Review: A Church for the Poor

This book is about much more than reaching the poor. It is a handbook on mission. Missional illiteracy is high amongst our church leaders. Our structures are strictures on the strength of the gospel. This book, unassumingly, is something of a call to repentance. “Leaders… this book is for you” (p184).

Authors, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, come from different backgrounds but bring the same passion. They are involved in the Jubilee+ movement, which I now have an inkling to investigate further.  Their foundation is clear: “the coming of God’s kingdom involve[s] dealing directly with urgent human needs and social issues – as an outworking of our personal salvation and as a key part of discipleship” (p23).

Their key strength is that they present more than an economic approach to poverty; they explore the spiritual and cultural aspects as well.  This is confronting; as church we can deal with economic matters through professionalism and program provision, but spiritual and cultural matters have us collide with ourselves, our weaknesses, and our hardness of heart.

The proliferation of church-based foodbanks, debt advice services, job clubs, educational projects, supported housing schemes, elderly support projects and much more are testimony to the energy and vision of churches in the face of increasing social needs of all types. However, the poor and deprived are still sometimes helped at a relational ‘arms length’. The church has more to offer those in need than just social action projects. People are more than ‘clients’ – outcomes are more than statistics. People need friendship and community. People need to be valued. Many need someone to walk alongside them as they try to find ways of rebuilding their lives.” (pp40-41, emphasis mine).

When the middle class culture is unchallenged the most likely outworking of the church’s approach to poverty is to confine its activity to social action projects alone. (Page 137, emphasis mine).

The authors explore the deeper aspects of poverty – “aspirational poverty – the loss of hope” (p41), “relational poverty – the loss of community” (p43), and “spiritual poverty – the loss of meaning” (p45).  Hope, community and meaning is the stuff of the gospel, but there is no false dichotomy between spiritual and temporal matters here. Clearly, real economic poverty causes things like hopelessness and this can be observed: There has been a generational shift from “millenial optimism” (p31) to post GFC austerity (p31) and the new class of “JAM’s” (“Just About Managing”, p33).  The authors’ concern is not just to present and analyse statistic, or to pontificate about the latest programs, but to delve into cultural shifts and values.

Here they demonstrate one of those basic aspects of mission that shouldn’t need to be said, but must: the church at mission does not begin with what it can do, but with cultural understanding. “Response to immediate need is one thing, but it can’t be sustained and built upon without careful reflection about underlying issues raised by the context” (p34).  We are about cultural change (what else does “making disciples of all nations” mean?) which begins in us, and our response to the poor is a touchstone, and often a point of conviction as to how obedient we are being.

We cannot use our donations to overseas projects as an excuse to walk by on the other side of the road and ignore the rough sleeper on our high street. Jesus doesn’t leave that option open to us: in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he makes it abundantly plain that we’re to help the person in front of us. (p35)

Another basic aspect of mission is that we need to go (what else does “go and make disciples…” mean?) rather than rely on attractional methods alone. This is the principle of emulating the incarnational attitude of Christ, willing to empty ourselves in order to enter into the world which needs the gospel.

When people don’t come to us – as the working class aren’t coming to our churches – we need to find ways to reach out. But we cannot do it with an attitude of superiority. We simply must not approach wanting to draw working class and poorer people into our churches as something we ‘do to them’. If we’re to see churches that truly reflect all classes and economic situations, we need to be prepared to move into neighbourhoods that have bad reputations, to place our children in schools that may not achieve the best results, to shop where shopkeepers get to know their customers, to listen to people who we may feel we cannot relate to at all. (Page 95)

Another basic aspect of mission is that the medium is the message, and the medium is us. In technical terms, missiology brings ecclesiology and eschatology to life. This is why the tendency for churches to split into homogenous units based on age or background is fundamentally anti-gospel. The gospel doesn’t divide and avoid, it unifies and proclaims.

Wherever there is division, the church is to demonstrate reconciliation. So we need churches where the working class and the middle class sit together, speak with one another, share food and faith and find community that transcends postcodes and income levels and educational achievements (Page 96).

A mature church has a number of flourishing sub-cultures whose members feel both a security in their own sub-culture and an ownership of the main church culture, which, of course, takes them somewhat out of tehir sub-cultural comfort zone. (Page 120)

But this mission is not possible until the fundamental posture of the church is addressed, until we consider our attitude, our humility, our willingness to die to self. Charlesworth and Williams provide a constructive provocation that brings us to that place.

This provocation has its roots in their exegesis of how God calls his people to serve the poor in both Old and New Testaments and then in their exploration of church history.  In reflection we are left asking questions like: Are we over, under, or next to the poor?  Our answer is an indicator of our humility before God, our ability to self-reflect and discern the Spirit’s leading. It’s an indicator of whether our mission builds up ourselves or truly advances the kingdom of God.  Our response to the poor reflects the size of our mission heart, and how much we embrace the necessary attitudes of discernment, contrition, and courage so that we are willing to be “jolted out of our own understanding” of what we consider to be culturally normal (p76).

We need to ensure that we are not speaking about inclusivity without putting it into practice. It is one thing to say that we believe all people are equal before God, but another to create a level playing field where people from all backgrounds have the same opportunities. (Page 73, emphasis mine)

We need to break down these barriers so that our churches can increasingly reflect the kingdom of God. But in order to do that, we need to reflect on some of the attitudes in our hearts that might prevent our churches from more accurately reflecting our society, and welcoming people from all demographics, without expecting them to transition from on social group to another. (Page 78, emphasis mine)

In this light, their chapter on “British Culture: Materialism, Individualism, Cynicism” (Page 79) is an excellent mirror. It should be compulsory reading for all those who are considering church leadership; know your blind spots, be aware of your own culture, and discern the distinction between the essence of the gospel and how we have applied it for our own comfort.

There is no place in the church for the kind of individualism we see in our society, but we need to be intentional about rooting it out. Cultural concerns with personal space and boundaries may have influenced us in ways that we are not even aware of. (Page 87, emphasis mine)

Only by going against the grain of British Culture in these areas, can we build churches that really are homes for those who are poor or in need. (Page 90, emphasis mine)

If we are to build churches for all, we need to break out of mindsets that may have been formed by our own background and class or by the media and political narratives that surround us… We need to have a sober assessment of ourselves, asking God to highlight any biases we have and any commitment to middle class values that is unhelpful to reaching others who may not share them. I am trying to learn to let my first question, when I feel uncomfortable or judgmental or fearful around someone , be ‘what is going on in my heart?’ before I start to ask questions about the person in front of me. (Page 97, emphasis mine)

Are we growing in kindness? Are we looking for opportunities to be generous? Are we more concerned about looking like ‘good Christians’ or actually becoming like Jesus?… Changing the culture of our churches might also mean taking a cold, sober look at the prejudices of our hearts. (Page 128, emphasis mine)

Personally, I was confronted with my own growing cynicism. For me, it is a cynicism with regards to the middle class church itself. Moving in the opposite spirit is hard, but no matter who we are giving ourselves to, “we have to guard our hearts so that the disappointment we rightly feel doesn’t turn into a cynicism that wrongly hardens us to others.” (Page 89).

Charlesworth and Williams are intensely practical.  The entire second half of the book is about applying the spirit of the first.

I was particularly glad that they raise the issue of the “gentrification of leadership” (p104).  A key foundation for church maturity is the ability to have “native” leaders that rise up from within. Practically speaking, then, we must deal with our tendency to attach leadership to cultural markers such as tertiary-level training that is (sometimes merely) academic in nature.  Our system of severing ordinands from their context not only diminishes vocation and disempowers church communities, it can be an imposition of culture. Rather, real, on-the-ground discipleship is needed, “enabling leaders among the poor to emerge and begin to function in leadership roles within the church” (p146).

Their valuing of prophetic leadership (p111) is also of practical importance.  A case in point:  I read this book having recently come across Bp. Philip North’s prophetic word, “Hope for the Poor” at this year’s New Wine United conference. Similarly, Mike Pilavachi spoke at the Naturally Supernatural Summer Conference drawing on the call for justice in Amos. Gill and I are finding ourselves moved and impassioned by these issues and we look to people such as these for leadership as “prophetic advocates” (p152). Wise churches and wise leaders need to take steps to hear the prophetic, especially when it is uncomfortable. After all, cultural change never happens when leaders are comfortable, “in my experience the real problem has been the lack of commitment by the church leader(s) to care for the poor” (p160).

The role of the diaconate in this prophetic leadership is an interesting examination (p162). The diaconal role, when accepted and embraced, adds capacity to the pastoral role. A deacon is “someone called, equipped and able to work in social action while being appropriately linked to church pastors and the main life of the church.”  Gill and I are both ordained deacons, and as I currently wrestle with the fact and substance of my ordination, this is a fascinating thought. The exercise of diaconal ministry can avoid the church splitting into groups of lobbyist/activists who have competed for resources, and can lead corporate discernment where the body moves together. Food for thought.

Their hope into delving into practicalities such as these various pitfalls and possibilities is to give encouragement: it can be done! They act as consultants to those who have questions to ask.

I would go further. It can be done, it must be done. As the saying goes, it’s not that the Church of God has a mission in the world, it’s that the God of Mission has a Church in the world.  Charlesworth and Williams bring us to God’s heart for the poor and so give us a touchstone for our faithfulness.  Here we have the very basic principles of mission, the fundamental necessary attitudes to be a faithful church.  It’s not rocket science, it requires no preparatory steps. We shouldn’t just learn from what they have to say, we should simply get over ourselves and get on with it.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Review: 5Q – Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ

Just as in family life, when it comes to church life it’s sometimes necessary to call a family meeting and have an open and honest conversation around the dinner table. Who are we? What are we about? And what do we need to adjust in our family dynamic?

In church life that dynamic is about ministry.  And whether we call our leaders “ministers,” “priests,” “bishops,” “deacons,” “pastors,” “teachers,” “preachers,” “elders,” “vicars,” “rectors,” “curates,” “reverends,” “servers,” “carers,” or simply “workers,” the impetus remains the same: At our best, we want a dynamic which grows the church towards maturity.  The “family table” conversation means grasping for more than tired old formulae or the latest managerial gizmo.

We commonly recognise that, whatever the nomenclature, we desire for God to be in us, with us, and through us, by the power and presence of his Holy Spirit.  We might adhere to the traditional threefold order of deacons, priests, and bishops, and understood them as a variety of charisms – anointings of the Spirit through the laying on of hands.  Or we might emphasise the more universally “lay” charismata (spiritual gifts) through which the people of faith operate as one body as “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”.

Alan Hirsch, in his latest book 5Q, (I think it’s meant to rhyme with “IQ”), picks up on another emphasis – the so-called “fivefold” or “ascension gifts” outlined in Ephesians 4:11-13:

It was he (Jesus at his ascension) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

This dynamic involves the fivefold “offices” or “functions” of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers, often abbreviated as APEST with Pastor renamed as Shepherd so as not to have two P’s. Unlike other biblical charismatic gift-lists (e.g. 1 Cor 12, Romans 12) these ascension gifts seem intended to form a more complete and coherent shape about our family dynamic.

A simple first glance shows that there is room to explore this in practice. We know what it means for the church itself, and for members of the church to be pastoral. We can also grasp when the church and its members act in a teaching capacity, or exercise evangelism.  But we are less able to grasp the prophetic and apostolic shape of church life.  Or, to put it another way, as I have observed, the church loves and embraces Shepherding and Teaching, appreciates and values Evangelism, generally tolerates the Prophetic (especially if prophets hold back and keep to themselves), and unknowingly yearns for the exercise of the Apostolic.

Emphasis on the fivefold has increased in recent times.  Hirsch’s book is a worthy contribution, emphasising a holistic and systemic approach rather than a highly individualised pop-psychology.  His motivation for a “great recalibration” (xxix) I share, and his yearning “for a new sense of wholeness that only an imaginative vision born… can provide” (xxi) definitely taps into the longings of the wider Western church. His recognition of how “the more dynamic APEST system has never suited the more static, hierarchical, fundamentally non-movemental form of the church that has dominated in the West” (xxxviii) is a frustration grounded in reality.

The whole understanding, of course, rests upon Ephesians 4:1-16. Hirsch’s exegesis in the first chapter is more than adequate. In particular, his drawing out of the imagery of the triumph in the ascension makes a powerful point about Jesus gifting the church with (ideally) a regenerated and regenerative human community.

In his ascension, Jesus has “given” APEST to the church as its lasting possession. In other words, the fivefold is part of the church’s inheritance in Jesus. (Page 6)

Similarly his systemic approach to the fivefold is founded on the point and purpose of “attaining maturity and fullness in Christ” (p8). The corollary, of course, is that if there is an imbalance (or absence) in the operation of the fivefold gifts in the church, immaturity is the result (pp11-13). He integrates this into his robust missiology (p80ff), unveiling it’s place in how we the (Body of Christ) now share in the Ministry of Christ, this participation being the essence of the Fullness of Christ (p80ff).

New Testament ministry in the Body of Christ cannot be done with anything less than all the dimensions of inherent in Christ’s own ministry. Without full APEST expression, a church cannot logically extend Jesus’ ministry in the world; neither can it attain to the fullness of Christ or achieve its purposes/mission – it will inevitably have dangerous gaps in its culture. And herein, folks, likes a huge amount of the church’s dysfunction! (Page 88)

These are firm foundations.

Hirsch does well to resist our individualising tendencies. It’s not until page 44 that he explicitly states that “it is quite conceivable that the fivefold could be used as a means to profiling personality and helping people live into their unique sense of identity as a follower of Christ.” The system and the symphony come first.

What we have then, is a properly exhaustive, internally consistent, framework which naturally applies to personality and leadership, and which has strong threads that connect it with the range of human experience and our understanding of God.

Grounded in God, laced into creation, redeemed by Jesus, granted to the church, lived out in the lives of its saints, to the glory of God – here we have a “system” that goes as deep as it does wide. (Page 61)

This is very useful.

As he gets into the five APEST aspects themselves, Hirsch brings in a very useful distinction between what he calls “functions” and “callings” (p94). The distinction allows us to consider the fivefold, firstly, in terms of the church’s “innate purpose and functionality” and, secondly, in terms of individual calling or vocation.  That is, we can speak of how the church, exercising the Ministry of Christ as the Body of Christ, to avoid dysfunction, needs to be, in a corporate sense, apostolic (A), prophetic (P), evangelistic (E), pastoral (S), and didactic (T).  Any sense of individual calling is best seen as an expression of that, an outworking of the Ministry of Christ in one member of the Body of Christ.

And so, having foreshadowed them, Hirsch arrives at his definitions of the APEST functions and callings (p99ff):

Apostolic-Apostle (p99): Is rightly identified as correlating to the missionary “sentness” of the church. “The driving logic of the apostolicity is the extension of the Jesus movement in and through the lives of the adherents, as well as establishing the church onto new ground.”

From my own discernment, I feel that Hirsch overemphasises the functional and entrepreneurial aspects of the apostolic (entrepreneurship attaches more to the Evangelistic in my experience) and he also overlaps with the Prophetic when it comes to the guarding of values.  This is a common mis-step in fivefold literature, and can be avoided by looking just a little deeper.

The apostolic is at the heart of movement but doesn’t usually generate it by being out in front, but primarily through covering and parenting.  Come close to the apostolic and you find yourself connected in worship to the fathering heart of God, you find something kenotic, poured out for the sake of the body. Paul is a definitive example (e.g. 1 Cor 4:9, 2 Tim 4:6). The confusion comes, because, in providing the covering, the apostolic will often lead with the shape of the other functions, so as to guide and bring movement in that area.

Prophetic-Prophet (p102): Is rightly associated with the call to holistic worship, so that “as his people, we are to be the one place where God, and everything he stands for, is revered, cherished, and obeyed.”  Hirsch usefully observes a “vertically” orientated prophetic that feels what God feels and brings about an encounter with him, and a “horizontally” orientated prophetic that calls people to covenant obligations of justice, holiness, right worship, and right living.  It risks a false demarcation, but this properly recognises both the “mystical-charismatic” and “social justice” (p105) aspect of the prophetic.

Unlike some commentators, Hirsch doesn’t avoid the hard aspects of the prophetic function and calling.  “Prophets are often agitators for change” (p105), he says understatedly.

The prophetic vocation is likely the most difficult of all the APEST callings, partly because of the personal vulnerability involved (God is “dangerous”… he is a consuming fire) but also because the prophetic word, like the Word of God that the prophet seeks to represent, is often rejected by people who prefer their own ways. The prophet is likely the loneliest of all the vocations and the one most open to misunderstanding. I think this is why Jesus calls us to especially respect the prophets in our midst (Matthew 10:4-42) (Pages 105-106)

In my experience, the most common dysfunction of otherwise healthy churches, even those who have a sense of apostolic mission and evangelistic zeal is that they ignore or reject the prophetic. They end up forgetting even the elementary teachings about Christ (Hebrews 6:1) and become a self-referential self-absorbed shadow of who they are called to be.

Evangelistic-Evangelist (p106)Hirsch does well to move the understanding of evangelist beyond the Billy Graham caricature. Yes, evangelism is about communication and “getting the message out” but it’s also about “the infectious sharing of the movement’s core message” and “the demonstration of good news in word, sign, and deed” (p107).

An interesting thought that Hirsch mentions – one that I will need to dwell on more – is to consider a priestliness in the evangelistic calling. “They have a capacity to make connections with people in a way that demonstrates social as well as emotional intelligence… their function is genuinely priestly in that they mediate between God and people as well as between people and people.” (p108).

Shepherding-Shepherd (p108)The pastoral shepherding image is common in Scripture and Hirsch draws upon it to demonstrate a function and calling that emphasises “social connectivity”, healing and protection. They “champion inclusion and embrace” and desire formation in disciples-making that “lives locally and communally” (p110).

The use of “shepherd” instead of “pastor” is not just about having a better acrostic at this point. “Pastor” has become an honorific, the stuff of name plaques on office doors.  “Shepherd” re-engages with the necessary empathy and sharing of life that “knows the personal details of the particular people in one’s orbit” (p111).  All of the functions bring pain when they are done distantly and dispassionately, but shepherding that is merely theoretical and formulaic, or done without any self-giving, is the harshest dysfunction.

Teaching-Teacher (p111)This function is also commonly understood.  Hirsch draws us to the rabbinical tradition and the Wisdom Literature of the Scriptures to describe it.  The emphasis here is not just on the heady and intellectual love of the abstract truth (the development of a “biblical mind” that means “seeing the world as God sees it, as described in the Scriptures”) but also on the application in real life.

In many ways, teachers are similar to prophets and apostles in that they deal with ideas that shape life… From a biblical perspective, teaching is not about speculation in and of itself (idealism); rather, it is about the ministry of ideas in action (ethos), that is discipleship or formation. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know, and they cannot lead where they will not themselves go. Therefore, biblical teachers must have real participation in the ideas they propose.” (page 112)

All this is substantial…. But what to do with it?

The point of typologies and inventories is to consider and address imbalances, strengthen weaknesses, and avoid the “precociousness” of over-reliance on strengths (p118).  It takes maturity to do this, and sometimes maturation is not popular; “asymmetrical churches always end up attracting people who are like-minded and therefore asymmetrical… witness the many one-dimensional charismatic/vertical prophetic movements of the last century… or the asymmetrical mega-church that markets religion and ends up producing consumptive, dependent, underdeveloped, cultural Christians with an exaggerated sense of entitlement.” (p119).

Hirsch’s bold response is to suggest a re-evaluation, almost a reconstitution, of our ecclesiology that is based on the fivefold as the “marks of the church.” (p132).  This is bold.  Not only does this counter the ST imbalance of the “protestant marks” of “word and sacrament” (p130), but even challenges the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” marks of the Nicence Creed!

I’m not sure I’d go that far, and I think Hirsch’s is over-universalising the fivefold at this point. What is needed is not a reconstitution, but a reinvigoration, a substantiation of what we say and pretend we are into who we actually are.  For instance, I am currently working on some thoughts about how we have placed professionalism at odds with our vocationalism.  If we could be a church that actually values and practises vocation (an inherently apostolic function that the church is literally crying out for) rather than just stealing the word for our own mechanics, then we will have reinvigorated something and addressed an imbalance. But more of that another time.

Nevertheless, the point is well made. Organisations as much as individuals need discipling (p147), and the fivefold framework is a useful world of challenge and comfort in which to do that. It can even be a framework in which to make use of and respond to various tools for ecclesial self-reflection (NCD springs to mind) as well as the various tools and techniques that Hirsch hints at in the latter part of the book.

But it takes more than a brand, even a 5Q brand, it takes a brokenness, a contrition, a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit through hard places. The Western church has a perverse resistance to such things.  My hope is that contributions such as Hirsch’s will not be quickly swallowed up as yet another branded technique to exploit for our own ecclesial self-gratification.  It has enough substance, enough comfort and challenge, to avoid the pitfalls. Wise leaders will read, mark, inwardly digest, and apply.

Hirsch’s contribution is therefore significant, and I recommend this book, but only as one dish at the fivefold restaurant.  Hirsch is a Michelin-star missiologist, but the discerning leader will also sit at the table of other similar chefs.  My recommendation comes with some caveats, you see:

1) I don’t often comment on the tone of a book, and it may play well in America, but there are times when Hirsch comes across with an air of arrogance that brought me to the brink of putting the book down. It has stopped me from pushing the book forwards in some contexts where I would like to promote fivefold thinking, because, frankly, the tone would undermine the case. Alan, you are not my Yoda, I am not your padawan (xxiiff, p7, p23, p80, etc. etc.), and you are not bringing forth some hidden ancient “world-renewing energy” (p31) that you have been personally bequeathed (p89) or have discovered (xxiii, p27 etc. etc.) like some great white Luther-like Indiana Jones who “blows his own mind” (p29). You are making a worthy contribution amongst many worthy contributions. Get over yourself, son.

2) The book is theological in the sense that it interacts with the fivefold as more than just a personality typology. But Hirsch’s theology, in terms of the discipline, is not great. I agree with many of the conclusions, but the arguments are not convincing.

Particularly this: Hirsch wants to show that the fivefold demarcations are not some arbitrary overlay but are inherent not only within the created order but within the character and operation of God. It’s a worthy hypothesis, however, condensed down, his argument proceeds as follows: 1) State what the fivefold demarcations look like in practice; 2) Observe these practices in creation (archetypes, p35, p63ff) and divinity (p55ff especially); 3) Conclude that the fivefold is therefore a derivation of something essential.

This is fallacious, I could also argue: 1) My fruit lollies have different colours and related flavours; 2) I observe these colours in the physical world, and symbolically throughout history; 3) My fruit lollies are therefore full of inherent meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think the fivefold typology coheres with the wider sense of how personality, community, and divinity operate. I was hoping for some robust theology to help me out.  Hirsch’s observation is useful, but some derivation is needed, e.g. demonstrate how fivefold functions are a necessary outworking of God as Trinity. At the very least, begin with Biblical examples of the fivefold offices, and derive the typology from that.

e.g. Hirsch wants to show that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of the fivefold gifts But he describes it this way: “The fivefold typology is therefore not incidental to Christology but indelibly shapes it and gives it content” (p21, see also p78). No! To be meaningful, it should be that Christology is not incidental to the fivefold typology, but indelibly shapes it. Derive from Jesus, not to him! “Jesus cannot be understood apart from all fivefold identities” (p79) is simply an incorrect statement. I can also understand him as Son of God, as Prophet, Priest and King, as Advocate, as Lamb of God, as the Word/Logos etc. etc.

3) I am always wary of books that attach to products. 5Q is a brand name with a business model. This is not a unique problem – PMC is the same – and I understand why it happens. But the higher road is this: if you want to push along a movement, or have something profound and biblical to say, then put out the base theological material generically, and then you and any other person can use it to help and assist, consult and guide, and so build the body of Christ (towards Ephesians 4 maturity even!). Otherwise it looks like you are monetising truth, and God’s truth at that.

Around the family table, though, as we wrestle with our church family dynamic, the fivefold discussion needs to happen.  5Q gives us something to talk about, and, if we have the courage, to do.

Tagged with: , , ,

Without Faith It Is Impossible to Please God

The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, visited us here in the Newbury Deanery this last week.  He spoke and took questions in the evening at a public service and he focused, as he has since his inauguration, on the beatitudes from Matthew 5.  For the rest of this week I have been mulling these over, especially the first one:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3)

In the current Western age, the beatitudes are a prophetic word. That is, they provide a holy and constructive challenge to the status quo of church and culture; they reveal depths in the shallows, stimulation in the slumber, truth in the lie. It appears that +Steven knows how to exercise his prophetic role with gentleness and sincerity. More power to him.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” has exactly this character. The “kingdom of heaven” is our goal, our longing (“…thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”). The temptation of having any goal, in the West in general and therefore in the church, is that we seek to achieve it in our own strength, in our richness. We gather our resources, we marshall our strengths, we determine our plan, we implement our strategy, we claim our prize! This is the methodology of the wealthy and strong and while it may have some level of “success” (for some definition) it simply cannot bear kingdom fruit. How can it? We can’t have the kingdom of heaven on our terms, only on the terms of the King!

The beatitudes are not commands, you see, they are simply statements of fact. It is the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven, because it naturally comes to them. Why? Because King Jesus founds the kingdom not in power and strength, but in servanthood, humility, and trusting faith, even unto death.  Look at all the characteristics of the beatitudes – poor in spirit, mourning with the world, meek, hungering for righteousness, pure, peacemaking, persecuted – and we see Jesus, who received the kingdom, from his Father, was comforted, by his Father, inherited the earth, from his Father, who was filled, by his Father, who was shown mercy, by his Father, who saw his Father, and was received by the Father even (and especially) as he took the curse of the cross upon himself and committed his spirit into the Father’s arms. Follow the king, and you will enter his kingdom. It’s not complicated, just hard!

It is a simple impossibility that the “rich in themselves” can participate in and build the kingdom. How can we serve the king by serving ourselves? How can we trust the king by relying on ourselves? Just because we can nail and weld something together and make it look like a tree, doesn’t mean we have the living, fruitful, thing.

My reflection on this has brought me to the letter to the Hebrews, particularly chapters 10 and 11. Here the “poor in spirit” are ones who exercise faith.  They are the ones who have “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (Hebrews 10:32), who have been “publicly exposed to abuse and persecution”, often because they have shared in the mourning and pain of those who are “so treated” and “in prison” (Hebrews 10:33).  

They have not “shrunk back” (Hebrews 10:39), but this is not a muscular seizing the opportunity of victory, but an exercise of trust, of meekness, of reaching out to God and committing their spirit, just as Jesus didn’t shrink from the cross. Their “great reward” (Hebrews 10:35) is “what was promised”, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), which is to say, the kingdom of heaven, when all is well under the good harmonious rule of the Author of Life.

Throughout Hebrews 11, the writer puts forward examples of the faithful poor in spirit, simple demonstrations of the same fact of the beatitudes: Abel’s faith (Hebrews 11:4) naturally bears the fruit of approval, Enoch’s trust naturally pleases the King (Hebrews 11:5). And something of a summary is given:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

It’s a statement of fact, conceptually equivalent to the first beatitude.  Just as poverty of spirit leads to the kingdom of heaven, so believing in God, seeking himtrusting him, is the path to approach, please, and receive from the God of Life. Other approaches – the demonstration of strength, the whitewash of religious words – simply pertain to a different category, they bear their own fruit.

It’s not like God is petulant, holding back blessing unless he gets his dues; it’s just that if something else is worshipped, trusted, honoured, then we get the kingdom of That Thing, and it is destructive.  Who wants to live in the Kingdom of the Rich, the Kingdom of the Strong, the Kingdom of the “Look at Us Aren’t We A Lovely Church”? Yet that is where many of us live in the western world, seeking to please God without faith. It’s impossible to do.

Bishop Steven was thanked in the Q&A for his words and asked something about how we put it into practice. Being a good bishop, he didn’t give a directive answer; each local church needs to work out what the application of faith means for them. But he could have offered one general exhortation: repentance.

Richness in ourselves is simply a form of idolatry. It’s understandable, it’s prevalent, it’s culturally acceptable, it’s usually well-intentioned even if self-defeating – “Let’s not waste our many many awesome talents”…. by holding on to and relying on them!  But the simple fact is that without faith it is impossible to please God. And that gives us an imperative: We must turn to him, contrite, humble, poor in ourselves, entrusting our talents (and everything else) to him. The hardest thing, of course, is that it begins with me…

Tagged with: , , , ,

Review: The Land Between – Finding God in Difficult Transitions

I’m writing this seated under a large sycamore tree in an English country churchyard, surrounded by lush green fields, waving crops, and comfortable houses.  In my time I have had quiet times in many places like this, under random trees, at cafe tables, on picturesque Tasmanian beaches, or buffeted on a mountain by cloud-bearing winds.

Each place is a different context, each season is a different time, but I have found that each place has often been, spiritually speaking, a place of wilderness, a deserted place where (as I wrote to our then church many years ago) we are “laid bare before God… It is there that we are convicted of sin, assured of forgiveness, comforted, guided, and can consider the wisdom of God at work. It is there that we are matured, helped, strengthened…”

Wilderness is integral to the Christian journey. As we grow to be more like Jesus (what theologians call “sanctification”) we find that we must necessarily pass through a desert experience.  These are seasons that are never easy, often protracted, and invariably marked by encounters with hurt, grief, and mortification.

I’ve recently come across The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions, by Jeff Manion, and found it to be not only a decent description of this phenomenon, but also a companion, a textual spiritual director, for those who are plodding such paths at the moment.  He understands that wildernesses are crucial times, the crux of things in life.

I firmly believe that the Land Between – that space where we feel lost or lonely or deeply hurt – is fertile ground for our spiritual transformation and for God’s grace to be revealed in magnificent ways.  But while the Land Between is prime real estate for faith transformation, it is also the space were we can grow resentful, bitter, and caustic if our responses are unguarded. The wilderness where faith can thrive is the very desert where it can dry up and die” (Page 19)

Manion has us reflect on the Israelite’s wilderness in the time of Moses and, in particular, focuses in on the complaints that are voiced.

One form of complaint is the bitter complaint.  We all complain when the going gets tough, and the going was tough for the multitude in the Sinai desert. Even as they became recipients of daily divine manna they complained.  And we can identify with their frustration: “I’m sick of this!  I’m sick of this season!”  It is not abstract, as Manion demonstrates, and is manifest in our own situations. It’s certainly a refrain that’s been on my lips:

“I’m sick of living in my in-laws’ basement.”
“I’m sick of being asked what line of work I’m in and fumbling for an answer.”
“I’m sick of enduring wave after wave of medical tests without a clear diagnosis.”
“I’m sick of waiting for this depression to lift.”
“I’m sick of visiting a mother in a nursing home who repeatedly asks who I am.”
“I’m sick of this manna”
(Page 36)

To illustrate the second form of complaint, Manion turns to the “exhausted rant” of Moses in Numbers 11:11-15 where he hurls forth questions like “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms?… If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.”  Despite the volatility of it, this is faithful complaint.

This sounds more like an exasperated meltdown than a prayer. You might say it sounds a little like the complaining Israelites in some respects – the despair, the frustration, the giving up, Moses’ dismissal of his calling, the reference to death. But there is a key difference: Moses’ attitude toward God. The Israelites are complaining about God. Moses is praying to God, and this is a huge distinction… He is not spiraling into spiteful complaint but is candidly pouring his heart out to God. He has maxed out and is in over his head. He is running on fumes. (Page 65)

Every admirable person I know has been in that place.  They are emotionally honest with God (page 70, page 86). Every person I know who has not yet fully entered into their calling, those who exercise leadership with a degree of immaturity, have not had this wilderness experience, they lack “experiential knowledge” (page 120) and have no words. They are unstripped, still full of themselves, unemptied, proto-kenotic, with faith soft and untested.

In response to faithful complaint, Manion paraphrases God’s heart:

“See you’re not alone. Some of my choice servants have felt intense failure and frustration. This is how they prayed when they felt empty and exhausted, and this is how I Invite you to pray. My shoulds are strong enough to absorb rants like this. But please speak! Cry out! Face me and give voice to your fatigue, your pain, your betrayal, your vast disappointment. Turn toward me and begin the conversation, even if it’s raw and ugly.” (Page 74, emphasis mine)

Wilderness brings us to the crux and puts before us the question that clarifies faith (page 55): Who will we trust?  Who will we trust with our past? Who will we trust with our future (page 52)? Will we attempt to take over and control? Or will we learn to bring ourselves to the presence and leadership of God?  The wilderness doesn’t just teach faith, it grows it. In the wilderness, “God demonstrates that he is a capable provider for his people.  What is he attempting to teach them as he leads them into dire hardship? ‘I am worthy of your trust. You need to learn to depend on me’” (Page 44).

The complacent avoid it. The bitter resent it. They turn from God: “We were better off without you as our rescuer, we were better off without your presence, we were better off as slaves… This is serious.” (Page 138).  And it is real. I have seen people echo this sentiment in their lives, in their churches!

But in his leading Moses and his people through the valley of death, God isn’t capricious or attempting to build a co-dependency.  He is growing them, making them ready.  He is maturing them, strengthening them. “Once they enter the Promised Land, they are going to have to resist looking to the likes of the god Baal for water, food, and survival” (Page 45). The wilderness is necessary for them to be the people of God, distinct and reflecting his life-giving ways.

The fruit of faith is life’s vocation: As the power of self-centredness dies in the desert, the power of sin, the ways of the world in maintaining and holding on to power and self-security, loose their grip. We learn to “cast our cares on the Lord” (page 83), where their hold and power on the soul is extinguished. We cast our cares as we learn to ask “How long, oh Lord?” (Page 84).

I only have one issue with Manion’s exposition and application: At times we get a whiff of a positive thinking gospel:

“A heart of bitter complaint is anchored in the suspicion that God is stingy – that he will hold out on you. But a heart of trust is anchored in the belief that God is good and will provide for you out of an inexhaustible reservoir of generosity. Your expectation of God’s provision will prove a determining factor in whether the Land Between results in spiritual life or spiritual death. Your trust in his future goodness keeps hope alive as you journey through the desert” (Page 99).

There is truth in this statement: Yes, faith holds to the goodness of God’s character.  However, we cannot make that faith contingent on having needs (or even wants) met according to expectation. Yes, we can hold to the eventual generous provision of the Promised Land of eternal life. But the heart of faith is not, “I will trust in God because he will eventually give me what I cry out for”, rather as with Job, “Even though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” His ways are perfect, even if they are beyond understanding, or have only the rich and healthy received the fruit of their faith?

Gill and I spoke with a wise, older, vicar recently. He was describing his breakdown, the wilderness that he had experienced in a season in his life. And he said words to this effect: “I’ve learned to turn towards the pain. I don’t like it, I don’t want to. But only there is life, when God works in my weakness, and there is fruit in the labour.”  For better or for worse, Gill and I have glimpsed what he means. Our resolve is to not waste the pain. To turn towards it and to trust God even when all appears as despair and abandonment. To do otherwise is to slip into bitterness, or to reach again for the numbness of worldly torpor.

Manion quotes Yancey, “Life is difficult. God is merciful. Heaven is sure.” (Page 175). I would add to that the words of the incomparable John Schlitt who looks to the cross and sings, “I know who I am, I know where I’ve been, I know sometimes love takes the hard way…  For now, forever, I take my stand, I place my whole life in Your hands…”

I know who He is, I know where He’s been, I know that love takes the hard way.

Tagged with: , , ,

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.

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.
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-intentioned, 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 could 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 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.

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!”

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.

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

Tagged with: ,
Top