  In my case, it’s bladder cancer.

In my situation, while there are some unknowns remaining, there is not cause for great concern.  From the moment I saw blood in my urine (if you see it, get it checked!), the time to having a wonderfully acronymised TURBT operation was less than a month. It was a large tumour but caught quite early.  All signs are good for a full recovery with minimal subsequent treatment, and we’ll know for sure after an appointment next week. God bless the NHS!

But it’s made me think, of course.  Despite the fact that my particular cancer journey is merely a tiptoe to the front gate compared to the epic expeditions of some… I’m 41 years old, and mortal, and now very aware of that fact.

There are three components to my musing:

Firstly, I’m not afraid of dying. I’m really not.  1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 is a comfort, and I can echo that wonderfully defiant hope-filled proclamation from 1 Corinthians 15: “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”  I will be raised on that last day, if our Lord does not return first.

Secondly, I do have some worries, and they are about those who depend on me, most fundamentally my family.  I manage this anxiety by returning to a truth that I have had to fall back on a number of times as a husband and father: God is trustworthy.  Sometimes I feel the answer to my anxious prayer is a divine “Do you trust me with them, or not?”  And that pokes until there is life-giving movement.

Thirdly,  within myself, my response is this: I’m not done with my life yet.  Yes, I know my life is not my own, and there are always acts of fate and providence that I cannot control.  But it’s my reaction to a real and present sense of mortality: I don’t want to shortcut, I want to get to the goal the long way ’round.

You’ll have to forgive my nerdiness, because I’m referencing Doctor Who here.  In the episode The Girl in the Fireplace the Doctor jumps from point to point in a woman’s timestream.   She realises what’s going on: that he goes the “short way”, moving from decade to decade in a blink of an eye.  But she “takes the long way ’round”; she lives her life to the end.  It all happens because of clockwork robots, of course, because, well… Doctor Who.

But my point is this.  I want to live life, the long way ’round.  I want the good times and the storms, because blessed is his name.  The fading like autumn grass is a felt reality, so I don’t want to waste the summer sun, but get on with obeying the truth and sincerely loving according to the enduring word of God.  The thought of missing out on all that, whether life be a fight or a cruise, produces a regret in me and makes my mortality more foe than friend.

There are times where, like Paul, we long for heaven, and groan even more for the resolution of all things at the end.  I think there are some who might feel rightly cheated if I were to enter into my rest before the work was done and the trials were ended!  But nevertheless, this transitory life has the very depths of value, even and especially in the work and the trials it brings.  And so my aspiration, resolve, my longing, becomes this: Bring it on. Let’s get there the long way ’round.

[UPDATE, 3/8/16]  We have now had the follow up appointment and the news is good.  The CT scan was clear and the tumour has not spread.  The histology shows that it is a slow-growing form of cancer, and therefore not highly aggressive.  I will not need any further treatment except for regular checks for the next five years and intervention if required.  Apparently (according to the doctor’s bladder cancer app!) there is a 24% chance of the tumour recurring in the next year, and a 40% chance of it recurring in the next five years (which is a little concerning, but not a problem with regular checks).  There is a smaller chance (less than 1%) of it developing into a more aggressive form. [/UPDATE]

Posted in General Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Review: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class

fofThe reality that there was a man of God, Jesus, who lived, died, rose again, and is spiritually at work in the world, is good news.  We can theorise about it this way and that, but the longer I live the more I realise that the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” pierces the insulation of human societal subsistence and touches the live wires of our feeblest condition together with our most optimistic hopes.  Jesus Christ, Saviour and King above all powers and winds and waves of human cunning, must be proclaimed not just for the transformation of individual lives, but of communities, societies, entire cultures.  What else might his commission to disciple and baptise nations mean, if not to seek to teach and immerse them in the ways of divine life?

For better or worse, Gill and I have found ourselves embedded near the “Middle” of Western society.  This is not to say that our immediate context is monochrome.  But it is “Middle England” and the prevalent communal mode and manner is professional and middle class.  It is not something to be disparaged, even by a farm-boy like myself from out the back of Deloraine, but it something for us to come to understand and, in the sense described above, to learn to evangelise.

How, then, could I go past a book that spruiks to speak of the Inner Life of the Middle Class?  And how could I not seize upon the title: The Fear of Falling.  Because if there was one characteristic we have observed time and time again in our Western world wanderings it is the prevalance of fear: fear of slipping down the scale, of falling off the class edge; fear of life-defining numbers, from bank balances, and returns on investment, to school results and performance indicators.  Gill and I have a comparitor: In Australia these numbers matter, but on something of a sliding scale; in the UK’s herd-management mentality, they define thresholds and binary ups and downs.  It is starker here, and more indicative of the broader western world I think.  And it’s life-sapping. Even the literature from my children’s school cautioned against student’s having an after-school job by appealing to numbers: please consider if £20 extra per week now is worth losing £200 extra per week in one’s career down the track.  It contains some wisdom I guess, but it’s such a flaccidly fearful form of assessing life’s experiences.

So would Ehrenreich’s book help me understand?  It is American. It is a bit old. It was written in the very late ’80s and basically provides sociological commentary for the baby boomers into their middle age.  But if, as they say, the currently middle-aged Generation X, is an amorphous bridging generation, here are the cracked foundations upon which one end of the bridge rests.  Our children define the other end, and will learn to speak of it, in time.

And so the book is helpful. Ehrenreich’s argument is a journey, from a post-war class that presumed ubiquity and had little self-consciousness, and then “an emerging middle-class awareness of being a class among others and, ultimately, of being an elite above others.” (p11).  She tells her story using not only categories of wealth and capital, but also of freedoms and control, and the ability to find life’s purpose.  The common denominators throughout are of a class that can never rest in itself, which requires exertion to maintain capital and prestige from generation to generation, in which life’s place, being neither secure at the top, nor can’t-fall-any-further at the bottom, are always tenuous.

If this is an elite, then, it is an insecure and deeply anxious one.  It is afraid, like any class below the most securely wealthy, of misfortunes that might lead to a downward slide.  But in the middle class there is another anxiety: a fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. Even the affluence that is so often the goal of all this striving becomes a threat, for it holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence. Whether the middle class looks down toward the realm of less, or up toward the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling. (p15)

There is much in this book’s journey that raises some of my hackles at the state of the western world.  Ehrenreich progresses from the 1950’s aversion to affluence, to the psychology of student uprisings in the 1960’s, and a growing self-awareness of elitism with respect to the working class of the 1970’s.  Throughout it all the well-worn paths of western endeavour: academic, professional and financial endeavour, are shown to be based on artificialiaties. Why, for instance, do we expect our children to go through the time and often unreachable expense of obtaining a degree? “So that they can have a decent career” is an insipid, and self-defined answer that speaks nothing about the value of education and free thought, let alone true merit, and fulfilling success.

As Ehrenreich’s journey continued I began to sense my resentment at the pseudo-sacred game that is foisted on us.  Anything that makes not only women’s liberation, but decent work-life balance, and the seizing of life’s deeper purposes, compete with housing (and sometimes food!) affordability is simply a mug’s game: a cacophony of stressors with diminishing returns.  My parent’s generation either dropped out of the game, or played to win and turned into yuppies.  That misses the missiological trick: to be in it, but not of it, if that is at all possible.

It is Ehrenreich’s sixth chapter, on one half of that generational response, the rise of the yuppies in the ’80s, that had the most resonance for me.  Here there is a picture that has not only refused to fade, but has become even more amplified by the tech and financial bubbles and busts that came later.  Here we read of a growing gap between rich and poor as the economics failed to trickle-down, and as the status (and remuneration) of the traditional professions waned before the rise of a corporate elite (p200).  The tension between mid-level income and mid-level lifestyle (p206) bolstered the anxiety.  And the determinators of class, just like now, came down to accidents of fortune (e.g. the timing of the purchase of one’s first home, parental wealth), or the impact of basic human realities such as having children, or investing in or forgoing a vocation (p210).

Many of the college students I talked to in the mid-eighties were suffering from what might be called “premature pragmatism.” They were putting aside, at far too early an age, their idealism and intellectual curiosity in favor of economic security, which was increasingly defined as wealth.  A young woman interviewed by Newsweek had switched from social work to sales because “I realized that I would have to make a commitment to being poor to be a social worker.” (p209-210)

The result was a deadening: a pervasive busyness (p232) and an un-intellectual pragmatism (p241).  Consumerism took its place in a vicious guilt-reward cycle (p232).  In my own words, one could summarise it, echoed in today’s world as a non-thinking generation trying to assuage its regret.

At the end, Ehrenreich longs for an expansion of the middle class, an egalatarian “welcoming of everyone” (p263) until there is no other class.  This is pure unrealistic idealism, although I am sympathetic.  Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer famously made a similar, and more applicable point in 2014 as he ably argued for middle class investment (based on high income taxes) as shrewd.

But our project is of a different kind.  Journeys like Ehrenreich’s can leave us resentful and frustrated, and stressed as the pressures of this world are distilled and unpacked.  We have touched on our fears.  Now wherein lies our hope?

The Sunday School answer, of course, is “Jesus is our hope.”  It’s in the application that it gets more grown-up. To move against the spirit of this age and work in the opposite direction of the abounding fear involves many things.  Against consumerism we embrace holiness.  But that means facing our fears of losing out; it means repenting of self-satisfaction.  Against dehumanising pragmatism, we embrace vocation in the priorities for how we use our wealth and time, and how we count the cost.  But that means facing the fears of invalidation and inferiority, it means repenting of our protectionism.  Against self-referential self-actualising individualism, we seek to worship, which brings us unmade before God, to hear his word, recognise our brothers and sisters, and receive forgiveness.  But that means facing the fears of what we will see in God’s light, it means confessing our sins, daring to heed divine truth, and turning from our passivity and infantilism.  In short, it means faith and repentance.

It’s this hope for which the new monasticism embraces the threefold mode and manner of life: purity, simplicity, and accountability.  I can think of few better antidotes to the middle class malaise.

In the end there is no hope in Ehrenreich’s book.  But there is hope in Jesus, because, if nothing else, for our society to face it’s fear of falling, it will take a miracle.

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

Mentoring, Spiritual Direction, or Discipleship

people-1149873One of the most important dynamics in living churches is that of intentional one-on-one relationships that help individuals mature in their faith.  We have our Sunday gathered worship times, and our small groups, and prayer triplets and things like that, but intentional personal investment is invaluable.  Many of us can reflect on the individuals who have invested in us over the years, be it formally or informally; they are invariably God’s gift to us.

These investing relationships, however, are not all alike.  There are a number of words and phrases that we use to describe them.  The three I want to pick up on here are “discipleship”,  “mentoring”, and “spiritual direction”.

Understanding the differences between these is important.  There is a lot of overlap, but the semantics informs the intention of the relationship.  And the intention helps guide the expectations of those who are entering into it.  It also allows each form of relationship to be valued in its own way.

Here, then, is how I would describe these three forms of investing relationships:

MENTORING: This is a broad category and the word has a high semantical overload.  It is also the word that most readily overlaps with secular domains.

Broadly speaking, the mentoring relationship is a reflecting one.  A mentor helps you to analyse and articulate what is already there.  In mentoring, goals are clarified, actions are identified, resources are suggested.  A mentor is someone to “bounce off”, to run ideas past, to seek advice from, and to approach with questions.  They willingly allow their experience to be tapped.

The process is driven and shaped by the person being mentored.  The mentor does not direct, and will not even provide accountability unless it is requested.  The scope of mentoring can be quite small, focussing on professional life, or a particular issue or obstacle.

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION:  The key to this form of relationship is in the phrase itself.  It is spiritual in that it considers life holistically and deeply, and with particular attention to our relationship with God.  It explores matters of conscience and calling, prayerfulness and petition.

It is direction in that the relationship is “directive.”  This is not in the sense of a manipulation or domination, but in the sense that a doctor can be directive in pursuit of increased health for the patient.  The direction is cooperative and always constructive.

The spiritual direction relationship is about shared discernment.  The spiritual director assists with self-reflection but also speaks truth from a shared source of inspiration such as Scripture.  The director can bring spiritual exercises, or directions to explore: forms of prayer, actions of repentance that need to be considered.

DISCIPLESHIP:  For many “discipleship” is not easily grasped.  It is sometimes an empty phrase that is used as a churchified version of “mentoring” or a hipper version of “spiritual direction.”  However, the best framework for considering discipleship is “apprenticeship”, in the older sense in which a more experienced person shares life and purpose with an apprentice, not just vocational skills.

Jesus was a discipler.  His disciples travelled with him, ate with him, argued with him, and learned from him.  Only rarely did he exclude them from his activities and his time.  Discipleship is about sharing life.

The relationship is shaped by vulnerability and openness.  A way of life, and necessary skills, are passed on through allowing the other to observe and participate in the inner life that is then expressed outwardly.  Vocation is not just about skills but about foundational motivations and values, about what moves and guides and what is done in response.  Someone who is discipling needs to be willing to open their lives and explain and demonstrate what moves and shapes them.  They will find themselves challenged by the relationship, as much as they invest in the other person.

In this way the Christian discipler is not making their own disciples, but disciples of Jesus.  They bring another into both the interior and exterior of how they follow Christ, and so bring others into that same “followship” where Jesus is the guide.  Paul’s “imitate me as I imitate Christ” expresses this dynamic.  Good discipleship therefore doesn’t create dependence, it creates community at which Christ is the centre.

Similarly, propagation is inherent to discipleship.  The sharing of life includes the sharing of the discipling dynamic itself.  Discipled people will find themselves discipling others, in their own way.  There was wisdom in Jesus’ ways, his discipling ended up founding a movement and changing culture.

I am heartened that the Church of England, and Anglicanism in general, is (re)embracing the language of discipleship.  The General Synod report, Developing Discipleship, (written by Bp. Steven Croft, soon to be the Bishop of our Diocese of Oxford), approaches it with an understanding of the depths and breadths of what it means.  Likewise, when we use the phrase we must realise that it is not about lipservice to a trend, nor even about advancing oneselves: discipleship allows us to put all things, together, at Christ’s feet.   It is therefore costly, requires courage, challenges our character, and changes church culture.  We should not use the word lightly, but we should certainly pursue it.

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