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!

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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!)!

 

life is made of moments

NB: Before you read, it might help to know that this is the text of a message I shared at Toowong Uniting Church, August 9th 2015. It refers to a story from Acts 4:26-40. The context at Toowong is that they are preparing to plant a new congregation.  If you’d rather listen than read…skip to the end of this story for the mp3 file.


 

It seems to me that this life that we live is made up of moments.

If you think back over your life, I’m sure you can identify a few of them.

I think of the moment I saw Sheridan walk into a friend’s 21st birthday party and I instantly knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

I think of the moment I made a bad decision and tore up my knee, ending up in surgery just weeks before our first child was due.

I think of the moment I learned a huge lesson about leadership, as I sat quietly to one side during an outdoor education program I was helping to run.

I think of the moment when I woke up one morning and realised that for the first time in 6 years all the kids had slept all night.

Some moments are wonderful, some not so much.

Some are extraordinary, while others are just the moments of everyday life.

Some moments, like my encounter with Sheri at that 21st birthday party, change our lives instantly. And we know it in the moment (or at least, I knew it…you’ll have to ask Sheri about her experience of that moment).

Others take a while to reveal themselves – and sometimes it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the power of that moment.  Such is the story for my learning about leadership on that outdoor education program. The moment actually passed unremarkably that night…but the more time passes, the more I reflect on that moment…the more it means to me.

This life that we live is made up of moments.  I’m sure you can identify a few of them.

In this passage today, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian (read it here Acts 8:26-40), there’s a lot going on, and we’ll work our way through some of those things over the rest of our time.

But at the heart of it is a moment. A chance encounter. The intersection of two people’s lives that changed both of them forever.

Such is the importance of a moment. And this life that we live is made of them.

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