Saturday, 24 April 2010

Walls or Trampolines.

I was pleased that my last blog was picked up by the wider church and a verson of it maybe put on the Fresh Expressions web site. Will keep you posted.

Last Sunday we had a number of people in the congregation who were from other parts of the globe and were simply stuck at Heathrow - so came to a local church and found us. One guy was a pastor from an evangelical 'Bible based' church in Dallas, Texas. He really struck by the message I gave on 'recovering from stattered dreams'. We had a great conversation about the need for God's love to be really inclusive. It became obvious that he came from an evangelical church that was a bit different. Going onto their church website I realised I had entered a strange world. A world of orthodox belief  but expressed less in terms of solid walls but more like Rob Bell's (Velvet Elvis) 'trampoline'.

For me the future of church doesn't begin with outward form but the way we look at belief. 'Church as we know it' has been shaped by doctrinal statements. 'I believe in THE Church' says so much. However I think in a more network and less solid context we need to engage with people in more open, conversational and less 'sure' ways.

Rob Bell's trampoline floats my boat in this regard. Someone who had read 'Velvet Elvis' said to me that if Rob Bell didn't exist they would have to invent him. I think I understand and resonate with that. When you begin to wonder about whether the church is really what God had in mind, (and don't worry even the great and the good have wondered this), and when you start asking tough questions about your faith (like they do in the Bible from time to time), you can quickly find yourself in a very lonely place. We all need 'Thomas' in our lives who gives us permission to see that questions are essential to an authentic Christian life. I think people like Rob Bell offer a gateway for those of us who want to walk in 'the Way' and continue to make a differerence for God in the world.we inhabit. Jesus is on our side with this as he happens to live 'in the neighbourhood' anyway.

But Malcolm, (I hear you cry), what is this trampoline business all about? Bell begins his book with an analogy comparing traditional style faith to brick walls. With a brick wall, if you pull out just a few bricks, (a doctrine here, a faith statement there plus a lifestyle issue for good measure), the whole thing will crumble down around you. This is why some of us get very upset when you question even a little, non-central tenet of our belief or practice, let alone something a bit more central. If you pull out any brick, no matter how peripheral, you threaten the stability of faith. The wall appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole edifice wobbles.  You go to the web and google Rob Bell for instance and you will see plenty of examples of people who see their faith in this way. One person believes that if you reject a literal understanding of the Creation story then in some strange feat of logic you cannot believe Jesus died on the Cross for the salvation of the world!

On the other hand, those with a more flexible understanding and approach to faith jump on a trampoline. You can remove a doctrine or view of life (a spring that holds the trampoline) and the trampoline will still function. You can continue, with others, to jump on the trampoline. You can continue to follow your beliefs, even if one part of them has been shaken or destroyed.

The big problem for me with 'brickianity' is that walls are inflexible and inevitably keep people out.
When the wall becomes the sum total of the beliefs God becomes as big or as small as the wall. People start comparing and defending their walls. Often it appears as though you have to agree with all of the bricks exactly as they are or you can’t join. Maybe you have been outside the wall before and even feel as if you're there now. The good news is that many of us know what it's like to be there and hey -we have discovered a God who loves being outside that wall with us.

For Rob Bell Christian experience is the art of questioning God. As he says: 'Not belligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our Maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God. This type of questioning frees us. Frees us from having it all figured out. Frees us from having answers to everything. Frees us from having to be right. It allows us to have moments when we come to the end of our ability to comprehend. Moments when the silence is enough.'

I love that thought of being freed from having to be right and to have the right answer. Maybe this truth will set us free to live and to love as Jesus did a bit more... freely.
There will be people around us who don't believe or 'do' the 'right' things and thank God for them and times when those of 'firm' faith will lose a few springs - but let's keep on jumping together and enjoying being loved and accepted. A trampoline has springs but it also has a frame. God in Jesus keeps us all intact.... analogies are not perfect so I'll stop now before this one totally collapses - metaphorically speaking!

Let me end with the mission statement from my new found friend's church in Texas:
'A safe place where anyone can attend and find God's love and acceptance. Christianity and organized religion have been riddled with debate and nuance over the issue of "who's in and who's not." It is my desire for our Church community not to become mired in these issues, but to simply declare that the Love of God is available for everyone '(John 3:16).

Let me know what you think. The trampoline image may not work for you - that's fine - it is not a firm belief! You may have more helpful images or views to share. How do you see belief? Be great to hear from you.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

The last few days have been very quiet aound our part of West London. Suddenly thousands of people have become fans of a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull, (ay-yah-FYAH'-plah-yer-kuh-duhl - apparently!). Let's hear it for lava that's what I say. But not all appreciate the quiet - some people I oevrheard on the bus today were saying that they found it all a bit too quiet and 'spooky'. They have got used to the having the equivalent of the M25 over their heads. Without it things are not normal and 'as they should be'.

This reminded me of the definition of 'culture' as ' the way we do things round here' usually expressed in terms of 'that's not the way we do things round here' or 'we've not done it like that before'. Leaders ignore culture at their peril and also the fact that it is the 'big issue' in terms of change and development. The way we do things round here is not just about the obvious things - work practices, traditions and customs but the less obvious and tangible ways such as attitudes, behavioural  and relational patterns.

I speak form personal experience as a leader who has had a measure of 'success' in helping organisations to change and move on, as well as experiencing the flip side of not having much apparent and immediately obvious success at all! I am not just speaking of church but also my experience in helping to shape the future development of a Higher Education institution in the West Country. Church, business, college or family - all have ways of 'doing things round here'.

Lessons learnt aplenty. Some contexts are ready for change and have enough of a critical mass of people to embrace some of the hard choices and hold on to a vision during the hard times. This doesn't mean that compromises aren't needed or time scales revised - after all we are dealing with people and the way they have done things sometimes for generations. But it is vital to hold onto the vision that will enable an organisation to be sustainable, grow and respond to the challenges of what are very fast- moving and culturally changing times. For churches the change of religious and social contexts are enormous and have far reaching implications - a bit of tweaking here and a new service there are simply not enough.

From the Church of Englands perspective I think there are two key challenges:

To shape leaders who deeply rooted in God in Jesus and understand the need to re-shape church culture to serve a developing Post Christian context and have been given training and vision to do this courageously, corporately and creatively. They will also need the support, mentoring and back up from those in 'management' and who provide resourcing at Diocesan level.

To look beyond 'Mixed Economy'. Although many agree with the concept of a  mixed economy church, as in the tradional alongside the emerging and fresh expressions, the truth is that this can only be sustained as a vision for a limited time. David Muir down in Exeter likens our situation to that of countries being oil based economies. Oil is a finite resouce so it is important we move into mixed economy (gas, electric etc etc) so that we are able to make the transiion away from it. If Christendom, as the big shaping narrative or 'the way we do things round here' is on the way out, then to keep assuring existing church communities that they will continue to have a parallel existence much as they are is to create a false hope. If Christendom continues to go the way it is most of them won't as they will find themselves ill-equipped to be resilient and sustainable. My experience is that leaders at Diocesan and National level tend not to see it this way and even deny this is happening. To resist the closure of unsustainable buildings for example is a case in point. Some cash strapped Dioceses, (as most are), are already cutting back on resources to further develop emerging and fresh expressions of church. Many congregations demonstrate an anxiety and sometimes anger which can be directed to leaders who try and develop a culture of responsiveness and flexibility.
Denial is not just a river in Egypt as they say and to live in a state of denial leads to leaders and deeply committed Christ Followers feeling despair and worn- out.

This is a very real issue for the church. Let's be planning now for Post mixed economy and shape leaders, structures and church communities in the way we do things - then.

Please let me have your thoughts about this.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Praise God for the (virtual) Body

My proper first week back to Parish life. Mixed emotions as some of you will realise but it was great to have words of encouragement from the Bishop of Kensington and Jon and Sarah turning up for the service. It all went very well. Lots of hugs, welcome backs, laughter (not all hysterical), good conversation, prayer and worship. Yep - not everyone was waving a flag but hey 'c'est la vie' as they say.

I did have a bit of a panic leading up to Sunday. For me, at the moment, that is expressed in getting obsessive about finding a new job so I start looking at anything and needing a lot of assurance from others. And some great friends -plus Sheryl - helped me through. Praise God for the Body as we used to sing in the good old Holy Disorder days.

All this makes me reflect on what is it we call church. I rely on people around me who offer wise counsel, common sense advice (the most needed gift in the charismatic world methinks), a hand of relationship and a gracious ability to tell me to 'knock it off' when required - (in the Lord of course). People who also help me to focus on God's call upon my life, maintain perspective and not to lose heart.

'At the heart of what it means to be a church is a call to enter into relationship with God and relationship with others which is meaningful, purposeful and mutually supportive and which energy can be directed to a common end.Yet many people find it hard to discover such relationships in existing, established congregations. Something more is needed.'Steve Croft Transforming Communities

I am also discovering 'community' not just amongst the local church but also among other networks and contexts. To be honest it is the way it is and maybe in our cultural context it is a vital way God wants to enhance and develop church. Facebook,, Skype and e mail are continuing means by which God has touched me with his word and love and keeps me in touch with others. Is this your experience too and in what way does it enhance and make more real what it means to be part of  'meaningful, purposeful and mutually supportive relationships' which keep us on track and in the Way?

I have always struggled with the concept of 'on line churches' though I am open to hearing other people's experiences. At St Pixels, an online community supported by the Methodist church, visitors are welcomed on the homepage with: ‘Imagine church with no cobwebs, wooden pews, hymn books, overhead projector, leaking roof, organ fund . or even a church building .’ (Sounds good to me...!!)
The Diocese of Oxford has 'I church' complete with its own Parish priest. The nuns at Wantage even run virtual retreats on their website and you can join the sisters in singing the offices.

From my understandingAll on line churches would consider themselves to be communities. Places where believers share, worship, support and seek to be Good News to others

One regular user of I- Church writes: 'In the online communities I belong to, we work hard at finding what we have in common, rather than what divides. I have met members of the Body of Christ who I would never meet in my ‘ordinary’ Baptist church in the North East of England. I’ve prayed with and spoken to Greek Orthodox believers, Messianic Jews, Catholics, Anglicans and American ‘fundamentalists’. I’ve rubbed virtual shoulders with Christians from all five continents. I’ve debated with atheists, conversed with agnostics and Muslims and ‘reached out’ in compassion to people who have no label for their faith at all.'
I could bear witness to some of that and with the added value of video Skype - you can even see the people you talk to! (Some may be 'virtually' weeping at this point)My reservation is centred around what it means to be a follower of the one who 'became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.' To me this makes the physicality of Christ's community a bit of a given. Paul's understanding of the church as the Body comes out of his encounter with the Risen Jesus and is subsequently 'fleshed out', quite literally in very earthy terms. This is also rooted in the Bible's understandng of God as community and his people as a physical expression of love, grace and divine presence. Quite where breaking bread as the Body of Christ fits in again I am not sure. Maybe Skype video Eucharists? Please discuss.

For many of us it will be 'both and', while for some thier 'virtual' church community, albeit a work in progress, is indeed church and does not necessarily preclude physical expression.

The Ship of Fools 'Mystery Worshipper' commented on the after service coffee at St Pixels: 'It was virtual, but the remains of my tiramisu liqueur more than made up for it. Conversation was fun. I drifted to the cloisters to listen to and read the discussion happening there.'
He/She ended by commenting on 'How friendly people were, and how great it will be to be part of that community if I'm off travelling and want to touch base with Christians I know.'

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Jesus in Disneyland

I remember some while ago reading a book called 'Jesus in Disneyland' by David Lyon. It began with the authors experience of attending a Spring Harvest type event and commenting on the fact that there seemed to be a culture of media, consumerism and celebrity surrounding all that went on. David Lyon, from a sociological perspective was commenting on how we as Christ Followers are seeking to live out and communicate the Gospel within a Post Christian consumer oriented and 'theme park' culture. His final chapter on how we seek to be authentic to Jesus in doing this, is probably where he struggles most - which in itself says a lot - aren't we all!

So the big question is how do we do the Jesus thing now? (Answers on a post card..)

Sheryl and I have been helping to 'person' the Spring Harvest French site stand at Minehead. It has been great fun being in 'Disneyland' - and yes Jesus was there!
I realised that we were among a number of stands, some of which were seeking to encourage people to go to such places as Haiti, Kenya or China to make a difference. Our task was to encourage people to consider spending money on a holiday in France. Slight touch of the 'guilties' but then for many of us times of relationship, family, recreation, inspiration, fun and sheer 'slobbing out' (in the Lord of course) keep us on track and in 'the Way'. (Guilties now subdued)

Opposite our stand was a Christian music display. One afternoon a long queue formed of children and parents to have their CD purchases signed by three young women who together form a Christian equivalent of what looked like the Spice girls. Immaculately dressed and made up, they greeted and smiled at their adoring audience. I was left reflecting - what is this all about? Is this about providing 'Christian' role models, is it possible exploitation (albeit by Christians) or honestly seeking to make the Gospel relevant to young people in their cultures.... please let me have your thoughts. One rumour that came to us was that the group had just split up - (that explains the absence of the fourth woman seen on the CD cover) - obvioulsy more Christian than we thought!

Pete Greig - left us with a 7 point list which for him are the marks of being more human, in Christ,  'in the neighbourhood'. 

I reflected afterwards that the Word became a human being not a Christian! (Discuss)

Friendship (Jesus liked being with people, parties, listening etc)
Humility. (Jesus saw the extraordianry in the ordinary 'out there'. 'If only I had time....')
Pace (Sabbathing in a cash rich but time poor society)
Place (Jesus OF Nazareth)
Skill (The value of work - 7 day faith)
Learning (Jesus only answered 3 of the 183 questions put to him)
Fun (Pain is inevitable - joy has to be worked at - so let's make it a discipline or does that spoil it already?)

Some may say yes but how: Pray (get God's eyes), People (see what God sees), Places (see where God is). My summary but would encourage you to get the CDs to get the full, more eloquent and coherent picture.

'Jesus did not come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human'. (Hans Rookmaaker).

Having said all that please, (if you can fit us in), say one for us as we continue to seek God's way forward.