Middle voice ministry

megachurchThere has been a lot of debate with the CofE over the past few months that orbits around the agenda of church growth. The Green Report which was made public earlier in the year, though not primarily about church growth but about preparing people for senior leadership and responsibility, drew a huge amount of criticism for what was thought to be an unhealthy emphasis on the language and techniques of enterprise and business.

More recently there was been a significant debate on the nature of church growth and the role of leadership to bring it about. On my own Twitter feed I was able to witness a sharp disagreement between Ian Paul and Giles Fraser on the relative roles of church, vicar and God in bringing about/or not bringing about growth.

One common response to the Green Report was to criticise its lack of theology. It was in my view unfairly accused of jettisoning theology in favour of the techniques of enterprise simply because the document contained little out and out theology. Defenders of the report replied that it did not set out to be a piece of reflective theology but a contribution to a conversation in which theology was clearly an inportant partner.

Theological reflection on these issues is precisely about dialoguing theologically with experiences learnt in other fields. That is one thing the church does so well, and Justin Welby’s leadership experience in the oil industry, which has been subtly maligned by some in the light of the Green Report, is something we should welcome at a strategically critical time.

But theologies can overreach themselves and become deaf to realities and experience, particularly when these threatenderelict church a strongly held position or expose a weakness or a wound. Whilst Giles Fraser’s piece on the theology of failure was a powerful and brilliant re-emphasis of the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not the whole story. Success and growth in the Kingdom have a gospel trajectory of downward mobility and resurrection. Success is not necessarily an empty church, with the weeds growing through the floor. Success is a church that has experienced failure, perhaps even emptiness, with courage, faith and the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Success is a church on a journey through the cross and the grave and out the other side (perhaps over and over again).

I would want to add another theme to the debate however. As well as good entrepreneurial leadership, and good theology we desperately need good spirituality, good Christian spirituality. This will be a many faceted thing. It will however be something unique, something particular to the nature of church leadership. In light of the current debates there is one aspect of this I would want to try and describe.

The church growth agenda does throw up huge challenges for church leaders. Not least the question – what might I do to enable my church to grow? There are no end of recent books written advising the church leader on what he or she might do. At the same time we are fond of praying in the light of Psalm 127:1 ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain’. Work hard. Pray hard. Work and pray hard. And what will be the end result? Growth? Perhaps? But at what cost? Exhaustion, burnout, depression, disillusionment? A generation of church leaders who can produce results but no-one wants to imitate?

Much of the current language of growth errs far too much on our natural inclination to do something. To be the architects of our own success. We might give the nod to God for doing it all, but as something of an afterthought. Eugene Peterson explores this same dilemma through an insight from the nature of Greek verbs (well he would wouldn’t he!). Greek has passive and active tenses. But it also has a tense that is lacking in English, the active-passive tense. It is what you might call a ‘middle voice’. The middle voice describes activity where ‘I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates

Actively participating in the results of an action initiated by another –  that sounds a lot like ministry!? Ministry earthed in good theology. It is Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s church which he has founded but which we are graciously invited to actively participate in. We therefore minister with a healthy scepticism toward too much activity rooted in the active tense, where it is ourselves constantly initiating. We are also not inclined to embrace a theology of complete passivity, for God’s grace suggests an invitation to join in. He has something for us to do! We therefore seek to practise an active-passivity, a ‘middle voice ministry’, that encourages us to hold our initiatives lightly, reflectively, humbly and honours the initiative of God highly and reverently.

Prayer handsFor me the key to practising this active-passivity is prayer, not so much prayer of the intercessory kind, though that is important too. No, prayer of the contemplative kind. Prayer whereby we are predominantly in listening mode, listening for God’s initiative so that in hearing it we might more confidently participate.

Bishop John V Taylor wrote a generation ago, ‘we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned divine initiative into a human enterprise’.

There is nothing wrong with human enterprise, but everything wrong with it in terms of Christian leadership when it becomes untethered from or outpaces divine initiative. To guard against this happening we must rediscover our middle voice. We must become contemplative leaders, able to lead in an enterprising fashion, but from a place of deep listening.

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Screen presence?

mobile phone walkingWe live very near a primary school and witness the twice daily rush of parents and children arriving and leaving. I remember this daily routine. It was frequently a point of stress, getting two children out on time and navigating our way on foot with the requisite supplies for the day was always a challenge; lunches, PE kit, homework bag, money for non-uniform day, forms for the next trip etc. etc. I don’t miss the pressure of that every day.

On the other hand I do miss the fact that the school run afforded me a good hour of time with my children that was uninterrupted. The mile(ish) walk to school every day was an obligatory opportunity just to be with my kids, attending to their agenda, listening to their stories, embarking with them on their imaginative adventures, playing their games. I’m not perfect. There were times when I was in a hurry and the school run felt like a chore. Times when I got crabby at the endless need to dawdle for some other reason of unnecessary wonder. But there were also times when wandering home from school, taking our time, stopping at all the irrelevancies that children discover, was a treat and a privilege.

No doubt the school run for today’s parents is still a mixture of hurry and joy. But another key ingredient has now entered the fray – the smart phone. Its addictive qualities in this arena seem to me to be just one way in which smart phones are threatening out relationship in a very fundamental way. I watch as parents pick up children and walk the pavement away from school with one hand in the hand of a small child and the other hand holding a screen in from of their face. One parent parks her car early before the school gates open and spends 15 minutes scrolling on her phone whilst her kids play up on the back seat – every day. Parents take their children from the school and walk to the park a short way down the road and, whilst their children play, remain firmly attentive to their phones.

Now the thing is, I get this, I fight the addictive qualities of my own smart phone all the time. I think I’m winning – my wife doesn’t! And I think that the smartphone and early parenthood are a powerful coincidence of distraction and boredom. Because, let’s face it, parenting kids at that age can be mindless and boring. We get to the end of a day of endless demands, chores and childish monologues desperate for an adult conversation. I am pretty sure that the allure of social media and the convenient way in which the smart phone gives us something to occupy us whilst we carry out life’s mundane chores would have been as much as attraction to me as it is to those parents I observe around me.

Besides, our house, replete with Wi-Fi and a smartphone for each of us is now a similar context in which the boundaries of time and space which make for real connection are constantly challenged. It feels like a constant battle with my two teenagers. But if I’m honest, it is a battle for all of us, to dissect the connecting life-giving opportunities that access to social media afford from the isolating, disconnecting effect of always being lured, virtually, somewhere else.

The marvel of social media is that we can be more present to people on the other side of the world, moment by moment, than ever before. The real challenge of the smartphone and social media is the threat that it is to our ability and willingness to be present to those around us. But the thing is that real presence, real connection with another person cannot truly be made possible through social media. No doubt such connections can point to real presence, be perhaps an introduction or a foreshadowing of real presence, but they cannot be a substitute for the real thing.

However there is no doubt that we are making the connections of social media a substitute for the life-enhancing parent child contactconnection of real presence. The constant white noise of social interaction via our smartphones, some of it significant, the vast majority of it banal, is like fast-food compared to a good meal, elevator music to a Brahms symphony, pornography to true sexual intimacy. It gives the lie to real connection, promises much but under-delivers and lures us into binge consumption of its ersatz fakeness. And why do we do it? Because it costs us very little. True intimacy costs us something of ourselves. Real connection happens when we are willing to be vulnerable and give something of ourselves to the other. True presence occurs, not just when I am in the same space (real of virtual) with someone else, but when I give (sacrificially) my full attention to the other.

Which brings me back to the school run. Like I said, I wasn’t always great at real presence in that daily walk to and from school. Vulnerability and real presence never comes easy, it takes practise and dedication. But when I managed it, it was precious, it was wonderful. And, I believe, it was formational. Truly formational. If children in their early years get the sacrificial presence of their parents they find the world a place in which to thrive – someone else is there for them no matter what, to listen and to care and to make sense of their bewildering and sometimes frightening environment. This is nurturing soil and children can’t thrive without it. Consistently being somewhere else via a smartphone fails to create that crucial context. Not only that, it can have the opposite effect of alienating those who we are with. We all know what it feels like to be with someone who is distracted by a text or a Facebook notification – it has that unerring ability to make us feel we are less worthy, less important than (say) the old school acquaintance who wasn’t much of friend at school anyway. Adult to adult this is annoying and divisive. Parent to child it can be really destructive.

Managing mobile phones and social media is a daily challenge. I sometimes want to throw my lot in with Amish and throw the darn thing off a cliff. But I know I won’t. In fact more challenging and more real is the daily challenge to choose vulnerability and presence with those around me who I love the most. That means making consistent choices to offer my attention to them. And that means putting in some clear boundaries around the use of that wonderful, powerful and irritating slab of black technology which is my phone. In terms of connection and presence to those at a key formational time of life though, I wonder whether that all too brief few years when we make the daily journey to and from school in the company of our children, might not be a mobile free zone.