on assembly and marriage

This week I’ve been a member of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.  For those of you for whom that sentence is somewhat meaningless, it means joining with over 250 others from various parts of the Uniting Church to explore a range of questions of national interest to the church (and on rare occasions to the wider community).  Within the Uniting Church there are a series of “councils” each having different responsibilities – the Assembly being one of them.

There were a number of important (to us inside the church) issues to discuss and proposals to determine.

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of place and community

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at Toowong Uniting Church (my family’s local church). I don’t do it all that often, but enjoy the opportunity when it arises. This week I spoke from the bible passage of Jeremiah 29:1-14 as part of the congregation’s series on Jeremiah. Take a read of the passage, and then continue on for the thoughts I shared. It’s a fascinating story (Jeremiah’s) and I found it a really interesting one to dig into. One cautionary note as you read – this text is written to be spoken – so it might lose something as a pure piece of text….sorry!

Let’s start his morning by setting a little of the context for this passage.  We find ourselves reading the story of the Israelites in a period of exile – royalty, senior figures, priests, prophets, artists – have been removed from their land and carried off to Babylon in the north.

Jeremiah had been prophesying about this event for a couple of decades or more – Matt pointed that out for us in his introduction to Jeremiah last week.  This message from God via Jeremiah hasn’t been popular, and it hasn’t been well received, but Jeremiah has been consistent and steadfast in his word to the people.  Geo-politically over this period the Babylonian empire has been on the ascendance, and they’re taking power, spreading their wings. Theologically, these events are foretold as God’s judgement on the people of Israel for their behaviour.

And so they’re gone. Captive. Hauled off to the Babylonian city. Removed from home, land, temple. Prisoners. Broken. Frightened. Huddled together wondering what next. Probably feeling abandoned by God, and maybe, just maybe, starting to wonder whether they should have been listening to Jeremiah all along.

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do something human

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

As often seems to be the case (at least with me), it caught me unawares, this idea.  It kind of came from nowhere, but once it arrived, wouldn’t let go.

I was sitting in a meeting last week, thinking about strategic planning (I know, everybody’s favourite subject) for the organisation I work within. In the midst of the meeting a story was being told – a personal story, only peripherally related to the subject at hand – by one of the participants. In the middle of describing a difficult situation he’d found himself in, full of stress and anxiety, and surrounded by people who were (legitimately, reasonably) having a hard time, he described how he’d done something very simple to help someone, and described it as “you know, doing something human”.

It was a throw-away line, and the story continued, but for some reason the idea grabbed hold of me. For the rest of the meeting, and since, I had this phrase running through my mind, and the question that goes with it: do something human.

What does it mean to do something human, and why would be such a big deal?

I’ll tackle those questions in the reverse order.

I think perhaps it’s a big deal (to my mind at least) because so much of our modern life is dehumanising. We’ve built for ourselves a society that puts human-ness a distant second place. We’ve turned human beings into economic units – an entity only worth considering because of the economic value or economic cost it brings to a system. We’ve built a society where our identity is shaped not by the relationships we have with other people, and the place (both physically and in terms of community) we live in, but by what we consume and what we contribute. A society where the every present marker of success is “busy-ness”. Where change and complexity are daily realities. Where isolation is keenly felt by so many even in the midst of a crowd. Where anxiety, dissatisfaction and conflict are the stock-in-trade tools of an advertising industry designed to part us with our money. Where fear is a weapon wielded by politicians the world over. Where human-ness is being codified and fed into ever-more-complex computers and robots destined to replace us. And so on.

I’m not blaming someone else mind, we all are willing participants in the system that we’ve created. I’m as likely as anybody else to be consumed with consuming, wrenched with anxiety, caught up in numbers and busyness and so on.  Even one of the most human activities of all – being and raising a family (whatever shape that family takes) – seems destined to be of interest to our society more because of the economic cost and contribution of such an activity than because of any intrinsic good or worth.

IF that’s all vaguely true (and I’ll grant it’s a big ‘if’) then it’s no wonder the notion of doing something human caught my ear on the way through.

So what is it to do something human?

I think perhaps it starts with noticing the other human. Noticing them for long enough to realise they’re in need (and then doing something about it), noticing them long enough to realise they might have an interesting story to tell (and then listening). Noticing them for long enough to see, or hear, or feel pain, anxiety, fear or isolation (and then stick around long enough to be part of a solution). Maybe it’s just noticing they exist (and acknowledging it).

Then there’s doing something human that’s entirely personal.  Slowing down. Switching off. Resting in the beauty of this world we inhabit. Doing the things that feed your own human-ness rather than drain it away. As simple as the choice about what you eat, and as complex as the choices about career and calling.

Coincidentally I just yesterday started reading Simon Cary Holt’s new book “Heaven All Around Us“.  He writes about the spirituality of the everyday, how there is so much goodness or fullness or richness right in front of us at any given moment if only we would notice (at least that’s what I’ve heard so far!). The book is written from a Christian perspective – but even if you’re not able to go with that belief system, I think there’s truth in what he writes – and I think it’s something to do with this notion of ‘doing something human’.  In any case, I think Christianity is fundamentally about our humanity, rather than some far-off spiritual realm inaccessible to normal people, and removed from the ordinary stuff of life – and that’s something like what I hear Simon describing.

Then of course there’s the harder stuff – the systems things that need to be addressed in order to enable us collectively to do something human. The things that are political, and economic, and that raise questions of justice and goodness and “right-ness”.  To do something human is at times to call out unjust or harsh or downright dehumanising systems and practices in our world. They’re maybe harder to agree on – like for example if I was to say that as a nation we dehumanise those who seek asylum on our shores, some would write that off as “left-wing politics” and by labelling it such, avoid the need to do something about it.  Any number of social issues that either result in or emerge from dehumanising another (gender based violence, sexism, racism, the treatment of indigenous Australians, bullying to name a few) might fit that description.

In any case, this is sounding more like a sermon, and less like a personal reflection, so let’s park that thought.

For me, the challenge that emerged from my meeting was threefold.  First, to wonder how in our organisation (and via our strategic planning) we can incorporate practices that help us all (collectively and individually) to do something human.

Second is to revisit the ways in which I understand and define my identity – and consequently revisit the ways I understand, interact with and acknowledge those with whom I share my life, not matter how tangential that sharing might be.

And third, most importantly, to hold this question before me in whatever situation and circumstance I find myself in: “What will it mean right now to do something human?”

overused or undervalued?

Outrage:  (noun) an extremely strong reaction of shock or indignation.

I’m starting to wonder if outrage is the most over-used word of our day, and simultaneously the most undervalued.

A quick search over at news.com.au (everybody’s favourite fair and balanced news source) takes just 0.5 seconds to turn up 44400 stories that feature the word outrage. Everything is an outrage! Everything!

  • Triple J moving the hottest 100 countdown away from Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Triple M playing a hottest 100 countdown on Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Cyclists for riding too slow, or to fast, or existing at all
  • Donald Trump insulting African nations
  • People defending Donald Trump from African nations
  • Just about anything else you can think of…the list is long and entertaining

The play seems fairly straightforward – generate clicks (and therefore advertising revenue) by generating a response of outrage.  Generate comments and therefore more return visits by inviting that manufactured outrage to be vented. Essentially, outrage makes money (for someone).

To be fair, news.com.au is just one example – pick your favourite news source, social media channel, politician and the word “outrage” (or the idea, cloaked in another word or phrase (like “war on X”… favoured by tv ‘current affairs’ shows) won’t be far away.  And it has become infectious: read the comments section under just about any “news” article and you’ll find a stream of outrage…usually from both ends of the spectrum…defending their view (to the death if necessary) and insulting the intelligence, appearance, beliefs (and so on) of those with an alternate view.

We’ve become a society that wears outrage like a bad tattoo (somewhere, someone who loves tattoos just got a little outraged that I used that metaphor, while somewhere else a writer is outraged because it’s a stupid metaphor anyway…but I digress).

Social media enables us to vent this outrage (which has often been manufactured or encouraged by someone else) from the safety of our keyboards (hey…like I’m doing now!) and the capacity for civil discourse suffers as a result. I’d almost go so far as to say that the phenomenon of outrage is what enables people like Donald Trump or Pauline Hanson or Peter Dutton to do their thing (cue more outrage). The modern political system thrives on generating and harnessing outrage. It’s a lazy way to lead, but sadly it seems to work when it comes to the task of getting elected.

Outrage: so over-used its not funny.

And it isn’t funny…because genuine outrage matters. Outrage at the treatment of women by powerful men. Outrage at the hoarding of wealth by some at the expense of others. Outrage at the destruction being wrought on our environment in the name of profit. Outrage at church ministers that have abused children, and church organisations that have covered it up. Outrage that Microsoft still include Comic Sans in the standard fonts for their software. Outrage matters.

Genuine outrage changes the world.  Genuine outrage challenges slavery, abusive economic systems, blatantly discriminatory practice, violence and more. Outrage matters a great deal, and in some ways, in the world we’ve created for ourselves, there should be more of it.

But the outrage that matters is being drowned out by this manufactured, confected outrage that fills our screens and our minds, sells advertising and generates views, and in the process alienates us from one another.

For most of us, with respect to most issues, we just need to calm down a little.  I don’t know where it came from, but the phrase “calm your farm” has been on high rotation in our house over the last few months. Many of us could do well to apply this mantra to our lives.

And for most of us, we then need to think carefully about the issues that need genuine outrage…and then put that to good use. Outrage isn’t just for selling advertising…its for changing the world.

That’s what I’m wondering about today.

Postcards from England: HTB, Alpha & a church planting approach

Holy Trinity Brompton is arguably the best known contemporary British church.  Part of the Anglican family, it shot to prominence through the Alpha course (an introduction to Christianity now conducted in something like 45 countries around the world.  Within the UK, HTB has been very active in planting new churches – initially in London, but increasingly in other parts of the country as well (when they’re invited).

Today I visited one of HTB’s church plants (a London suburban church that’s been running for seven years), and then their office HQ to explore just how it’s been happening, what approaches they’re using, and what’s been learned along the way.

Both visits were insightful, and I really appreciated the welcome and the conversations (and the eye-opening tour of the Alpha/HTB offices).

HTB use a range of approaches as the particular context demands, and I heard a consistent expression of commitment to working with the wider denomination.  They’ve worked hard on leadership development, on understanding their unique DNA (or charism) and what it is that they offer.

Many of the initial plants were into empty church buildings, where HTB would sent a leader and team and establish a new community from scratch (mostly in well established areas of London). In recent times they’ve started what we might describe as “re-planting” or re-vitalising where a leader and team will go into a very small church (which might to all intents and purposes be on its last legs).

Of particular interest is that there are now second and third generation church plants – where previously planted churches are themselves planting. Sometimes they’re using one of the approaches describe above, or in some cases a multi-site (multiple church communities, multiple sites but a shared identity and leadership) or “minster” (a mother church with semi-dependent child churches) approaches.

The story is exciting, but they’re very quick to point out that while it sounds easy and exciting when it’s described in broad-brush terms, the reality is planting churches in contemporary Britain is a difficult task, and one that takes intense commitment, careful planning, and an extraordinary leader and team. There’s also a willingness to be hard-nosed when required – to make sure the right team go, that the context is ready, that the planning is done, that everything is in place to give the project the best chance of success.  That all seems to start with a pretty heavy commitment to prayer (and I think we’d all agree…that’s as it should be).

We also talked briefly about the Alpha course.  It’s been a few years since I checked in to have a look at Alpha, and it sounds like it’s come a long way. The day I visited HTB has just hosted the second night of their current Alpha course with something like 600 guests attending.  The materials have been thoroughly modernised since I last checked in, and are re-filmed every few years to ensure production values, presentation and content are contemporary.  It’s no surprise that one of HTB’s church planting practices is to start an Alpha course immediately every new church plant launches. It has been and continues to be a key part of their approach. I came away thinking it’s past time I checked in to have a look at what Alpha 2017 looks like.

Clearly HTB is a particular kind of church, with a particular style of worship, and a particular set of values.  And many of their plants, while growing up in a contextual nature, share that DNA.  Equally clearly, they’re doing some very good things within the Church of England in the British context, and via Alpha in the wider world.

It was a visit I’m glad I had the opportunity to make.

When this postcard publishes, I’ll be on my way home.  It’s been a genuine privilege to undertake this trip, to visit Leicester, the FX gathering, St Mellitus, London Anglicans, CMS, the Methodist Church and HTB over the last couple of weeks. I’m so very thankful to all those that have welcomed me and shared in inspiring conversations, and told their stories. I don’t underestimate how fortunate I’ve been to be able to make the trip. I’ll publish a more general summary in a few days.

Thanks for reading.

Postcards from England: Keeping it in the family

Today I had the privilege of visiting UK Methodist headquarters at Methodist Church House, and meeting with a bunch of people from their Discipleship & Ministries team (including Jude, Graham, Richard) and the Scholarship, Research and Innovation team (Stephen and Allan) along with a number of others.

The conversations were rich and wandered around a host of topics – including data and statistics, evangelism, contemporary challenges facing churches in both our countries, leadership development and more.  It was a pleasure to meet with the team, and the connection between the Methodist church and our own Uniting Church (a venture formed when Methodist, Congregational and a large portion of the Presbyterian churches united in 1977) is strong. It felt like our churches are family (which of course, they area).

I had the privilege too of addressing the Connexional Team meeting, and sharing a little of what’s happening in the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church. Naturally I couldn’t help but share a little of my own (potentially incorrect!) theory of change along the way. You can read it here. Incidentally, I had shared these thoughts with Mike Moynagh during a visit to the Church Missionary Society’s Pioneer training HQ (see yesterday’s postcard) and he wanted to add a layer below “Hope” (you’ll have to read it to understand). He suggested that dissatisfaction (or what we might called a ‘holy discontent’) is the foundational layer of any attempt to bring meaningful change – and that hope comes next.  It’s an interesting idea and I’ll give this some more thought.

On the surface at least, there’s a lot in common between the situation in which the British Methodist church finds itself and our own. Many of the challenges are similar, many of the opportunities are similar. The context, of course, is different – but not so different that we couldn’t explore our respective stories and approaches.

A couple of bits and pieces that particularly caught my attention:

  • The Venture FX project has seen the church here invest heavily in a bunch of new pioneering initiatives – taking the church into genuinely new places and seeking to establish new church communities. Many of the projects continue, and those are important in their own right, but along with the viability of the particular projects themselves, the church is trying to pay attention just as much to the lessons learned along the way for future initiatives that might be quite different in character. The capacity to build a culture of innovation across the church might well depend on how well the VFX experience can be processed – and that challenge (building a church culture that welcomes innovation) is a big one.
  • I heard briefly a story of Trey Hall at Birmingham and some work he’s doing with the team there. What caught my attention was the use of the term “progressively evangelical” to describe something of the theology and character of Trey. Quite often we might describe those with an evangelical heart as being of a more conservative (theologically) character, but this story reminded me that this need not be so. That evangelism need not be the exclusive domain of a particular group within the church – but is something for all of us. Planting new churches can be something that the whole church (in all its theological diversity) can work towards. I’ve made a mental note next time I’m in the UK (that’s not me dropping a subtle hint by the way!) to go and visit Trey.
  • That sometimes our systems and practices (such as frequently changing senior leaders) can mitigate against establishing a culture of innovation
  • That research partnerships with external bodies (such as Universities for example) can help us understand ourselves in ways that we might (internally) be blind too
  • That fresh expressions is a powerful approach to bringing a new dimension to both a church’s own life and its capacity to welcome the wider community – but it works best if it sits within a ‘mixed economy’
  • There’s an interesting shift in the way that ministers are training and released that’s being spruiked by Michael Moynagh. From a more traditional Select->Train->Deploy approach, to Discern->Encourage->Support. I’m interested to dig into this a little more.
  • British Methodism runs a youth assembly called 3Generate. The Youth Assembly (and its leadership) have a genuine place in the life and structure of the church…so it’s more than just a conference/camp/retreat

It was, as I said, a real privilege to visit Methodist House.  I tried not to think about John Wesley himself in a portrait on the wall behind me looking down with a bemused expression as I shared from the colonies…but the team were very gracious and welcoming. I’ll be interested both to unpack a little more of what I heard today, and to stay in touch with their story as it develops in the years ahead.

Postcards from England: Training Pioneers

In the UK church the word pioneer is everywhere. I think there’s barely been a conversation I’ve been in on this trip that hasn’t included it.  And like many words in common use, it’s not always clear that all parts of the church use this particular word in the same way.

For some, anybody doing something new (like planting a church, or starting a missional community) is a pioneer. For others, it’s a leader who is genuinely breaking new ground, helping the church find its way into contexts and situations that it has never been before.

Every college, every training program, ever denomination I’ve encountered is thinking about pioneers.

To some degree maybe it doesn’t matter much that the word is being used in a range of ways – as long as the sense that the church is moving in new directions, and releasing and supporting leaders to help make that happen is real.  There’s just a slight anxiety for me that if everything is pioneering…then eventually nothing is, or at least the word (and the philosophy behind it) loses something.

All that aside, today I visited Jonny Baker at the Church Missionary Society in Oxford. CMS is an order in the Church of England, and at Oxford (along with running a range of global initiatives) they’re embarked on training pioneers – both lay pioneers and ordained, and in both undergraduate and postgraduate streams. By my understanding they’re using the word pioneer to mean one who helps take the church into genuinely new, genuinely innovative places.

Jonny is quite clear that what is now described as pioneer ministry actually emerged from a community of practice in youth ministry in the 80’s and 90’s.  In other words, this is no new invention that has been dreamed up out of thin air, but an evolving practice that now has something like 40 years of contemporary practice and development. In that time-frame its emerging practice has unfolded alongside post-modernism and the post-christian environment. When the Mission Shaped Church report came along in 2004 (and with it the language of fresh expressions) this was tapping into a long emerging practice, but putting language and concepts around it that were accessible to the wider, institutional church.

The kind of pioneer training that CMS are up to, particularly of the ordained leaders, seems to have evolved quickly in the time they’ve been at it.  Early ordained pioneer ministers were trained alongside “normal” ministers and then given a little extra – I’ve heard it described (more than once) as “Priest +”.  That seems now to have evolved into a quite specialist form of training.

The philosophy of training pioneers at CMS seems to be around training them “in place”. All the coursework happens on a one-day-per-week basis, meaning the students can remain embedded in their local context (as opposed to a more traditional theological training where students are effectively set aside for the period of their training). In this regard at least, CMS’ approach mirrors that of St Mellitus that I visited yesterday.

The challenge for graduates of the course might just be to find places to put their skills to use. Or perhaps that challenge is better put in another way – the challenge for the church is to be bold enough to deploy pioneers into new contexts – and to provide the permission, support and encouragement for them to do what they’re called, and trained, to do.

My ears particularly pricked up when I heard Jonny talk about a “Mission Entrepreneurship” intensive that happens during the course (and that I think is open to others) in a partnership between CMS and Shannon Hopkins of Matryoshka Haus and Pickwell Manor.  The intensive helps participants go from an ‘idea’ to a ‘plan’ in terms of a new missional idea. Ideas might be church related, or they might be about the common good (such as a new London based cleaning business called “Clean for Good” that evolved during one of the intensives a couple of years back and launched this week while I was in London.  It caught my attention because Paul Wetzig (Queensland Churches of Christ) and I have been mulling over just such an idea for the Queensland context. I’m encouraged to revisit that conversation and see whether we might ourselves move from idea to plan.

I’ve met Jonny a few times now, and the conversations are always rich and provocative. This one was no different. Delightfully today we were joined by Shannon from the FX USA team who I’d met at the ILC last week, and by the ever inspiring Michael Moynagh who just happened to be visiting CMS to be a guest lecturer for the day.