Slow Church

The world seems to be getting faster. Everyone is busy. We talk about one day slowing down. We talk as if being too busy is a temporary state of life that needs to come to an end at some point. But life just seems to get faster.

There is some good evidence that things don’t just seem to be getting faster, they really are. In the early 1990’s a team of researchers measured the speed at which people walk in 31 different cities across the world. Just over a decade later another team of researchers repeated the experiment. They found that worldwide people were walking about 10% faster than they had been 10 years earlier. What is clear is that the more advanced and industrialised a city is the faster people walk. As cities adopt western capitalist values and culture people walk faster. Cities in China and the far east in particular rapidly caught up their western counterparts in terms of speed once they had developed along western lines.[1]

The thirst for speed is evident in all sorts of ways. Remember those languid days when the post came once a day and you had a whole day to respond to it? No probably not. But even if emails and social media is all you’ve ever known the sheer volume of notifications and messages seems to go up all the time. But more than that the expectation of immediate response seems to go up with it. We feel we are being rude if we don’t respond quickly. Speed is making its own morals.

Speed not only has a moral value in our culture it also has a monetary value. In the world of high frequency trading (HFT) complex algorithms are used to analyse markets and make multiple trading in deals in a fraction of a second. In this world access to the fastest connections is everything, a few milliseconds difference is worth a lot of money. In 2008, Daniel Spivey was appointed by a hedge fund to find ways of exploiting price differences between the markets of New York and Chicago.  His work was made difficult however because the connection was dominated by others firms. So his firm decided to invest in building a new one. By using existing rail networks to run the connection in as straight a line as possible, digging and blasting the route through any obstacles in the way, they were able to shave 4 milliseconds from the connection speed. Enough though, to ensure that any trader in the same business had to use the connection they had created, making them a lot of money in the process.[2]

Speed is endemic part of our culture. And it has become endemic in the church. Church’s are very often busy places. Truth is we quite like the fact that they are often busy places. We like the fact there is plenty going on – ‘there’s a buzz about the place’. Yet there is growing sense that all this busyness is not good for us. More than that a growing sense that its not good for the church. The merry-go-round gets faster and faster and some of us want to get off.

The thing is though that the merry-go-round we are on does not stand alone. It exists in a bigger fairground of the culture we live in. One which is heavily addicted to speed. American writer Andrew Root argues that our mainline denominations are structured around a way of life that is arranged around a multigenerational congregation, a congregation for a lifetime. We aim to provide services and programmes for different age groups, drawing in people to these programmes and as a result resources to pay the staff and other overheads to make this possible. The problem is that the pace of life in the culture around us has sped up so fast that people no longer have the same amount of time to commit to such things. It’s as if people live multiple lives in one lifetime. Where they may have committed to church on a weekly basis as a family, now multiple possibilities compete for their time and church becomes a once-a-month commitment, or a Christmas and Easter visit. The demands of modern life simply do not give time for the kind of commitment congregational church needs.[1]

This creates a double-bind for the congregation. To survive it must continually draw people into its services and programmes to resource its ongoing life. Growth becomes the main aim for congregations because without growth, without attracting new people, the basis of its life is cut off.  To attract people living in the frenetic culture we will live in the congregation presents itself as busy and happening. That’s the appeal that our busy culture demands. But the reality is that people are time poor. There just isn’t enough time to go around. As a church we feel we have to compete for people’s time because to be busy is to be alive. But when we do we create busy churches that demand growth and wear people out.

In 2009 I started a missional community called Reconnect. We started with 10 adults most of whom had, until they joined us, been part of a congregation somewhere in the town where we all lived. None of them were however leaving church, though their absence at the congregations they were part of would have surely registered. But one thing that was clear from listening to people in those early days was that no-one wanted to repeat the experience of exhaustion they had experienced in the congregations they had come from. These were not people disillusioned with church, or faith. Rather they were people looking for an expression of Christian community that practices what it preaches about mission – and didn’t exhaust them!

Reflecting on our life over the years I think there are 3 principles that have kept us able to do our life together at a humanising pace;

  1. Keep in balance the relationship between worship, community and mission. This has meant having a rhythm of Sunday gatherings that, for example, involves freeing up a Sunday for people to invite their neighbours for lunch or do a community litter pick.
  2. Stop worrying about excellence. Excellence is a value of the consumer church which sometimes gets draped with some spurious theology. I don’t think Jesus was that bothered about excellence. He was most bothered about ordinary shabby people (often those at the messy margins) showing a desire to do business with God. Just be yourself and worship as you are and you’ll find there’s a lot more time to give to other things.
  3. Church growth is God’s business. Our task it to be witnesses of the Kingdom. So much of our busyness and enterprise is an anxious instrumentalising of mission in the service of the church – a worry for our own future expressed in activity to get people to come. Fundamentally we are called to witness to the Kingdom and call people to explore being disciples of Jesus – the church is what happens when we do that – its not the main focus.

A funny thing happened when the first lockdown happened. The world was forced to slow down. Overnight, for many, lockdown enrolled them on a busyness detox programme. And people in those days had time for the kind of self-awareness and reflection that opened up space for God to work. We saw incredible numbers of people engage in prayer and access online services in those days – party because of a sense of crisis no doubt, but partly also because stopping and slowing brought space for the soul to breathe and find its voice.

What if we the church held our nerve and modelled a different rhythm and pace to life. A slow church? A church at a humanising pace? A flourishing pace? Maybe speed is one element of our culture that we need to be in but not of.

[1] Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2021).

[1] Robert Colville, The Great Acceleration, How the World Is Getting Faster and Faster, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 1–3.

[2] Ibid., 235–36.

Five Smooth Stones for Missional Community

I lead a small charity called Poole Missional Communities which since 2008 has been exploring and experimenting in mission amongst people with little or no background in Christian experience. We talk a lot about missional community as the kind of basic unit of mission in all we do.

What is a missional community? Here’s our working definition:

Missional Community is a flexible term to describe a group of Christian disciples who form community with a particular missionary purpose. A common commitment to prayer and living out the Christian faith together are the basis for their mission as a community. Mission can be to a particular place, a particular age group or subculture, or around a particular mark of mission e.g. care for environment, social justice.

More recently we have sought to describe some of the principles of missional community. Because missional community is not really a form but what happens when a group of people intentional set out to share life and ministry together with a common set of values inspired by the gospel.

Recently I was reading 1 Samuel 17, the story of David and Goliath and started to reflect on the connections it was making for me with missional community, particularly in the times we are in. The context of 1 & 2 Samuel is of a significant shift in the life of the people of God as the time of the judges morphs into the era of the Kingdom of Israel. Israel asks for a king, just like all the other nations, and God reluctantly gives them a king. But there is a constant theme of the small, weak and unlikely being chosen over the strong one who looks like the sort of person a king should be.

So, similarly with David and Goliath – David, the youngest of all the sons of Jesse, who has already been chosen to succeed Saul comes against the classic powerful warrior. He rejects the armour of Saul – another rejection of the normative cultural expectations of kingship – and advances on Goliath with nothing but a sling and ‘five smooth stones from the stream.’

Sam Wells has written on this story, reflecting how the church in our age continues to think we should be Goliath when really, are we not called to be David? – small, vulnerable, armed with nothing but five small pebbles and a slingshot – and our faith?

I believe the church is being called into a time when it must learn again to trust in the small, the local, the relational and in the rather ordinary business of building connections and being neighbours and loving people in the midst of their lives. We have trusted too much in the big and the flashy, the technique and the enterprise. But the world hungers for authentic human relationship and for an encounter with God that is embodied and trustworthy.

So what might be the ‘five smooth stones of missional community’? Here’s my take:

Small – Christian community that is small enough to enable us to be ‘one another’, to adapt quickly to the changing world around it, to be participative and foster belonging.

Slow – Christian community that rejects the accelerating pace of modern life with event and programmes that must always be better and more popular than the last, that doesn’t exhaust people, that is humanising and spacious enough for the voice of God to be heard.

Local – Christian community that is local and deeply attentive to its context, not just so that it can respond to a perceived need on its own terms, but so that in can join in with the story of a place and make authentic connections between the life of a community and the good news of the Gospel.

Simple – Christian community that is earthed in people lives, the kitchen table, the back garden, the cafe and the street that is stripped of all the accumulated hindrances of buildings and staff teams and therefore simple enough to give space for relationships to be the priority.

Hospitable – Christian community that is open – open to the leading of the Spirit, to building the Kingdom in partnership with others, to conversation and dialogue as means of doing mission with others, to discipleship as a journey together into which we invite others as co-learners.

That’s my take for the moment. Its a work in progress. My hope is to write something fuller, perhaps a book to flesh this out further. If you have a take on ‘5 stones for missional community’ I’d love to hear it. Thanks.

First Swift after the Pandemic

I’ve decided to experiment with writing some poetry in a regular form. I prefer free verse. But there is something about the uncertainty and unsettled nature of the last year that draws me to find a form to guide me.

So (at the risk of setting myself up to fail!) I am going to try and write a sonnet once a week for a bit. Its ages since I experimented with sonnets. Funnily enough the last time was 20 years ago when our son Jacob was in hospital during the first year of his life. I wrote a series of 6 sonnets during that time which found their way eventually into my first book ‘Life from Death Emerging’. The expression of what we think and feel at times of upheaval and uncertainty benefits from form, from being contained, from having a safe place in which to be expressed. Contrary perhaps to the normative thinking of our own time, forms don’t always restrict, the right forms can liberate.

Anyway, I suppose this poem came from seeing a swift last week flying hard against a cold north wind and thinking that I so needed to see it. There is that famous line from Ted Hughes poem Swifts: ‘They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working’. Perhaps that was at the back of my mind. But it was something about the brute fact of nature’s rhythms and miracles against the backdrop of this past year that struck me as I lifted my head to see this first swift. It was oblivious to all we’ve been through. It was here. Because that’s just what swifts do.

First Swift after the Pandemic

What did we go out for? To the fringe
Where the uncertain tide meets the dogged flow
Of the river? And at this time?  Hinged
As we are between then and now,

Between one world we thought we knew
And now struggle to recall,
Between what we thought was fixed and true
What seems like Eden now, through the lens of the Fall.

Perhaps we came for indifference
For the familiar way the reeds sway,
Like a wave of roiling luminescence,
For this, as it was, and is, always?

And for the return of the swift,
Making landfall over the shore, as though nothing’s amiss.

An early sloe

It feels like this is a long winter, locked down as we are, waiting for the days to lengthen and for a freedom that we hope will arrive along with spring and warmth. The seasons have become close to us. In our forced hibernation we are more attentive to the work of seasons than perhaps we have been before.

Seasons disarm us from our attempts to control. You can’t rush spring. There is only waiting. And they remind us that there are seasons to life that only waiting will bring to a close or open up. We live with the malaise of living too long in a culture that feels it can grab what it wants whenever it wants it, disconnected from the uncertainty of seasons.

Its the same I think in life of faith and in the life of the people of God. Sometimes there is only waiting and in that waiting trust. These are spiritual and communal winters which form us if we are minded to live in them and into which the stories of former communal winters play an important role. I have been living in 1 and 2 Peter this winter, listening to this letter as one to a scattered, persecuted minority whose hope was not in the next conference or church growth seminar, but in the promise of return of Christ. And I have been reading Belden Lane’s wonderful book ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ which opens up the long importance of wilderness and barrenness in the Christian tradition as places where real and deep spiritual growth happens. He quotes Gary Snyder: ‘Great insights have come to some people only after they have reached the point where they have nothing left’.

I wrote this poem as we moved into winter and as an awareness grew of the lengthening winter of Covid for society, for life, and for the church (which will surely emerge from this very different to how it went in). It is so tempting to feel there is some great thing we can do in this season to prepare for spring, or hurry it along. I suspect though we are being invited to wait and pray, trusting in the God of all seasons who invites us to be faithful in winter or in summer.

                                   An early sloe
 Close by the smothered ruins of the parish church
 The sloes are swelling early,
 Full blue promises of autumn
 With their patina of frost,
 Portents of the age to come,
 The dark hours in the heart of winter
 Waiting for the earth to tilt its hinge
 And fall into another year.
 In all things seasons.
 In all things flux,
 Between time dormant,
 Time flushed and verdant.
 Sometimes the meadows ring with hymns
 From village folk walking back through cattled fields
 To cottages and hearth.
 Sometimes a gravestone drowning in bramble
 An east wall sinking into stands of hazel.
 All is not lost
 The sloe blooms early, 
 The chiffchaff fall on the thickets round an old church gladly
 As the summer turns and winter feeding grounds
 Draw them southward,
 Creation groans and the Spirit
 Bends the grass, the trees, the sallow flax, 
 Which fills the gloaming
 With the promise of another time, another dawn. 

Ambition for 2021? – be more human

Funny that I haven’t heard to many people talk of New Year’s resolutions this year. I guess everyone is taken up with the enormous pressures and anxieties of Covid. Besides, it takes a certain kind of stability to make resolutions – to say that, “all things being equal, this ought to be possible”.

I guess for many of us, and certainly for me, when we talk about ambitions we think about things we would like to achieve, goals we would like to meet, aims would like to fulfil. Yet one thing about the past year is that our confidence in meeting the usual aims that we often set ourselves has been shot.

At the same time what our experience of Covid and lockdown has meant for many is a reappraisal of what is important. Locked down in our houses, unable to realise that dream to travel to such and such a place, unable to develop that idea, stripped perhaps of the usual agency to do things we want so – we have had an opportunity to rediscover the gifts of time, of unhurriedness, of the people around us, of neighbourhood and solidarity with people in our street.

Some time ago I wrote about ambition in a book called Stepping Into Grace. I had come across an amazing piece by a Rabbi called Joseph Soloveitchik1 which develops this picture from the creation stories of two kinds of human. The human of the first creation story (Gen1) is the human of material domination and manipulation, the human who looks at the world as something to find resources from with which to achieve and create (Gen 1:28) . However the human of the second creation story (Gen 2) is the human of relationships, community, a human who recognises that the flourishing of life happens in the midst of these connections and depends on them. I concluded at the time that whilst the second vision of humanity seems nobler and more holistic, it is also true that the first vision of humanity has enabled so much in terms of the development of civilisation and so much that we now take for granted in terms of a good life. The Gen 1 vision must therefore serve the Gen 2 vision rather than be moved on from.

I have since come across Iain McGilchrist’s amazing book, The Master and His Emissary2. McGilchrist, who taught literature before retraining in medicine and developing an interest in neurobiology, develops a thesis about the differences between the hemispheres of our brain, a thesis that connects remarkably with Soloveitchik’s two visions of humanity. McGilchrist basically argues (with extensive reference to the scientific literature) that the two hemispheres of the brain provide two very different ways of being attentive to the world. The left-side is rational, calculating, systematic, focussed and attends to the world in order to grab what it needs from it. The right-hand side is all about the bigger picture, ambiguity, the relationships and connections of the world, the ‘between-ness’ in which the reality of life takes place.

The really interesting thing that McGilchrist does though is to take this theory into the realm of philosophy. He argues that the west has become a culture dominated by the left-brain’s view of the world. Furthermore, this dominant view becomes not just who we see the world, but increasingly how we make the world, ie how the world is. However, a proper balance of these two ways of being attentive to the world is described by his governing metaphor – the master and his emissary. The right-brain with its big picture view of things in conversation with one another is the master, who sends his emissary into the world to get what it needs and manipulate the world toward new outcomes. And it is in retaining the right-brain perspective as the master that is key – because in doing that we are able to hold our tendency to see the world through our own limited lens in relationship with others.

So what does this have to do with ambition? Well perhaps Covid, and all that has happened in the past year is something of a wake-up call to our left-brain dominated world? Our rational and calculated plans have been cancelled and we have been invited to inhabit a world of greater ambiguity and interdependence than before. We have been invited to recalibrate toward a more right-brain world, a world shaped predominantly by community and relationships not gain or grabbing.

So rather than putting our resolutions on hold until it all blows over – perhaps we should resolve to lean into what we are being invited into? We are being invited to be more human, not less. To discover that to be made in the image and likeness of God is to have this drive to work and achieve, but only in service to a humanity that is connected and interdependent. Where our contribution, and our perspective must come into conversation with that of others. How about aiming to be more right-brain in 2021? Read more for pleasure. Draw. Sit still. Listen to music, without doing anything else. Go for a walk with a neighbour. Walk your street and just notice things about it. And when your left-brain argues that that doesn’t achieve anything – just ignore it.

  1. Joseph Soloveitchik The Lonely Man of Faith (Random House, 2006)
  2. Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary (Yale, 2010)

The future of church is not a new form but a new ‘imaginary’

In these turbulent and unprecedented times for the church two questions, related to each other, have gained immense attention. What is church? And, what is the future of church?  As church buildings have been closed and people have debated the importance of gathering physically in an ecclesiastical space for worship, the conversation, whether about the Eucharist, or about sacred space, is really a variation of the one question – what is the church? Likewise as we have begun to see new forms of church form online, hybrid forms of church evolve as people find ways of gathering in gardens or public space whilst also connecting via Zoom, and as institutions start to forecast the financial impact of the virus on resourcing the church, the conversation is really a variation of the question –  what is the future of church?

But in all these conversations I often feel we are starting from the wrong end of things. We tend to start start with forms. We start with the forms of church we are familiar with and then ask – can these new forms that are emerging legitimately be called church? Conversely, we see the old forms that are dying or restricted in their expression and ask, can church without these forms really be church?

However, the church has never been about form – in the sense that you cannot define church by its form. The church has had as many forms as time and cultural context have fostered. Duerksen and Dyrness in their book Seeking Church explore the history of church and argue that every church form is really a product of the conversation between Scripture, tradition and context. So for example, the early church form, based around communities meeting in people’s homes was shaped around the collegia, the voluntary associations that were a feature of Greco-Roman life, particularly in urban areas. Early Christians took that form and adapted it for their expression of church. Likewise the congregational model of church that is normative for the church in the west has deep roots in the social and political contexts of the Reformation, with varied levels of rejection of the political control of the church by the state and an emphasis on individual choice.

The church has no form that exists outside of its cultural context. The church is always provisional. The church is an emergent phenomena in history.

In the west is we have inherited a dominant form of church which (whilst if covers a whole range of dissimilarities) you might describe as a congregation that meets in dedicated space and the range of expressions of Christian life oriented round it. The issue is that it’s hard for us to imagine anything different. And the problem is often that we turn what is really a longstanding cultural expression into something that acts like a benchmark for the very nature of the church.

We have what you might call an ‘ecclesial imaginary’1 – an internal and deeply embedded way of seeing ourselves as the church in the world. Our ecclesial imaginary is the unconscious, often unthinking way in which we live out our identity as the church in the world. And our ecclesial imaginary in the west is deeply influenced by the form of church that has emerged and evolved since the Reformation and in the era of modernity.

What I genuinely believe is that we are being invited to explore a new ecclesial imaginary for a new cultural era in the west. And we are being invited, by the Holy Spirit, to lay down our assumptions and prejudices about church forms in order to allow space for new forms to emerge from this imaginary. I have summarised how I see these ecclesial imaginaries in the diagram below:

What characterises this ecclesial imaginary more than anything else is the place of the church’s agency in the world. One of the key theological developments of the 20th century, the missio Dei, is coming into its own in the 21st. In this ecclesial imaginary the church is not seen as central to the mission of God in the world – rather it is God by his Holy Spirit who invites a more peripheral, or eccentric (that is ex-centric) church to participate in the flow of transforming, reconciling life in the world as the Kingdom comes into being.

As John V Taylor put it ‘our theology would improve if we saw the church being given to the Spirit rather than the other way round’.

On the differences between these two ecclesial imaginaries a great deal of our present debates and conflicts arise, particularly around the degree to which the dominant paradigm of the last 500 years should be resourced, whilst the Spirit continues to invite the church into new territories that do not immediately promise to deliver along the rubrics or metrics of the past. This is where the friction lies. And it is not a case of out with the old and in with the new – but a recognition, in our multivalent cultural context, that both these imaginaries must find a way of living together in a way that enriches the other, for the sake of the Kingdom.

1 ‘Ecclesial imaginary’ is a riff on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginary’ which he describes as ‘the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories and legends, etc.’ (The Secular Age, 2007)

Is pioneer ministry a ‘neoliberal destruction’ of the parish system?

A recent pair of articles by the parish vicar and commentator Giles Fraser certainly caused a lot of heat – though, as ever, in the world of social media rhetoric and hyberbole, not a great deal of light.

Being accused of a pernicious campaign of ‘asset stripping’ toward the ‘neoliberal destruction’ of the parish system’ might simply be brushed off with a laugh were it not for the fact that a great number of people, judging by the comments that followed the article, seem to think this might well be the case.

Fraser’s article began life with the tweet of a job ad in the Church Times for 2 Associate Archdeacons in the Diocese of Sheffield. It carped at the managerial tone of the language as a symptom of a deeper malaise of business-speak in the church. It was Michael Northcott however who poured petrol on this spark of cynicism. His retweet interpreted the ad as part of a ‘corporate strategy to hollow out an organisation with managerialism by dissolving its historic processes.’ Despite no reference in the ad to Fresh Expressions, or pioneer ministry however Fraser’s subsequent article for UnHerd makes the FX/pioneer ministry movement the chief protagonist in this enterprise.

Which to anyone involved in the movement is quite frankly hilarious! But whilst I’m tempted to change my Twitter handle to include #neoliberaldestoryeroftheparishsystem I would rather we took Fraser’s argument at face value and provide some responses.

Fraser’s narrative construction, which will lead the uninitiated to the door of neoliberal destruction, is that a) evangelicals have never liked the devolved power of the parish system and b) saw the centralisation of finances into Diocesan control as another obstacle in the way of their vision of the church c) came up with Mission Shaped Church in 2004 as a way of by-passing the whole lot and create a kind of parachurch. Again, put plainly, and to those involved in the movement from 2004 (and before) onwards this is ludicrous. But let’s respond anyway:

Firstly, anyone who has read Mission Shaped Church will know that, whilst it was written for General Synod and therefore for an audience concerned with the function and ministry of the church, it contained a great deal of cultural reflection and theology. It was essentially a work of practical theology, not a manifesto for a parachurch organisation. That said some of its recommendations for the church were swiftly implemented.

Perhaps the closest thing to a suspect in Fraser’s crime story might be the Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO). This new piece of legislation gave permission for the development of Fresh Expression across parish boundaries. They have provided the basis for the structures, alongside parishes, as a means to create new expressions of church. But that is not the same as parachurch. I lead Poole Missional Communities, the holder of a BMO, which hosts two Fresh Expressions and supports a number of (self-supporting) pioneer ministers. But let’s be clear – its is a Bishop’s Mission Order. Within the legislation there are clear points of accountability with the authority of the Bishop and with the synodical structures of the Diocese. BMO’s are not parachurch, floating somewhere apart from the parish, they are intergrated and in dialogue with the parish system.

Secondly Fraser’s contends that huge amounts of resource are being ‘stripped’ from the central organisation of the church to fund pioneer ministries and Fresh Expressions. Whilst it is tempting to response with a blurted ‘as if!’ – lets respond more reasonably.

The experience of virtually every pioneer I know is of a Diocese whose policy is that attendance has to fund ministry. Funding for pioneer work almost exclusively comes from Diocesan mission funds and hypothecated funds such as the Strategic Development Fund (though more on that in a moment). Most pioneer and FXs are under the pressure to reach sustainability with 5-7 years – which without the advantages of legacies or donations from wealthy benefactors which was the provenance of many parishes – is, on the whole, wildly optimistic. I am now a self-supporting ordained pioneer minister. I live in my own house. I know a good many pioneers who have similarly found creative ways of funding their own ministry in order to fulfill what they believe is God’s vocation for them.

Furthermore the vast majority of fresh expression are within parishes. Overseen and supported by parish people, parish resources, accountable to the parish vicar. The last significant piece of research also found that the majority of these communities are led by lay people. In other words i) they are part of the parish and ii) they do not cost the parish a great deal of money!

Finally if it is the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) that is in the dock, seeing as the Church Commissioners agreed to access the capital of the fund (not just the returns on investments), then it should be clear that i) pioneering is the Cinderella at the ball of SDF, most money goes into congregational church planting ii) the criteria for a successful SDF bid is now even more strongly oriented toward ‘resource churches’ in large urban centres. I shall just leave that there.

But perhaps this also makes clear some unclarity in categorisation. Whilst there may be some slight overlap between pioneering, fresh expressions and ‘resource church’ planting, on the whole they represent distinct networks and approach the challenge of mission in radically different ways. (See the work Tina Hodgett and I have done on the ‘pioneer spectrum’ for a fuller explanation). To elide the HTB network and the proliferation of resource churches with Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry is a basic category error.

But let me finish by taking on Northcott’s interpretive lens of ‘neoliberalism’. To support his view Northcott references Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. Which is interesting because MacIntyre in the same book makes the case for ‘living tradition’ ‘as an historically extended, socially embodied argument’. He argues that tradition to be true to its calling as a faithful custodian of truth and virtue must allow creative dialogue. The narrative of any organisation must be a dialectic, not a monologue. Pioneers and leaders of fresh expressions are not the agents of some neoliberal plot to hollow out the church. They are to the church what creatives and saints have always been, prophets at the edge seeking to faithfully improvise, in dialogue with the traditions and structures of the church, in new contexts and a proliferation of emergent cultures, to keep the tradition alive.

Is coronavirus a threshold event for the Church?

Last week Chelmsford Diocese announced it was bringing forward a planned reduction of clergy numbers from 2025 to the end of 2021. 60 clergy from a present total for the Diocese of 275 will be but in the next 18 months – that’s just over 20% of the current number. The Diocese cited the financial pressures created by Covid-19 as a key reason for the decision. Similar kinds of decision are being considered, if not being made, up and down the country as the financial impact of coronavirus starts to become clear.

I have been involved with numerous conversations in recent months about the future of church ‘after’ Covid-19. I say ‘after’ because we may well be living with Covid-19 for some time to come. And ‘after’ Covid, that is without the virus circulating and with a tried and tested means of treating and eliminating any reoccurrence, will undoubtedly be a world living in the long shadow if its presence and impact.

In that sense I wonder if coronavirus may well be a threshold event for the church. What does that mean? In organisational change theory ‘threshold events’ refer to events that tip systems into a new structure and a new way of operating. Increasingly sociologists, borrowing from complexity theory in different scientific disciplines, see organisations as complex self-organising systems. Organisations are less like machines and more like organic environments where flows of information and conversation take place. Different flows are dampened or amplified within such a systems. A system’s stability is formed around a set of governing principles held within the relationships – what some call a ‘dominant logic’ or ‘attractor’. New information or circumstances can be absorbed into the system and the system can adapt. But systems under pressure begin to move into disequilibrium as new information, new ideas, or new circumstances challenge the dominant logic and begin to invite the system into a new formation.

It is in these circumstances of disequilibrium that systems can change quite quickly with the occurrence of a ‘threshold event’. These events can be quite small and have a disproportionate effect on the system – the classic theoretical example being the butterfly flapping its wings in one place causing a hurricane thousands of miles away. In another example cited by Michael Moynagh in his book Church In Life, a group of young adults got together and started a breakfast for homeless people in the basement of their declining inner city church in the US. It started with a handful of organisers who funded it themselves. The initiative was not suggested or planned by the leadership. It just happened. But over the next 15 or so years it changed the whole ethos and vision of the church, from a declining white bastion of conservative theology to a growing multi-cultural place of worship and witness in its inner-city neighbourhood.

Covid-19 is not a small insignificant event. Its huge. But its context in terms of the Church, already struggling with issues of decline and sustainability, already under pressure and in disequilibrium, means that it may well be the event that shifts the Church into a new way of being and doing.

If this is the case, what are the implications? I think it means asking a different set of questions. We need to ask what a new dominant logic might be?  What candidates are out there for a faithful way of being church that may well be more suited to the world that is to come? Has the age of digital church arrived? Will church affiliation be more blended than exclusive, a mix of digital and local, gathered congregation and neighbourhood presence?

For those in leadership this theory of organisations invites a humility and vulnerability about our own human agency. We would better see ourselves as stewards and storytellers. We would do well to ask – where do I see new and faithful forms of church emerging that are responding well to this evolving world? How can I weave their life into the ongoing story of the church?

Finally, whilst concepts like the ‘dominant logic’ of a system or organisation come from sociology this is not about selling out the future of church to a social theory. Instead it opens up a conversation in which the creative presence of the Holy Spirit can be listened to. It is in the conversations and flows of relationships within the Church where the Holy Spirit mediates the presence of God and speaks ‘from the future’, inviting the church further on in her journey. It is in the threshold places that the Holy Spirit so often speaks and shapes the future. Are we listening with ears to hear where the Spirit is leading?

Pioneer parables – The Farm

I’ve been experimenting with the parable as a story form. In his book ‘Parables as Subversive Speech’, William Herzog talks of different kinds of story. Myths create a social world. The apologue is a form of story that defends (provides an apologetic for) a social world. Action stories (ie novels etc) explore the world. Satire begins to poke fun and question our assumptions about our world. But parables are designed to subvert a social world and help lend imagination and credibility to the building of alternatives. He argues that this is precisely what Jesus is doing in the gospels, telling stories of subversion that expose the injustices and up-end the assumptions and normative practices of the time in order to create the possibility of a new social order.

In so many areas of life we are crying out for new social orders, new cultures, radically new ways of being and doing that are not just tweaks or adaptations of the status quo, but whole new paradigms of principle and action. These paradigms seek to be faithful to the purposes of the old, but achieve them in very different and imaginative ways.

The church is no different.  And whilst we can argue about different ways of doing; different techniques, structures, financial plans etc. what we need is a new paradigm. Reason, argument, protest, prophetic action all have a part to play in that. But perhaps parable might have an important place too.

There was once a farmer who managed a large arable farm on behalf of the owner. The farm was losing money and its future was uncertain.

The farmer invested in the best machinery and used the best fertilisers. The farm was amalgamated with neighbouring farms to reduce costs. The farmer did all these things and worked day and night every day of the year. But the farm continued to lose money.

Then one day the farmer said ‘I know what I will do – I will stop growing crops and I will listen to the land. The land is dying and everything with it. We will work with the land and with the God of creation and see what happens’. And she let the land breathe and allowed herself some rest.

Then the farmer called a meeting to communicate her plans. She sold all the machinery and laid off all the staff.  The staff were angry and said the plan was crazy. Other local farmers heard about the plan and shook their heads. Word reached the landlord about the plan and he wrote an angry letter saying ‘The farm needs to pay its way!’ and that the farmer wouldn’t have his support if she carried on in this way.

Then the farmer said ‘I know what I will do – I will introduce ancient breeds of cattle, horse and pig to graze the grass, and to trim the trees and to till the soil.’ These breeds had been largely forgotten but some in the farming community still knew about them. They managed the land naturally and fertilised its soil and new life began to return in amazing and surprising ways.

So the land continued to heal. The trees began recovering. Insects returned; butterflies, moths, beetles, bees. Birds began to nest and thrive.  The call of the turtle dove was heard once again.

And then the farmer welcomed people onto the land. They walked its paths and sat under its trees, they listened to the bird song and witnessed clouds of butterflies.

And many of them went home and became like the farmer. They listened to their land and worked with the God of creation. And watched to see what the future brought.

You can read another pioneer parable here.

This story is inspired by Wilding by Isabella Tree, which tells the story of the rewilding project on the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Something I’ve also blogged about in the past.


Life That is Truly Life – IV

‘Sleep is my greatest enemy’ (Netflix Tweet, April 2017)

‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Bible, Luke 5 vs 16)


The entertainment world, like everything else, found itself adjusting to the realities of lockdown. Unable to create new content, soap operas ran out of content and the broadcast schedules started to fill with repeats. However, there has been something of a resurgence in programs about creativity and about nature. I have discovered the discipline of drawing and am now trying to sketch something every day. This has been inspired by the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art Club which each week offers a theme for people to explore their creativity with.

What is the connection between lockdown and this resurgence of art and nature? We have time, yes. But we are rediscovering something far more fundamental – attention.

The modern world seems hell-bent at robbing us of the precious faculty of our attention. We multi-task, respond to a spectrum of communication channels almost simultaneously, address an endless deluge of notifications and devout ourselves to avoiding getting behind the curve and staying ‘on message’. All at breakneck speed and invariably whilst constantly on the move. We are living in what many are calling the ‘attention economy’. App coders, streaming services, smartphone manufacturers compete in a world where the key resource is not so much our money but our attention. In 2017 Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings argued that their chief competition was not HBO or Amazon – no, he said, ‘we’re competing with sleep’. And, he added, ‘we’re winning!’

Attention is so precious – that we are being robbed it of it every waking (and increasingly sleeping) moment, is not just a pragmatic challenge, it’s a spiritual one. For everything truly life-giving, loving, profound and true about being human is built on attention. To listen is to give attention. And to listen is to love. To love is to give attention. The deepest love is the love that offers one’s attention without contract or utility, but just for the other. And to be loved, accepted, welcomed, grounded in the world is to be given attention – to have someone, or a community sit with us and say you are worthy of our undivided attention.

Phones can’t do that. Netflix can’t do that. They suggest they can, but it’s a lie – and a very expensive one. And that feeling you get when you get to the end of binge watching a Netflix series or a new level of Candycrush, that mix of weariness, disappointment and shame – that is the cry of your soul that knows the difference and yearns for the real thing.

Lockdown has brought as up for air – it has reminded our withered souls that the people around us in our homes and communities, the nature in our gardens, and the insignificant things like the view of the carpark, or the way the dog sleeps in the frontroom, these things with the benefit of our attention yield an abundance of life, true life.

Jesus got the fundamental need for attention. He was busy. Crowds followed him and people constantly drew on the limited resources of his time, energy and attention. He regularly withdrew to spend time in lonely place to give attention to God ‘his Father’. He couldn’t keep offering attention unless he was attended to. And in his teaching he kept inviting people to ‘have ears to hear, and eyes to see’. In other words to give this attention. He wasn’t in habit of giving simplistic rules or easy religious laws. He invited our attention –  our lives, our love, our presence. All our attention flows from this fountain of attention, the steady, unchanging presence of God – if only we might stop long enough in our distracted world to offer it to him.