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: ILC1 – FX around the world

We’ve just wrapped up four incredibly stimulating days at the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community that took place at the beautiful Ashburnam Place (Battle, England).

 

Teams gathered for the event from all corners of the globe – the host team from the UK joined by Southern Africa, United States, Mountain Sky (also United States), Canada, Sweden, Germany   and of course Australia.

It was both fascinating and encouraging to hear the stories of fresh approaches to church and faith community that emerged from each of the national teams.  There’s something special that happens when a “tribe” of like-minded people gather together.

It was interesting too to discover that the shape of Fresh Expressions (from an organisational perspective) differs greatly in each place.

In Southern Africa for example, they’re a well organised team and have formal partnerships with nine different denominations.  Meanwhile in Mountain Sky USA, it’s predominantly an initiative of the United Methodist Church through that area (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana) and involves approaches to planting new churches and new faith communities in an area that seems to bear many of the same cultural hallmarks as Australia.

In the UK, naturally (as the originators of the Fresh Expressions movement) they’re very well organised, and with a partnership involving several denominations. Each denomination shares in resourcing the wider movement, together with undertaking their own work of developing new expressions within the denomination.  The movement began in 2004 in the UK under the auspices of then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – who saw it as an ideal vehicle to begin a contextual church planting movement within the churches involved.  That commitment continues, and while there are more traditional church planting movements underway in the UK, Fresh Expressions (and the associated training and support offered under that banner) continues to be a vehicle that helps local churches and local leadership groups establish new church communities.

Each of these stories (and more) provided great food for thought for the Australian team. We gathered at the conference not ever having actually met as a team before (indeed several of us didn’t know each other until we arrived!) and through the week were able to dream together about how we can (collectively) energise Australian activity in the area of fresh expressions.

I valued the opportunity to meet so many leaders from around the world. Session times were predominantly spent in our country teams (and this worked brilliantly), which meant meal times were a noisy buzz of excited conversation and story sharing.

In the next three posts I’ll share (a) a couple of particular stories I encountered and which I think have something to offer in an Australian context; (b) a couple of things I learned about myself (I’ll try not to overshare!), and (c) what the Australian team see as the future of our network down under.

Your questions or comments, of course, are welcome.

Postcards from England: Fresh Expressions in Leicester Diocese

Over the next two weeks I have the very good fortune to be spending some time with key leaders in Methodist and Anglican Churches in parts of the United Kingdom, along with joining the Australian team at the 2017 Fresh Expressions International Learning Community alongside delegates from around the world.

Along the way I’ll fire back a postcard every couple of days to share some of what I’m learning and reflecting on as it relates to our own work within the Uniting Church in Queensland. In my conversations here I’m focusing particularly on topics such as leadership development, discipleship, fresh expressions and church planting. Your questions and comments are welcome below. If you’re not that interested in church and faith, you might want to skip these next few postcards.

Today’s first day included a briefing with Jonathan Dowman from the Leicester Anglican Diocese. Jonathan, along with Madds Morgan and Matt Pitt are the Diocese’s resourcing team for the developing fresh expressions of church in and around the communities of the diocese.

For those for whom fresh expressions might be a new concept, the standard definition used is that a fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.  In Queensland we’ve been exploring and encouraging the notion of Fresh Expressions through the conduct of the Mission Shaped Ministry Course which has been offered by Moreton Rivers, South Moreton and Bremer Brisbane Presbyteries in partnership with the synod over the past 3 years.

In a rich conversation, two things stuck out for me in this conversation with Leicester Diocese.

The first is that the Diocese have big, ambitious goals with respect to fresh expressions of church. They plan to have one fresh expression of church for every parish church within the diocese by 2030. That’s a total of around 300 fresh expressions. At this moment there are around 60 in existence, together with another approximately 100 mission initiatives that are exciting, but don’t quite bear all the hallmarks necessary to meet the diocese’s definition of a fresh expression. That’s a big goal. An unashamedly big goal. And to achieve it is going to take a huge investment of time, energy and resources, together with a willingness to dismantle anything in the diocesan system that might prevent them from progressing.

Are we quite so ready to discern and name such an ambitious goal? Are we willing to measure it? Monitor progress toward it? Put the necessary resources in place to help us achieve it?  Discerning and then naming ambitious targets can be a confronting task, and one that doesn’t always come easily for us. In the case of this diocese, it’s providing a sharp focus for the work the diocese is doing.

The second thing I found particularly interesting was a decision by the diocese that its mission resourcing staff would spend 75% of their time resourcing and supporting fresh expressions of church across the diocese, but be set aside for 25% of their time to lead a particular local fresh expression. That means their resource team are not only consultants and coaches, but practitioners who are on the ground trying to discern, plan and lead new expressions of church.

I couldn’t help but wonder might happen if we tasked presbytery and synod mission resourcing staff with using 25% of their time to discern, plan and lead a new expression of church in our own local context.

And naturally, I got to wondering what I would do if I was given permission to commit 25% of my time to a local project. Which idea that occasionally nudges to the forefront of my imagination would I throw myself into? Or which team that are already engaged in mission in my local area would I join to support and encourage?

Could we be so bold as to encourage our presbytery and synod mission resourcing staff to be practitioners as well as coaches, mentors, educators and consultants?

Big goals, big commitments. These are the factors that I found myself wondering about after a day with Leicester Diocese.

In the next postcard, I’ll reflect on a conversation with the leader of an Anglican Church Missionary Society project called Partnership for Missional Church. See you back here in a days or two!

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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small change…big deal

In recent weeks I’ve become somewhat enamored with America’s Cup sailing. If you haven’t seen any of it, then I should let you know (spoiler alert) that New Zealand defeated USA in the finals (both boats skippered by Australians!) to bring the Cup back to NZ.

The boats that are sailed (and I used both terms loosely) in this year’s America’s Cup are incredible. They’re catamarans that rise out of the water on adjustable hydrofoils. Getting the boat up out of the water (called “foiling”) means a massive reduction in drag from the hulls being in the water in the style of a traditional sailing boat.  Add an enormously effective sail (that’s more like an aircraft wing tipped on its side) and the boats are amazingly fast – sailing at 3 times the speed of the wind (or more) in the right conditions.

To understand a little better how it works, watch this (it’s worth it, they’re amazing!):

The part of this video that caught my attention is about how much difference a tiny variance in wind speed makes to the performance of the boat.  At 6 knots of wind, both hulls will remain in the water and the boat will be sluggish – at best generating 6 knots of boat speed. At 6.5 knots, the catamaran will be able to lift one hull from the water, and just that 0.5 knot additional breeze suddenly enables the boat to race to 10-11-12 knots of boat speed. Go up another 0.5-1 knot of wind speed (to around 7-7.5 knots total, and the boat will fly on its foils – increasing speed dramatically up to somewhere around 20 knots.

Such a tiny difference in wind speed, such a massive difference in boat speed.

Naturally the challenge for boat designers is to generate that critical lift at ever lower wind & boat speeds to get the jump on the competition – and to then keep the boat up on the foils and sailing as fast as possible. They’ll make minuscule changes to the shape of the foils, and to the systems that control them to generate better boat performance. That’s how NZ won the Cup.  If you want to hear more about the tiny changes they’ll make, here’s another video (I told you I got hooked!):

It strikes me that maybe, just maybe, there are similarities in life. That sometimes just small change to habits, to decisions, to approaches to life’s challenges can make an enormous difference to the outcomes. A small change to diet, or sleep patterns, or the words I use as I talk with family, friends or colleagues (to name a couple of examples) might make all the difference

And, just as in the America’s Cup, maybe it takes a team to find and make those changes. They have designers, engineers, builders and sailors working together to find and make the right changes to boat designs in order to fly the boat sooner and faster.

And so I wonder, who are the team that I (or you) turn to? The colleagues, the mentors, the friends, the family? And what opportunities do I (you) look for to make the small changes to life that might enable me (you) to fly?

What’s the tiny change to help make things fly?

on birthdays with a zero…

My youngest is just days away from a very special birthday. The one in which she reaches the magical double-figure mark. She’s bounding around the house with barely contained excitement, the anticipation of the big day breaking forth in unexpected moments as she thinks about a party with her friends, a day with her family, and her first electronic gadget (the iPod has become a de-facto rite of passage at age 10 in our house…please go gentle on the judgement of our parenting choices!).

Lots of birthdays hold significant meaning when you’re young. Double figures. Teenager-hood. Sixteen. The 18 year old adult. The 21st. Time honoured significance in each of those birthdays.

It seems that once you reach a certain age though, birthdays lose something of that magic. Sure it’s nice to have a special dinner with the family, and to receive some best wishes from friends, but it’s not quite as enchanted as when you’re a kid.

Except if the birthday in question has a zero in it.

Maybe its just not possible to keep up the enthusiasm year-in and year-out for birthdays, so we ration it to once every ten years instead. Turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and the grand old century mark, these are special days.  Often we think of them as marking a transition point too, onward to the next stage of life.

Zero birthdays give us pause to reflect not just on the last year, but on the last stage of life, the last decade or more. And to think far more than 12 months ahead, pondering what is to come, what choices we’ll make, what the next stage of life holds in store for us.

Anniversaries are a bit the same. Oh Sheri and I will definitely mark the passing of our 22nd anniversary later this year, but we’re already planning toward the 30th in a much bigger way.

A zero is just one number among ten, but somehow the zero makes it special

All of which comes into sharp focus this week.

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when numbers hurt

Some days, numbers are wonderful things.

When your favourite band hits #1. When your favourite athlete gets a high score. When you run or ride or walk a personal best. When your newborn has their longest non-stop sleep. When the number signifies an important anniversary or birthday.

Some days, numbers are wonderful.

And some days, numbers hurt.  Today it seems to me is one of those days.

The number killed and injured in a highrise building fire in London climbs inexorably higher, and itself is outweighed by the number killed in a Bangladesh mudslide.

The number attached to the Australian government’s legal settlement with Manus Island detainees is a reminder of the horrors of the conditions those asylum seekers are treated to, at the hands of the country we call home.

Some days numbers hurt.

This morning I had the privilege of sharing a breakfast table with World Vision‘s Tim Costello, in Brisbane to speak at an annual Churches of Christ gathering today.  The conversation ranged far and wide, but again it was a couple of numbers quoted in different parts of the conversation that left me startled.

At one stage we talked about gambling in Australia, and poker machines in general. Costello is a passionate advocate for managing this insidious, addictive blight on our society.  The number in question was 20%.  Australia, home to just 0.3% of the worlds population, hosts more than 20% of the worlds poker machines. 20%. Machines that are specifically designed to take money away from those who use them. And that are most often located in communities that can least afford that loss. 20%. If you want to see some more numbers about poker machines that hurt, go here. Oh, and I was also reminded that one of the biggest profit-makers from pokies in Australia is Woolworths….that’s right…the fresh food people.

And then we talked about South Sudan and Uganda.  Australia, one of the richest nations on earth has since 1947 accepted something like 800 000 refugees. It’s a big number. And if it wasn’t for our recent record it could make us feel all warm and gooey inside. Uganda, at the other end of the global rich list has willingly accepted 1 000 000 refugees from South Sudan in the last 7 months. 1 000 000 in 7 months. And provided land to build a home and grow crops, and access to education and hospitals (such as those things are in Uganda).  Together with NGO’s like World Vision (supported, it has to be said by the generosity of ordinary Australians) they’re tackling what seems like (and may well yet prove to be) an insurmountable problem.  It’s an extraordinary effort, but for all that the effort is amazing, the numbers still tell of a world of pain and brokenness.

I don’t post this today to start a political debate. Simply to say that some days, numbers hurt….and today those numbers remind me that in our country, and in our world, we have a long way to go, many challenges to overcome.

Hopefully those same numbers can motivate us to act.