#thingsonlychristianwomenhear as barriers to Faith

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?

15 practical ideas for renewing your church

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.

15 practical ideas for renewing your church

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!

thanks to the men I have led

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.

Reflection on Twenty-One Elephants

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.

Reeve's Journey

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!

renewing ecclesiology

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.

What would a church look like if its primary goal was relational not institutional?

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.

If our church is to be nurturing relationship we need to be asking, are we there in our communities? Are we nurturing relationships between people and God and people and the earth?

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?



renewing community

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.  

multi generational

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.  

Psychological Safety

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?  


New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940

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? 


renewing theology

“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.  


Why 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)

If we are able to equip our young people with the procedures and tests that they need and let them develop a deep discipleship based theology for their time and context we may manage to re-engage them with Christianity.

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

In Summary
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?


the people of God gathered, for today

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?

reflections on Breaking Calabashes

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?


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

adventweekthree 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.

journeying 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. adventweektwo

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?

reflections on Mission in Motion

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 Mission in Motion that one of the authors my good friend Jay Matenga gave me as a gift.  (Mission in Motion: Speaking Frankly of Mobilization, Jay Matenga and Malcolm Gold). untitled-design

In many ways I have tracked with this book since I started working for a mission agency in 2008 and over the years Jay and I have had many conversations about the topics raised here. I am even quoted on in the book as saying “member care exists because community doesn’t”, I also recall a conversation about younger people needing inspiration not information that is mentioned towards the end of the book.

MiM describes a qualitative research project that was conducted over a number of years.  Starting in 2005, it involved semi-structured narrative interviews with people involved in mission promotion and recruitment (often called mobilisation) in nine countries. In MiM traditional missions is defined as “long-term, cross-cultural (if not specifically overseas), donation funded, gospel proclamation activity (or means to that end), with the intention of establishing and strengthening churches where none existed.” Into the context of traditional missions they introduce Bosch (1991) and his concept that mission is in crisis, due to contextual and societal changes. The researchers wished to investigate promotion and recruitment practices that would be considered best practices and to particularly look at those in the context of our changing world and the 6 factors that Bosch identified as contributing to the crisis. The book includes many direct quotes from the interviewees and it gives a fascinating insight into different countries perspectives on mission and on mission recruitment and promotion.

It has been six months since mission mobilization and retention was my work world, since I spent time gnawing at the problem of decreasing mission recruitment and funding.  I have moved on in that time and at times I wondered why I was reading this book.  At other times I just felt glad that I was no longer so bound into the mission scene. Although the authors paint a positive picture of a time of change where the traditional evangelical paradigm is no longer dominant. The fact that we are still talking about mission being ‘in crisis’ all these years after Bosch first pointed it out, and yet are still struggling with what the future of missions will look like is frustrating to me.

The pace and nature of change will not be deep enough or come fast enough for me.

MiM did get me thinking about mission again. Particularly wrestling with (as I have done for the last 8 years) why we are struggling to involve younger people in missions. The authors offer a couple of helpful directions for my thoughts to take.


I was fascinated by the introduction of the term from sociology of anomie. The authors define anomie in this way “at its root, the word indicates a sense of normlessness and potential chaos without apparent restraint or adherence to a common guide to negotiate our condition.” In other words we no longer have a reliable roadmap to help us navigate the shifting landscape, at least not one we all agree on (p.16). They claim (and I see this too) that the expectations and understanding of missions are disintegrating and we are entering a period of ambiguity. The ambiguity  is coupled with an exciting opening up of the future where anything becomes possible, as the new way is yet to form. Although they apply this only to the missions scene I would affirm that this also describes the church situation also.  We are all aware that the old ways are no longer working, but we are not entirely sure what the new looks like.  I believe that we are currently in such a state of fluidity that separating out these issues as MiM does to just missions, only tells half the story.   To move forward from where we are currently involves a broader conversation than the mission agencies are able to have by themselves.   The conversation needs to be rooted in theology and our understanding of the church, and it needs to happen before the implications for missions can be unpacked.

We need to be foster kiwi theology.

The quotes from the different respondents highlight some of the contextual differences from countries around the world. Throughout the research the respondents from Oceania seemed to see things slightly differently from the rest of the world. The term ‘missional’ for example has become common here but wasn’t mentioned by respondents from other parts of the world. Respondents from NZ also placed a higher value on relational recruitment practices than others. We need to develop a greater understanding of our context in NZ and stop looking overseas for guidance, but developing a deep sense of our own contextualized theology and missiology.

What next for missions

The book takes a very positive view of the changes that are occurring. Yet I think there are so many things that mission agencies are missing.  Mission agencies are caught in a theological shift. We are moving away from a post-enlightenment emphasis on a rational and word/doctrine based faith in which ‘gospel’ proclamation takes precedence. Instead a more Spirit focused and more holistic theology/spirituality is coming to the fore. It involves kingdom values in all of life, and caring about creation, justice and poverty are ways that our faith is demonstrated. Unfortunately the deep concern about creation, justice and poverty can become paralyzing in this world of destruction, injustice and an increasing wealth gap. Mission agencies need to work harder at reflecting a broader theological stance, and to engage those that are overwhelmed with the need and so often the church's inaction on issues that are core values for them.

The question then becomes how do we frame mission within that space.

What excites you about being in a period of anomie?

How can we develop a deeper NZ theology and missiology?

How do you react when you hear the term ‘gospel proclamation?’

How would you frame mission, if it were to inspire you?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions particularly if you have read the book.


Last week (questioning Christmas) I introduced the season of Advent, 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 with bible verses)  for a series of advent reflections. This week I (and hopefully you will join me) reflect on waiting. adventweekone

Isaiah 52:7-10

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

(The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995).

Today’s world is one of immediacy, and in the big cities like Auckland where I live, one of hurry and rush. I struggle to wait, I see it as passive and wasting time - there are always 10 other things I could be using the time for. The larger section of Isaiah that these verses are from are written to a people (Israel) in exile.

I imagine that these exiles knew a lot about waiting.

The exiles at this time would have had heavy hearts full of longing. They were living in a foreign land mourning their home, searching for somewhere that had meaning where they could worship their God. They had seen the structures and symbols of their faith destroyed, and the centre of their worship life lay in ruins. Foreigners (the oppressors) had moved in and set up home in the city at the heart of their faith.

How they waited those people in exile, waited to return to their land, waited for God to show himself miraculously.

But it is not just the exiles of long ago that wait. I have heard a few of your stories and I know that some of you will identify with the exiles addressed in Isaiah. I know that you too have heavy hearts and a longing to find somewhere that feels like a faith home. That you are mourning lost relationships, and a lost sense of belonging. That you search for somewhere you can worship God freely and without constraint. I know that you have experienced a dismantling of much that once structured your faith. The symbols and buildings no longer lead you deeper to God, and it feels like they are inhabited by an oppressive force that is completely foreign to your understanding of your faith.

How we wait also us modern day exiles, we wait for a new reformation that gives us a place to call home, we wait for God to work and change the systems and structures that no longer support the vibrancy of our faith.

I wait badly, I am impatient with people who don't see what is happening, and I am eager for God to work immediately. This passage in Isaiah provides comfort in that waiting, as well as some insights into how we wait. Looking back to Isaiah 40 we see that in this extended passage the prophet is instructed to reassure the exiles with God's comfort. One of the comforts is the reassurance that God will act in his power and that when he does it will be good. In many ways it will be beyond whatever the exiles could imagine (Jesus the messiah is coming).  So to we may rest in the idea that whatever God is about to do in this massive shake up of Christianity it will be better than we can imagine. God has heard our cries and our longings.


As I wait for this beyond imaginable work of God, and reflect on Isaiah I realise that I fall into the trap of seeing and portraying waiting as passive.  Viewing it as primarily negative and a waste of time. However we can see that in the Isaiah passage the waiting that we are called to is much more active. Waiting involves watching and listening, and a few of us, just a few, and just sometimes, will be granted plain sight of what is to come. But the majority of us just get tantalising glimpses. It reminds me of driving down NZ mountain roads towards the coast in summer. As you wind down the road you receive an inviting peek of the glitter of the sun bouncing on the blue sea. You know the sea is there hidden behind the hills, the occasional glimpses between the hills keep you traveling onward filled with anticipation. So as we wait we need to stay alert to the glimpses that keep us moving forward.

The exiles in Isaiah began to rejoice even though the restoration had not yet begun. They could celebrate because they saw that the steps were in place for God to restore the ruins. There is a challenge in there for you modern exiles, I know that it is easy to get caught up in your confusion and in mourning the loss of so much that you held dear. So put your heads up and look and listen and rejoice when you see those small glimpses of God at work.

We seem to sway between mourning the past or feeling frustrated that the future we see is not yet coming about. Part of learning to wait well is as Paula Gooder states "to rediscover the art of savouring the future, staying in the present and finding meaning in the act of waiting (p.5).” Rejoicing in the small glimpses we see helps us to live fully in the present even while anticipating the future. This is a challenge for me, I get so caught up in wanting the future to happen that I can forget to be actively in the present. As I pray through this passage, I realise that like using Advent to prepare for Christmas this stillness of waiting is important, as a pause to ready ourselves for the rebuilding work ahead.

So pause and although we are all anticipating the future that is to come, be still in this moment of waiting.  May you rest in the assurance that God is at work and this period of waiting has a role to play in your life and in God's activity.

This advent you may like to reflect on the following:

If you are a sentinel who can see the Lord at work: What song are you singing? Are you singing loud enough for the other exiles to hear?

If you are an exile: Are you waiting actively, with eyes open and ears attuned? Are you looking out for all the ways that God is at work? Are you accessing the comfort he sends you? Do you have companions to help you rejoice when you get the glittering glimpses?

I love hearing your stories, so do get in touch if you have something to share (christina@breadandpomegranates.com).

questioning Christmas

It is that time of year again when I feel like every weekend is becoming packed with end of year recitals, food, displays, food and parties. The traffic gets unbearable and the malls are overwhelming. Holidays loom temptingly in front of us all. I want you to stop for a minute and to wonder - Why do we do all this?

Why the parties, why the shopping, why the food?

If you have been tracking with me over the last few months since I started my blog, you will know that I love asking questions - lots of questions. It is not enough for me to do something just because everyone else is doing it, or because it has always been done that way. I have to know why we do things, and it has to be meaningful for me. I think there are lots of questions we need to ask about Christmas. For example why do we insist on using snow to decorate when it has no relevance to a southern hemisphere Christmas? I feel a sense of ownership over Christmas and that as a Christian it should be a spiritual time of year that grounds us and nurtures our faith. However it feels like our consumerist culture has hijacked it and created a monster out of it.


For some years I dealt with this tension by the rather effective practice of denial - my husband and I simply went on holiday the week before Christmas and avoided the whole thing. When my son, Chickpea joined our family that was no longer such a viable option, and I found myself asking two key questions:

What experiences and memories of Christmas do I want Chickpea to have?

What do I want Chickpea to understand and know about Christmas?

I realised that I wanted him to have fun, but fun that wasn't focussed on things (gifts) and what he would get. I also wanted him to understand the significance of Christmas for those who follow Jesus and to experience it as a spiritual time of year.

The next step was then to decide what I could do that achieved those goals.

When he was little it was easy as I could control what he was exposed to, and it was simple, I told him that we were celebrating Jesus birthday. As he has grown and as I have experimented each year, I have settled on observing Advent rather than celebrating Christmas. It enables me to separate myself from the secular interpretation of Christmas and helps my family and I focus on the biblical story in which our faith is rooted and nurtured. It helps me reject the secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas but still gives Chickpea enough fun and celebration that he doesn't feel like he is missing out.

Advent comes from the latin word meaning to come and it is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and looking forward to his coming again. It wasn’t until the end of the 6th C that Christians started observing advent. Originally it was a prescribed period of preparation (including prayer and fasting) for celebrating Christ’s birth. For Christians and churches following the liturgical calendar (a guide to all the celebrations and seasons of the church year) it is the start of the new year.

So observing advent helps me reclaim this time of year as a central sacrament in a yearly rhythm that is focused on the life of Jesus.


Our Advent celebration

I do include lots of traditions in our advent celebration, I just make sure that we all understand why we are doing it and that it is meaningful for us. Advent usually starts on the last Sunday in November, and finishes on the 24th of December, which means that we get in a whole four weeks of fun and festivity, (not just the 25 days of December). It helps take the focus off one single overwhelming day and helps us be actively mindful, joyous and generous throughout the whole 4 weeks that lead up to Christmas.

We begin Advent by hanging our decorations and I usually use purple as a decorating colour which is a symbol of Jesus royalty. Last year we started a tradition of hosting a strawberries, ice-cream and decorating afternoon tea to celebrate the first day of Advent. We always have a nativity scene and usually the figures travel around the house to arrive at the stable by Christmas Eve, baby Jesus appears on Christmas morning. Some years I decorate with Chrismons which are symbols for the names of Jesus. I have also used a Jesse tree ( The Jesse Tree) to re-tell the biblical story of which Jesus is the fulfilment. This year I have ordered this Jesse Tree book by Ann Voskamp  (Unwrapping the Greatest Gift) so I will be able to share my reflections on that as I use it. I always have an advent wreath with 5 candles, 4 violet (for penitence), 1 pink (for joy) 1 white (for Jesus purity), and we light a candle, read the bible story and say a prayer each morning.

I also make a large advent calendar, and I place in each bag or cup, a chocolate or treat, a bible reading, something to discuss and something to do. Sometimes the things to do are celebratory, like going to see the lego Christmas tree, sometimes they are outward focussed such as bake cookies for the neighbours. I love the generous Christmas challenge and reflections at Advent Wonder I have found them very helpful in taking a more outward approach to Advent and helping us think of ways to give to others.If you want ideas for observing Advent with your family Sacraparental has a great wealth of ideas here Getting Ready for Advent

This year I want to invite you into our Advent journey and will be sharing a reflection each week based on the traditional Carmelite advent themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing.

I challenge you to think through these questions as we prepare for the start of advent on Sunday:

What experiences and memories of Christmas 2016 do I want to have?

What do I want to understand, know and express to others about a Jesus centred Christmas?

May you all be mindful, joyous and generous this Advent.


lessons for NZ

I have started writing this post four times. Each time what I have to offer seems inadequate in the face of the grief and pain that I am seeing coming from the US. Each time I start and end up in different places. I am reluctant to blog about the US election as I don’t want to be ‘cashing in’ on something that has been so traumatic for so many. I also feel a little wary of commenting on something that from NZ seems in many ways to be beyond our understanding. However it is an enormously influential event for the world, and for Christianity so I don’t want to ignore it. I have decided the best way to reflect on the US election is to ask what lessons are in it for us in NZ, particularly as we approach our election next year. lessonsfornz

It feels like there was a lot of issues bubbling away quietly hidden in the US and the election has been a catalyst that brought them to light. I think it would benefit us to consider our situation and wonder what is going on that is hidden that we need to be paying more attention to. The US election has shown the amount of polarisation that has occurred, it would benefit us to consider the polarisation that we can also see in NZ. One dividing line that the election has demonstrated is between generations.

We are seeing a clear generational divide in the church.

In the US election we saw (not just for church goers) substantially different voting patterns between those under 29 (who were more likely to vote for Clinton) and those over 65 (who were more likely to vote for Trump). Even voting behaviour was influenced by age with early indications being that more people over 65 voted than those under 29.

The public involvement of US evangelicalism in the election and the way that has played out in the US church and media has meant that people are disassociating themselves from evangelicalism and leaving evangelical churches. My impression is that those that are disassociating from Evangelicalism in the US are mostly from the generation that we would call ‘millenials” (people born between early ‘80s and late '90s). There are many reasons why they are leaving, but the election has been the last straw for many of them. I suspect that this election has damaged evangelicalism beyond repair and we will see it move into quite a different future.

It is good for us in NZ to consider our generational gaps and divides, as I believe we also suffer from an increasing polarisation between generations in the NZ church. I see an increasing ideological, spiritual, ethical and theological divide between millennials and baby boomers (those born between 1946-1964). I have been talking about the gap between generations for about 15 years now, but I don’t think the church is engaging well with this issue.

Have a look around you in church on Sunday. How many people under 30 can you see? (for me last week it was 1) How engaged are they?

This completely tears my heart but as a church community in NZ we are failing our younger generations.

The faith of our older generations is too often presented in a pre-packaged, pre digested format that fails to contextualise well to those living in the post-modern digital age. I still see this over and over, even just last Sunday when we had a visiting speaker.  Baby boomers seem to be saying over and over again, stay on the path that we forged. However their path doesn’t work for millennials, who want to create their own path. This is creating an increasing divide that is preventing good communication between the generations. Unfortunately baby boomers are still holding on to power in the church, and this makes it difficult for millennials to find a strong voice. I must acknowledge that there are many baby boomers who want to understand, however they seem unable to move beyond their pre-existing assumptions and worldview to really engage well with the new ways of thinking. They seem to be unwilling to have their theology challenged or questioned, which shuts down good dialogue.


So the younger people are leaving, especially those with the ability to think critically and ask questions. I come across them often, in small pockets away from the institutional church.There is a depth to their faith that would surprise those in the church who often say they have left because of a lack of discipleship. It is just that their faith looks a bit different and there isn’t room for it in the existing church structures. They are drifting around, unable to find a church that looks like home. Some of them are floating around the edges of mainstream churches as they know they need the people of God to encourage their faith, but they are not fully engaged. Some carry too much grief and pain from their experience of church to fully engage again.

I am not entirely sure (being a bit older myself) but I suspect that what they are looking for is a group of Jesus followers who can be companions on their journey. A journey that involves giving them the tools to engage well with the biblical text, to walk with the Holy Spirit’s empowering, and engage both of those well with society around them. All in ways that bring the Kingdom of God to earth on a journey of discovery that can cope with each new thing that their changing world throws up. Mostly I suspect that are searching for people who can help them learn how to have deep authentic relationships, and they are looking to be taught tools and systems that can help them form their own theology.

But where are the leaders?

I am not quite sure why, but no one seems to be stepping up to lead this group of millennials who are drifting on the fringes of the church. There seems to be a lack of leaders who can step up and say “lets start something new”. “Lets start meeting together and see what happens”. Leaders who can equip and support them to make their own path through the world in which they live. Leaders who can see and understand the depth of their faith, can see the opportunities to live kingdom values in their everyday lives, who can sweep them up and love them and create a gathering of the people of God that feels like home for them.

To move forward the church needs to acknowledge the generational divide, and to seek ways to create genuine discussion and where both sides can be safely challenged.

People born since 1980 I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you engaged in the church?  Why or why not? How would you like church to be? What are your experiences of the generational divide?

book review: learning to walk in the dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark is by Barbara Taylor Brown and was published in 2014 by Harper One. You can get your copy here 9780062024350


Those of us who live in big cities are very rarely exposed to true darkness, we always have the glow of streetlights and signs and the ability to light things up at the touch of a finger. If we have grown up as Christians (or Star Wars fans for that matter) we may focus on the goodness of the light, and have little experience of the dark. But Barbara Brown Taylor helps us to take a step back. To stop and think actually didn’t God create the darkness and declare it good? Learning to Walk in the Dark is Barbara Brown Taylor’s exploration of whether we can find the good that lies in the dark, and whether we can meet God there in the darkness. Towards the beginning of the book she defines darkness as

“shorthand for anything that scares me- that I want no part of - either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” (p.4)

From there Barbara Brown Taylor takes us with her on her journey to explore the meaning and impact of darkness. She takes us through her childhood and what darkness meant to her then, she looks at the physical darkness of being blind or in a cave, and the darkness that exists inside of us. The chapters follow the phases on the moon, the opening of the book is at full moon, which gradually dims and then brightens to full again by the end of the book. Brown Taylor describes the book as a journal, so it is not a theological essay but a personal reflection on her experiences with the dark, although she reflects on her theology and faith throughout the book. She writes with a personal style that makes you feel included in her journey, and that you get to know her a little bit throughout the book. You can almost imagine that she is writing you a personal encouraging letter rather than the much more public forum of a book. Brown Taylor uses words well, she has a lovely attention to word craft that makes reading her books a delight. I particularly liked this description of her writers block

"Not long after that, all the words lay down and died, lying on the page like ants in a poisoned anthill: little black bodies everywhere, their legs curled up like burnt whiskers. I poked at them but they did not move." (p.78)

As each chapter is an exploration of a particular aspect of darkness and because of the personal nature of the book, it can seem a little disjointed in places. I think readers will relate to some chapters better than others depending on where they are at in their own journey. By sharing her journey with the reader she provides things to think about, questions to ponder and ideas that we can use to go on our own journey into our own concepts of darkness. For example I have realised how little time I spend in the dark, even looking around my bedroom at night there are so many things that glow. I am wondering what it would be like to spend more time in the dark. For me the book highlighted something that I have been exploring and pondering for some years now. Often our Christian faith and prayers understand and equate God’s work with removing us from the darkness. It is the equivalent of rushing to turn on the lights as soon as it gets dark. But what Brown Taylor manages to show us is how God can meet us there in the cave of our darkness, without being reduced to simply shining his light to remove the darkness. God is there in whatever darkness we face, and there are treasures in the dark that we cannot see in the light. She concludes that “I need darkness as much as I need light” (p.5). Her’s is not the simple conclusion that we so often hear that without the dark we wouldn't appreciate the light, but rather she shows us how we can build a deep appreciation of the darkness and all that can be learned there. I found it a comfort too as a spend time thinking and praying about the future of the institution of church, I can see we are in for great changes - yet I cannot see what they are. I think there is a lot of reassurance in this book for those of us who are blindly finding our way in the dark, towards the future with one hand stretched in front us us and the Holy Spirit to guide us around any obstacles. God is not only to be met in the certainty of the light, but is with us in all the uncertainties and unclear future that we face. If you have read the book I would really like to hear your thoughts and impressions and what it sparked for you.

Here are some specific questions, that you may like to respond to: What were your first impressions of the book?

What is one of your favourite phrases or sentences from the book?

What is your favourite concept in the book?

I have been listening to Leonard Cohen's - You want it darker. (YouTube link here if you haven't heard it)Do you see resonances or connections between his song and Learning to Walk in the Dark?

How did Learning to Walk in the Dark help grow or challenge your faith?

Was there anything in the book that you didn’t really like or relate to?

Who would you recommend this book too?


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am i an evangelical?

Am I an evangelical? This has been a question that has been playing around the edges of my mind over the last few years. Twenty-five years ago I would have said “what is an evangelical?” Fifteen years ago I would have easily answered “of course I am an evangelical”.

Now I am not so sure.


What seemed so easy then has become more complex, the more I know and the more I discover, the less certain things become. Other people seem certain about what it means to be an evangelical, and usually that is believing exactly the same things as them. Evangelicals are making the news a lot lately, their involvement in politics in the US and their vocal and visible stance on certain issues puts them in the public eye. Part of my hesitancy around identifying as an evangelical is simply wanting to distance myself from the negative stereotypes and the more conservative sections of evangelicalism. Michael Frost sent a tweet the other day that resonated a lot with me:


I want to distance myself from that image of what it means to be an evangelical. But that public version of what it means to be an evangelical is not all there is to it.

On this journey to explore whether i am an evangelical or not the first question I have to delve into is, what is an evangelical?

Stuart Lange (affiliate link to A Rising Tide) defines evangelicalism as both a “historical movement and a set of doctrinal commitments.” (p.12). I find it interesting that he states as I found throughout my childhood growing up in the NZ baptist church, that there are groups of people who share the characteristics of evangelicals but do not explicitly call themselves evangelical. Lange goes on to say that from the “time of the sixteenth century reformation, ‘evangelical’ meant belief in justification by faith, and in the primacy of biblical authority and practice’. I might not express it exactly in those words, but if I was living after the reformation I think I could happily say that I was an evangelical. But as Lange says evangelicalism is a movement, so it changes and grows and lives. Lange identifies the roots of what we now see as the modern evangelical movement as emerging in the 1730’s in Britain and it’s colonies. At this time there was a new emphasis on revival, religious experience and evangelism. Ok so by those stands I think I can still happily and easily be an evangelical.

Today it seems that Bebbington’s definition of what it means to be evangelical is most widely accepted. He states that evangelicalism has four characteristics. Firstly a belief that lives need to be changed (conversionism). Secondly having a high regard for the bible (biblicentrism), thirdly putting faith into practice through involvement with social justice, care and sharing faith, (activism). Finally evangelicals emphasise Jesus sacrificial death on the cross (crucicentrism). There are not a lot of doctrines in this definition! For my own journey I can happily sit with three of these characteristics, I believe that people need to change, that the bible is the best way to understand God and his work in the world and in people's lives, and how we are to live in the light of that. I believe that our faith has to be put into actions that show care and love to others and that introduce them to the God who created them. The characteristic I struggle with is the emphasis on Jesus sacrificial death, I have seen that an overemphasis on Jesus death, leaves out so much of the story. The death of Jesus does not stand alone but must be emphasised in context of God’s redeeming work throughout the history of creation and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. This may just be a matter of semantics and interpretation, I think most evangelicals would agree with me on that.

Now this portrait of what an evangelical is, seems remarkably different to how it is used, and who it describes today. Remember that it is a movement and Lange points out that

“historians have shown how evangelicals emphasised different doctrines and practices at different times and were constantly adapting to new contexts".

Evangelicalism in the US, the UK and NZ are vastly different things, they have grown differently and adapted to their contexts differently. Being a NZ evangelical is not the same as being a US evangelical. Many evangelicals have tried to force a definition based on specific doctrines, but that is not as widely accepted as the broader definitions based on characteristics. Lange describes evangelicalism as “a mindset rather than a closed system, and an unstructured transdenominational movement crossing many ecclessiastical and national boundaries.” Evangelicalism is not just one thing. Large publishing houses, popular bloggers and others from the US may give that impression, but I don’t think they are right.

The question then becomes who gets to decide what evangelicalism is?

It is always the people with the most power (or publicity) who get to make the definitions. I am seeing it more and more used almost as an insult - “if you think that then you are not an evangelical.” I found a lovely quote by Toni Morrison “definitions belong to the definer not the defined”. Just because somebody else says that you are not an evangelical doesn’t mean that it is true. It just means that you don’t agree with them and the doctrines that they think make up evangelicalism.

So I have come full circle, I started this post thinking that I was going to conclude that I wasn’t an evangelical, there is so much I disagree with many of them on. But if I disassociate myself from evangelicalism, if I say I am no longer that, I let those who have the most conservative doctrinally based image of what it means to be an evangelical claim the definition, to make it their own.

I am not sure they get to do that!

If I leave evangelicalism, then I leave evangelicalism stagnant, stuck in a particular model, never to move, never to change, unable to grow and contextualise. We let vocal people from the US define our faith. It ceases to be a mindset and an unstructured movement and becomes a narrow set of doctrines. I find that I am reluctant to leave it to that fate.


What are your thoughts? Are you an evangelical? What do you think it means?