On the first Monday of each month, I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.Read More
Sometimes we can get stuck in certain ways of thinking. We might be tired, and busy and it is easy to fall back into familiar paradigms. A familiar paradigm might be that orchestras play classical music. To an extent, this is true orchestras do play classical music and have done for centuries in the western world. What happens if we bust out of this paradigm? What happens if we take this orchestra and their bemused looking conductor, add in a guitar playing vocalist, known for heavy rock music, a pop singer, and a reggae musician. Throw in a young up and coming pop singer, some very good session musicians, on saxophone, electric guitar, and keyboards. Lastly add a concert pianist and music written by a popular singer-songwriter who reinvented himself several times for an influential career spanning almost 5 decades.
What happens when you bring this juxtaposition together for a concert?
You create magic! You get a creative sparking between the different musicians and styles that create a fresh energy and everyone including the multi-generational audience has a lot of fun. I found attending Bowie: Starman a few months ago quite inspirational. This was a concert fronted by Jon Toogood(Shihad) and Julia Deans (Fur Patrol) with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and other singers such as Laughton Kora (Kora), and Anna Coddington. They had, of course, come together to play the music of David Bowie. The concert made me think about creativity, about juxtapositions, about energy and about the church. Creativity is often about putting things together in a new way or bringing things together that haven’t been mixed together before, it is that sparking between different ideas that enables us to create something new.
The church is a bit like an orchestra venerating music from previous centuries, or Shihad fans that are left to have their concert outside in Aotea Square while the orchestra performs in the Town Hall, and the styles never come together. We have created services and churches that stick to their style and paradigm but we never manage to bring them together well. What would happen if we approached church a bit more like a Bowie:Starman concert? What if the real creative sparking will come when instead of having separate enclaves we mix everything together?
We can create a fresh energy and fresh spaces for the Holy Spirit to work if we mix diversity together with generosity.
As I reflected on the concert I identified some key components that made the concert work and give us inspiration for how we do church.
The central figure in making this concert happen has a talent for collaboration. Toogood doesn’t lead by himself and he doesn’t have to be centre stage all the time. His role seems to be to cast the vision and bring everyone on board, creating a leadership team. He then helps them all work together and understand what they are creating. He knows when to step back and let others do their jobs, he knows when to let the conductor lead, and when he needs to follow the conductor. To create a good collaborative concert he doesn’t need to sing all the songs, he can also play a support role by singing backing vocals in many of the songs.
What would our church or organisation look like if we had a leadership team instead of a single figure?
What would our church or organisation look like if we had a leader who excelled at collaboration?
Deans and Toogood have worked together on a number of projects now, and from the audience, it looks like they are great friends and colleagues that enjoy each other's strengths and spur each other to achieve more. The orchestra was made up of people from diverse ethnicities and ages. Classical music, however, was primarily created and grown in the western world, and this needs to be acknowledged if we are creating something truly diverse. Diversity needs to be something broader and wider than simply including a singer with a background in NZ reggae. This type of inclusion can sometimes walk a line that is very close to tokenism.
What would our church or organisation look like if our leadership team was more diverse, containing strong relationships across genders, age groups and ethnic groups?
What would our church or organisation look like if we acknowledged that our systems, procedures, beliefs and ways of being are firmly based in western/middle-class models?
A key component of a successful collaboration is generosity. The pop and rock singers were supported by a large crew of classically trained musicians, with traditional knowledge. What generosity it must take for them to play pop music. I wonder if perhaps some of the orchestral musicians don’t even like David Bowie, yet they are willing to play as part of the team from their commitment to their orchestra. They are generous in their attitude to be lead by someone else with a different musical vision to what they are used to. They are generous to allow this to stretch them right out of what they are comfortable with. Part of the generosity in making this happen is to acknowledge that it might feel uncomfortable for each individual as they see their contribution changed and their valued way of doing things challenged.
What would our church/organisation look like if we were more willing to be uncomfortable?
What would our church/organisation look like it we were more willing to be generous in our preferences?
The final component that I noticed at the concert was that everyone had fun, there was a lot of joy expressed. The singers had fun trying different (quite difficult) songs. You could see that many of the orchestral musicians were playing for the sheer joy of using their instrument. The singers enjoyed being together and working with different musicians and supporting each other. The audience had fun, listening and being pulled into the fun of what was created. Everyone enjoyed themselves and had fun, they expressed their joy through dance and song and smiles.
When did your staff team last have fun together?
When did you last have fun attending church, and see an expression of pure joy from the front?
What a glorious vision for the church or for a christian organisation we get from thinking about what made this concert so magic. Can we imagine a church that looks like this? A church that has a diverse leadership team with a talent for collaboration that is backed up by people with tradition and knowledge. A church that acknowledges its western and age group biases, that is characterised by generosity that allows diversity to flourish. A church that is known for its joy and is fun to be a part of. Can we work together with the Holy Spirit to build this church?
I have always disliked introducing myself at social events because the first thing you are asked is so “what do you do?” The answer for me has never been simple. I envy those people who could say “I am a primary school teacher or a nurse or a vet” and people immediately understand what they do. When I was a PhD student studying a theory within social psychology, it was hard to explain what I was doing. When I was working with Christian university students it was hard to explain what I was doing, Personnel Development for a Christian Mission Agency even worse. I didn't really think of all this when I decided to become self-employed. I am a bit hesitant to introduce myself as a blogger thinking does it really count when you only have 76 followers? does it really count when you have only been doing it a few months? Then once I have said that I have to explain about my work as an external supervisor, which people who are not in human services work don't really understand. So introducing myself can involve quite an extended and complex conversation. Then I hold my breath and wait for the next question which is "so what do you blog about?" I am always a bit reluctant to say the Church in New Zealand, because I know that once I say that, many stereotypes of Christian Mum bloggers are activated. I have also found that I am a little bit embarrassed to share with people that I think the church should make changes to how it does things. As I have slowly been getting used to introducing myself as a Christian blogger, I have been surprised at how much people have been interested in the topic of my blog and curious to find someone who talks about the issues of the church and contextualisation to society.
The interest I have experienced has got me thinking about which way I tend to face. I have realised that most of my time, energy and focus goes towards the Church. This is common for feminist Christians and for those of us who aren't liberal or evangelical, we orient ourselves in relation to the conservative church. We spend time and energy justifying our position, arguing for space, defending our stance. For some of us clinging to the fact that yes we are Christians, takes most of our energy, others are focussed on healing from the pain and grief that they have experienced within the conservative church. The result of this is that we often experience self- doubt and spend time questioning ourselves - are we really right about what we believe?
This sets us up in a position where it is easy to forget to face those outside the church. It would be good to recalibrate away from the Church and towards those outside the Church. Many people outside the Church don’t have a diverse experience of what the Church is like, and if they rely on the media to show them the Church they only see a US conservative evangelical Christianity. For those of us embedded in the Church and so familiar with it, it is easy to forget to explore what those outside know about it.
I am suddenly aware of the importance of the average person on the street being able to see that there are feminist Christians, progressive Christians, liberal Christians, Christians of all flavours and beliefs, expressed in different ways.
Also that people with limited experience of the Church get to see that Christians have doubts and questions and that is ok, that there are Christians that are dissatisfied with the church how it is. Sharing our faith can be difficult for those of us on the edges of Church. Often our process of deconstruction has left us dissatisfied and loosely connected to the church, we may have lost confidence in a reductionist gospel, but we haven't replaced it with anything we can share easily. Some of us may still feel an odd sense of loyalty to Christianity that means we are reluctant to 'bad mouth' it outside of Christian circles, uncomfortable sharing our doubts, questions and bad experiences. Perhaps we have become reluctant to hear the bad experiences of the church that people outside of the church often want to share with us.
I still feel uncomfortable sharing my faith. Somehow to do it easily always reduced it to something that doesn't show the full complexity and depth of what I believe. Also because I am drifting on the edge of my church I feel uncomfortable inviting people to come, I see the problems and I doubt they would always be and feel welcome, or even understand what was happening. Yet at the heart of why I am so keen to see the Church contextualise better, is because I want to see the Church better able to articulate the hope and love of God to those who have little connection to our faith. I think it is time that we stepped away from the constant and tiring engagement with conservatives and focussed our energy on those outside the church. We need to stop and ask ourselves, why do we spend so much energy trying to convince those inside the church, is it because deep down we are still trying to answer our own doubts?
It is time that we saved some energy and time to face outwards, to talk to those outside the church about our faith. Here are some initial thoughts about how we might do that.
1) You don't have to have it all sorted into an elevator pitch to talk about what you believe. Little pieces of your faith dropped into a conversation here and there are great starters.
2) If you want to help people take a bigger view of the church you could say something like "The church contains lots of different expressions and I am from a part of the church that sees a need for change. We might be a bit different to the image of Christians that you are used to."
3) Ask questions and don't be afraid of expressing your own views on the church, or on being a Christian feminist. Many us of have spent so long hiding our true views so that we fit better within the church framework that we forget that it is ok to express our true views to those outside the church.
4) Think about points of connection, the world is seeking wisdom and hope, things that Christianity has in abundance - how can we articulate that to those outside our faith?
Things to think over:
How are my time and energy captured by those within my faith?
How could I face more toward those outside my faith?
Do I feel comfortable inviting people to church? Why or why not?
What could I do to create a more comfortable environment for those outside to begin to learn about my faith?
As always I would love to hear your thoughts, experiences and challenges of sharing your faith:
Back in march, in my post renewing theology, I highlighted Third Article Theology (known as TAT) as a source for developing a greater trinitarian focus, that would provide a good theological foundation as we follow the Holy Spirit into the future that he has for our faith communities. I was first introduced to TAT by a student I was working with a few years ago. I felt an immediate resonance with its approach and so have read bits and pieces about it since then, but my knowledge of it remains limited. This is partly due to the fact that it hasn’t yet made it out of the Theological Colleges and into a layperson-friendly form, the books available tend to be theologically dense and I have found them a bit hard going.
It still resonates with what the church needs for its future growth and I thought it deserved a post of its own, even though I didn’t have the knowledge to write it. I e-mailed Dr Myk Habets of Carey Baptist College (NZ) and asked him if he could write an introduction for us. Today’s post introducing TAT is my edited version of his reply to my e-mail and some information from the introduction he wrote to an edited book on TAT.
Theology needs renewal.
Perhaps one of the reasons that TAT has resonated with me, is that it starts from a position of stating that theology needs a review from time to time. Myk Habets uses the term “christomonostic myopia” to describe previous approaches to theology which focus on the work of Jesus and then only include a small section on the work of the spirit. I thought that was a wonderful term to describe the tendencies of traditional evangelicalism to focus solely on the work of Christ, almost to the point of exclusion of the Holy Spirit.
TAT also seems to take into consideration the importance of contexualisation of the theology that we do, another element that resonates with me. Myk Habets states that we need to look at how we are articulating the core beliefs of our faith, particularly in relation to cultural changes. He goes on to say “one thinker has said, “it is time the church grew up and began to act its age.” By that comment he meant the church needs to stop being a weather vane for the latest fads, flopping left then right at the whim of the popular, and instead, penetrate beneath the presenting cultural issues to the deeper realities of life that drive human behaviour and address those issues in richly biblical and theological ways. Third Article Theology is one attempt to overhaul theology in such a way.”
What is Third Article Theology (TAT)?
I am still trying to understand this theology myself but it seems that at it’s most basic it is a methodological approach that looks through the Spirit, rather than looking at the Spirit. Myk Habets expands by saying “the basic conviction of this approach to theology (and it is more a method than anything else) is that in the post-modern West, it is thought best to start with S/spirit in our thinking about the faith. With the Nicene Creed (325/381 AD) dictating its language, with its three main clauses, “I believe in” … “God, the Father” and in “Jesus Christ” and in the “Holy Spirit,” it is the last in our creed which should now be first in our discourse, the Spirit.”
Why is TAT important today?
Myk Habets describes the relevance of TAT in the following way “Our culture craves connection, and the Spirit provides that. Our culture is searching for meaning in concrete realities, not in abstract theories, and the Spirit provides that. And our culture wants to see a Christianity that cares as much as Christ does, that looks after the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast, and the Spirit provides that. Finally, people want to see the church being the church; a counter-cultural and revolutionary force for the Kingdom of God amidst the turmoil of the world, and the Spirit provides that (think of Eph 4.1-16 for a start). Third Article Theology (or TAT) is one attempt to do theology in an applied and grounded way, without abandoning the rigorous theological and philosophical articulation of the faith that is still necessary. Deeply traditional and deeply contextual, a TAT looks to what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world, in Scripture, in Christ, and in the Church, to resource our articulation and practice of the faith.”
What does TAT look like for an ordinary Christian?
Theology doesn’t just stay in the academic setting, it needs to make its way down to the everyday life of Christians so I asked Myk Habets to give an example of TAT being applied in our lives. “One area in which TAT takes form in everyday life concerns ethics; that not so small matter of how to live well each day. A First Article Theology, one that starts with God the Father, would emphasise law and commands. And Scripture is replete with them of course, so that is not an incorrect path, but many of us already know the limitation legal codes have on our lives. They are externally motivated and often don’t result in real change.
A Second Article Theology, one which starts with Christ, on the other hand, might emphasize the fact that in Christ all is of grace and that tolerance and compassion should take the lead. This form of a love ethic too is not incorrect, but if it is the basis of our morality then it inevitably leads to agnosticism and relativism. By contrast, a TAT says that both approaches to the moral life are appropriate but only if their foundation is one which starts from the Spirit. The Spirit, we read continually in Scripture, creates in us a heart for Christ, the mind of Christ, and the virtues of Christ (Col 3.12-17 is but one instance). Here it is just as important who we are (a virtue ethic) as it is what we do (deontological ethics) and the decisions we make (ontological and teleological ethics). And so the law of the Spirit comes to rule our lives and upon that foundation, the Lordship and love of Christ rules in our hearts and the commands of the Father are gladly obeyed. Such is the vision of TAT.”
I am aware that this was a very brief outline of a complex theology I would love to hear your questions, meanwhile you may want to reflect on these questions:
Pentecost is Sunday 4th June, how does your church celebrate Pentecost?
How could we start to explain some of the principles of TAT to others in our churches/faith communities?
What change to how you view scripture would it make to be looking with and through the Holy Spirit rather than at the Holy Spirit?
How do we follow the Holy Spirit in reshaping the church and ourselves, to become more Christlike?
For those of you who wish to explore Third Article Theology in more detail. Myk Habets recommends the following book: Third Article Theology: A Pneumatological Dogmatics.Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016
Following soon after the avalanche of tweets that was created by the #thingsonlychristianwomenhear, last week an article in Christianity Today Women caused another furore. In basic summary, the article suggested that that Christian women bloggers lead their followers astray because of their lack of accountability to church authorities. Feelings were still running high about the institutionalised sexism in the church, and so it seemed like another attempt to silence women, to make people doubt them, and to make them doubt themselves. These two conversations (if we can call 140 character exchanges conversations) got me thinking about women's relationship to the systems and structures of the church institution.
It is easy to criticise and critique the church, after all, it is a fallible and human institution. To some of us its faults seem obvious, it is easy to highlight them, and we struggle within its systems. I can see the problems of an institution out of step with people, their lives, and Christian's vocation to live prophetically in our society. But what is the answer to these struggles? I have been prodding away at that question for years.
As I continue to think, pray and write about this, I find that I am becoming more convinced that the answer does not lie in the renewal of existing structures, the re-imagining that the Holy Spirit is initiating will come outside of current structures. It will come from where we least expect it, and it will look very different to the local church institutions that we are used to. The question of what the new will look like (and what my part in it will be) keeps nagging away in the back of my mind and it formed a backdrop as I read through all the tweets of the last few weeks.
I was amazed and inspired by women's tenacity. Women who despite being silenced, having their gifts denied, not being encouraged, being limited because they were women, were searching until they found a deep connection to God.
Women who hung on to God and found their way to a stronger faith and often a stronger voice and vocation. As I prayed through the pain of all that these women shared. I felt a stirring inside. I know that the Holy Spirit is at work and that he is going to re-create a people for himself. I look at these women who have persisted in their faith, in their vocation, in their leadership, in using their gifts in spite of everything that the church is and was and I see a strength and tenacity that we need for the people of God going forward. I feel the Holy Spirit stirring in these women, I see the future that the Church so desperately needs.
I have concluded that women are uniquely placed to lead the church into a new future.
Women are the future yet in so many ways our ability to listen to the Holy Spirit, our trust in our vocational call, the opportunities to use all our gifts and to find our voices is so often repressed. For some, it is overtly repressed, by the church or by the society or culture in which they live. For others it is more covert, more the cares of juggling children, work, household responsibilities and a society that still doesn't always support the growth of strong women.
Women have less invested in the way things are, because so often it has hurt them or limited them. Because the existing structures and systems don't benefit them as much as they benefit white men they can more easily critique them. Many women have had to find a way to follow the Holy Spirit outside of what is offered by their local church. The Spirit is leading them into many exciting ventures and new fields (like the blogosphere).
To women in the Church and those around the edges (and especially to women bloggers) I want to say to you: "You are the future, be silent no more, find your voice, use your gifts because the Holy Spirit is calling you to be key in the prophetic re-creation of the Church."
There is a dream inside you, a vision that lies deep within. It is a vision murmured by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is a vision that you repress because it has been stamped on so many times, because you doubt yourself, because you are not sure it fits within your local church.
That is the dream that you need to bring to life, that dream is the one that you need to re- discover. That dream that lies deep inside you - that is the future of the church. That dream is how the Holy Spirit is going to re-create his people. Find a quiet moment even if it is in the dark of the night, while your children sleep. Dig deep, think hard, pray with fervour, little by little you will uncover that dream inside you. I know that it is scary, I know that it can be hard to uncover, but find that dream, the vocation that the Holy Spirit has given you. Perhaps for some of you, that dream may start with taking the time to become more healthy. Share it with someone you trust, share it with us here on the blog. It needs to come out into the light, it needs to grow, it needs to become reality. You will need to find some supporters who can cheer you on and encourage you as you try and find your passion and vision, who can be a buffer for the problems you will encounter.
It may take time for you to hear the small voice of the dream in the noise of life. If you are serious you may need to prioritise the time, you may need to give up some things. You may need to learn how to say no, to say no to all the busy work of the local church, the committee meetings, the baking, the serving because 'someone has to do it'. Start to say no to these drains on your time and energy so that you can start to find the dream of prophetic re-creation that the Holy Spirit has given you.
I would love to hear your dreams and how you have pursued them
Last week Author and Blogger Sarah Bessey started the hashtag #thingsonlychristianwomenhear the response was overwhelming. It was an opportunity for all those who have struggled with discrimination and sexism in the church to share their experiences, and share they did in numbers large enough for it to make the trending list. On his blog, Mike Frost likened it to lancing a boil, and I love that imagery. These are things that have been bubbling away under the surface for some time, and suddenly out they erupted.
Once they were given the space and the opportunity women were keen to share freely of what they had experienced and to read the experiences of other women. Some found it healing to be able to share freely. Reading the experiences of other women helped them feel like they were not alone, every one of those tweets expressed a painful experience in the church because they were a woman. In New Zealand it is easy for us to dismiss these stories as mostly coming from the US, the church is different here and you may be thinking that we are less conservative in our ideas about gender and don’t need to consider these issues.
But we cannot dismiss this as just a problem for the US church and we cannot dismiss this as just a problem for the conservative side of the church. I have sat with women in New Zealand who have told me similar stories. I have heard the jokes that perpetuate negative gender stereotypes from the pulpit, I have heard the lack of response and lack of change when these have been challenged. I have experienced the surprise on people's faces when I say I am a feminist. I have been in Christian leadership in situations where men don’t believe women should be in leadership. I have heard women share their shattered dreams of teaching, preaching, leading or simply being appointed to be a deacon or elder. I have been in ministry and struggled with the expectation that I would have a ‘wife’ at home to help me offer hospitality. I have heard the struggles of single women who seem to have greater ministry expectations placed on them simply because they don’t have family commitments. I have heard the despair in young intelligent women as they realise that the Christian culture has narrowed in gender role expectations. I have seen the absence of women at leadership conferences. This is all right here in your church, in my church, in the New Zealand church.
I read the stories on twitter and I thought about all the stories I have heard, and I am still struggling with my grief and anger. Then I read an unrelated comment on a friend's Facebook status, something along the lines of but in New Zealand we never have to ask “Is Jesus worth it” and I realised that each time a woman experiences sexism in the church she asks herself “Is Jesus worth it?”. Each time a woman is told that she can’t use her gifts she asks “Is Jesus worth it?”, every time a woman’s worth is lessened by patriarchal interpretations of the bible she asks “Is Jesus worth it?”
It is easy to dismiss the comments, the experiences even my blog, as "oh just another woman with a chip on her shoulder." But I want you to know and understand that this is the question that each woman who shared on twitter and who has experienced sexism in the church asks - Is Jesus worth it? It breaks my heart (hopefully yours too) that there were many comments on the twitter exchange from women whose answer to that question had been, no Jesus is not worth it.
These stories and experiences are about so much more than simply wanting leadership positions, to preach and teach and be ordained. This is much deeper than women wanting the same equality that they have in the workplace.
This is about women wanting free and unfettered access to God.
This is about the Good News being good news for all, not just for those in power.
The sexism that women experience in church, is a barrier from men that stops women coming to know and trust God, to hear the Holy Spirit and to be confident in their faith. It is also a barrier to our evangelism as for many non-churched people, this is the church that they see, and it is not attractive.
Jesus came to inaugurate a new kingdom in which we are to live. The Holy Spirit helps us to live by a new set of values that brings the hope of the full restoration to come. That restoration involves the healing of the relationship between people and God, people and the earth and men and women. Therefore we are to live in a way that demonstrates the hope of restoration in the relationship between people. Addressing sexism is a gospel issue and cannot be dismissed as secondary or non-essential. It is essential that women feel valued, accepted, gifted and loved by God. We follow a God of grace and hope who values and loves all regardless of their gender. We are called to demonstrate this hope and love by living out Galatians 3:28 in all we do.
I don’t think that the sexism that has been experienced in New Zealand is as overt as that in the US. But I do believe that covert sexism is rife in the church in NZ, and it is time we talked about it and addressed it. Covert sexism is harder to pin down, it is harder for women to identify and challenge. It is expressed in the attitudes to women that are expressed from the pulpit, it is expressed in assumptions that are made about people’s gifts and interests because of their gender.
Sexism is also expressed in absence.
Think about all the ways women can be absent in what you do: How often does a woman preach in your church? Can women access intelligent mentors? How often have you preached a sermon about the women of the bible? Do you encourage women into leadership (not children’s ministry leadership). How often are women encouraged to attend bible college in your church? How does your church express that they value women, (and I don't mean the stereotypical flowers on Mother's Day)?
All who shared on twitter using this hashtag are hoping that it is more than just atwitter trend, here last week and then forgotten. We are hoping for real engagement with the issue of sexism and acknowledgement that the church often creates an environment in which sexism can flourish.
Take a few moments and read through the tweets with the hashtag #thingsonlychristianwomenhear and as you read each one, (a good summary can be found here) think, behind this comment is a woman asking ‘Is Jesus worth it”?
If you want to take this a step further.
Reflect on the culture and environment of your church:
Can you imagine women in your church tweeting#thingsonlychristianwomenhear
What would they say?
Where are women present?
Where are women absent?
What jokes are being told?
What has become the norm in behaviour and attitudes around gender?
What are the underlying messages that are spread?
What can you do to take away some of these barriers?
I’d love to hear your NZ stories - what is your church doing to break down sexism?
Since February I have been discussing three key areas (theology, community and ecclesiology) in which the church needs to renew itself if it is going to move forward into the future that the Holy Spirit is forming. I tend towards being an idealistic intellectual that likes research, writing and thinking. To truly renew the church these ideas cannot just sit on blogs, they need to be lived out as part of our church life. In this post, I provide 15 ways of putting a renewed theology, sense of community and ecclesiology into practice.
practical ideas for renewing your theology
I encourage you to prioritise the theological renewal of your church as without a deep theological underpinning our churches fall into the trap of superficial relevance or a need to keep up, with the latest trends. These are practical examples of what I outline in this post
Set aside some time (with your preachers and teachers) and reflect on your teaching and preaching over the last 12 months, don’t forget to include the Children’s and Youth programmes. Together work through the following questions:
Does the preaching and teaching in our church help people understand God’s holistic work in the world, from creation to re-creation?
In what ways do our preaching and teaching decrease or increase the view that the spiritual and physical are separate?
How could we introduce more preaching and teaching that connects people with our vocation to be stewards of the land and all that is in it?
Host a garden (or gardening) party for your church and community, celebrate God’s wonderful creation and talk about the relationship between God, people and the earth, and how we hold hope that God will restore our earth once more.
Investigate the resources that A Rocha NZ provides, or invite them to speak at your church.
Create a reflective stations service around the theme of “what is the gospel?” A stations service creates individual areas (or stations) where individuals interact with a variety of content and respond through creative means before they move on to the next station. People move through the stations individually and then come back together again at the end. Each station could reflect a different way that “the gospel’ or the core message of the Christian faith has been presented (historically or culturally) and get people to think about the ways that that engaged with the thoughts and people of the day. The final station should be a creative station in which people are encouraged to experiment with different ways that they can tell the gospel as a holistic message of hope for a world without hope.
The church calendar includes useful reminders to include the Holy Spirit in our services. Celebrate Pentecost on the 4th June (2017), and Trinity Sunday the week after. Preach about the trinity, and how each member of the trinity is active and involved in our lives. Start prayers addressing all three members of the trinity.
practical ideas for renewing your community
We are called to do this faith journey together but it can be challenging to live out our beliefs and ideals in our interactions and to create interdependence with each other. These are practical ideas of what I outline in this post.
I think that the most important thing that churches need to address if they are to move forward is the increasing generation gap within churches. We can’t keep talking past each other and need to find ways of promoting genuine engagement between generations. To begin making connections between the generations in your church ask an external facilitator to come in and work with your church members in a process of healing, increasing communication, understanding and reconnecting.
Relationships are not built by just seeing people on Sundays. Encourage your church members to walk together, to have coffee together, to see each other in planned and unplanned ways in between Sundays.
Create opportunities for the diverse groups within your church to have fun together, perhaps you could use the garden party (idea 2) for this. I came across a comment recently that said that it can be a powerful thing for different age groups to just have fun together. But be aware that you may get the diverse groups in your church inhabiting different corners of the venue so you may need to create structured opportunities to get the members to mingle and find ways to build relationships outside of their safe group.
Create an environment of psychological safety by ensuring that the preachers and leaders express their own vulnerability. Set a tone where it is ok to admit mistakes and struggles and try to create an atmosphere of group exploration. Express the attitude that as we journey together mistakes will happen and that’s ok, we are all learning and growing.
Introduce accountability groups, to your church. Most church small groups would be too large for this, they need to contain under 4 people for authentic, honest sharing to occur. For accountability to be effective, and safe, it needs to be to peers rather than to leaders and individuals need to choose what they need to be accountable for, within the big idea of growing spiritually and living out Kingdom values.
practical Ideas for renewing your ecclesiology
We need to seek ways to put into practice the call of the church to be a nurturer of relationships between diverse people, between people and God and between people and the earth. These are practical ideas that relate to what I outline in this post.
Make a list of all the activities and programmes that your church is involved in. Ask the following questions:
Which of these activities are focussed on developing the growth of mature believers? Which of these activities are focussed on connecting with those outside of the church?
What is the balance between the two like?
Where do you spend your greatest resource?
How effective are your activities at journeying with people outside of church until they become mature believers?
Do your activities and programmes create relationships?
How effective are your activities at journeying with people outside of church until they become mature believers?
Do your activities and programmes create relationships?
Why does your church have sacraments? Do your church members understand what they are? Do you talk about them at all or do you just do them from tradition? Do your church members see them as opportunities for divine grace to connect with the human and physical so breaking down the dualism that is present in so much of our thinking? Communion is often seen as something between the individual and God. Instead, try making it something between people in relationship with each other opening themselves to divine grace by sharing the bread and wine around in a circle or in small groups rather than serving from the front.
Go and talk to your local hairdresser, buy them a coffee, and ask them lots of questions about the community that your church is located in. In my experience hairdressers have their pulse on what the concerns, changes and triumphs of a community are. Read articles like this one from Mike Frost Think about your community as you are reading it. What are some other ways that you could get to know it in a deeper way?
Fire all your leaders and pastors and replace them with missionaries instead. Ok, so that might be going a bit far. But missionaries have a wealth of information about contextualisation that we can draw on, they tend to understand the difference between contextualisation and relevance. Yet we often don’t realise that that is what we are struggling with, or we don’t make the connection that we could move forward more easily if we see relating to NZ as a cross-cultural scenario. Next time you have a visiting missionary ask them to talk about how they have contextualised their faith, and how they have changed the way they do church to relate better to the culture around them and to link it to what they can see in your church and community.
Create small relational groups (instead of programs) that encourage and develop relationships between diverse people. Too often we form small groups made up of church people that sometimes do outreach activities to others. Instead, form your groups around interests and include church and non-church people coming together to explore a hobby together. Include groups that read the bible outside of the church, and groups that work on community service projects with community members.
Please let me know if you have tried or do try any of these ideas and how they go.
Really hoping my vicar doesn’t read this and get ideas she wants me to implement!
It is 2017 and I can't believe that we are revisiting the Billy Graham rule, surely we are beyond that today. But no, here we find ourselves on the blogs debating it once more. In the New Zealand culture that I grew up in we have a long history of women hiking up their skirts, pushing up their shirt sleeves and mucking in beside men. This was how I assumed things worked and I am very grateful that I was completely unaware of the Billy Graham rule until a few years ago.
I don’t want to add to the debate about the appropriateness of the Billy Graham rule, there is quite enough written already. I have also seen some lovely posts (such as this one from
Tish Harrison Warren) thanking the men who don't follow this restrictive rule, who have contributed so much to women in ministry. I am also immensely grateful to the men who have ignored the BGR to encourage and develop my ministry.
But in this debate and the tributes that I have seen, the question that hasn’t been asked is how can women lead well if the Billy Graham Rule is followed? So I want to acknowledge and thank all the men that haven’t featured so far in this debate, and that is those men who ignored the BG rule to allow women to be their leaders.
I want to particularly express my gratitude to those men who accepted the opportunity to let me lead them. I lead in a supportive, facilitative style and connection plays a vital part in leading that way. It is the one-to-one meetings that build that sense of connection. Without men who were willing to ignore the BG rule, and meet with me in cafes, my leadership would have been limited to womens ministry, and that is not somewhere I would have thrived.
I wouldn't be the leader I am today without the men who I led.
To all the men I have known who were willing to live out Galatians 3:28, who could look beyond the gender stereotypes perpetuated by the church and treat me as an older sister and acknowledge my leadership, I thank you, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without having had the opportunity to lead you.
Thank you that you could ignore the BG rule and I could give you rides home or to meetings and talk theology, philosophy, evangelism and contextualisation on the way.
Thank you for trusting me with your dreams, you helped me understand the men I was leading. Thank you for notbeing afraid to spend afternoons in the pub teaching me about beer, while I encouraged you to grow as a leader. I was a newleader with much to learn and your generosity helped me develop my leadership skills.
Thank you to the men that I managed, thanks for sharing lunches in cafes as we discussed your work. I know for some of you it was out of your comfort zone to have a woman leader, but you were willingto give it a go, and your generosity in going with that even though I made many mistakes is appreciated.
Thank you to the men who did your internships with me, who watched me drink coffee as we set growth goals and plans. Thank you for the immense privilege of catching a glimpse of the men you would become in the years ahead, that was probably only shown because we could meet one to one.
Thank you to the men who shared their lives with me, as I tried to care for you as whole people, not just focussing on your work or leadership skills. Thank you that you didn’t find it creepy or inappropriate that I thought about you and prayed for you after work or in the middle of the night when you were troubled. Because being responsible for your welfare is part of what leaders do.
I have made many mistakes as I have grown my leadership skills, but meeting one-to-one with you generous men is not one of them.
Thanks men most of all for the opportunity to love you, care for you and nurture your growth because that's what you taught me leadership was about.
On the first Wednesday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.
This month I am reflecting on Twenty-One Elephants by Scottie Reeve.
At the beginning of the year I asked my faithful readers to recommend books for me to reflect on, for my blog. More than one of you recommended Twenty-One Elephants even though it was yet to be released. Twenty-One Elephants sounded like my sort of book, it’s about community transformation, frustration with the status quo of the institutional church, about struggling through faith crisis and breaking through to find an enlarged spirituality.
Twenty-One Elephants is a personal account of Reeve’s journey; he writes in an authentic easy to read style and the book is engaging. He tells of his struggle with his Christian faith and reconciling that with his youth development work. It is about him discovering as a young adult that the ‘Christian culture’ and evangelical rational package of faith that he grew up with wasn’t adequate for a life enmeshed in the pain and suffering of the world today. The book is full of his stories of the young people that Reeve has worked with, as well as stories of the experiences that challenged him to rethink his faith along the way. It is also full of Reeve’s ideas of what our theology should look like and the things that we have missed as a church so far. His love and concern for those struggling infuses his stories and his theological ponderings. He doesn’t have all the answers and poses lots of thoughtful questions that are worth spending time thinking though. He points out our (Christians, and sometimes westerners in general) inadequacies in so many areas where we have overlooked our call to help those in need. I particularly like this challenge to our concept of hospitality “At some stage we shifted away from seeing genuine hospitality as a simple act of treating others with welcome and respect. Instead we moved to the notion of entertaining. Rather than hoping to say something about the value of our guests and their inherent dignity, we instead use this opportunity to communicate something about our own sufficiency, status, and personality” (p.59).
New Zealand Stories Are Important
Do you ever get that feeling of excited surprise when you see familiar New Zealand places as a backdrop in a movie or TV series – somehow it seems wrong to see what is so ordinary on the big screen. That is the feeling you get from reading Reeve’s book. It is firmly located in its New Zealand context. There are familiar locales and familiar people, organisations and churches involved. The voice of the US publishing and blogging environment is so loud that the church in New Zealand is unduly influenced by it. Books like 21 Elephants that help a NZ voice and experience get wider exposure, and let us read stories about people like us are important. There are not enough NZ stories being told and I think that telling NZ stories are a start in us developing and acknowledging our own ways of being as NZ Christians. Reeve starts us down this path of exploring what it means to be a NZ Christian by introducing concepts such as mannaakitanga from Maori culture which connect with our call as Christians.
I am not necessarily the target market for this book, and I think my expectations were too high. I did experience a sense of disappointment after reading the book, which says more about where I am in my journey than about the book. I didn’t find anything new in the book, it is a story I have heard many times, a story I have read many times, and ideas that are familiar to me. I was hoping that there would be more answers as to how we get the church to change, but that wasn’t the focus or direction of the book.
What Is Maturity?
When you have been through a faith crisis the result of which is a recalibration of your that your theology, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you have achieved greater maturity than those who have not been through the same process. I have fallen into this trap myself it is easy to see others who are still accepting of the status quo as naiver and less mature. Reeve does express this tone in the book, assuming people who have processed their faith and are living in a more radical way are more mature than those who are still accepting of the status quo. Prompted by a reader (thanks Richard) I have been thinking about how we define maturity, perhaps we need to spend some time pondering what Christian maturity is and how we talk about it.
Hope And Liberation For All
Reeve is passionate about the youth and others that he worked and still works with. He is passionate about the call to live an integrated life that doesn’t compartmentalize and that challenges the comfort of the church and our economic system. His passion comes through strongly so that reading the book you get the impression that he thinks everyone should live the way he does. Some people are particularly called to work with those in pain and on the margins, and I do believe that Jesus brings hope that is particularly pertinent to those in that position. But a holistic theology says that Jesus brought hope and liberation to everyone and just as we in the church need people who are called to living incarnationally on the margins we also need people who are bringing hope to communities like Blockhouse Bay. As well as reading about Jesus and the women at the well, we also need to read the stories of Jesus coming to Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the wealthy women from Luke 8, who supported Jesus. Part of the hope in our message is that Jesus brings all that diversity together and makes it into a family all with different calls and gifts.
But perhaps I am just trying to justify my lifestyle and to dodge the challenge that this book contains?
We All Need To Hear The Challenge More Than Once
Although there was not much new in the book, it contains a message that I need to hear over and over for each stage of my life. Reading the book has challenged me to think afresh about how I can live a life that is more focussed on the other. What contribution can I make as an introvert, that needs to have 9 hours sleep in a mould free environment, (for my psychological and physical health), who often feels like I am only just keeping on top of cooking, keeping house and spending time with my family? How can I live differently in the light of the hope that Jesus brings? How can I in middle class suburbia on the school run, or buying the groceries, live with the radicalness that I was enamoured of in my youth? I am left asking where do I fit God? How can you use me? Good questions for a book to force me to ponder.
As I read this book I experienced a deep sense of grief that the faith that Reeve grew up with wasn’t larger, didn’t encompass enough hope and power for his youth work, didn’t show him an image of the Kingdom of God that challenged comfort and the status quo of western suburbia. What sort of message? What sort of church did his generation grow up with? Why has the church failed them so completely? How do we who have gone before take ownership of this failure, seek and find forgiveness for it, and support the new that is coming though so strongly. There is joy in this book that Reeve does cling onto God through all he finds himself in, and he does find a faith that can encompass the pain, that goes beyond a packaged belief into living the kingdom in all he does.
If you have never considered how your faith interacts with the struggle of those in an urban poverty context you will find this a helpful challenge for you to step out of your comfort zone and start engaging with others. It also offers helpful insight into how younger generations feel that the church has failed them and how they envisage the kingdom of God and their role in it.
Questions to reflect on:
When did you last step out of your comfort zone to help someone?
What stops you living a more radical or reckless life based on Kingdom values?
How does your church encourage you to help those overlooked by society?
How do you define maturity in the Christian life?
What should I read next? please suggest more NZ authors for me to read and share about!
Today's post is the fourth in a series introducing three key factors that I think the church needs to engage well and deeply to move forward into the new future that the Spirit is unfolding. I began with an introduction which you can find here. The first factor was renewing theology (find the post here), the second was renewing community (find the post here) this week I want to start a discussion about ecclesiology.
What do you believe about the church? What is it for? Who is it for? How should it be organised and structured?
Take a moment to think: Where did those beliefs come from? What are they based on?
I’m trying to remember what I was taught about what the church was when I was a child, and I can’t remember. It was just there as part of our lives, we lived a Christian faith and so we went to church, that’s just what Christians did. It was a place where you were meant to have friends and grow your faith. Well I struggled with both of those, I never really felt part of the group of people my age, and I never felt intellectually challenged in that environment. Yet as I reached my young adult years I knew that the church should be somewhere that helped me grow in my understanding and living out of my faith and in my connection to God, and I continued to search for churches that helped me with that.
It is easy to get so caught up in ‘doing’ church, even caught up in critiquing the church that we don’t stop to reflect on what the church actually is, what makes it church. Do we have a deep understanding of what we are doing and why? One of the questions that we need to have a way of answering is “How will the church leaders deal with a restless spiritual energy splashing up from the underside of society and threatening to erode traditional modes of ecclesiastical governance” (Cox quoted in Karkkainen, 2002). Taking time to develop our understanding of the church will help us develop a dynamic vision, allow us to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and to draw people with us on the journey.
Digging deeper into our ecclesiology can also help us with the conversation between age groups, that seems to have become stuck as we talk past each other. This can help us develop some common ground and shared commitment, that will give us a starting point from which we can launch something fresh together.
What is Ecclesiology?
Ecclesiology is the part of theology that deals with what we believe makes a church a church and how it is structured. Our beliefs about the church are based firmly and enmeshed in our theology. So, as we renew and refresh our theology (find the post here) it should naturally affect our ecclesiology. I was fascinated to discover that ecclesiology didn’t develop as a separate thread of theology until relatively late in the history of the church, coming to the fore most prominently after the reformation. The early church seemed to be much less concerned about what they were doing – they just did it and of course they spent a lot of time figuring out their basic doctrine. Like much of Christian theology the rise of ecclesiology was characterised by dissent, disagreement and conflicts.
The different denominations have different ecclesiology, things that are important to some for example an episcopal tradition (a model of church government that traces authority back to the first apostles) are not so important to others who prioritise the priesthood of all believers. As we delve into our own ecclesiology we need to be aware that it will be grounded in our connection (or not) to a particular denomination.
Ecclesiologists present many different perspectives on the nature of the church. For example, Rahner described it as “the enduring presence of God in the world”. A simple definition and one that leaves lots of room for flexibility in how that looks in practice. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Church is portrayed as an image of the Trinity, through embodying on earth the mutuality and individuality present in the trinity. (Karkkainen, 2002). Luther defined the church as “the gathering of all believers, in which the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered in accord with the gospel”. Others define the church simply as a fellowship of believers. Liston 2013 states that “in essence, a church is recognised through its existing and growing connection with Christ.”. Our ecclesiology can be broad or narrow it can give us room to move with the Holy Spirit or it can lock us into particular models.
In Luther’s description of the church which I mentioned above he states that administering the sacraments is an important mark or identifier of the church. The nature and priority of sacraments should be part of our ecclesiology. A sacrament is defined by Erikson as “an external rite or sign, which in some way conveys grace to believers”. For something to be a sacrament it needs to be a physical thing or act, that represents that which we can’t see but has some likeness to it. Some theologians also add that we need to have authorisation from Jesus, for something to be a sacrament. Other theologians add that the sacrament has to achieve its purpose.
The Catholic church has 7 sacraments which they think are essential parts of being the church. They are baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination. Protestants tend to have less sacraments and Luther believed that there was only two baptism and the Eucharist. As we develop a holistic theology enlarging our view on and use of sacraments is important as for me they are a way in which we draw together the physical and the spiritual and help break down the dualism which is so widespread in our society.
Deciding what we consider to be sacraments is also interesting if we ponder where our effort and emphasis goes. A question that I am pondering is why when historically and biblically a worship band is hardly considered a sacrament (or a mark of the church) we put so much more effort into having then each week and less effort into sharing the Eucharist. These are the sort of questions that we can begin to explore as we delve into ecclesiology.
Vision for the Church
Let us develop a new ecclesiology that is based firmly in a holistic and Trinitarian theology. I want us to describe the church as a nurturer of relationships; relationships between diverse people, relationships between people and God, and between people and the earth.
The role of the church then becomes to promote connection and intimacy. We have a base understanding on which we can ask do our activities nurture relationships between diverse people, between people and God and between people and the earth? Does having the Eucharist each week promote relationship between people and God – yes let’s put effort into that, and ask how we can do it in a way that connects people to each other and to the earth as well. Do flowers in front of the church promote relationship – not so much for me, perhaps we should remove the pressure to have flowers every week and put our energy into something else.
So often at the moment those who attend church feel like we are putting energy and effort into maintaining the institution of church rather than helping it grow and adapt. I have been reading some comments on blogs that have been written about what millennials think of church – everyone (not just millennials) seems to be tired of all that church asks of them. Now that our churches are smaller we need to be more strategic about where we put our efforts and what we ask of people.
As we develop a vision for the church based on its primary purpose being a nurturer of relationship there are several tensions or issues that we need to work on resolving.
Who is the church for?
It wasn’t until seeker services became popular in the 1990’s that I started to develop an understanding that the church had a call to mission. Or as some such as Chris Wright put it God has a church for his mission. Despite the screeds of writing and emphasis on the deficiencies of the attractional model of Church, we still seem to be stuck in putting on a programme or service and expecting people to come to it.
A relational model says our role is to nurture relationship with people in the community, to do that we need time and energy freed from supporting the institutional church enabling us to connect well into our communities.
The tension that the church struggles with here is how do we challenge mature believers to keep growing and yet provide for not yet believers or new believers who may be in a very different place in their faith. This question of who church is for needs to clarified before we can follow the Holy Spirit forward.
What role does the gathered meeting have?
Our beliefs about the church should also be able to answer questions such as, Why do we as faith communities meet together on Sundays? What role does this big gathered meeting have? Does it fulfill this role well? In the attractional model of church that we are still stuck in, we assume that new or not yet believers will attend the large gathering and that small groups are where we develop, grow and nurture mature believers.
I think we have this the wrong way around I think our gathered meetings are for nurturing the growth of our mature believers with sung worship and the sacraments, and encouragement towards mission. Our small groups then become the place to connect with not yet believers or new believers and to journey with them towards faith. We also need to reflect on our methods of teaching in our gathered meeting. Most educationalists are moving away from a traditional lecture style format as it is seen as ineffective and yet churches still depend largely on this style. We need to be looking at new techniques that involve more activity, discussion, application and facilitation. Of course, these techniques promote interaction which helps us achieve our base function of promoting relationship.
What is our relationship to the culture around us?
The different views on ecclesiology that I mentioned above, don’t always consider or describe the outward focus of the church. I think for many of the theologians it is assumed that if our goal is to grow closer to Jesus, a natural outcome is sharing our faith. In the past the missional aspect of the church’s nature hasn’t needed to be made explicit. But today, in our current post-Christian environment I think we need to understand the church’s role in our community.
As we throw off some of our institutional priorities it is necessary to reframe our faith communities as communities with a mission, to promote relationship in the world around us and to be fully engaged in society as salt and light as Jesus modelled.
If we see our role as nurturer of relationships, then perhaps it protects us from falling into the role of guardian of morality which the church in some countries seems to have fallen into. I haven’t read the currently popular book the Benedict Option, as I don’t agree with its basic proposition that we are living in an anti-Christian world where we are opposed. But a scared withdrawal from the communities in which we are called to nurture relationship doesn’t seem to fit with the church’s missional call. As I engage with the community I see people who are searching and are spiritually open but I see the church often failing to engage them with our message of hope and restored relationship. Instead so often the church falls into beating them on the head with the morality stick. Morals are important and yet our faith is about so much more than morals. It is about a vibrant spirit lead life of living out kingdom values and the hope of restored relationships.
I’d love to hear from you – I think I might be talking to myself at the moment!
Questions to Ponder:
What do you believe about the role of the church?
How does your faith community/church prioritise its activities?
What do you believe about the role of the community gathering?
How can you nurture relationships in your faith community and between your faith community and your local community?
Are you tired of all that your church asks of you? What different directions may the spirit be leading you towards?
Today's post is the third in a series introducing three key factors that I think the church needs to engage well and deeply with if it is to to move forward into the new future that the Spirit is unfolding. I began with an introduction which you can find here. The first factor was theology (find the post here) this week I want to start a discussion about community.
Community - if I am honest, as an intellectual introvert, even the thought of community causes anxiety and feelings of overwhelm to rise in me. But then I read the bible and it is clear that as a Jesus follower I have to have a deeper commitment to community than my personality and upbringing are quite comfortable with.
There is much written about Christian community, many books on it's theology, it's theory and how to do it. I suspect they are mostly written by people who are more socially comfortable than me. I hope you have read some of them, I have enjoyed the ones I have read.
Finding ways to develop deeply connected well functioning inclusive life-giving communities where our faith can grow is central to building a church for the future.
As I reflect on community, I find myself wondering - why are there so many books about it? Perhaps we need so many books about people's experiences and theories about community becausewe struggle to do it well, and need the extra prompting of people writing about it. My observations and experience of the church certainly support this theory. I am encouraged that so many churches and individuals are committed to community and I think overall we have good intentions. The majority of Jesus followers understand that God calls us to live with the deep interdependence of lives connecting. But often we lack the skills and structures to make it happen in our faith community. My experience is influenced by my context (Auckland has some strange characteristics) and my personality (lots of social interaction - not my thing).
As we build faith communities for the future we need to start with a deep understanding of why God calls us to interdependence with each other. It starts at the beginning with God. God who is a community of being, three individuals who share in the life of each other and express and enact unity, allinvolved in the act of creating the world and humans. We see our communal God create humans in their image, made for relationship. Created to live in relationships with each other and with God, and with the world. As we read further in The Bible we see the trajectory of a people that follow this communal God in a culture that values group identity, interdependence and by today's ideas would be described as collectivist. A collectivist culture stresses the importance of interdependence, of making decisions that benefit the whole community, of putting community goals and success above that of the individual. Western culture is generally described as individualistic and we value autonomy and independence over community.
Our faith was birthed by a community for a community, and yet from those origins slowly but surely it has moved to one that is individualistic in emphasis. Western evangelicalism as we know it has certainly promoted this emphasis with its heavy influence on individual decisions and personal practices such as quiet times. We have reshaped our faith to give it the individual emphasis of our culture. Those non-western cultures that are collectivist today have much to teach the western church about living in community, and we should be listening better to their wisdom.
Idealism versus Reality
Our faith contains a call, a thread that leads us to community, as part of our commitment to God and following their way. Yet as someone immersed in and socialised in a individualistic culture I struggle with this. I value the community of the early church that I see in the bible, I am committed to struggling with community as that is where God leads, but it is difficult and challenging.
Something I have noticed about New Zealanders is that although we live in a primarily individualistic culture with capitalist values we have enough exposure to collectivist cultures (Maori, Pasifika and Asian) to idealise what it means to be part of a community. This creates a tension between our ideals and the reality because becoming a community is hard work. Especially for those of us who are not socialised to do it well, and who often lack the structures and systems that collectivist cultures have for keeping the community functioning.
We have a longing to belong a desire for community that our lifestyles and independent upbringings are unable to support.
We see the vision in the bible but often (especially those of us who are introverts) can't naturally make it happen. Our urban busy lives and the disconnection present in larger cities makes community difficult. As churches we need to think of ways that we can teach people to relate well and healthy to each other. There seems to be an assumption that if you put people in a room together then community bonds will form. We need to be more intentional about teaching people the skills needed to create and maintain community.
As we consider the gap between our ideals and the reality, I want to challenge you to consider have you confused comfort for community?
It is easy to assume that because we feel comfortable and connected we are doing community well. The type of communities that God calls us to form where we are living out the Kingdom of God in restorative relationship, are often uncomfortable and challenging. I have observed two problems that are often present if a community is comfortable. Firstly if we are comfortable is often because our connections lack diversity and are made up of well-established cliques based on age, economic or ethnic similarity, (often even all three), these are very hard for new people to enter. Secondly comfort can indicate that we have created a Christian subculture where belonging is based on similarity of belief and activity, with an unthinking assumption that this is how we do things because we are Christian - often without room for deep learning and questioning.
As I observe the churches around me I see that we have confused homogeneity with community and belonging with agreement.
We need to go beyond the superficial, beyond our comfort levels and create interdependent communities where vulnerability is cherished and diversity is welcome. To create a deeper sense of community that is centred on being God’s household we need to address four issues.
Homogeneity versus Diversity
It is time to challenge the homogeneity of our faith communities. The communities of God that we need for the future are diverse. I have noticed in Auckland that our communities are becoming more stratified economically and culturally. Part of our call to be the community of God on earth is to create something that can demonstrate a unique and God centred way of being together where diversity is valued as an important part of community. This creates a tension between being locally contextualised (if our localities become more stratified) and reflecting the diversity of God’s creation. Yet it is a conversation we need to be having.
I struggle to feel like I belong and sometimes that has caused me to get over-excited when I find somewhere where I might just find a place. At those times it is easy to do things that reinforce my belonging that may make others feel excluded or uncomfortable (this may be as simple as telling in-jokes). A piece of advice that stuck with me about working in diverse teams was that if I am feeling comfortable I am most likely making someone else feel uncomfortable. Our communities need to express that all belong to God, so all should feel welcome whether from diverse economic situations, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, cultural commitments and ages. It is through this diversity that we engage together to build a community of God that stands as a prophetic sign of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Part of the diversity I mentioned above was age group, but it is worth mentioning in it’s own category because I believe that the church has a communication gap between age groups that needs to be addressed, if we are to move forward as a healthy community. Each time the age gap or the failure of the church to engage well with younger people is raised it feels like each group is talking past each other with little real shared understanding developing. This communication gap needs to be acknowledged and addressed before we can move on.
In the late 1920’s theories of child development began to influence how churches conducted their children’s programmes. Sending children out for their own programme became the norm, and then we began separating teenagers out for their own programs and then we began separating young adults out for their own programs. We created a generation gap by increasingly separating out age groups and inventing programs for them. The result of this is that the age groups have become so separate that they can no longer communicate well with each other.
We need to begin to envision what it looks like to be a multi-generational community. Being a multi-generational community would mean much more than simply providing programs for each age group. Control of the community would not rest in the hands of one age group, rather all age groups would shape and influence the community. A multi-generational community would have gatherings where age groups interact and develop relationships with each other, where all age groups are included and learn from the gathering, which is done with excellence.
As essential part of creating community involves fostering deep engagement and connection between diverse people. Mistakes and conflicts will occur, it won’t always be comfortable. But it does need to be a psychologically safe community. Organisational Psychology brought us the concept of Psychological safety, which describe an environment in which people are free to engage with their whole self, cognitive, emotional, physical and we could add spiritual to the list. It is an environment where people don’t need to protect themselves by disengaging on any of those levels. In a psychologically safe environment it is ok to bring vulnerabilities, mistakes and weaknesses, it is ok to challenge the status quo, to ask questions. It creates an environment where we experiment and explore together rather than have everything perfect, and it increases the ability to innovate. Our faith communities need to be places of psychological safety where I am not holding back on bringing my whole self, where it is ok to question and doubt. Where we are all on a learning journey together, and none of us have all the answers.
accountability vs control
Our faith communities for the future will be transformational, our communities will be growing to become more like Jesus. As we form communities so that lives can shape lives, we need to grow in accountability to each other. New Zealanders particularly dislike accountability, we are distrustful of power and have seen accountability misused and abused. We need to get over that because part of interdependence is accountability to each other. Now the accountability that we put in place needs to lead us all towards Jesus, it is part of the way that we will ensure that no-one in our community is left stagnant but that all are spurred on to growth.
Recently some-one shared with me that Mike Breen states that many of our churches are high control and low accountability, and that is a mistake. He has found that for missional communities to grow well they need to be low control and high accountability. I think often we confuse the two, and need to spend some time clarifying the difference between control and accountability.
Accountability is being held responsible, control is being told what to do, and asked to conform. In our faith communities for the future accountability will be to our peers, we will be accountable to each other not necessarily to leaders and people with power. Too often we are not feeling psychologically safe enough with our peers in the church to allow accountability to develop. However accountability helps us take action on what the Holy Spirit says to us, it helps us to follow through on commitments we may make, and support us to be transformed.
Community isn’t easy, there are many challenges but we need to start engaging with them to move forward.
I’d love to hear from you either here or on the Facebook page:
How do you struggle to put your ideals of community into practice?
Is your community homogenous or diverse? How could you increase it’s diversity?
How have you seen the communication gap between age groups in your faith community?
Is your community psychologically safe? What can we do to increase the psychological safety of our communities?
Think about a negative and positive experience of accountability, what made the difference?
On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a New Zealand book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.
This month I am reflecting on New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940. By Geoffrey Troughton.
The past helps us see the future
The trajectory of the church fascinates me, where is it going? Why? and how is it going to get there? I’m more interested in the future than the past. But I am becoming aware that understanding the past can help us as we try and see the future. So when a reader suggested NZ Jesus for my book club reflection I thought it would be a good challenge to learn a bit about the history of the church in New Zealand and it’s social context.
Images of Jesus in their social and cultural context
Troughton sets out to explore the changes that occurred in the images of Jesus that were common in the churchbetween 1890 and 1940, and how they related to the social changes that were also occurring at that time in NZ. He describes these particular years as an era in which NZ experiencedkey changesas it moved from a settler based culture to a modern nation. WWI and increasing industrialisation and urbanisation were some big changes that NZ society was facing. Troughton describes the worldview of the time as modernist romanticism. Into this environment we find Christianity struggling to navigate the changing context. He also reinforces some of the more unique aspects of NZs context. For example he states that:
“For New Zealanders, peculiarly colonial experiences of social change were compounded with other forms of upheaval associated with modernisation. Together with war and economic fluctuation these altered the context in which religion operated. Changes upset the basis of connection with the community, and contributed to a sense that the churches’ traditional influence was being eroded. “ (pg 232)
In response to this the church began to become more centred on Jesus (before this the centre had been the Bible). This promoted what Troughton describes as a kinder, gentler faith that “affirmed the individual and supported simple practical religiosity.” He goes on to identify 5 key themes to the way Jesus was portrayed by the churches of this time.
The first theme was to emphasise Jesus’ personality and humanity. As described in the book this was a move away from a focus on Jesus divinity to show that he was human. Jesus became more personalised and this could be seen in the art and literature of the time. Interestingly that affected how people talked about the motivation to mission service, becoming more about following Jesus example and the great commission, to share God’s love. Previously it had primarily focused on human sinfulness and the glory of God.
The second theme that Troughton writes of is Jesus portrayed as an anti-church prophet. The Jesus found in this theme stands against organised religion, to some extent this was a reaction against the Christianity of the Victorian era. There were many claims that the church had misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus. This Jesus was often associated with socialism and religious reform.
The third theme saw Jesus as a social campaigner. This involved moral and evangelistic efforts to reform people. At this time there was also a renewed focus on the Kingdom of God. “True Kingdom was interpreted in ethical terms and The Sermon on the Mount given special status.” (p.106)
In the fourth theme Troughton shows how Jesus was described to children at the time, particularly in Sunday school and bible class. He was presented as a gentle friend that loves children. There were concerns at this time about the number of children who would leave Sunday school and not become part of the church. There were also concerns that the images of Jesus were too immature to support an adult faith.
Finally he describes ‘a manly Jesus’. This developed for a concern about the churches feminisation, and about low numbers of working class men that were involved in church.
What I found interesting.
I struggle to be interested in history so found it difficult to stay engaged in some of the more historical pieces of this book. But it made me more aware of how little I know about the history of Christianity in NZ. I was particularly fascinated by how many of the themes didn’t seem that out of date. For example Jesus as a social campaigner and an emphasis on the Kingdom of God is quite common today. The 1990’s wave of WWJDdoesn’t seem that different from the 1933 version that was made popular by a religious novel.
I was also interested to read how much argument and resistance there was to portraying Jesus in certain ways. It seems that disagreements, resistance to change, dissension and church splits are constants in the history of Christianity.
I was surprised that the desire of the church to address the loss of young people and to identify and serve their needs has been a problem that goes back much further than the last 20 years. It came across as a key issue behind some of the changes in the images of Jesus in the time period that Troughton studied. We actually come from a much larger context of changing social contexts (although possible not as fast a change in worldview as we have experienced lately) and a struggle to engage the next generation.
It is interesting and important to think about the relationship between what is happening in society and culture and how that influences the church and how we see and portray our faith and Jesus. As I mentioned in last week’s blog post there is a long history of the church changing its theological emphasis and what it considers important. This book demonstrates those changes well. Reading the book has highlighted the subjectivity with which we approach the bible, Jesus and our faith. It demonstrates very clearly the difficulty of coming to the core of our faith impartially without being influenced by our culture, context and society. At first I was a bit overwhelmed with the impossibility of the task of finding what we can be sure of in the face of our own subjective lenses. But as I reflected on Jesus incarnation I began to conclude that to a certain extent (good scholarship, does come in here as well) Jesus coming to be part of our humanity, means that we can see him as we need to see him, whether that is as a refugee, a social campaigner or someone who experiences pain and grief.
It is clear as we track the development of Christianity in NZ that it does have its own flavour and cultural influences that make it uniquely kiwi. There was a desire not to repeat the same divisions in the church as had been experienced in Europe. But Troughton also describes the church of the time as having a ‘weak tradition of theological reflection’, he sees it as more focused on “pragmatic concerns, and a preference for effective action rather than reflection or formal theology” (p.236). This may help us explain the Churches current state where the pragmatic is emphasised over the creative or intuitive.
If you read the book
The book does help us understand the trajectory of the church in New Zealand and provides insight into the relationship between church and context that is helpful as we consider our own faith communities today. It serves as a prompt to start considering the images of Jesus that we share today and how they relate to the history of the church and the society in which we live.
For your reflection
What images of Jesus did you grow up with?
What images of Jesus do you notice being presented around you?
What ‘ basis of connection’ does your church (or christian gathering) have to its community?
How does NZs focus on a practical faith express itself in your Christian community?
“Where are all the young people?”
I’ve been at countless meetings where I have been approached by a kindly and passionate older lady who has asked me that question. Statistically in NZ the church is shrinking in people under 60 and growing in people over 60 so probability says our meetings will be dominated by older people. Many of the older people I have met genuinely want more younger people involved, many of them I have met are even willing to sit with changes to enable that to happen. I pray that in 30 years time I will have the grace to put aside my own convictions to enable a Christian faith gathering that engages the young. However despite what feels like revisiting the same issues for several years now, I am not noticing much progress in engaging people under 50 with Christianity. I started out my ministry career working with young adults and eventually moved to missions, that may seem like an odd trajectory. But as I sought to find a way ahead for the young adults I worked with I became convinced that the best research and insight was from missiology. The principles developed for people crossing cultures helped memost as I tried to find frameworks for engaging with young adults. We need to acknowledge that people under 40 inhabit a completely different culture than older people. The church as we currently have it was formed for and by people over 50. So we have a problem of crossing cultures if we are going to help younger people feel engaged and welcome in a church which is essentially a foreign experience for them. I am convinced that if we are going to re-imagine the people of God for today and the future, experience Spirit led growth and mend the rift betweenyounger and older generations we need to delve deep and take a prayerful and reflective look at our theology.
At the core of the generation gap that we are seeing in the church is the worldview shift from modernity to postmodernity. In the main NZ evangelical churches have failed to acknowledge that this creates a cultural barrier between younger people and older people, which has led to a lack of good contextualisation for the new environment of post-modernity. Meanwhile wehave experienced an increasing worldview gap between those brought up in modernity and those brought up in post-modernity. The differences in worldview, in thinking, in ideas and even in how we think about thinking run deep.
To make progress in re-imagining the church our conversations need to look beyond the stereotypes of what post-modernity is, to look beyond the style of how we do things and bring to the forefront the underlying layer of worldview, ideology and theology.
What is theology?
We all do theology all the time even if we don’t label it as such. At it’s most basic, theology can be defined as “the study of God and of God's relation to the world” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology). So we do theology whenever we talk about God and talk about God and the world.
Theology is also an academic discipline that most pastors and church leaders would have studied as part of their preparation for ministry. It is defined by Erickson as “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life.”
So it is clear from the definition of theology that it is not something that stays in the minds of academics, it comes out and rubs shoulders with the context, it engages with the current issues of the day. However because most of the people who attend church don't study as much theology as their church leaders, it can take time for thinking in the field to become the cultural norm in churches. So theology that is talked about and written about in leadership settings can be different to the atmosphere of theological thought in a local church setting.
As part of our desire to engage those who are disengaged from church we need to be asking, Is our theology worded for the society we live in? and How well does it relate to current issues of life?
Lets start by agreeing that theology is not static
As we begin to prayerfully reflect on our theology, the starting point needs to be an agreement that theology is not static. Theology is not a body of universal truth that has never changed and will never change. If we look back at the history of theology we can see how it has changed, developed and grown over time. For example the centre of theological thought shifted from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 1000s, this had a major impact on its flavour and development. Theology is formed in response to time and context. McGrath says “Christian theology can be regarded as an attempt to make sense of the foundational resources of faith in the light of what each day and age regards as first-rate methods. This means that local circumstances have a major impact upon theological formulations”. It is tempting to be attached to the theology that we learnt when we first came to faith as the sole articulation of truth, but we need to hold those ideas a bit looser to allow theology to continue to develop and grow and to respond to the context and relevant issues and questions of society.
At its heart theology is a poor human attempt to understand and articulate the divine. God is vaster than our human brains can describe and that means there is always more that we can know, or say, or understand at a given time. If we fail to acknowledge that theology is subjective and contextual we fall into the trap of teaching and sharing doctrine rather than encouraging life giving discourse about God.
We need to teach meta-theology
I can hear the gasps and the concern, but if we believe that theology develops over time and is contextual then how do we ensure orthodoxy is maintained. if we acknowledge that theology does not have to be static then it becomes the role of good process and method applied in a diverse community of faith, to ensure that we don’t stray too far from the boundaries of orthodoxy. I see many young people going through a process of deconstructing their faith, wrestling through the lifeless (in worst case scenarios harmful) doctrines that they were taught, but as they do this too many of them are left without any tools to begin the process of re-construction. They then develop a very reductionist idea of what it means to be a Christian. If those of us who preach and teach in the church begin to show a greater transparency that illuminates process and method then younger people will have good tools in place to help them reconstruct their faith to a deeper and more developed level than what they currently manage.
This is an idea that I am applying from missiology where it was popularised by Heibert who referred to it as meta-theology. He points out that this was a stance taken by the Ana-baptists who saw “theology as the application of biblical truths to the situations in which people found themselves.” They had three criteria to test theological processes for error, firstly was it biblically based, was the person/people interpreting the bible responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and was the person open to the responses of the Christian community. So meta theology is “a set of procedures - by which different theologies, each a partial understanding of the truth in a certain context, could be constructed. These had to be rooted in the scriptures, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ; they had to arise our of the questions of everyday life.” (Heibert, 1988)
Developing Theology for the Future
There are three main areas in which we need to develop the theological atmosphere of our churches.
Our theology needs to become more holistic, theology that engages with the whole of life and the whole of the created order, it is not just about our spiritual state. Unfortunately most of the faith systems that western NZers have inherited developed out of a Greco-Roman thought pattern that created and maintained a separation between the spiritual and the worldly or material. In this way of thinking going to church is spiritual and cooking dinner is not. This creates compartments that make it difficult for our faith to interact with the rest of our life, and it can leave our faith with nothing to say to current issues. A holistic theology takes in the whole sweep of the biblical narrative from creation to re-creation. It acknowledges that after God created the world, everything in it and humans, he declared it good. We too can see all these things as good, as worthy and valuable. Of course the relationship between God and people, people and the earth, and people with other people was harmed at the fall so we no longer live in perfect harmony. I recently had it pointed out to me (thanks Gisela Kreglinger) that God’s covenant after the great flood was with every living thing. Theology does not just deal with the spiritual piece of humans, theology encompasses the totality of how the world works. It means that our work to care for creation, is just as spiritual as going to church as it is part of our call and vocation from God. It allows us to experience God though our senses, through creativity and through creation.
A holistic theology allows us to delight in the world God created, and care for it as a spiritual act.
The Gospel revisited
In the evangelical circles that I used to frequent, it was assumed that we all knew what “The Gospel” was. It was held in high esteem and it was assumed that we all wanted to share it. The term “The Gospel” was really a term for the main message of our faith. Usually for people who use that term it covers a reductionist statement of what Jesus did, and it is all about individuals sin and guilt.
We need to ask does this as the main message of our faith resonate any longer?
I know that many mission agencies that focus on evangelism struggle in the NZ church because younger people have lost confidence in “the Gospel”. Certainly our evangelism efforts within NZ need to start at a point further back in the biblical narrative than Jesus, as people don’t have the basic understandings that they once did.
The main message of our faith needs to start way back at the beginning with a good and loving God who created the whole world and gave humans a special place in it. This gives us more to work with when we try and understand the main message of our faith. Once again we can turn to the world of missiology for help to consider how to contextualise well the main message of our faith for NZ today. As the messages of sin and guilt no longer resonate, perhaps it is time to start talking about shame, as many in the missions world do.
As I consider the world that we inhabit in New Zealand in 2017 as we formulate a main message of our faith to this world, I am convinced it needs to be a message that is centred on holding out hope to people who are struggling with hopelessness. As we develop this main messagewe need to find, claim and articulate the hope that our God holds out for us to grasp. We need to find ways to be living hope bearers connecting the world to the greater hope onto which we cling. As we develop our main message of hope, we need to keep in mind that if it is not a message of hope for all, then it is not really hope for anyone.
God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We have a God that is three in one, and it strikes me that during different periods in the history of the Christian faith emphasis has been placed on different persons of the trinity. Different denominations focus on different persons of the trinity, and as individuals we seem to be captured by or stumped by different persons of the trinity. Personally I struggle with the Holy Spirit, how the Spirit works and interacts with the rest of the Trinity has always baffled me. I hope you will forgive me a generalisation but it seems to me that before the reformation the focus was on God the father, then post reformation and with the rise of evangelical rationalism we seemed to emphasise the work of Jesus. In some situations of more traditional evangelicalism this has almost led to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit.
As we develop a theology that resonates with the questions of today and gives us a vibrant and relevant faith, we need to put the trinity back together. Our developing theology needs to place an equal emphasis on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are moving into a time in the church where there will be a greater emphasis on the work of the Spirit, and a well grounded understanding of the trinity will be required. Pentecostalism has always emphasised the work of the Spirit, this has been in some cases to the extreme of neglecting God and Jesus. A holistic theology avoids some of the pitfalls that Pentecostalism can fall into such as prosperity doctrine and an ant-intellectual stance. Third Article theology has a lot to offer us as we develop a more Trinitarian approach. Third article theology is named after the third article of the Apostles Creed that states “conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Third article theology refocuses us on the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in our communities. It helps us develop a theology through the lens of the Holy Spirit. To read morea bout third article theology go here.
Theology needs to promote discourse, rather than shut it down, it needs to provide a framework for exploring questions not provide answers to questions that aren’t being asked. It is time that we started a discussion about changes that are needed at the theological level if the church is to have a future. Our theology needs to offer hope for all and support a vibrant well contextualised faith.
How often have you had a conversation at church about theology?
How often have you had a conversation with someone younger than you about theology?
Do you think that theology is static? Why or why not?
How would you tell the main message of the Christian faith? How does that relate to NZ society?
A few months ago, a visitor came to the church service I attend. She had been part of the church some time ago, and all she could talk about was how it used to be. She told us her memories of the church as it used to be. She expected us to engage with those memories and the people she had known, but as people new to the church (we have only been going 5 years) we didn't relate to her stories at all. In the flood of memories that she presented was a veiled sense of dissatisfaction with how different it looked today. Our small service gathered around coffee and discussion, was not what she expected or valued. It is easy to become attached to pleasant memories, and many people seem to be caught up in how the church was in their most formative years, when it had most impact on them. But these memories, can influence our expectations of what the church should look like today, and some people get so caught up in their fond memories that they forget to engage well with how things actually are today.
I have the opposite problem I get so caught up in the future, in the idealism of how things could be that I too can miss engaging well with the present. I can also be guilty of having unrealistic expectations of the church today. It is clear that the past has gone, and the future is still cloudy, but we bring our eyes back to the present and look around reflectively. We can make the effort to engage well with how things are today, both in our church and in society. Part of our grounding in the present is to recognise that with the speed of change that we now experience, what worked in the past no longer predicts what works today, and what works today no longer predicts what will work tomorrow.
The world is changing (and I think 2016 made that very clear even to those who continue to deny the speed of change). I have spent the last 10-15 years observing churches wrestling with how to keep up and how to respond. Time after time I have seen them focusing on the style of what they are doing, or the way they are doing things. In the 1990’s many churches started cafes, and even cafe services became the thing to do. Church music styles always seem to go through trends, and at the moment it seems music and an atmosphere that resembles an EDM concert is on trend. There is nothing wrong with these outward changes, I like good coffee and sitting around a table, I like a little EDM in my music mix, and my son certainly loves the atmosphere of EDM. Except that focussing on the style and the way we do church is not addressing the problem of how we need to be the people of God today. The changes are only happening at the most superficial levels of how things look, and what we do. As we consider changes in the way we do things it also become easy to confuse relevance with good contextualisation.
I am convinced that these stylistic issues are distractions from dealing with the deeper issues that have led to the church struggling to grow and to attract post-modern generations.
We need to make a fresh start that isn’t encumbered by our difficult, inadequate or even our successful past. The past can often limit our creativity, we think we are imagining something new yet we are still working in old paradigms and just styling them differently. To truly explore where a prophetic, disruptive imagination can lead us we need to pretend that we are starting afresh, to give ourselves a blank page and ponder:
If we were starting a church for the first time today who would we be?
To start exploring that question we need to take the time to wrestle deeply with three areas. These are not questions of style or how we do things and they are not exotic, new or surprising. I believe the renewal will come when we take the time to explore more deeply our understanding of theology, of community and of ecclesiology (what we understand about the nature and structure of church). I think in our search for relevance we have neglected the churches engagement in these three areas. I will be exploring each of these further in a 6 part series over the next few months I blog once a fortnight and offer a miniblog on the Facebook page in between bread and pomegranates on facebook
It is clear that it is time for change in the church. But what should and could that change look like?
It is so much easier to point the finger of critique, to see the problems and the issues. It is much harder to begin to say “what shall we do about it?” How do we engage today with being church well for the people that we are, and our friends. How do we open up some safe, positive spaces that nurture creativity, gather people together and say lets generate options, throw ideas around, sit together and talk about our dreams for the people of God gathered. Let's explore the new together.
What experiences and memories of your past are hindering you engaging well with seeing what the church could be?
How could you open up a safe positive space to nurture creative engagement with the deep issues in your church?
On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.
This month I am reflecting on Breaking Calabashes: Becoming an intercultural community by Rosemary Dewerse.
Breaking Calabashes is written for those in Christian communities (churches or teams) who wish their community to become more diverse and to do it well. Dewerse describes the book as reflective, formational and practical, and it is a good mix of all of those. The research and interviews on which the book is based were conducted for her PhD in Theology. Throughout the book Dewerse includes thought provoking and challenging questions, that are relevant on both a personal and a community level. These questions take the book from being just a good source of information to a book that includes opportunities for reflection on your own life, experiences and actions that can lead to change and transformation.
The book opens with a re-telling of the story from Maori tradition of Hinemoa breaking the calabash that Tutanekai’s servant is carrying to fetch water. She does this to get the attention of Tutanekai, who the tribe considers of too low status to court her. Her actions break the expectations of the tribe and create greater harmony between the two different groups. The story of Hinemoa breaking the calabash serves as a metaphor throughout the book for people who question the status-quo, who challenge the norms and expectations of their group in order to engage with others who are not like them. Dewerse uses the metaphor to expand on four ways of breaking ‘calabashes’ that are helpful as we form connections with people unlike ourselves. The first way of breaking calabashes is by caring for identity, in this chapter she encourages us to challenge stereotypes, to see people as individuals and value their many identities. One way she suggests we do this is to ask “who are you?”, and of course to actually listen to the response. She also points out that to be able to interact well with difference we need to be secure in knowing who we are. It is often the insecurity of not knowing who we are that creates resistance to difference as it can be seen as threatening. She quotes Law who says “if a person or community does not have a strong sense of their identity, or who they are, they will place priority on feeling safe. In order to achieve this they will grow a very strong exclusion boundary that keep out those who are different from them, and particularly those who fit negative stereotypes.” (p. 27)
The second way of breaking calabashes is by listening to silenced voices. There are so many ways that we can silence the voices of those that are different to us, the words we use, what we say, even how we do things can exclude others. In this chapter there is also a challenge for those who want to advocate for those who don’t have a voice, does our own speaking out for them, silence them even further? The third way of breaking calabashes is by nurturing epistemic ruptures. This is like a revelation or conversion experience that changes peoples ideas, thoughts and or beliefs. People often think that what they think, feel and experience is the norm, this type of change leads them to realise that there are other ways of thinking and being. Much like I said in my blog last week these ruptures can be small or large, one offs or small and continuous. The final way of breaking calabashes is by dealing in justice. It is necessary to stop thinking in terms of us and them and to stop thinking that we are better than others. Dewerse concludes the book with a reminder that we are all made in the image of God and that includes our diversity
Although Dewerse wrote this with cultural differences as the primary focus, the ideas, principles and questions are equally applicable to other differences. In our current environment of increasing polarisation between different groups in the church and in politics there are things to learn and put into action in any situations of difference (not just cultural).
The first time I read this book I was working in a mission agency and so was looking for information that would help people as they work on cross-cultural teams. This time I read the book with a more personal focus and I found it quite challenging, I was challenged to consider how diverse my friendship group is (not very!), and how that may have come about. I was challenged to think about my identities and my own sense of privilege, about my own faith community and how it is engaging with difference and how I can be more open to hearing from others.
I have had more than one occasion lately to consider my own privilege, and reading Breaking Calabashes has continued that processing for me.
I am finding that I am reluctant to acknowledge my own privilege.
I started my career researching discrimination and intergroup relations so an awareness of power structures has always been strong. Except I have always identified with the ‘not’ privileged. As a young feminist woman going into Christian ministry only reinforced that position. Of course our privilege fluctuates between different contexts, but what I am experiencing is that if I am feeling marginal in one situation it makes it harder for me to acknowledge the privilege I have in other situations. For example there has been a lot of discussion lately about the importance (especially for children) of seeing people like yourself represented positively in movies and on tv. However I don’t feel privileged in this sense at all, it wasn’t until I was 14 and Ann of Green Gables was released that I saw an intelligent red haired girl on screen. As for infertile women, it is very rare indeed that they are portrayed positively in the media, and multi-ethnic families are in very short supply. So it is easy for me to overlook the fact that as a white (but ginger) middle class, cis, heterosexual, educated women I am still in a position of privilege even though often it doesn’t feel like it.
There was also a challenge for me in the section about dealing in justice and how we can tend to think of ourselves as better than the other. I was challenged to reflect on how I think about those who uphold the traditions and institutions that I am so keen on disrupting, and are so reluctant to change. I need to admit that I do tend to think that it is better to have questioned, processed, wandered and thought deeply. I have a tendency to consider those who just go along with the status quo as immature. I am thinking about how that attitude influences my interactions with them.
Here are some questions to think about that are inspired by the book:
1) Do you think your identity can become overly tied up in ‘not fitting in’? How does this prevent you from acknowledging where you do fit in?
2) What are the calabashes of norms, and status quo that you are currently trying to break?
4) Who are the voices that you might not be hearing? How can you find ways to listen to these silenced voices?
5)As people who are not sitting easily in the church how do we interact well but safely with those who are different from us, especially when they are sitting easily in the church?
6) As leaders and mentors what are three things that we can do to nurture, support and assist those around us that we can see will be calabash breakers?
I wish I had a dramatic tale to tell you. A story of a complete turnaround that caused me to leave a church or organisation (or even more exciting to be asked to leave). I wish I had left because I had a reversal in ideas and ideologies that left me directly at odds with those of the churches and organisations I was a part of. I wish I had left, clearly and significantly articulating my positions and ideas. But that is not really how my story works. I don’t take complete U-turns and reverse my position. I meander, I take long involved wanders, I stroll (perhaps in circles at times), and perhaps I sit on the fence too much.
Actually its a bit hard to make U-turns when you sit in the middle of the road so much. I didn’t grow up particularly wealthy or particularly poor, I’m not tall or short, I wasn’t ‘popular’ at school, but I wasn’t bullied, and had friends to hang out with. I didn’t have a significant conversion experience, rather I grew in faith and understanding (more like Timothy than Paul) I didn’t grow up in a particularly conservative (that I noticed) church environment, or a particularly progressive one either. Meandering down the middle of the road doesn’t give me stories of great turnarounds and God intervening in miraculous ways to change my life and my beliefs.
As Christians we often come close to idolising the great turnaround story, we love Saul on the road to Damascus and Peter and Cornelius, where God intervenes to effect a great turnaround in belief. They do make good stories they have drama and suspense, and perhaps we think they have the power to persuade. However the result of the idolisation of these type of stories is that I struggle to see the value and power in my meandering journey.
We need to take care that our obsession with the dramatic doesn’t lead us to overlook the ordinary.
We need to be able to value our ordinary stories of growth and change because it is in the ordinary, the gradual, the slow burn, the unfolding of new ideas, that we need to be able to see and experience God at work. These meandering stories make up so much more of our life than the one moment on the road stories. God is unquestionably at work revealing himself in the ordinary meandering that leads to the gradual revelation of new ideas and ways of seeing. I believe that God is at work in my thinking and listening, in the slow forming of new ideas, the development of new theories and thoughts and God reveals a little more of the future day by day.
My experience of leaving churches or organisations haven’t been dramatic difficult decisions. Rather they have been a a gradual meandering away, a drift in thought and connection that leads me off. I first meandered away from church when I was still in my teens. This first move away was precipitated by my parents deciding to leave the church we attended. My decision to leave was primarily dictated by the fact that I had never established good relational connections there, basically I had no friends that went there and had never felt like I fitted in the youth group.
I stopped attending church but was determined to keep my faith and so I drifted around interdenominational groups and events for a while. Perhaps that helped me to become less dependant on the local church to nurture and grow my faith. Perhaps that gave me an exposure to a wider variety of views than if I had stayed in one local church. On the other hand perhaps it gave me less exposure as I was more able to pick and choose who I connected with and what I attended. But my struggle to find relational and intellectual connection and environments that would nurture my faith, had begun.
As a young adult it was a bit easier, I moved city frequently and moved churches each time I shifted, without much reflection or angst.
Since then what I have found the most difficult about leaving organisations and churches is clearly identifying, understanding and expressing my dissatisfaction and reasons for leaving. The desire for understanding usually results in me staying too long as I try to process everything that I am thinking, feeling and that God is revealing. But because I meander and ideas and thoughts take time to develop and grow and because I tend to be intuitive in these situations rather than rational it can be hard to pin down the sources of my dissatisfaction. I often don’t have one big issue or idea that I disagree with leadership on, it often just feels like I have grown away in many little ways. This leads me to a point where I am unable to articulate my reasons for disagreement and that is the biggest sign that staying will be more unhealthy for me than leaving, and so off I walk.
All this drifting does have effects however. I find that this time faced with a new local faith community my expectations are so much lower than they were before. If I have lower expectations perhaps I will be less disappointed when they don’t live up to my hopes and dreams for the future of church. I find myself asking is the wandering stopping me being rooted?
Each time I become part of something new I hold back just a little more of myself, I am slower to engage and to fully connect. I have become protective, perhaps over protective.
I keep wandering around faith communities, in a search for one I can call home. One which can see my critical reflection, creative futuristic focus as a gift to be nurtured rather than a threat and a challenge. A community that can help me nurture and develop that gift and help me to articulate and present what I see. I continue to search for a faith community that attempts to understand the changing world and is committed to changing itself in the face of that different future. That is the home that I am wandering towards.
I would love to hear your stories of leaving, what has caused you to leave a faith community and what has caused you to stay?
Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
I feel inadequate to reflect on birthing, after all it's not something that I have ever done. That experience of balancing on the thin edge between pain and joy, the culmination of 9 months (or more for many) of nurture and hope, has never been mine. But I chose these themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing. So now I am forced to reflect on birthing in a way that I have avoided for many years. Although I lack experience of the physical experience of giving birth I fall back on my reason for choosing these themes, which was because because they resonate with my current journey towards the new thing that the Holy Spirit is birthing in the NZ church, and my longing to see the new burst forth.
Luke's account of Jesus' birth is surprisingly prosaic, almost terse. These few sentences are all that Luke thought we needed to know and he leaves out so many details. Luke writes like he assumes that we the readers know exactly what he means, and his first readers would have. Unfortunately we live more than 2,000 years after Luke and we aren’t familiar with how births were conducted at the time, and so we crave more detail. However his lack of detail leads us to safely assume that this was a completely normal and unremarkable birth. A young woman gave birth, according to the customs of the day, which most likely involved midwives and other women involved in the process. It is the surrounding verses that help us understand that this was actually an extraordinary event, and point to its spiritual significance.
It was an ordinary natural event that had spiritual repercussions for the whole of creation. When I reflect on this story I am always flabbergasted that God loves the people he created so much, and is so interested in us and our world, that he chooses to use us in his plans. Humans are so fragile, and it seems so risky that God’s transformative plan was reliant on Mary giving birth. Adolescent mothers face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than other women. Yet God chose this very ordinary way of sending Jesus to the world.
Although Mary was involved in something of world changing significance, most of her part in it was ordinary, something her body would do naturally, something that is universally a natural part of many women’s lives.
I long to begin something large and significant, to start a movement that changes the world, but most days after doing the washing, cooking dinner and playing with my son I just don’t have the energy. I am not sure that I even have the capacity to think that big. This story from Luke gives me hope that perhaps I don't have to think that big. Mary did something natural and ordinary, that was within her gifts and capabilities and through that the most extraordinary world changing unexpected work of God began. Her story suggests that all I have to do is the next most natural ordinary act that is in front of me and I may not even need to understand it’s significance or the final outcome. It can be through my unremarkable, ordinary actions, that the Holy Spirit can work in new and unexpected ways. This is summed up nicely by Tolkien whose character of Gandalf says
“ it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay."
Luke’s decision to leave so much out of the story, makes it especially interesting when he does include details. It was a crowded busy time during the census in Bethlehem and there was no room for Mary to give birth in the guest house, so for whatever reason (and again Luke doesn't specify) Mary gives birth where the animals were kept. Luke must have had a reason for including these details, and I wonder what they were. It has become trendy to interpret this as Mary and Joseph being excluded and outcast, and although I am tempted to go there there is little indication of this in surrounding verses. All that I can confidently conclude is that finding the Messiah in an animals feeding trough was totally unexpected and unpredictable. God has worked outside of the mainstream religious structure, and an animal’s feeding trough is as far away from the temple as you can imagine!
Mary's ordinary risky, painful, joyous event, initiated a new, unexpected work of God.
For me this story is a call to be open to God's working in unexpected places, through unexpected actions in unpredictable ways. We need to be sensitive and alert to God being at work as they might surprise us and open up new ways for us to live and serve God.
This small prosaic story from Luke prompts us to ponder:
What small, ordinary action lies before me, that may have spiritual significance?
What ideas, thoughts, actions are growing inside me almost ready to burst forth?
Am I looking in unexpected places to find God’s fresh work?
On November 23rd I introduced the season of Advent (questioning Christmas) the start of the church year and a time for preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus birth. As a change from the traditional advent themes (hope, peace, joy, love) I have selected the traditional Carmelite themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing (as suggested here) for a series of Advent reflections. This week I (and hopefully you will join me) reflect on journeying, inspired by Luke 1:39-45
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America
When my husband and I bought a bracken MG B with chrome bumpers, the journey we took in it was all about the car. As we drove we learnt how to drive it (without power steering), we got to know it's foibles and unsophisticated ways as we drove to Napier, (and of course there was a little bit of pretending to be Richard Hammond). The journey was all about enjoying the car, it was about appreciating ending style. In contrast the journey’s we made on the legendary Route 66 and the windswept Great Ocean Road have been all about the road. They were about the scenery and the corners and straights and enjoying the broad sweep of the road (and pretending to be Richard Hammond). At other times we have gone to visit with good friends, those journeys have been all about warmth and encouragement. The focus of those journeys was on connecting and gaining better insights into the location and life of our friends. The biggest journey I have undertaken was for my OE, and that was about establishing my independence and learning to set out on my own. Most of these physical journeys have been towards things that have drawn me on, but I am also aware of those journeys (away from jobs, away from churches) that are more about what I was leaving, than about where I was journeying to or how I was journeying. Those journeys have been primarily about escaping whats behind rather than moving towards what is ahead.
This week we find Mary somewhat impetuously hurrying off on a journey to visit Elizabeth, in the Judean foothills (outside of Jerusalem). Luke shows us a different side to Mary, who calmly took the angels news in her stride in the previous section. In fact from now on in Luke whenever we come across Mary she is journeying, to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Jerusalem. It seems as if in contrast to her early years that would have been relatively still and secluded, God reveals himself and his plans to her and she is now always active and on the move. Luke is very good at drawing us into the action, inviting us to witness the events he has recorded, but there are so many unanswered questions. All he leaves us are hooks that lead us to speculation.
As I speculate I can't help but wonder, Mary as you traveled in haste to see Elizabeth were you running away?
The haste with which she hurries off makes me wonder, was she running away from telling her family that she was pregnant? Was she escaping from the possible rejection of the community that was all she had known? Running from religious leaders who would have been quite sure that angels didn't bother visiting young girls. Was she escaping from being told how God works? Was she running away from the things that were getting in the way of her belief, that would cause her to doubt her call and place in God's work. Running from people who wouldn't recognise the unexpected work of God in her life, and in the world.
Mary left her past and journeyed towards the new thing that God was doing in the world.
Perhaps all these things were driving Mary away and perhaps there was an escape motivation in her journey. Nevertheless her choice to journey pushed her forward deeply into the new unexpected work of God. Again Luke abandons us to speculation, we don't know how Mary made this journey of between 120 and 160 km. We don't know how well she knew Elizabeth or why Mary chose to visit her. Perhaps she wanted confirmation of what Gabriel had told her, perhaps she thought if Elizabeth and Zechariah had also been visited by an angel that they would understand her predicament.
We do know what sort of welcome Mary received, and this can give us a few insights into Elizabeth. Elizabeth was open and able to hear from and be filled with the Holy Spirit. This enabled her to understand the spiritual significance of events (the child leaping in her womb). She welcomes Mary with kindness and warmth. From the manner in which Elizabeth greeted Mary, we understand that she was humble enough to put aside her culturally higher status (older, wife of a priest) to acknowledge Mary's higher status in God's activity. Elizabeth was able to confirm, acknowledge and support all that God had revealed to Mary. Elizabeth was able to re-ignite Mary's confidence in God's call. I like to think that Elizabeth was able to advocate for Mary with Mary's family, helping her reveal to them all that was happening and that God was doing. Elizabeth cared for and comforted Mary in the early stages of her pregnancy (helped her cope with pregnancy nausea perhaps?), and perhaps Mary was able to comfort and care for Elizabeth as the time of John’s birth came near.
Together Mary and Elizabeth are able to help each other recognise all the fresh ways that God was at work in their own lives and the world, together they are drawn to journey forward into the unexpected, miraculous revelation of God.
As Luke prods us to explore more of the mysterious future of our own faith and of the people of God, we can ponder these questions. Are we running away from institutions that get in the way of our belief?
Do we know what we are running towards?
Do we have warm and open companions for our journey?
For those of us traveling a little further ahead in the journey, do we stop and look back and think of how we can be the warm companions to those struggling to come along?
On November 23rd I introduced the season of Advent (questioning Christmas) the start of the church year and a time for preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus birth. As a change from the traditional advent themes (hope, peace, joy, love) I have selected the traditional Carmelite themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing (as suggested here) for a series of Advent reflections. This week I (and hopefully you will join me) reflect on accepting, inspired by Luke: 26-38.
Luke 1: 26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. via (bible.oremus.org)
I wish Mary was alive today so that we could be friends. I suspect she and I would get on well from the peeks into her personality that Luke offers us. From what Luke does say we see a young girl who probably had introverted thinking tendencies, with a deep sense of calm that I find attractive. We are shown a girl who doesn’t just blindly accept things as they are, she is intellectually active and curious. We see this demonstrated in a verse that I have always liked, Luke 2:19 “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I think like me she was someone who has to chew things over in her mind, probe, figure things out, perhaps she was a thinker a ponderer, a wonderer.
Unfortunately so much myth and legend has been built up around Mary that we will never know what she was truly like. If only Luke had spent more time on her story so that we could know her better. She is often held up as a role model for acceptance and willingness, and often portrayed as passively submissive to God’s will. I am not sure that she was as submissive as the stereotype suggests, as I can see lots of hints in Luke 1 that challenge that assumption. When she is greeted by the angel Gabriel she is perplexed (or some translations have confused and disturbed).
How encouraging Mary is to those who of who spend lots of time being perplexed, confused and disturbed, by the things that God says.
She also seems quite courageous to me. There is a magnificent awe inspiring angel in front of her bringing messages from God and she is a young girl with a low status in society and she is actually brave enough to point out the problems with the plan. “You think I am going to have a baby but I am a virgin how does that work Gabriel?”
Luke has set this story up so that we immediately compare and contrast with the angel’s visit to Zechariah. On the surface both Mary and Zechariah respond with questions. But we can tell by the angel’s different response that they must have completely different attitudes. You can just hear poor Zechariah who had perhaps already accepted his childlessness, saying “But God? How is that going to work? What a relief it is to know that despite Zechariah’s response, God in his grace is still active in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives.
My responses are so much more like Zechariah’s than Mary’s my questions come demanding answers and with a tinge of doubt. My acceptance of God’s activity so often becomes dependent on my understanding. I need to understand the big picture, I need to understand how God is at work in the world today, I need to understand how I can use my gifts, I need to understand how I can use my questions. All summed up in that plaintiff cry that I have uttered so many times “But God, I need to understand”.
But Mary didn’t let her questions, doubts, and concerns get in the way of accepting God’s invitation. Mary didn’t need to put her questions aside or stop her investigations or find all the answers to accept God’s invitation. To any of you who have been told that you ask too many questions, or to stop asking questions, be comforted as you meet Mary here in the pages of the Bible. She held her questions, she kept them close and pondered them for YEARS, but she was able at the same time to accept this unexpected, complex mystery of God being at work in the world and at work in her. She had the ability to hold her willingness and her questions together, one did not cancel out the other.
Mary would have had limited understanding of what was to come and limited resources that she could offer. Yet she was still able to give the powerful response of “Here am I, the servant of the Lord”. She doesn't say (as perhaps I would) yes I will do it, what do you want me to do now, and already be halfway on the road to make it happen.
Her acceptance says here am I, full of questions and wondering but still willing. Her acceptance says here am I, with little resource beyond who I am. Her acceptance offers her own self just as she is, not the tasks that she can achieve.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can say to God as we prepare for Advent is here am I, messy, depleted, full of questions and full of doubts, but still willing. For your thoughts over the next week:
What does it mean to accept that the best we have to offer God this Advent is not our resources, our training, our sense of vocation, it is not our gifts or the gifts we make to others, but is simply us?