Postcards from the UK: St Mellitus College and the London Anglicans

Having completed the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (which you can read about in my earlier postcards), I’ve moved to London for a few days meeting with interesting church leaders in a variety of settings.  The emphasis has shifted a little away from FX to other areas of interest for the Synod of Queensland.

Checking in at St Mellitus College

I swung by St Mellitus College today, and joined the student body for their regular Monday morning worship before sitting down with Russell Winfield, the International Development Officer for the college.

Now 10 years old, St Mellitus is a theological college launched from the well known Holy Trinity Brompton church. While it now operates largely independently of HTB now, it does still retain close links.  The story of St Mellitus has been one of rapid growth, from its initial year with just a handful of students, to now over 650 students spread across four campuses around England.  I’m led to believe it’s comfortably the largest of the Church of England’s theological colleges, and draws students from 35 (of the 41) dioceses in the country.

Those are the numbers.  Beyond that, the range of courses offered (both post-grad and undergrad, along with non-accredited “lay” training) are typical, including a pioneering stream common to many UK colleges these days.

The mood in the room, at least on the day I visited, was buzzing. Something like 2-300 students gathered (as they do each Monday) to start the college’s teaching day with worship (part of St Mellitus model is that all teaching happens on the same day – leaving students to do private study other days, and to be in field placements for 3 days per week). The worship is student led, so it various in style and format from week to week, and on the day of my visit it had a solidly contemporary/evangelical flavour.  There was a buzz in the room, of anticipation, of chatting and catching up, of preparation for the day in what looked a relatively young student cohort.  It was an altogether lovely and encouraging way to start the week.

One story told during worship stuck with me. The leader was sharing an experience in which she with a group of friends had rented a house to live in an economically depressed area, with the intention of investing in the community there. They came to be known as “the church house”, with neighbours welcome anytime, the community supported, and people knowing it was a place they could always turn for help.  Even “non-church” people in the community appreciated their presence and pitched in to help from time to time. It struck me that perhaps this is the core purpose of church, and that just about every neighbourhood could do with “a church house” like this one. No, it’s not rocket science, but I appreciated the reminder.

St Mellitus College is located in an old cathedral style church called St Judes.  The church building was turned over to the college in a pretty poor state, and with very little use from a pretty small congregation.  The venue itself has been remarkably transformed – with the heritage of the building honoured (to my eyes at least), but an unapologetically contemporary flavour with smart, well planned additions to the building to enable it to serve both its original purpose, and its new place in the world.  It strikes me that this is something of a metaphor for what St Mellitus are attempting to do – to honour their heritage while building a new church entirely.  In a country expecting a huge number of clergy to retire in the next 10 years, and in which the church is in decline, St Mellitus is one way the church of England is addressing that challenge.

The college’s philosophy includes study that is grounded in prayer and worship, and that is intricately entwined with the real world – where students are at the college building only one day a week (plus occasional residential intensives), but out in real-world field placements the rest of the time.

Time will tell, of course, how successful St Mellitus will be. They seem to have their feet firmly grounded, and when I asked about evidence and outcomes, Russell was pretty clear that at only ten years of age, it’s hard to be sure.  His view was that I should ask the question again in 40 years’ time to see if the initial growth, and early anecdotal evidence is supported by long term value for the church.  I was glad to visit St Mellitus, and encouraged by what they’re up to.

 

London Anglicans Planting 100 New Churches?

After St Mellitus I headed over to visit the HQ of London Anglican Diocese church planting team.

Formed as part of the Diocese’ vision for it’s future agreed to in 2013 (under the banner Capital Vision 2020), the team is at the centre of an intent to plant or significantly renew 100 churches within the diocese by 2020.  Even in a Diocese the numeric size of London (500+ churches) this is a seriously ambitious goal, and a fair chunk of the time I had to visit was spent exploring how they’re going about the task.

I would start by observing that they’re well organised, and they’re clear and unashamed about the target.  There are a bunch of other elements to the Vision (to do with leadership development, faith sharing, doubling the number of young people engaged and so on) and all seem equally ambitious.  Have a quick look here at the elements of their vision.

Part of the strategy is to create and recognise what they describe as City Centre Resource Churches – the kind of larger churches that will be actively planting new churches (coincidentally a very similar description to one we’ve been starting to use in conversation at Queensland Synod this year).  Other elements include fresh expressions (as an aside, this wasn’t the first or last time I heard fresh expressions talked of as part of a wider church planting strategy while I’ve been here…sometimes I think we separate the two…), training church planting teams, work on local government estates, revitalising struggling churches, partnering with area Bishops and one fascinating story about a purpose built boat that will be moored on the river adjacent to an urban renewal project that doesn’t have room for a church building, and from which the church will operate.

4 years into the project, and there have been just under 50 new or significantly revitalised churches launched. With 3 years to go, there is a sense of confidence that they’re on track.  Interesting when the conversation turned to ‘failure’ rates, the statement came back that there had been a close to zero failure rates (I think it was actually zero, but my notes and memory have let me down on this…so I’ll say “close to zero” to be safe), and that this was a minor cause for concern…because it might mean that the church hasn’t taken enough risks.  I found that a pretty refreshing attitude for an organisation as structured and generally careful as I assume the Church of England to be.

Development for church planting teams included bespoke training, coaching, financial support (at one of three established ‘levels’) and assistance with matters such as strategy, financials, personal leadership, structures, buildings and so on.

Additionally, the team have been operating what I heard described as a “Church Growth Learning Community” – a community of leaders from congregations who are committed to growing, and who meet together regularly over two years to explore strategies to do so.

It’s not all sweetness and light of course, and when learning from an experience like this we have to take seriously the differences in both context (the UK is still quite different from Australia in terms of the place of the Church…particularly so for the Church of England…in broader society) and the capacity to deploy significant resources (people and otherwise) in support of agreed strategies.

Still, I saw a church willing to set very clear goals, a church quite committed to learning again how to proclaim the gospel in a way suited to their context, and a church willing to make decisions and bring its people and resources to bear on the challenges of our day.

I walked out with a little smile on my face, pleased for the Diocese of London that they’re on the path they’re on.

Postcards from England: More from the ILC

It’s taking too long, and there are too many of these postcards racking up and at the current rate I’ll be sending postcards long after I return home…so today I’ll send three in one go, all from the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (ILC)

Shaping a menu:

One of the things I’ve heard said more than once when we’ve been encouraging people to try ‘fresh expressions of church’ (remember…a new kind of church designed for people who don’t ‘get’ church) is “I don’t know what to do”. In other words, “We’re ready to try something new, but don’t know where to start”.

Around the world, there are a few simple models or approaches that are well understood, and well documented.

Messy Church is one example, and there are at last count something over 200 examples of Messy Church (a kind of creative, hands-on, fun, messy approach to church designed for families with young kids) operating in Australia, and hundreds more in other countries around the world.  Messy Church is a well understood approach, with great books, training and coaching available. It’s a relatively easy place to start.

This week I heard some more about another well documented approach that is fast gaining traction in the US: Dinner Church.  Now at one level gathering around a dinner table and engaging in practices of worship and disciple-building is nothing new (in fact arguably its where the Christian church started…so it’s a very ancient practice indeed) but the very fact of documenting an approach, and putting out lots of hints and tips not only helps people find a way to start, but in some way legitimises the approach. Dinner Churches (such as Be3 that I met this week, or St Lydias that seemed to start the pattern) are popping up everywhere, and understandably so. It’s a relatively simple approach to starting a fresh expressions, that’s relatively light on resource requirements. Tables, food, people, a commitment to gather are all that’s required.

It all got me wondering what other relatively simple approaches to starting fresh expressions could be fairly simply documented – with the result being that a community who want to start could find something of a menu to choose from if their own ideas are slow in coming.  Community gardens? Men’s Sheds? Café Church? Park Church? Pop-up Church?

Now I have to say the obvious – one of the core philosophies being Fresh Expressions is that it’s effectively a contextual church planting movement – so the idea of putting up a menu of choices that would be parachuted in without paying attention to context seems to go against the grain. That’s a fair critique if all we do is put up three of four options and say “choose one and implement it”.  If we offer three of four starting points, however, and encourage them to be shaped and moulded to fit the context, or used as imagination starters, that’s potentially a better way to go.

For some people at least, my feeling is that a few well described options might just kick-start the imagination process that can sometimes take a little while to get going.

 

Going so far to meeting the neighbours:

The ILC, as I mentioned in the last postcard, featured teams from around the world and one of the ironies was that for the Australian team, we had to travel across the world to meet each other.

Fresh Expressions in Australia (at least using that name), has an up-and-down kind of history that spans back around 10 years.  A lot of energy was put into the movement from South Australia, and from NSW/ACT (from a number of denominations), and Mission Shaped Ministry courses consequently popped up in a number of states. It’s kind of bobbed along for the last few years with some real hot-spots (the Uniting Church Presbytery of Port Philip West in Victoria being an obvious one), but without a cohesive approach.

This week we heard stories of well-structured national organisations in places like Southern Africa, Germany, Sweden and the USA. And we wondered…is that what we need to do in Australia? A central organisation, staff, structure, funding?  It didn’t seem (to the Australian team present) to fit how things are ‘down under’.  Instead we came away committed to animating a national network, and a national conversation – but leaving the specifics of action (such as coaching, training advocacy) to local (state-based teams). We came away committed to one another, to intentional communication and resource sharing (and with some concrete strategies to put in place for those things), but sure that (at last for now) a structured organisational approach isn’t the thing.

We arrived as a group within which for each of us there were some friends, some acquaintances, some colleagues and some strangers, but left as the beginnings of a strong network, committed to one another, excited about the potential of an animated network, working (alongside others) to ignite in the church a call to be missional in nature, character and practice.

It was a long way to go to meet the neighbours, but I’m every so glad that’s what happened.  If you want to get in on the Australian conversation, hit this facebook group.

 

A personal journey:

The week also offered something of a reminder to me personally. Sheri and I have bounced around on the edges of the organised church for a long time now, involved in what we might have called “Fresh Expressions” (if we had had the language/label) from our young adult years right up until recent times.

Early in this week’s gathering I felt like I was, once more, connecting with my tribe, with people who see the world in some of the same ways I do.  I felt at home in the conversations, and found myself in the stories being shared. I came away convinced of two things.

Firstly, that over the past year or two, I’ve stopped being a ‘practitioner’ myself, eased back from personally leading faith communities that are innovative in nature. I still contribute to my local church, for sure, but only within the patterns of regular church cycles and in regular worship gatherings.  I realised that I’ve lost something of myself in this change in practice. I come home wanting to reconnect with the practitioner (or maybe even pioneer) in me.

Secondly, that my involvement with the Queensland group wanting to encourage Fresh Expressions has moved in the wrong direction.  In wanting to encourage Presbytery involvement, and in being a little cautious about the Synod being too deeply involved in things that aren’t its direct purview, I think maybe I’ve withdrawn too far.  I think maybe I owe an apology to the team, and I might be asking them to let me back in (only if they’ll have me of course!).

There’s a bunch of other stuff too, but for what was intended to be a short postcard, that’ll do for now.

In the time since the ILC wrapped up last Friday, I’ve embarked on a series of meetings with interesting people in the UK leading activities such as church planting, pioneer minister training and more. The next series of postcards will reflect on those conversations.

Thanks for hanging in!

Postcards from England: Partnership for Missional Church

While in Leicester (see the previous story!), we took the opportunity to sit down with Nigel Rooms of the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society (CMS) to hear about a project they’re running called the Partnership for Missional Church.

Now if you’ve hovering in church circles, you’ll have stumbled across this word ‘missional’ more than once or twice in the last few years.  It’s a conversation that has quite a head of steam as we continue to ask the question “what does it mean for a church to be shaped in response to its understanding of God’s mission” (or something like that).

CMS, through this program, are endeavouring to help local churches reflect on this kind of question, and to turn their attention to the notion that God is at work in their world, and the question of how to join in. These are, in a sense, the classic questions of the missional movement.

The program is a long-term one, taking three years to work through in a partnership between the local church and CMS (or the program’s original developers, the Church Innovation Institute in the USA) in three movements:

  • Year 1: Listening
  • Year 2: Experiment
  • Year 3: Focussing

It also incorporates a heavy emphasis on discipleship – through five practices: dwelling in the word, dwelling in the world, announcing the kingdom, hospitality (of which more in a moment), and corporate (collective) spiritual discernment. It all hangs on a range of ‘ologies’ including theology, sociology, missiology, ethnography and so on.

The process seems in some ways to be a carefully assisted change process. The community is introduced to the capacity to understand itself, it’s world, and it’s God in new ways, and then supported as it responds to those new understandings.

There were, once again, a few topics explored in the course of the afternoon that captured my attention.

The first was the mention of hospitality. At risk of being something of a broken record, this is a topic I’ve wondered about before – in particular the tendency in our world to put ourselves in the place of host when we think about hospitality – whereas the Jesus stories are filled with encounters in which Jesus is the guest rather than the host.  Learning to be guest in our communities, and to see God at work in the world and life of our host is a critical skill.

The second related to an observation from systems theory about the interplay between process and outcomes. The theory (as I heard it expressed) suggests that in a given situation we can either control the process, or the outcomes, but not both. In the Partnership for Missional Church exploration, the attempt is to manage the process – and to let the outcomes be whatever they may be (or whatever God may determine…to take a slightly more theological tone).  The PMC journey is a carefully managed process, but with not pre-determined, or even preferred outcome envisaged before it begins.  What will be, will be.  I’m drawn to that approach.

Thirdly, we heard that there is a body of research that suggests that local churches learn best from one another, than from professional trainers and consultants. As a kind-of-consultant, I of course rankled at this suggestion…but only for a moment. Of course there are times when insights from outside are helpful, but it does seem intuitively true that peer learning is a powerful tool – and that local churches (or their leadership teams) in conversation with one another can learn a great deal from one another’s experiences.  Which reinforces the importance of great relationships with neighbouring congregations. Let’s not be out there going it alone!

The next postcard is a few days away. We’re now gathered with teams from around the world in an International Learning Community on fresh expressions of church.  We’ve collectively agreed on a social media fast for the duration of the gathering (in terms of the gathering itself and the conversations we’re having here), so that we can be fully present to one another, and allow the full process of the gathering to work its way through out thinking.

I’ll tell you though that it’s been incredibly stimulating, and there are lots of thoughts and questions I’m wondering about.  I’ll be back to say more in the next postcard.

on meals, community, love and jesus

A message shared with Toowong Uniting Church in July 2017. Read John 13:31-35 first.

Last week, June 29 was Eat Together day in Canada.  A day when Canadians were invited to eat with neighbours, friends and colleagues, to see what happened. Watch this:

The official website introduces the idea like this: “When we eat together, good things happen. Whether its poutine, pad thai, paella, or pemmican. Nothing brings us together like eating together. We’re on a mission to make the world a better place by sharing a meal. It is time to stop watching and start acting! Join in on June 29th for Eat Together Day. Whether you eat with your neighbours, friends or family, make a time to eat together.”

It’s an invitation that is extended as part of Canada’s celebration of its 150th year as a nation. Other elements of the celebration include National Aboriginal Day, St Jean Baptiste day, Canadian Multiculturalism Day and Canada Day.  The film we just watched introduces the concept of eat together, and tells its own story. It’s a beautiful film, filled with funny, poignant moments. And it reflects many of those other elements of Canada 150.

I’m sure you that you, like me if you cast your mind back, can think of some memorable meals. Times and places where the table was the centre of a wonderful community time. Where conversation flowed as food was shared. Where the bonds of friendship were formed or strengthened.

There is something wonderful about sitting around a table and sharing together.

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on leadership…again

If you’ve hung around here for a while you might recall that this is far from the first time I’ve posted about leadership. This time though, I’m not writing, but talking. And sadly for you all, it’s on video! 😉

Recently I sat down with Ben Rogers, editor of Journey magazine to record a chat about leadership – and specifically about Christian leadership.  Below is the video of our chat, and here’s the article that precipitated the conversation.  And, if you’re a glutton for punishment, here’s some more of my potentially baseless musings on leadership.

Your comments are welcome.

on balance, and rocks, and beautiful places

On the weekend just gone, Sheri and I took our kids out to Girraween National Park. If you haven’t been there…you should go. Just saying.

Girraween is just out past Stanthorpe in what is known as the Granite Belt. And it’s known as the granite belt for a good reason – it’s a giant playground of granite boulders of varying sizes.

Some of the boulders are small enough that you can lift, or sit on them. Some are the size of your car, or your house, or some are literally whole mountains made of granite. It’s an incredible place to explore and enjoy. And not even some rain on Saturday ruined the weekend for us as we played and wandered.

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One of the incredible features of Girraween are the ways these boulders are piled up, or balanced upon one another.

Take this one, for example. It’s called Granite Arch.  Kind of a natural Stonehenge looking feature, with the capstone balanced on the lower two. Amazing.

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Nearby are a couple of mountain-sized lumps of rock called “The Pyramids.” The first one is walkable, the second is technically off limits. They’re incredible to look at, and even more so to explore.

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High up on the first pyramid, the one you can climb by following a marked path, is a boulder generally known as “Balancing Rock”.  See if you can guess why when you look at the photo below.

The kids, along with some friends, joined the long, long, long list of people who’ve tried and failed to topple this rock from its perch.

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It’s perfectly balanced, standing on its end, on top of a mountain.  And as I stood and looked at it, I couldn’t help wondering what probably everybody else who’s made the climb thinks: “How does it stand there?” It’s centre of gravity must be just right, and the fact that it is perched on a firm foundation keeps it there, through rain, hail, wind and the attempts of 12 year old kids. It’s been there day after day, year after year, decade after decade, probably century after century. This rock is balanced, perfectly.

The challenge to visiting Balancing Rock, of course, is climbing up, and then back down this mountain-sized monolith to see it. On this journey up and down the steep slab-sided pyramid it’s a case of the balancing person. Keeping a firm footing, a balanced centre of gravit, avoiding obstacles or damp patches, and keeping focused on the path ahead are the key. Balance matters to us as climbers, just as much as it does to the rock that stands.  Balance matters as much when we are in motion, when we are living life actively, as it does when we are just trying to stand firm.

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Balance, centre of gravity, firm foundations: these things matter not just to rocks. But to people, to communities, to you and I.

As I walked I wondered what it means to be balanced in life as while walking, as while being a rock standing on top of a mountain.  What does it means to be on firm footing?

For me one of the things that means is that I wonder what the story of Jesus has to say into that space (for you it might be something totally different). Jesus on multiple occasions talked about rocks, balance and firm foundations. He used a metaphor about the value in building our house (our life) on rock, not on sand. He talked about building his church on a rock. He talked about the importance to balance in life of seeking God’s kingdom first – that other things will take care of themselves.

Balance. Firm foundations. Rocks.

Where does balance come from in my life? Where are firm foundations found? What does it look like when everything is in balance? Is it all in balance right now? If not, what’s missing?

Those are the questions I’ve been pondering this week. Maybe they’re of interest to you too.

It’s been a while

It’s been a while since I wrote. November 12 2015 to be precise. It was a great story, and I had nothing further to add…so I stopped.

No, that’s not entirely true…and I can’t be sure exactly why I stopped writing, other than that it’s been a very busy start to the year this year, and sometimes in the busyness my words kind of dry up.  In the torrent of organising, thinking, speaking, preparing, dadding, husbanding, riding, I somehow lose track of the time to write, to let my mind’s eye wander, to let random thoughts bubble up into out-loud kinds of pondering.  That’s not to say that all my out-loud kinds of pondering are always worth hearing (for assuredly they are not), but that if I never let writing happen, then (a) I’ll shut off something that I personally have come to value; and (b) the law of averages suggests that if I never write at all, then I’ll definitely never write anything interesting or useful.

I am feeling the tug of the keyboard again, so I’m hoping to resume some semi-occasional posts here.  For today though, I thought I’d share a couple of new media experiments I’m involved in.

Firstly, my colleagues Mardi and Lyndelle and I have dreamed up a little adventure into podcasting. If you’re new to the medium (as I am/was), a podcast is essentially an on-demand radio show. There are thousands out there. Some very professional, some very amateur, and exploring an enormous range of subject matter. Our podcast is called “Church Unchained” and in it we’re aiming to explore innovation and dangerous ideas for the church through a series of casual conversations. If you’re not a church person, I think you might still find some of the conversations interesting. Church Unchained pops out a new episode every second Tuesday (each ep runs about 20 minutes), and you can find (and listen) them over here. The first two episodes are out already and explore virtual reality (and Pokemon Go), and then homelessness. If you use a podcasting app, here’s the URL so you can subscribe.

Secondly, I’ve started writing a regular column for the Uniting Church in Queensland’s multimedia platform Journey Online. The column has a working title of “What if every church…” and explores a few ideas that are a little unusual in church circles, and wonders what might happen if we had a crack at them.  The first column came out this week and asked “What if every church…had a playground?“.  Once again, this column is supposed to be a fortnightly affair, and will continue for a while (or until I run out of ideas).

If you think there’s something we should explore in the Church Unchained podcast, or or I should write about in the column, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

To quote Peter Garrett from his new album….”I’m back!” (oh yes…he totally smashed the live show at the Tivoli a couple of weeks back….can’t wait for Midnight Oil to tour in 2017!)!