Review: Dirty Glory

I remember a Bible college lecturer asking the class once, “What aspect of the gospel first impacted you?” For some it was about truth. For some it was about forgiveness¬†and¬†renewal.¬†For others it was about¬†belonging and¬†reconciliation. The aim of the question was to get us to think about how the gospel is a passionate thing.¬†How are we¬†moved,¬†enlivened,¬†stimulated¬†by the good news that Jesus, who calls us to himself, is King of this world?

There’s a similar question about our sense of¬†vocation, the part we play in God’s mission. How does the command to “Go and make disciples of all nations”¬†move¬†us?¬† For some it is a passion to¬†teach¬†and¬†preach.¬†For others, it’s about¬†embracing¬†the broken with care and comfort. Some simply want to introduce people to Jesus. [Aside: there’s a strangely fivefold shape to these missional passions].

It’s a question worth pondering, because¬†vocational fires dwindle. We come to plod from day to day, being as faithful as we can. Even church life can become a lurch from Sunday to Sunday; it can revolve around the management of buildings, and the placating of opinions. Individually, and together, we Christians are adept at curling up into ourselves and maintaining a static equilibrium of spiritual excuses.

Sometimes we even forget what those old fires felt like. But then annoying books like Pete Greig’s¬†Dirty Glory¬†come along and douse us in rocket-powering oxidiser.

I wasn’t really expecting to begin to burn again when I read Greig’s book. It was “just” another book; the standalone autobiographical sequel of “just” another hipster church leader and his well-marketed 24-7 prayer movement, (I mean, Bear Grylls wrote the foreword and everything!). I hadn’t really looked into 24-7 much (it’s mostly a UK-US thing and not as big in Australia). I’d heard enough to be both interested and slightly sceptical. And the thing is, I’ve read the book, and we’ve even visited Greig’s Emmaus Road church in Guildford, and I still don’t know much about the practicalities of the movement and the exact details of what they do. But there’s something at the heart of this book, something in the intermingled testimonies and teachings, that has caused my heart to be strangely warmed.

Here are the principles that I can glean from what Greig has written:

Dissatisfaction.¬†I get this. Without a sense of discontent, mission is reduced to “more of what we already have.”¬† Church health is reduced the static health¬†of numbers and money, and not the dynamic growth of¬†vision¬†and¬†depth.

I began to realise that it would now be possible to live the rest of my life as a minor entity on a Christian production line, busy and occasionally even applauded, peddling religious experiences without ever really nurturing the kind of inner garden that I admired in others, and which could make it all mean something in the end…¬†It dawned on me, but only very slowly, that my inner turmoil could not be dismissed as a quarter-life crisis, it wasn’t boredom, nor could it be attributed to a besetting sin from the predictable checklist. Worryingly, nothing was wrong. Everything was right and yet I felt hollow. ‘Within me’, confessed St Augustine, ‘was a famine of that inward food: Thyself, my God.’ This hunger in my soul, I began to realise was not bad. In fact it was good: a gift of dissatisfaction directly from the Holy Spirit. (Pages 29-30)

For Greig, the touchstone of holy dissatisfaction is prayer. To express this he turns to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, a house of prayer that had become filled with corrupt traders. He wants us to hear the rebuke of Jesus:¬†“…[T]here could be large, impressive, popular churches… attracting large crowds… impressive buildings, strong brands, great wealth and a remarkable history…” but they might “evoke a similar rebuke” if “they have lost the fundamental heart of prayer”, (page 44). From this, he develops his “blueprint” of¬†Presence, Prayer, Mission, Justice,¬†and Joy (page 45) which becomes the essence and structure of the book.

Presence¬†speaks of the fundamental imperative in prayer to “seek his face always” (page 51). I have been exploring these thoughts in different ways recently, and I was able to rest in Greig’s words here. What is fanned into flame is a posture of intimacy (page 71) and of surrender:

Urgent voices are calling us to abandon the familiar comforts of Christendom, to strike out into the unknown and rediscover the Nazarene. Let him hack our systems and take us back to the place of willing surrender in which we will simply do anything, go anywhere, say anything he tells us, whenever, wherever, whatever it takes… We need a theophany, a rediscovery of the terror of his proximity. (Page 57)

Learning to dwell (and even to sleep) in the love of the Father is offensive to the strategic part of our brains: a violation of the ego; a sort of dying. It can seem irresponsible… It can appear profiligate… It can seem naive and scandalous… It can appear selfish… It can seem rude… It can seem unstrategic… [but] ‘To be a witness’, says the writer Madeleine L’Engle, ‘is to be a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’ (Page 77)

Prayer speaks of power. Greig recounts some amazing stories of answered prayer, of course, but this isn’t about hype. This is about simple prayers – bold, simple prayers – simply answered.¬† It is also about “predictable valleys of the mundane” in between, in which “we mature; our faith fills up into faithfulness, we learn to push into community and into God’s presence, which is, after all, the greatest miracle of all” (page 108).

Luke 18:8 asks, “Will the Son of Man find faith, when he comes?” and Greig ponders “a big, fat, screaming ‘if’ hanging over the people of God in every generation: will we, will we not, pray when trouble comes?” (page 118). It is a real question. I used to think about ministry and church and simply assume that, of course, we would pray. After two decades in church ministry, I am no longer that naive.

Whenever prayer is reduced to a clumsy technique for getting God to mutter a reluctant ‘Amen’ to our selfish desires, it is merely wishful thinking in a religious disguise. But when prayer is an ‘Amen’ to God’s desires, it is profoundly Christian and powerful beyond measure. (page 126)

What is fanned into flame here is a connection of our worship with the renewal of the land. Greig draws on¬†the promises to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 to do this, and takes us to “God’s great project to see creation remade” (page 120). He speaks of prayer as a travailing and wrestling (page 129), as childbirth (page 130), and even of violence (page 131); to not have that in church makes as much sense as a soldier not having a gun, “a boxer his fists, or a theologian great tracts of his Bible” (page 132).

I would pushback a little at Greig at this point, though, because he sometimes slips into a false progression: “Once the church is back to normal, pulsing with life, God’s great project is to see creation remade” (page 120). These are not distinct steps, as if once God has finished building the church, he’ll move on to the world! A church does not pulse to life unless it is already yearning for God’s great project.¬†Christ grows his church¬†as¬†he calls us out into his world-changing purposes, not¬†before¬†he does. I think Greig gets this though.

Mission reflects how God intends us to be a house of prayer¬†for the nations. Greig takes us to stories of God’s people being present – in America, Ibiza, and (later in the book) “Boy’s Town” on the Mexican border. These are missionary stories of the old kind, like the ones that stirred Gill and I in our YWAM days. They are of ordinary folk stepping out in faith, daring to go where others would not, for the sake of bringing light to a life, to a place, to a generation.

There’s some decent missiology in Greig’s approach:

“In approaching any new culture our first task is always to remove our shoes, recognising that we are standing on holy ground. We are not bringing the Lord somewhere new, because he is already here. Our primary task, therefore, is to identify God’s fingerprints and to trace his footprints in the new environment.” (Page 208).

And he helpfully addresses our propensity to perform mission as some form of service provision by professionals:

“Our own journeys of salvation and spiritual formation will… become intertwined with those to whom Christ is sending us… We go to the lost and make space for them to preach to us, to teach us, to minister to our unbelief. This requires stillness, and humility, a deeply anchored assurance in the gospel, and the ability to ask gently disruptive questions.” (Page 213)

Justice¬†is the touchpoint at which mission impacts the real world. “Prayer without action is just religion in hiding”, (page 238). Justice is where mission gets real. Greig quotes Bob Pierce as he tells us that “one of the most dangerous prayers you can ever pray: ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God'” (page 247).

There’s a lengthy exposition of Kelly Teitsort’s ministry in Boy’s Town Mexico which fans these flames well. And Greig backs it up biblically: He runs a thread through the pre-exilic prophets (page 255), Christ’s cleansing of the temple, and his claim to fulfill Luke 4:18-19 (page 250) and then connects it to our own worship and mission. We are not just about reaching souls, we are about “recognising that “something [is] wrong systemically and it [is] only going to be changed by a profound cultural shift” (page 283).

“Compassion for the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner is not an optional extra for those with a strong social conscience. It bleeds from the heart of true Christian worship. When we care for the poor, we minister to Jesus himself.” (Page 254)

When God freed the Israelites from captivity in Egypt he did it literally – not just metaphorically. Similarly, when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralysed man… he proceeded to heal him physically too… Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience. But if you’re hungry you need real bread before you will consider the heavenly variety. If you’re in chains you take the Bible verses about freedom very literally indeed. (Pages 278-279, emphasis mine)

Joy is the outcome of faith as it works itself out through dissatisfaction. We are content with nothing else but the presence of God, manifest in power, mission, justice, etc. Jesus is our answer, and his presence is our joy, in with and through all circumstance. Greig spends much of this section talking about the fifteenth anniversary celebrations of his movement. He truly celebrates, but there is a warning away from triumphalism. He points us to the “Jesuit ‘Litany of humility’… From the desire of being praised,¬†Deliver me, O Jesus…”¬† (Page 315).

So why does all this make me burn up (in a good way)?¬†I’m not entirely sure.

There are certainly some points of personal connection. I know what it is like to share the journey with a chronically-ill wife (“I’m sick of being sick”, page 116).¬† I know what it’s like to travel internationally as a family, involving our children in the discernment and the cost (page 300). My tears flowed as Greig spoke of his wife’s graduation after “illness had robbed her of so many precious moments” (page 299).¬† They flowed even more when I encountered the thought of “the Lord inviting us to pioneer together once again” (page 299).

I found myself repenting at points, or at least, crying out with a desire to repent. In our current season I know I have had to turn from the idolatry of comfort. I have had to repent of the faithlessness by which I have placed my sense of identity and worth, and the source of my family’s protection and care, not in God’s hands, but in broken ecclesial systems.

There was also times of frustration in my reading of this book. Having had my passions awakened, the engines are revved up and that is accompanied by a familiar sense of wheels spinning. No grip, nowhere to go. It’s time to turn this towards intimacy, towards trusting God not just for the fire, but the fireplace in which to burn, and the specific promises for a specific people to cling to.

For me then, the greatest help was¬†Greig’s image of “Blue Camp 20.” This is drawn from his time in America where he learned the history of his local town: It was once a camp, a place where pioneers, originally intending to go on further, often decided to settle down instead. It speaks of premature comfort with a road not yet travelled.

I was moved by Greig’s confession of the temptation to “settle down here and stop pioneering… would it really be wrong to serve the Lord with a bit more cash, a bit more kudos, and a lot less rain?” (Page 141). Indeed, having experienced church planting, and time-limited placements, I am sometimes jealous of the seemingly comfortable run that some of my clerical colleagues get to enjoy! But then there’s that annoying, calling, stimulating and painful fire: “I signed up to change the world. I never wanted to be like it.” (Page 153).

It’s easy to pioneer when you’re too young to know what it will cost you, when you feel immortal and invincible and the whole of life is an adventure waiting to begin. But pioneering a second time is hard. Abraham was one of the few who never settled down – even in his old age he lived ‘like a stranger in a foreign country… For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and build is God’ (Heb. 11:9-10). (Page 143)

We tend to assume that Blue Camp 20 is the frontier from which we can pioneer into new territory geographically, or into new effectiveness professionally, but ultimately it is the place of testing from which we can pioneer into deeper intimacy with Jesus than ever before. We wrestle with God at Blue Camp 20… to come close to him in greater intimacy. We lay down comfort at Blue Camp 20… We pioneer from Blue Camp 20 not to achieve something for God, but to receive something from him – a deeper fellowship with him in his death and resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11). (Pages 147-148)

Perhaps all that is happened in me is that Greig’s prayer for his book has been answered.¬†It has deepened my thirst, because it has “rubbed salt on my lips” and woken me up, (page 12). It has had me shaking off the protections and pretenses of being a performing parson. It has had me reflecting on the past and the present. It has got me dreaming for the future. It has got me longing for his kingdom to come, real, substantial, local, global.

I no longer have the vigour and brashness of my youth and younger pioneering days. I know what real mission costs. I have regrets, and I have hopes. And all I can do is pray, to the glorious God who meets us in the dirt. Somehow, that’s where life happens, and I long for more of it.

I give you back today the prayers I have prayed that are not answered – yet. The seeds I’ve sown that haven’t borne a harvest – yet. The dreams I’ve buried that haven’t risen – yet. Restore the years, the prayers, the trust that the locusts have eaten. Remember me, Lord, redeem my life, and answer my oldest, truest, prayers. Amen.
(Page 307)




Review: Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making – An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation

The word “discipleship” has become such a buzzword in recent years that when it is used, particularly in official documents or vision statements, it’s intended meaning is not always certain.

I have a vested interest in pursuing discipleship in an Anglican context.¬† It is useful, therefore, to familiarise myself with how discipleship is being understood, talked about, and promoted.¬† Practical on-the-ground examples are the most valuable.¬† But perspectives from the heights of the institution are also important.¬† Last year’s Archbishops’ Council report, Setting God’s People Free¬†pointed out that the main obstacle to discipleship is cultural intransigence.¬† Sometimes it is possible for papers at the top to cut across the lower tides of avoidance; they can simply state what needs to be stated, even if their immediate effect is not obvious.

This small book, published by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2016, is a case in point.¬† It is a Communion-level, globally-scoped report.¬† It brings some important insights, especially from the Global South.¬† I’m finding it invaluable as I prepare some thoughts on discipleship for our Deanery strategic planning process.

It is available for download in pdf.

One of the ways we avoid a discipleship culture is by subsuming the term into our existing church culture, rather than allowing it to provoke much-needed adaptive change.¬† That is, we undertake “discipleship activities” or, worse yet, we simply shoehorn the word “discipleship” into the description of our existing activities, and we quench the Spirit. In the end, discipleship is about being a disciple/student/follower of Jesus himself. If we think we can do that and remain unchanged. If we think we can avoid having our “self-identity” challenged (page 5), we are deluding ourselves. Yet we try.

Archbishop Ng Moon Hing of South East Asia addresses this symptom from the very beginning, in his foreword:

To follow Jesus of Nazareth into his cosmic reign is simply the most challenging, the most beautiful, the most costly, the most rewarding journey we could ever choose to begin…¬† our following Jesus requires much more than the latest course or introduction to Christian living. Courses have their place… but our apostleship, our discipleship demands much more – in fact it demands everything. (Page vii)

A¬†definition of discipleship is needed for this book to make any sense.¬† The definition it gives is not so much¬†provided as¬†located; discipleship “encompasses this total God-ward transformation which takes place when individuals and communities intentionally, sacrificially, and consistently live every aspect of their daily life in commitment to following Jesus Christ” (Page 4).

This is a wonderfully Anglican way of doing it: Discipleship is not so delicately defined that it adheres to one time or place, but it is¬†bounded¬†so that we know what we’re talking about.

It is also wonderfully Anglican to begin from the basis of biblical theology.¬† Discipleship themes are quickly traced through the Old Testament before focusing on Jesus himself, with his “group of ‘learners’ who were selected to be with him” (page 11).¬† The book does well to go beyond the prosaic picture of Jesus merely as pedagogical examplar, as if Jesus is defined by his discipleship methods.¬† Rather, the fundamentals of Christ’s person and mission are first and foremost.¬† It is discipleship that is defined by Jesus, not the other way around.¬† Therefore, true discipleship bears the mark of the cross. It is much more than a spiritualised self-help program, “much more than belief and personal growth in Christian character” (page 16):

For the original twelve there was a literal journey following Jesus up from Galilee into the eye of the storm, Jerusalem – a journey marked with misguided hopes and some trepidation…: we are all on a journey, following Jesus… we are to leave things behind… we are to trust him both for our eventual arrival in the city and also for the surprising details along the way and through the desert; above all, we are to ‘take up [our] cross daily’ and follow Jesus (Lk 9.23) (Page 15)

From this biblical starting point, we are taken through a cursory look at discipleship in the early and historical church and arrive at a multi-faceted examination in recent and contemporary Christianity.  Like the charismatic renewals of that latter 20th Century, there appears to be evidence of similarly transdenominational currents in this area. I find this encouraging.

Consequently, this book has stimulated my¬†thinking.¬† For instance, there is a harmony in discipleship between¬†separation (as in the monastic tradition of withdrawing from “the accommodation of Christian communities to the ways of the secular world” (page 35), or the Latin American emphasis (page 101) on “preparing Christ’s disciples to act differently”), and¬†missional¬†engagement¬†that connects with and promotes a relevant gospel.¬† Popular evangelicalism lacks the language to tackle this.

For instance, I found myself unexpectedly pushing back at how we describe secular “work and other human activities as a form of vocation” (page 65). It’s not that I disagree that secular work is vocational. Nor do I wish to slip into some sort of clericalism that elevates church work as somehow spiritually superior.¬† It’s just that the language does not prevent an apparent lack of distinctiveness¬†in the pursuit of vocation. The consequence is our propensity to sacralise¬†all work¬†and so fall into the¬†careerism¬†of our surrounding culture; to assert the divine right to pursue the career of my choice. Rather, the journey of discipleship necessarily moves us away from careerism; it may take us on either path of secular work or ecclesial ministry, (if we need to make the distinction at all), but whatever it is, whatever we do, it is to be submitted to the call of Christ. Our career is first and foremost shaped by our vocation, our discipleship, and not the other way around.

This book has stirred my consideration of practice.  The way it draws on the experiences of discipleship in various parts of the world and diverse cultures is stimulating. The common threads recognise that discipleship is holistic, communal, missional, and deliberate.  Jesus is the beginning and the end.

Churches should be assemblies of disciples of Christ and not pew-warming believers. All sermons should be discipleship-driven and not entertain spectators with feel-good sensation. Christ’s death is costly, and it would be considered worthy if he knew that his life was laid down for people who became his disciples. It would be sad for him if he knew that it is for pew-warmer Christians. A disciple of Christ will ask, ‘What and how shall I serve and live for Christ?’ A pew-warmer believer will ask, ‘What will Christ do for me?’ (Page 89)

These experiences are wells to draw from. They help us get to some practicalities without becoming programmatic.

For instance, the importance of¬†cultural analysis is present in the reflection from the Middle East. Cultural self-awareness¬†is¬†something that can be learned and practised.¬† It is a skill that is sadly missing in much of the Western Church, an aspect of our normative missional illiteracy. The book speaks of “an adventure for the ‘disciple-maker’ as for the ‘disciple’… discovering where the Spirit of God applauds the norms of our culture, where he accepts some norms as a fair enough starting point and where he says ‘not good enough!’ about them” (page 91). Similarly, the cultural questions posed by “insider movements” (page 120) poses important cultural questions that can and should be more readily asked; we are all¬†inside¬†a culture.

The practical importance of relational¬†and¬†emotional courage¬†is present in the reflection from Latin America. This pushes back at the Western tendency (or perhaps it’s British?) to confuse harmony with polite silence and emotional avoidance.¬† This lesson moves away from an attitude of “waiting for someone else to solve [the] problem.”¬† Drawing upon the lessons of the Road to Emmaus, it speaks of the importance of the final movement back “to Jerusalem – to community, joy, dynamism, but also to the conflicts, to the Cross… to the crises” (page 102).

There is one significant weakness, a gap that is almost bewildering: Despite the brief acknowledgement of the “importance of the parents’ role in teaching each new generation to walk in the ways of the Lord” (page 9, see also page 68), there is very little at all on the place of family, children and youth.¬† The one perfunctory chapter (page 107) is insufficient.¬† A discipleship culture is inherently intergenerational and that characteristic deserves more engagement.¬† Our prevailing habit in the Western church of splitting the Body of Christ into homogenous age brackets is fundamentally antagonistic to Christ’s heart for mission.¬† A failure to engage with that diminishes this book.

Nevertheless, the book’s ambition is valuable: It is fundamentally vocational. i.e it issues a¬†call¬†that is coherent across all Anglican contexts.¬† Without whitewashing the “rich diversity in the understanding and practice of discipleship and disciple-making” (page 3), it nevertheless affirms a “strong intentionality” and lays it before us: “…the Church needs to be called back to its roots as a community of disciples who make disciples.”

It is therefore yet another resonance to the growing prophetic voice caling for a shift in culture. More voices are still needed.




Q&A: Who are the poor? Is our first challenge the spiritually poor?

Anonymous asks:

We are challenged certainly in some Anglican communities to look after the poor. I suppose the biggest question is going to be who are the poor? May seem a daft question, but in financial terms we have very few poor. However, certainly some of the financially richest people I know are very, very poor; spiritually and otherwise? My personal thought is that we do have poor with us, right now. Our challenge is to reveal those clothes they are wearing are actually rags. Is that our first big challenge?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question. I have some general thoughts on this in a recent review:  A Church for the Poor?

My first thoughts on the poor usually arrive with the famous “sheep and goats” passage of Matthew 25. In this passage the returning King, acting as judge, declares (for the righteous):

‚ÄúCome, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄėThen the righteous will answer him, ‚ÄúLord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄėThe King will reply, ‚ÄúTruly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.‚ÄĚ

And of course, there’s an equivalent and negative judgement for those who did not feed, give drink, clothe, or visit etc.

This gets us into your question. Who are the poor? They are indeed those who are financially, physically impoverished: hungry, destitute, excluded by their circumstances.

We can’t overlook this. There is a clear gospel challenge to look after and to care for the physically poor.¬†This is clear from the Scriptures: the laws on gleaning is about providing for those who are literally hungry, as are the many passages that talk about caring for widows and orphans, who lack the stability and security not only of societal standing, but also of the basics of life. James considers the care of these physically vulnerable people to be an aspect of “genuine religion”.

It also gives some exhortational force. Who are the poor? The ones who we can see. We are held to account for who is in front of us; e have personal responsiblity for those who God brings across our path. There is also communal responsiblity for those who are in front of us as a community.  This is just as serious and calls us to move our community towards caring for the poor through advocacy and social justice and personal example.

We cannot ignore the physically poor. As Keith Green would imply, we make too many excuses, individually and together, we ought to care for those who do not have as much we are do. It is good in its own right. It is a gospel imperative. ¬†Or shall we insist that what we have is ours alone, and not God’s?

But you are right, there is also a spiritual poverty. But there are two ways in which we need to take this.

Firstly, there is spiritual poverty that speaks to a hardness of heart, a self-righteousness that, as you say, dresses itself in resplendent rags. ¬†This is not just preening and pride, but facade, self-reliance, the idolisation of financial security, and other “decent” sins.

Such folk are the “goats” of Matthew 25. They are the rich man with Lazarus. They are the fat cows of Bashan. Such hardness of heart is rightly and justly judged harshly. And notice how the¬†spiritual¬†poverty is often marked by the hardened attitude towards those who are¬†physically¬†poor, or a general dismissiveness of those who are weak and dependent in some way.

Is it, then, as you say “our challenge to reveal those clothes… are actually rags”? That is, is it our task to reveal this hypocrisy, this hardness of heart? To some extent, yes. We are called to not only advocate for the poor, but also to exhort people to repentance, to soften their hearts, to take a posture of faith and humility, to enter into the insecurity of faith whereby their hearts might break with the massive longings of God’s own heart. ¬†Biblical and Christian history is full of characters who have served us in this way, by provoking us towards righteousness.

We must feed them, as we must feed the physically poor. ¬†These people need the Word of God (“All they need is Moses,” the rich man is told…), and they are in front of us. If church members and even clergy find themselves uncomprehending of how to apply the elementary teachings of the faith then it’s not somebody else’s job. We must dig into the Word, speak the truth, exhort repentance, paint a vision of hope, etc. etc. That is, we are called to “feed the sheep” that are in front of us, even if they think they are princes.

Secondly we might think of spiritual poverty in the sense of being poor in spirit. This is a more positive sense.

There is a recognition that those who are physically poor, by their circumstances, are dependent, vulnerable, reliant, weak. ¬†The poor in spirit may have enough to eat, but they may be dependent, vulnerable, reliant and weak in other ways – even if they don’t know it. ¬†In our middle class town I know those who are involved in picking up the pieces from addictive behaviours, neglected children. The book that I reviewed, A Church for the Poor?, understands this, for instance, and speaks of things such as¬†aspirational poverty and¬†relational¬†poverty.

There is a similar imperative to care for these who are in front of us:¬†If we encounter a depressed young man, we cannot turn aside. If there is a lonely widow in front of us, we should not simply “leave her to the professionals.” ¬†And when society begins to produce a younger generation with increasing incidences of anxiety we should be amongst those standing up and saying “Come on, we can do better, let’s change how we do this!”

But here is the difference between hard-hearted “spiritual poverty” and being “poor in spirit.”¬† Itis this: the way of Christ moves away from one and toward the other.

You see, in this context, being “poor in spirit” is an indicator of faith, a positive thing – the opposite of being “poor in spirit” is being “rich in ourselves” that is, self-righteous. ¬†The¬†physically¬†poor teach this lesson, they weather circumstances in which they are weak, vulnerable, and dependent, and God¬†honours them¬†by valuing the related things of¬†faith, trust, and honesty¬†and judges the rich-in-themselves for their lack of them.¬†

No wonder Jesus identifies with the physically poor!   They look more like Jesus than the self-secure rich!

Just as we are all relatively physically wealthy in the global scheme of things, we must realise that we are all relatively poverty stricken, hardened in the spiritual sense. I know for myself that while I might have “done good” from time to time, I am most likely to be moved by the financial and other physical insecurities that beset my own family. I find myself protecting myself emotionally as I encounter those who are wounded by life. ¬†I cling to my wealth, my strength.

The Christian journey begins and continues with the basic understanding of “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Any challenge to “reveal the rags” must begin in us. ¬†When we¬†realise that we are spiritually poor, we are also drawn to our weakness, vulnerability, and dependency, and, faith, trust, and honesty is the sweet fruit of it. We cannot turn to ourselves, so we turn to God, and inherit the kingdom of heaven.

The Christian journey is one of constant relinquishment and surrender in this regard, a long slow walk of obedience. We become poor in spirit, and find ourselves with riches that are not limited by our capacity, but strength in our weakness, life in our death. This is what Jesus looks like.

That is our first big challenge. To look to our own posture before God, a posture of faith that is soft towards God and others, and not self-reliance that just builds fine looking decent protective, hard, walls.

[Image Credit: Lithogr Wellcome V0021724 CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]




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.




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‚ÄĒPatrick Keifert’s We Are Here Now,¬†and the Grove Booklet¬†Forming a Missional Church¬†which Keifert has co-authored with Nigel Rooms‚ÄĒdo 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‚ÄĒand 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 Рa 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 Рinvolves 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”‚ÄĒ”friendly looking strangers”‚ÄĒ 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 Рrecognises 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 Рurges 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 ‚ĄĘ 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‚ÄĒchanging culture until mission is a natural rhythm‚ÄĒit will do itself out of a job and, in that possibility, it would rightly be seen as a success.




Four Levels of Church Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third level of conversation is missional and cultural.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagrammatically, it looks like this: 

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

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

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

The thoughts, and hopefully the conversations, continue.




Pioneering Mission and Authoritative Dissent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Can England be Loved?

EnglandI have learned that the Scottish love Scotland. And the Welsh love Wales.  But do the English love England?

As I’ve shared this observation with my English friends, and as it becomes clear what the final question is going to be, before I even ask it they are shaking their heads with a wry expression, ¬†“No, no we don’t.”

Love?¬†It’s as if it’s a category mistake. ¬†I’m not sure what the prevailing sentiment actually is:¬† Respect? Concern? Admiration? Affection? Options that have been volunteered to me range from the negative (“We resent¬†our society.”) to the self-deprecating (“We’re a little bit embarassed about England.”) to the faux-humble (“We know we’re good we don’t need to flaunt it.”) to the perplexed (“Well, we don’t know who we are anymore.”) ¬†Of course, support for cricket and rugby teams cannot be questioned, and is a common expression of loyalty. But¬†love? What does that¬†even¬†mean?

As an “outsider” observer I can offer some musings about why this is the case: ¬†Perhaps England as a concept isn’t “local” enough; we can speak of love much more readily for Yorkshire, or Cornwall, or Norfolk! ¬†Perhaps England doesn’t have the experience¬†of shared and common adversity that is present in the history of the other UK countries; there has been very little to knit the country together in it’s own identity.¬†If you’re English, or you know England, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!

The motivation for my thinking about this is missiological and prayerful. ¬†It was sparked by the opportunity Gill and I had recently of spending time in retreat at Ffald-y-brenin in Wales. ¬†As part of the rhythm of prayer there they include a¬†“Caleb prayer for Wales.” ¬†It’s a prayer for mercy and revival:

O High King of Heaven,
Have mercy on our Land.
Revive your Church.
Send the Holy Spirit for the sake of the lost, the least, and the broken.
May your Kingdom come to our nation.
in Jesus’ mighty name.
Amen

Prayed by the Welsh, this prayer is gentle but fervent, and with deep deep roots. ¬†It recalls revivals of the past and yearns and longs for¬†new things in the present. ¬†It¬†imagines¬†life-giving restorative reconnection with God intermingling with the valleys and the hills, the families and the industrial cities. ¬†It looks to “Jesus’ mighty name” as a hope for the lost, the least, and the broken. ¬†It is prayed confidently in acknowledgement of God’s will, because they¬†love¬†their land, and they want God’s best for it. ¬†The prayer reveals a missiological heart.

But if “love for England” is an ungraspable concept, what do we have that can¬†stir us for God’s mission? ¬†What is it that wells up (or could¬†well up)¬†within the English to pray this prayer for their¬†land? ¬†What is the missiological heart for England?

My conclusion is this: ¬†England is and can be loved. ¬†It can be loved¬†with a missiological heart – even those big detached chunks of Southern England that are geographically defined more by their train line to London than their sense of “nationhood,” community, or place.

My prayer for myself, and for the church, is that we would grow in this love. ¬†That we would be more and more¬†moved¬†with the heart of God. ¬†This means to be prayerfully weeping because of the sin we see, and the destructive things we know are hidden away to fester, and the roots of idolatry now writ large in the whole Western world. ¬†It means travailing for lives and communities to be convicted, awakened, and turned towards life-pertaining things. ¬† And above all it means hope – to be trusting in God’s mercy as we dare to believe¬†that the villages¬†and market-towns, the estates and seething throngs of commuters, can somehow encounter and embrace, together, a living experience with a risen Saviour.

Can England be loved? Yes. ¬†But it will take, as they say with a phrase now full of meaning, the “love of the Lord.”




Review: Good Disagreement? Pt. 10, Mediation and the Church’s Mission

51ka0d0GNNLI am continuing with my chapter-by-chapter, essay-by-essay review of Good Disagreement?  Previously:

We’ve arrived at the final chapter, and some final thoughts from me. ¬†This chapter is by former-barrister, now¬†mediator, Stephen Ruttle. ¬†He gives us language to describe¬†the current troubles, and a sense of how far or little we have come and are likely to go.

As a mediator Ruttle is, like many of the contributors to this book, a firm centrist. ¬†While he admits that this could include a propensity to avoid disagreement (p208) and sit on the fence, and while he recognises that he is not impartial on some theological or moral matters (p207), his presentation of mediation as “assisted peacemaking” (p195) after the way of Christ which makes it missional (p204) has great merit. ¬†For those who aspire to speak across the centre there is some wisdom to glean here.

Ruttle’s approach is strengthened by his realism about outcome and his focus on process:

“This chapter assumes that there are profound disagreements between Christians on important issues and that these disagreements are a fact of life which are unlikely to be resolved, at least in the sense that everyone will come to a common viewpoint. ¬†The questions that then arise are: How well can we disagree? ¬†Can we live together or not? If so, how closely? If not, can we separate with blessing rather than with cursing? Can we love each other despite these disagreements? How well can we “do unity”?” (p197)

In particular, his conception of “agreement” as being able to incorporate anything from full reconciliation to amicable separation means that his thoughts can be applied to the current troubles. ¬†If only “total agreement” is on the table, the conversation is already over. ¬†But if the ground under dispute is about good¬†disagreement¬†then there are things to talk about: honesty about the current situation, recognition of existing separation, re-connection where possible, honest exploration of faults and wounds, agreement about the extent of possible future separation, practical and symbolic implications etc. etc.

Similarly, his presentation of the mediation process is also insightful, and illuminates the current Shared Conversation strategy more than much of the rhetoric around them does. ¬†On page 213, he outlines the process as:¬†“GOSPEL” –¬†Ground rules… Opening Statements… Storytelling… Problem identification… Exploring possible solutions… Leading to agreement (p213). ¬†It’s a crazily complex situation of course, but from my observation the current process is passing through S (storytelling) and beginning to get honest about P (Problem identification). ¬†Many¬†are much further on that that of course.

It’s still unclear¬†what solutions and forms of agreement are possible in the current situation. ¬†Ruttle defines possible successes as (in order of depth):

 A) Participation (p214); B) Ceasefire (p215); D) Resolution of the defining issue (p215); E) Resolution of the underlying issue (p215); F) Restitution (p215), G) Forgiveness (p216), H) Reconciliation (p216), I) Transformation (p216)

Depending on how “resolution” is defined and if “restitution” could incorporate some structural/institutional response to reduced common ground, I can see the possibility of a way through to G). ¬†This is further than what the cynic in me suggests is possible; and my caveats are deliberate!

This chapter also taps into some frustration. ¬†Ruttle gives some advice for participants in mediation to “step back” and work out the real issues, and to “slow down” (p209). ¬†Particles of wisdom such as these are already apparent, albeit chaotically. ¬†Many have “stepped back” over the years – we know what the issues are, and their epistemological underpinnings. ¬†And many have “slowed down” and persisted in meeting together through indabas and Covenant processes; the issue has been hot since 2003 and it’s cutting edge has been keen for many years before that. ¬†At some point there is also wisdom in not “drawing it out.”

Ruttle’s realism also connected with me on a personal level. ¬†As I read the following description I was recollecting the cost I counted at a particular time when I was the man in the middle.

It can be very lonely, marooned in the middle in a sort of no-man’s-land. ¬†I find myself increasingly stretched as I continue this work, particularly where I have my own opinions and judgments on the rightness and wrongness of the issues at take, or the people involved in the mediation. (p206)

The biggest difficulty in applying Ruttle’s words to the current circumstances, however, is this: who exactly is our mediator? ¬†We do not have¬†a mere fracas between neighbours, or a financial dispute in which an impartial third-party can enter in. ¬†The issues at stake here are at the depths of a shared ecclesiology, our very identity¬†and how it is expressed in following Christ.

It is here that Ruttle’s allusion to Christ’s mediatorial work breaks down a little. ¬†Yes, Jesus came to cross boundaries, and bring together former “enemies” (just read the first three chapters of Ephesians!). ¬†But he was not a mediator in the way Ruttle describes his work. ¬†Jesus also spoke, he spoke truth, and called us to follow him. ¬†He doesn’t¬†pick¬†sides, he defines¬†the side.

And so this chapter brings us to the place where we have gone again and again in this book Рthe epistemological question: how do we know what Christ is saying? How do we seek God together?  The only satisfactory direction Рand what I hold is the Anglican direction Рis to return to and come under Scripture, not merely locatively, but attitudinally.  The extent to which we are unable to share in that posture is the extent of our troubles, and that is what we must deal with, and deal with it well.




Something anthemic

Rend Collective have released their new album, As Family We Go.¬† Here’s the introductory video.

It’s rare that I come across something that is so anthemic to the way Gill and I seek to lead life.

We as a¬†church were never meant to be a timid club huddled together for safety, but a pilgrim family progress, chasing after the wild lion heart of God…

We weren’t created to journey through life alone, but we’re called “the family of God”for a reason…

We’ve got to break out of the cages of safety and fear into the wide open spaces of the unknown trusting that nothing is impossible with God…

We were never intended to go this road alone, we were given to each other as family, and as family we go.