Category Archives: Fresh Expressions

Fresh Expressions Research

Interesting little video on the Fresh Expressions website regarding the latest research going on through the Church Army in Sheffield.

It’s a useful clip in terms of both its findings and in terms of the way that the methodology being used is explained. Before launching into a bit of a discussion on the findings I’d like to explain why it is a useful teaching tool for students, particularly A Level students doing the Sociology of Belief module.

The clip shows an excellent example of operisationalisation – which is a term which students sometimes struggle with in the theory section of the course. Methodologically it also highlights how the sample has been found and the decision making process involved.

In terms of the findings they have some useful things to say in terms of the secularisation debate (through the higher example of de-churched people than non-churched for example). They also have some really useful things to say about the development of some world-affirming new religious movements from existing denominations or churches and the way that tradition is incorporated into these (with the comments on the role of Anglo-Catholic churchmanship).

Finally for gifted and talented students needing extension work it is useful for developing thinking further around the classification of groups. These groups are still part of a church, (although that church may now better be classified as a denomination), yet they also have features of sects and cults (cultic movements) (using the sociological definitions). It also has some good links to class and religious attendance.

Anyway, enough of letting my inner Sociology teacher out and on with the post. It is also a clip which is good for those of us not studying Sociology but interested in the way the church is currently developing.

In terms of the lay element it would be interesting to know how they are emerging and I look forward to reading the final findings on this. The issue of authorisation and “permission giving” is not mentioned in the clip and this is something I am interested in.

The fact that 80% are engaging in discipleship is not as surprising as I think Claire Dalpra says. In terms of the discussion on how does this happen in Fresh Expressions I found that fascinating as it is an area which shows how the fresh expression/ pioneer conversation/thinking and the existing language/frameworks/ ways of thinking are sometimes in apparent conflict. The pioneers are looking at what needs to emerge and how things might need to be done differently but a new paradigm has not fully emerged on this yet, thus the wrestling which the clip said was going on. I think it highlights that divide that still exists between the reality for the practitioners who are trying to get it done and working out what that means in their own context and those who would like to be able to provide a set of good practice to roll out to people, just to be adapted contextually.

Earlier version edited.

Church for Every Context – Review

Church For Every Context by Michael Moynagh with Philip Harrold, published by SCM came out earlier in 2012 and was one of three books published this year which can be seen as official assessments of where Fresh Expressions and Pioneer ministry are as we come to the end of the first phase of official backing. The other two are: Fresh by David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts and Michael Volland and  Fresh Expressions in the Mission of  the Church a report by the joint Anglican and Methodist Working Party. (This is the first I have been able to get my hands on – having had Third Party get it out of the college library for me to read whilst she was home).

This text takes a theological look at the movement as well as providing a sociological framework to examine the structural basis of the movement.

At 21 chapters and 447 pages of actual text it is on one level very, perhaps too, comprehensive. However, as each chapter takes a different theme it could, in some ways, be argued not to have the depth that it appears on the surface to have. However, it is designed like this for good reason. It is essentially a text book and each chapter ends with questions for reflection as well as signposting the reader who is looking for that extra depth towards further reading.

In taking a macro rather than a micro approach to the subject the book lacks much of the ethnographic material which can be found within other books in the subject including those within the Ancient Faith Future Mission series. That is not to say it is missing but rather mention to it is brief and where reference is made it is to illustrate a much larger point rather than to reflect on a specific form of Fresh Expression or Pioneer Mission.

The key term which Moynagh focuses on within the book is “contextual church” as opposed to Fresh Expressions or Pioneer Ministry, thus getting to the root of what they are talking about.

The first two chapters give a persuasive argument that “contextual church” was the from that new testament worshipping communities took.

Chapter three describes how through the Fresh Expressions movement in particular “contextual church” has re-emerged as a way of approaching church within contemporary Britain.

Chapter four seeks to outline, using sociological material, the nature of culture shift in late modernity and the move to network societies. It is also where a sub-text of debate, which is obviously an ongoing discussion, between the author and academics from the University of Nottingham who have advocated a more radical orthodoxy starts to emerge. This critique of their work and of their criticisms of the Fresh Expressions movement is interesting in that it highlights the way in which academic reaction has not been as homogeneously positive as sometimes portrayed.

Chapters five to ten deal with ecclesiology, the nature of church. Within this section the discussion relating to what is mission and what its relationship to worship should be are particularly interesting.

The book changes nature and tone half way through. It moves from a focus on the foundational theology and theory to examining the theory surrounding and hallmarks of good practice.  The writer reflects on the Fresh Expressions organisation and the wider fresh expressions/pioneer movement together with social entrepreneurial to draw out a set of principles of good practice. In doing this section three essentially becomes a six chapter manual on how to approach forming and sustaining a fresh expression/pioneer initiative.

The final five chapters entitled “Growing to Maturity” change gear again. These chapters engage with some of the critiques and practical issues relating to the Fresh Expressions/ pioneer mission movement which have emerged from within the wider church, (as opposed to within academic theology), over the last few years. Issues such as communion and discipleship are discussed and what is said is useful within a text giving the wider picture, as discussed earlier. However, to fully engage with the issues discussed in this final chapter the reader may find it more useful to look at the  Ancient Faith Future Mission  series which looks at the problems which have emerged through reflection from practitioners. (see here for my review of the most recent book, Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God).

The final chapter Towards the Mixed Economy Church is essentially a call for the continued development of “contextual churches” within established denominations alongside “inherited” churches.

Overall I think it is an important and useful text which I highly commend and I agree with much, indeed most, within it.

However, reading this book did reinforce some concerns which have emerged in the wider context of looking at this movement over the last few years.

The first concern relates to the tension which exists between the DIY culture/ethos of the movement and the power exerted by the “permission givers”.  Is Fresh Expressions an organisation or a movement?  This debate is something Moynagh acknowledges, in passing, as an issue but he is firmly rooted in the language of the “permission giver”. It was something I found interesting comparing the content of the Fresh Expressions conference and ADVENTurous events I went to earlier this month.

The second concern relates to the mixed economy discussion and the way that the focus is almost exclusively centred on people going out to form churches in teams.

Whilst this is what Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry have focused upon I think we are now at a stage where wider issues are emerging which need to be addressed but which are being lost. The key one is how do we help people navigate between spaces?

The discussion within this text and others has been almost exclusively based around how do we move to building “contextual church” but I think it is time to address how we help people who are philosophically and spiritually tied into the “contextual” mindset but who feel called to remain part of the established church to navigate between these spaces and incorporate fresh expression thinking, appropriately, into established church contexts.

Additionally, we need to explore what it means to be called to engage in fresh expressions and pioneer ministry without being called to start a church or community.  For example if looking at chaplaincy there are clear overlaps between this and fresh expression/pioneer mission as it is being articulated here. However, there are also differences as chaplains are external people who go in after negotiating access and who seek to support rather than build intentional new communities.

Then there is the question of how we help people develop their ministry within the cultural context in which they inhabit. What I mean by this is how do we help people who are seeking to simply live out your faith in a context which does not have the same gatekeepers to negotiate entry with, primarily because they already inhabit and are part of this context and they don’t wish to start a church within it. This is what Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger describe as “evangelism as a way of life, not an event.” In Emerging Churches  they have defined this as “evangelism that overcomes the sacred/ secular split of modernity [which] must be a natural part of one’s everyday life.”[i] How do people do this whilst also remaining part of established “inherited” congregations?

To illustrate what I mean regular readers will know that Karl and I live within the mixed economy. We are both “churched” and feel called to remain in and serve God within the “inherited church” through local preaching, amongst other things. Yet, our understanding of what it means to be Christians who are part of the wider church goes beyond this and is much more based upon what is associated with fresh expressions or pioneer ministry thinking. We get involved contextually and as a result find it difficult that we cannot transfer those skills easily into being local preachers, as the framework doesn’t exist to do the listening/ community building when you get sent around a circuit only going to a church once or twice a year.

This whole area is something which Moynagh touches on but doesn’t fully explore. It is something I would like to see somebody engage with because I think it is increasingly going to be important.

[i] Gibbs, E and Bolger, R, Emerging Churches, (2006), London, SPCK, pp79-80

Community sees People

The Guardian had this article on the changing nature of festivals and the way that the head of Live Nation John Probyn has said that the biggest challenge to the industry is that festival goers are becoming too fussy.

I read the article with interest, particularly the part where he talks of it being a good thing festivals getting bigger and control more centralised because it allows the costs including the artists fees to be lowered. He is talking of a particular type of festival and punter. The events he is talking about are the huge big name ones.

However, as David Binder reminds us in this recent TED talk about the changing nature of festivals it is just one model. There is a diversity within the festival market and different festivals attract different people for different reasons. Within his talk Binder describes, primarily, the type of festival which Milton Keynes had over the summer with its Summer of Culture and theInternational Festival which took place within it and which is coming back in 2014 with a large scale dance performance being planned by the new artist in residence Rosemary Lee according to the website. I reflected on the role that artists themselves had in this model, (MKIF for example has heavy involvement from The Stables ).

Then there are the embedded independent festivals like Greenbelt which have a niche market and a loyal following. The way in which most people just got on with the mud was indicative of the way in which this type of festival goer differs from the punter at the big event. There is a sense of community which exists amongst many who attend these festivals which, whilst there at some of the bigger more commercial events, is lost amongst most. I can’t imagine V asking for festival goers to contribute to this type of crowd sourced documentary project for their 40th birthday.

There has to be an acknowledgement that over recent years the festival market has become over saturated and this has put pressure upon many festivals and events of all kinds. However, there has also been as Binder indicates a shift and organic growth of community art which has taken place at the same time. This ties in with the point which one of the contributors at ADVENTurous, (which Jonny Baker has some brilliant photos of within a slide show which can be accessed via his blog), made. That is there is a link being made between the local or hyper local and the global. (See this post for more my take on that event).

It has always been there but in recent times it has emerged more obviously again, almost like a phoenix from the ashes. In part it appears to be a response to the recession and the economic situation people now find themselves in, in part it is because we have the tools of social media and the digital age and in part it is because of something which has been happening on the ground amongst artists and others.

Roger Kitchen gave a talk at a TEDx Milton Keynes event in September where he described the community he lived in. Within it he explained that Wolverton has a strong sense of community and it is a creative place which as old institutions and customs have died has put new events in place. It has benefited from grassroots involvement, including from artists who have often chosen to live in the area simply because of its affordability. There is that hyper local element of community engagement happening.

Reading the initial Guardian article I referred to I was struck by the way that the Live Nation guy just saw artists as another commodity to be obtained as cheaply as possible just like beer. The economic models he is using are those which refer to ‘labour’ rather than people and whose main purpose is to allow the entrepreneurs and owners to make as much profit as possible. In that scenario where art and artists are seen as little more than another supply and demand model variable the consumer will become more picky.

However, using other models where artists are valued as people with skills and something exciting to bring then something truly exciting can happen. Communities can be rebuilt and change can occur.

Within his talk Roger Kitchen What Makes A Community? made reference to the MK Christian Foundation and their social enterprises. This is one example of where the Christian community is working with the wider community and working on qualitative rather than quantitative growth.

The work En Gedi is doing with ADVENTurous, which is described by Gavin Mart 10 mins into this Fresh Expressions clip from the conference the other week, is another example of qualitative rather than quantitative engagement and of how secular artists are working with the those from faith communities. One interesting thing is the way that Mart (and others at the Following the Missionary Spirit conference) talked of permission giving taking place, whilst those doing stuff on the ground at ADVENTurous were making the point what is happening with alot of the new festivals and artistic NVDA projects is people are learning to just do it without seeking permission.

In looking at the arts world and thinking about these things, reflecting in part on my thesis conclusions, I see that what is happening in the festival culture is also happening within Christian culture.

The large churches focused on quantitative growth using market based strategies are still there. They are facing challenges specific to their context, including I would argue from some of the anecdotal evidence you find around the web, a greater pickiness amongst  those worshippers who attend them. If these consumers aren’t happy in one church they are quite happy to travel to another which meets their requirements.

However, at the same time there are several other things happening and a variety of models emerging. There are established churches and congregations changing the way they do things, taking a more relationally based approach which seeks qualitative as much as quantitative growth. These are the churches who are getting out into their local communities again and often coming together as the driving forces behind social enterprise movements. Food banks, (despite their problem of being organisations which meet need rather than challenging the causes of need), are another part of this whole move which is taking place..

Then there are the small micro-groups and communities who are coming together. The people who Studebaker and Lee, in their paper on Emerging Churches in Post Christian Canada describe as the pilgrims.

Different models are emerging in different contexts in both the arts/festival world and the Christian world, and surprise surprise – as they both inhabit the same physical world – crossovers are occurring as communities are being (re)formed.

That’s my take I’d welcome your thoughts and comments.

Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God – Review

Fresh Expressions of Church and The Kingdom of God edited by Graham Cray, Aaron Kennedy and Ian Mobsby is the third book in the Ancient Faith, Future Mission series. As with the other books in this series it is a collection of essays which mixes the theological reflections of practitioners with more academic theological writings on the subject.

Within it the authors are seeking to demonstrate that both ecclesiology and missiology are important and that the tension which sometimes exists between those focusing on Church and those for whom the Kingdom of God is primary is important to recognise but actually based upon a false dichotomy. The volume seeks to explore at how the Church is engaging with mission through fresh expressions.

The book is coming from a predominantly Anglican perspective and some of the debates about fresh expressions of church it refers to have to be seen as occurring within that denominational context. This Anglican dominance is apparent from the introduction onwards where reference is being made to the parish system before talking about the divisions between “high” and “low” church and the way the binary nature of the debate around fresh expressions has developed around the 2004 Mission Shaped Ministry report in particular. The list of contributors to this volume also demonstrates why one would expect it to be weighted in favour of this ecclesiastical perspective. However, most of the time this Anglican underpinning to the text is more implicit than explicit and it is a book which can be commended as an interesting, and at times useful read for anybody to engage with whatever their background.

Chapter I by Archbishop Rowan Williams is clearer and more accessible than some of his academic writings. Within the middle of this chapter he poses three questions which he says need to be carefully thought about “at least as a basis for honest and faithful discipleship.” These questions are:

  • How does the community enable its members to grow in prayer as to enter more fully into the ventral mystery of Christ’s relationship with his Father?
  • Can the community point to something in its collective life that makes a contribution to wider society which would not be made if there were no Christian presence around?
  • How far does the community encourage and enable its members to teach and learn from one another.[i]

Towards the end of his chapter he also talks about the role of communion and sacramentality. The point he effectively makes is that whatever the form of Christian community there are some common themes which they need to be thinking about and engaging with and that fresh expressions as with more traditional forms of Church sometimes make mistakes.

Chapter 2 Communities of the Kingdom by Bishop Graham Cray begins by outlining two competing critiques which have emerged in regards to the Mission Shaped Ministry report one of which basically says it’s too church based whilst the other says it gets in the way of what the Church should be doing. He says that his chapter is not looking to refute the critiques, but it can certainly be seen as responding to them. It can be seen in some ways as a continuation of what it seems he, (as a co-editor), has written for the introduction to the book.

Central to his chapter is discussion of ‘fresh expressions journey’ which he says has five key stages: listening, serving, forming community, evangelism and disciple-making (Jesus as king) and evolving worship.

Chapter 3 by Richard Sudworth who is a pioneer curate in Birmingham is a chapter of two halves. It begins in a very academic way taking the style of an journal paper examining the terminology of fresh expressions and context they emerge in through a mini-literature review. The second half draws on his own experience in Birmingham and tells the story of what his church is doing in the local context and why. This latter part of the chapter, which is can been seen as a good example of theological reflection is by far the stronger and more readable part.

Chapter 4 by Paul Kennedy which focuses on refresh@winnall is quite an in-depth theological reflection on the context in which the writer has been working within which the early church concepts of ekklesia and oikos are explored. It is probably the strongest example of theological reflection within the text.

Nadia Boltz Weber talks about her Denver based congregation “Saints and Sinners” within chapter 5. She gives examples of different activities which take place and through them explores them the complexity of what it means when we talk of being ‘church’. Within this she implicitly talks about the ecumenical aspect as well as the insider/ outsider divide which is often talked about but which in practice is hard to define. This chapter is complemented in many ways by the other chapters looking at North American experience. In Chapter 10 in which Andy Freeman theologically reflects on a visit to the 24-7 prayer movement and their boiler room in Vancouver. Mike Angell talks about the university chaplaincy he has been part of within chapter 11.

The strongest bit of academic theology comes from chapter 6 which is written by prominent theologian Phyllis Tickle. She looks at historical context (both of the early church and the more recent Pentecostal revival) to show how fresh expressions and the wider Emergance strand of Christianity have developed. She then outlines why these can cause the tensions between ecclesiology and the kingdom of God which the book is focusing upon.

Chapter 7 telling the story of CFC, an organisation in Northern Ireland, is the first of two which explicitly refers to addiction and working with those struggling with addiction. This is the most evangelical chapter within the book, and is an interesting case study. It contrasts well with Clare Catford’s chapter 14 ‘Addicted in the City’ which explores the variety of addictions which exist and some of the reasons behind them. She makes the point  we need to “take seriously the addictions we all carry, before seeking to save others.”[ii]

Chapter 8 which contains Diana Greenfield’s experience of working in Glastonbury and the surrounding area is an interesting read which gives one picture of what it means to be a minister today. Another, contrasting, sketch is drawn by Sam Wells a CofE vicar who describes his experience of working in a deprived area of Norwich in chapter 15. Toby Wright’s brief reflection on his experience of being a parish priest in Peckham (chapter 13) also fits into this aspect of the text.

Lincoln Harvey is another academic, as well a vicar, and his chapter (9) is an interesting defence of the whole of the mixed economy and plea for people to move beyond the polarisation which has characterised many of the debates.

Damian Feeney’s contribution in chapter 12 sits slightly at odds with the other contributions, although complementing them. He looks, firstly, at the themes from much more of a ‘high’ church position discussing the way Roman Catholic social justice has and must influence some of the thinking on fresh expressions within other parts of the Church (universal). The chapter then moves on to examining the Corrymela Community as an example of good practice. What he implicitly does here, but which is never fully developed, is look at the place of the models of community which grew firstly out of the Edwardian era, but which were developed further in from the late 1960’s to the mid 1980’s. The influence of these groups including the Iona Community, Methodist Diaconal Order and others and the ways that they share characteristics with but still have unique elements which make them distinct from fresh expressions and new monastic communities is something which I think would make an interesting future study for somebody.

Overall a useful contribution to an expanding body of theological work in this area which isn’t a bad read either.

[i] page 4

[ii] page 159

A Thought On Some Artistic Fresh Expressions

Art’s Central have posted this picture on their Facebook page. It is of an actual poster used during the era of McCathyism in the US when there was a witch hunt against the entertainment industry amongst others.

It spurred me on to a bit of theological reflection on the last couple of posts I’d written about the arts and about the Fresh Expressions conference. They were completely unconnected but in many ways they are totally connected. The post on arts described the truth which is within that poster to some extent about the ability of artists to mix with all classes, with it’s reference to the South London Black Music Project exhibition at the Tate (for example). The Fresh Expressions conference was embodying the message that the Church wants to be in that position of mixing with all classes too, and that one way in which they are seeking to make it happen are through engaging with the arts in places like Colwyn Bay where one of the Venture FX speakers was from. The project in North Wales is called Engedi Arts and they are involved in an mixed media exhibition during December, which appears to be multi-venued in Leeds and Islington as well as Colwyn Bay and is called ADVENTurous.

Other examples of where there is a specific type of spirituality growing out of engagement with the arts include Holy Biscuit in Newcastle and in Sheffield with pioneer minister Ric Stott who explained in this short video put on the Venture FX blog in April how he got involved in pioneer mission.

The relationship between the arts and the church is not new. Over the centuries artists have engaged with religious themes and religious institutions have worked with artists of all sorts. Art in various forms is woven into religion, (however hard some Puritans and their descendents have tried to make it otherwise). This is because for many art does provide a special and specific way of engaging with Christ and with spirituality.

Some such as Ann Morisy in her book Journeying Out have talked about the way “high symbols” have been lost and “[i]n contrast, the current dominant expressive mode, that of low, earthbound symbols, indicates the predominance of a very different world view: our day-to-day expriences are a series of sensations that belong to us and they are part of a world that can be taken for granted.” She goes on within the same paragraph of page 145 after negatively talking about Tracy Emin’s bed and earthbound poetry and gangsta rap to say, “[t]he result is that the sacred or the holy evaporates from our consciousness. This means that it is not just our awareness of God that gets snuffed out, so too do our routes to God.”

When I originally read this passage and the argument Morisy gives I was horrified. For me the Tate Modern is probably the place where I can most get in touch with God. This is partly the space but often because I am able to see beauty and creativity within the most ordinary things, like unmade beds with the degridation and reality of human life around them. However, I now acknowledge part of what she is saying because the obvious God element is often missing from the narratives we see and hear within contemporary “low culture” although religiously imagry is still often creatively and wonderfully used in works such as Banksy’s 2003 Bermondsey Street “pissed angel”. The thing with art of all forms is it can be read in different ways and it will depend upon the background and attitudes of the viewer/ listener how they interpret it. Personally I think this process of interpretation and reading is a very special one which gives room for the Holy Spirit to come and work in a mysterious and wonderful way.

I think what many of the FX style arts projects are doing, together with specific artists who are working with modern art and street art in its various forms, is finding a new expression for what Morisy is talking about ‘high symbols’ doing within the ‘low art’ forms she slates. They are also finding ways to engage with those who find their cultural and artistic tastes excluded within mainstream church culture.

Going back to the poster the irony is that the church is also meant to be something which reaches out to every class and that is one of the wonders about the gospel and what it teaches us. It should have that equally dangerous reputation, because that mixing with all classes is a key part of what got Jesus crucified. If our modern faith and expression of it doesn’t have that same danger attached to it we need to think about why.

I would finish then by arguing artists and artistic fresh expressions/ pioneer ministers have a powerful role in teaching us, if we are ready to listen.

*PS – have just worked out looking at the site that the Engedi Arts site again that the ADVENTurous event next Saturday and at which Ann Morisy is one of the speakers, which I’d in my head just linked with Greenbelt, is part of this.

Fresh Expressions Conference Review

Following the Missionary Spirt was the title of the Fresh Expressions conference held at Holy Trinity Brompton today. It was a conference intended to review where the fresh expressions movement is now and to help point the way forward. The target audience were those involved in Fresh Expressions and in pioneer ministry.

After a little promotional/ informative video explaining where the movement is now Jonny Baker stepped up to give a book review/ outline of the most recent literature. He gave verbal support for the following recent texts:

Fresh! by David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts and Michael Volland

Church for Every Context by Michael Moynagh

Fresh Expressions of Church and The Kingdom of God Edited by Graham Cray, Aaron Kennedy and Ian Mobsby, (which Baker has blogged a review of today – and which I intend to post a review of in a few days when I’ve finished reading it).

He also made reference to another recent post of his which outlined five things he’d learnt as a CMS pioneer trainer. In that he had noted “not fitting in is a wonderful gift.”

There were then a couple of speakers involved in FX projects in Germany and Barbados before a time of worship led by Tom Smith and the HTB band. Then it was on to the key note speech which came from Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke movingly on belonging and a quiet revolution which has been taking place about how we think of the word church. His talk contained the following key points:

Whilst church is renewed from the edges not the middle because no where was more edgy than the hill of Calvary God seems to be moving in from the edges to the centre.

He moved on to talking about missional opportunity and issues around how and why people connect. He made the point that the gospels are about Jesus reaching out to those who feel they don’t belong. When he calls for people to repent it isn’t about finger wagging, it’s more gentle asking people to turn around and seeing that they do belong and are welcome.

He continued that the early church was a network of belonging which could not be mapped to any particular social group. Then he bought it to the present. Fresh Expressions should have as a starting point the question “why should church be interesting for anybody?” If church in whatever form is just a hobby there is no point, we need to get back to missional opportunity where belonging is still an issue. In a society where people still panic about strangers there is a genuine issue of how we view the “other”. He said we need to have a biblical vision of being relational and belonging. He said in a church which speaks of possibility all can belong together and we need to turn around and trust.

At this point I was wondering in light of this weeks events and wider issues in the church whether he was being somewhat idealist, but Rowan is a realist with hope. He went on to make the point that we do still have to sometimes be careful about which churches we refer people to, which is why Fresh Expressions can be useful. However, without the steady, faithful, mainstream inherited church FX wouldn’t be possible. We need mixed economy or mixed ecology as some describe it.

Rowan said he enjoyed listening to stories of people in Fresh Expressions and finding out how people get there. He described how often acts of trust were involved.

Rowan was followed by Martyn Atkins who is the General Secretary of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. He said there is a tension of being on the edge and that there is a value in permission giving and letting people know it is ok to take holy risks. He said the really positive thing about FX has been saying in so many ways “it’s alright”.

He then went on to talk of trustees being gatekeepers with the primary role of holding things in trust and said in times like this it is particularly important. Trustees have a role in encouraging and permitting this holy risk taking but for this to happen a changing mindset has been required.

He was thankful that FX projects are gathering different people groups within and beyond inherited and new churches. The vision for FX isn’t just reaching disaffected radicals it’s also something the bemused regulars are getting. There is now a meeting place where vision and energy meet.

The most striking part of the talk was when he talked of how FX can’t and won’t be explored using traditional tools of theological discourse. At the moment we are analysing them in a way which is rather like using a tin opener to peel a banana. New theological systems need to emerge.

In the afternoon Rowan Williams, Martyn Atkins and Graham Cray formed a panel to answer some questions submitted by the audience over lunch. There was only limited time for these and the FX website will display some wider answers, (one presumes from Graham Cray). Within this section a key point made was that a creative approach to unity is required.

This led on to a “goodbye and thank you Rowan” session which was very moving because the point was made that Fresh Expressions is a significant part of Rowan’s legacy. In view of the way he was robbed of another part of his legacy earlier in the week it needs underlining, what Rowan has achieved with the Fresh Expressions movement is significant. He gave permission and whilst there are debates about what that aspect means for FX projects the truth is permission is linked to resources and without the support of Rowan and others those resources wouldn’t have been available.

Before Moot ended the session with some liturgical FX worship Stephen Lindridge (the Methodist FX missioner) spoke as did some pioneers before Graham Cray wrapped up with a speech which was largely a repeat of his article in last weeks Church of England newspaper. The most engaging of these speakers was a Venture FX pioneer called Gavin who is working with an arts project in Colwyn Bay.

All in all an interesting day which was useful for putting into context how FX are “officially viewed” and how those on the ground and in certain positions of authority,(gained through their knowledge and roles as practitioners and trainers), interact with the authorising hierarchy. People watching was fascinating.

Connected Worship Conference Review

I want you to imagine a pile of crap. On this occasion it can be labelled: frustration, weariness, hopelessness, broken dreams, misunderstandings, doubt, fear, dis-connection, loss and monotony. You are charged with working out what to do with layers of this stuff.

You work out there are various possibilities:

You can get a blunt edged spade and call it a shovel. To brighten it up you might tie some ribbons around it. You can use it to dig a hole to deposit some of the crap in, burning  the rest. Then you might dig another hole to place something new in.

Another approach is to put the junk into a cupboard and pretend it isn’t there as you party on next door.

Alternatively you can examine how others have dealt with this junk and come together to discuss this before going away and disseminating your knowledge to others.

Then you could always acknowledge the crap. You could give stories of situations where this crap has somewhat miraculously disappeared in the past. Then you can return to having a party, after you’ve put barriers up to keep people away from the reality of the offending mess.

There is a final option left open to you. You might get a team together and resource them with good quality cleaning materials. They can approach the crap carefully and gently from different angles seeking to remove that top layer to reveal and restore what is underneath.

The team who put on Connected Worship an event primarily aimed at local preachers and worship leaders within the Methodist Church decided to take that last option.

There were various things about Connected Worship which made it different from many if not all of the various Christian conferences I’d been to over the years and these are the things which reflected how and why that last approach is discernibly different.

The first was the conference wasn’t at a conference centre or site where we came together to communally live. Rather whilst the majority of the event was held in two venues within Warrington we were required to get our own accommodation sorted and engage, however briefly, with the city beyond the conference both physically and economically. This was refreshing and whilst I know there are negatives to this way of doing things as well as positives I found it, on this occasion, helpful.

The second aspect which was discernibly different was the way those attending the conference were valued as people rather than as consumers and potential purchasers of product. There was only one person noticeably promoting his books and even that was done in a low key, “they’re here but they are discounted” way.

We were given “goody bags” when we got there as our conference packs and it has to be said they were random, surreal and useful in equal measure. Beyond the usual programme, map and so on Fair Trade chocolate and cereal bars mixed with mountains of stationary and resources from the local council and crematorium. By the end of the weekend Co-op funeral care bingo dobbers were floating around too.

Friday evening began with worship. Contemporary music and more traditional hymns mixed with gentle liturgy and in your face reflection, poetry and narrative, visuals and silence within the worship sessions. Carefully planned and curated but infused with integrity rather than fake energy. By the end of the weekend the need for sleep was being acknowledged from the stage as well as the seats.

The food was incredible and whilst we’re used to church people doing food well what we consumed in the venue can only be described as extreme church catering. Don’t know if it’s a wonderfully northern thing or what but it was also good old fashioned plain but tasty grub being provided which meant even fussy eaters such as myself were able to over indulge.

Friday evening continued with Sheridan Voysey , an Aussie writer and broadcaster now living in Oxford doing a session on listening to the soul of community. Now I have to admit that Sheridan is obviously a Mac guy and one of the social networking i-pad types who normally I have a mixture of respect for and irritation with. However, he did a good presentation and has gone to the trouble of putting up an area of his web-space linked to the Connected content with resources to help people explore the themes he was talking about further. My conclusion on him was surprisingly that he was a great guy and somebody it was a pleasure to connect with who God is using in a particular way.

The evening finished with more worship and what Karl later told me was something called Compline which the Anglicans use. I thought it was cool.

Saturday was a packed day, with perhaps a little too much in. That said it was all great content as we found our souls being restored. First off worship, then into the first of three workshop sessions. Karl went off to the much praised preaching sessions with Ron Willoughby. Apparently they were brilliant being insightful and useful and with all of the sessions dealing with people where they were.

I was engaging with the world outside and found myself listening to Jonathan Green who is one of the chaplaincy development officers for the Methodist Church and the person who had put together the Chaplaincy Everywhere course I had recently reviewed on here. He started off overly apologetic at stepping in at short notice and so not being as prepared as he might be…although he felt that might be useful. What he actually did was provide space for alot of people who were already practitioners to share. I knew a few people in that group and there were deacons, lay children’s and youth workers, prison chaplains and presbyters all present. What we found ourselves receiving was space to think and talk as people who were already engaging in our various ways with life and communities beyond church. Going back to the cleaning/ restoration analogy it was interesting to see the dirt being loosened during the first session and then to see the hope gleaming through by the last of these workshops.

Ok slight aside here….in light of recent events (which I have blogged here) I was wary of these sessions whilst really looking forward to meeting and thanking the person who had sent me a really encouraging direct message after reading the “not getting the job post”. At the beginning of the weekend I kind of felt God/ life force/ a.n.other was taking the piss somewhat by having me sitting through a set of workshops on chaplaincy. At the end of the weekend and after a major 4am argument with God on Sunday morning I was clearer on a whole load of stuff and thankful rather than irritated I’d been in those sessions.

Anyway I digress and this is already too long a post…still I’m indulging and this is a post I want to have there to look back on and reflect on as well as to encourage others with.

Back to the conference. Saturday afternoon involved major input from Jackie Bellfield who was presbyter of the church we were using as one venue and the worship leader, Roger Walton who is one of the most intelligent, gentle and generally godly men it has ever been my pleasure to know and Helen Cameron who in many ways came across as a female version of Roger but with her Yorkshireness being somewhat stronger.

The session where Roger was the main speaker was talking about reflective listening and faithful theology. It was material I was familiar with having read and cherished his book The Reflective Disciple  but material it was good to revisit. The key text they were working from on Saturday afternoon was Luke 2:19, focusing specifically on what it meant/ means to treasure and ponder.

The next part of this was a “New Song Network” experience, which was worship we were encouraged to reflect on whilst participating in. Have to admit I went into participant observation mode and ended up with 8 pages of notes. Sufficient to summarise that this was a community worshipping together using contemporary material which for me moved in turns from feeling like I was at Spring Harvest, in the middle of a Jazz club and that I was in the middle of one of the James Corden worship sketches from the Horne and Corden show a few years back. That said, the thing was this wasn’t cheese there were the whispered “friends” and change of sounds and moods which are part of a particular type of worship leading but it was different. What was most moving was what was said in between particularly and the interaction with the regulars. This included laughter and heckling but also included a note of apology if anybody found a story she had shared painful. Within the formula there was an unusual level of vulnerability from the worship leader. What particularly moved me was singing Carol of the Star by Andrew M Rudd. It evoked the memory of Cambridge Folk Festival fringe tent on Coldhams Common late in the evening when the main music has finished and people sing along together with the talented open mic performers.

Before the last session 115 of us headed off to a local Chinese buffet. If you’re ever in Warrington I can highly recommend the East Orient. This was a genius bit of conference organisation. Again very unusual and highly refreshing part of the planning.

We were encouraged to reflect on what we’d experienced within the Pyramid arts centre venue, (and not just the gorgeous cakes), in the next session led by Helen Cameron – who I’d not encountered before. Beyond this we looked at a poem by Thomas Lux which was called Refrigerator 1957. I found this particularly moving as it took me back to my childhood and a realisation I was part of the last bit of that generation. Karl, who is younger, found it mind blowing what we talking about whilst the other couple we were sitting about could take it back further and put a number of my childhood memories in a wider historical context. It was a special time which God used to make me think back and smile.

Then there was a bit more worship. By this time to put it bluntly everybody was shattered and whilst it was good because we got to hear some of the creative writing project Sheridan had been working on with some participants it was in many ways a session too far. Was moving but slightly ironic moment on the way home when we saw the pub which we’d just heard about Jesus sitting in being raided by the police. Not sure nearly getting run over by a police van and a police car full of men and women who are getting a chance to re-enact the Sweeney whilst raiding a pub which we’d found lovely when we’d popped in for a drink the night before is meant to be that funny.

Apart a final workshop session Sunday morning was, rightly, dominated by worship. There was an initial session and then later a choice of “traditional” and “contemporary” communion services. Karl headed over to Bold Street to listen to the Chair of the Liverpool Circuit preach whilst I found myself deeply moved in the more contemporary worship. It was space to be with God and receive from him. I can’t describe what happened entirely, but it was like I suddenly had space to simply be in an environment which felt like home…..a home made up of elements from various previous “homes”. By that I mean the songs and worship band were reminiscent of the more evo part of my life, the art and prayer station bits were echoes of the more recent past and present. I was in a space I understood and in which I was fully able to simply relax with God. It was special.

The final session was led by Jo Cox and was one of the best concluding session I’ve ever attended. It wasn’t a hyped up session it was another time where worship and conference talk merged with reflection. Within it Jo made the point that the conference hadn’t been intended to be a package deal. Connected Worship was about giving permission to do stuff where you are and to give tools. It was also, as somebody had said at some point in the weekend, about giving hope.

The restorers had cleaned carefully, through valuing us and sending the message that local preachers and worship leaders are cherished and that as we go about our ministries we need to engage with hope as we seek to help the church engage with God and the culture beyond church he and we are also part of. The difficulties faced in our contexts were never minimised and the focus wasn’t on trite answers, it was on valuing us and giving us space to both connect and worship.

8 Years of Changing Religious Culture?

Faith has been a central topic within this blog and as I spend some time reflecting on the posts it would be wrong not to include a post on this. I want to see what, if anything, can be seen about the changing nature of religious culture in the UK from what I’ve blogged and from the books, conferences,talks and websites which informed those blogs.

My blogging birth in October 1994 was at a time when I was taking some time out of church, unsure whether I was going to return to institutional church or not. I discovered this blogging community as a result of searching around for links which might help me feel connected whilst moving out of the evangelical subculture. There was, as I have already explained this week, some element of this related to the journey I was on of reconciling my faith and my sexuality but it went beyond this. I had come to a point where the songs being sung and traditional evangelical messages I was hearing felt in conflict with the theology I was developing. I would go to Greenbelt and experience the worship / listen to the theology being taught and then find it very difficult to go back to the evangelical, guarded charismatic, church where I increasingly felt like the heretic in the corner. It was only when my wonderfully understanding minister passed me a copy of Alan Jamieson’s seminal text A Churchless Faith to read that I understood that what I was experiencing was part of something larger going on, although at that point I couldn’t place it within a wider framework.

The post-evangelical discussion had been going on since the mid 1990’s (Dave Tomlinson explains how the Post Evangelical was born in 1993 and published in 1995 on his website) although to some extent it can be traced back earlier – as with all of these things there is a strand which can be followed back through history if you look closely enough. The roots of this movement were firmly planted in 1980’s evangelicalism which in turn was highly influenced by a range of things which happened in the 1960’s and had led to the housechurches and new streams. (Rob Warner’s work is good to read if you want to understand the wider evangelical culture which this movement grew up in).

A decade on when I was encountering Jamieson’s, Tomlinson’s and Gordon Lynch’s work the trickle down effect had happened as the books had been published, the websites had started to appear and the talks had become a strong rhetoric. At the same time there were a range of small scale worship initiatives had emerged which were seen to be offering ‘alternative’ or alt. worship or just space to discuss faith in different spaces which were more culturally relevant. In the UK many of these were influenced in some way by the ill fated Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield as Matthew Guest explains in this paper  ‘The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK published in the International Journey for the study of the Christian Church in 2006 which was  jointly authored with Steve Taylor. In the US something similar slightly different was happening. To understand the full picture Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger’s book Emerging Churches is probably best to refer to, especially the short stories of fifty leaders in their own words which is found in Appendix A.

So by the time we get to 2004 the individual spiritual journey’s, alt worship groups, academic work and intellectual discussions amongst church leaders were coming together and in the UK there were a growing number of ‘ordinary’ Christians who were connecting with this in some form or another….I was just one of them – another person in their early ’30’s who was educated to degree level, working in the public sector who was uncomfortable in the mainstream evangelical sub-culture(s) of the time. On the wibsite, Ship and at Greenbelt I found myself connecting with others who were trying to work it out.

The trickle down recognition was also leading at the same time to an official recognition of what was going on and in 2005 the Church of England and Methodist Church launched Fresh Expressions  led by Stephen Croft (as explained in this Fresh Expressions article).

At the same time in the late 1990’s in the mainstream church in the UK and beyond there was a renewed emphasis on social justice emerging as a result of the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, (the latter of which this blog covered in July 2005 when the G8 came to Scotland).

As I see it and I think this blog may have reflected (although it varied at different points) the angst and frustration element which had fuelled much of the post evangelical, alt worship/ emerging church discussion burnt out a little and the aspects focused more on creativity and mission grew stronger.

This is where I think the Fresh Expressions element fed in because together with the Mission Shaped Church report which the Church of England had published in 2004 it meant that within the mainstream UK church and the media/ conferences supporting it there was a change in the dominant conversation and thinking. There appeared to become a greater understanding that whilst those churches were losing members to new church streams (particularly New Frontiers) they were also losing members by the back door as well as failing to adequately grasp and combat secularisation. At the same time I think there was also a realisation of what we already had and what we might be losing if we through the baby out with the bath water.

The upshot is many of those of us who were angsty actually re-engaged with church but often moving to mainstream rather than evangelical churches. For myself it meant moving into Methodism, (something which was a God thing but also I think is typical of what others I am aware of have done in moving from highly evangelical/ charismatic churches into more mainstream churches).

At the same time the evangelical sub-culture itself has changed. There have been various splits and alliances going on which have seen some divisions being left behind and others becoming seen as more important.

The result of these shifting sands have interestingly seen, (if one reads the books) a number of those who were at one point post-evangelical or part of the alt. worship scene offering themselves for ministry in traditional denominations (myself included as regular readers who followed my candidating journey will be aware of). Additionally those denominations and the training institutions they work with are also increasingly offering training and accreditation in pioneer ministry now.

So where does this leave us now? The short answer is in a time of change as a recent post from Jonny Baker (a sort of god-father of the UK emerging church/ Fresh Expressions movement) has highlighted.

The longer answer can be found in 3 recent posts I have put up which combined together I think outline the overall picture:

The first post is a response to a Kurt Willems post which focuses on the development of the emerging church and the way the language/ form of that movement has changed.

The second post outlines the talk on secularisation and follow up discussion which Michael Moynagh gave to Milton Keynes Theology Forum recently. His conclusion is that we are on a knife-edge and it could go either way.

The final post is on evangelicalism and was a response to Adrian Warnock’s post and looks at whether progressives can still claim that Evangelical identity or whether we are now at a place where evangelicalism needs to be more narrowly defined. Warnock’s attempt to refine and narrow the definition can be seen in many ways as an attempt to protect the very aspects which one or two decades many people were seeking to move away from. Warnock is essentially saying as we have moved more into the mainstream the term Progressive Evangelical which has emerged, especially in the US, for those of us who do not want to let go of that Evangelical element of our identity is at best meaningless and at worse something which can cause confusion and stops traditional, conservative Evangelicals such as himself so easily publicly defining themselves.

Michael Moynagh @ MK Theology Forum

Last night we went to the MK Theology Forum event to hear Rev Dr Michael Moynagh  talk on the subject of ‘From Christian Country to Secular State?’. Moynagh is amongst other things the Director of Research for the Fresh Expressions organisation.

He started his talk by explaining how he thinks Christianity and faith more broadly in Great Britain stands on a knife edge at the moment. There are signs of hope and the ability to flourish but there is a serious question mark because the momentum to decline may just be too big to reverse.

The contemporary data he used to map the decline was primarily based upon the work of Peter Brierley and the material on wider historical context of secularisation that needs placing within came from Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain. Using that data he mapped the quantitative decline which has occurred over the last century and highlighted how differences in patterns of attendance on the basis of gender and ethnicity need to be looked at within that overall decline.

He then went on to highlight the paradox which has been created in modern Britain. Whilst there has been this huge decline in both attendance and interest in organised religion the media has created a narrative which is based around fundamentalism verses secular tolerance. There is, he argued, a particular spin given to issues of faith within the media although as with all things it is not all spin there is some element of these stories based in reality. Thus, we are in a situation where allegiance to organised faith is declining but religion seems more in your face than it’s ever been and more people are discussing issues around the place of faith than ever before. We are, as some sociologists have argued, in a place of post-secularity.

He then went on to give an overview of the secularisation debate. He started by focusing on the argument put forward by Steve Bruce that faith is in long term decline. Within this strand of thought he also bought in David Voas work on religious transmission and the concept of “fuzzy fidelity” which means that there is not the strong attachment to religion there was before and that the level of attachment falls from one generation to the next. As an argument to support this he used the Co-op funeral music survey data, (which I referred to in this post).

Next he moved on to outline the argument that the nature of faith is changing. This is the idea that people are moving on to post-institutional expressions of faith and are moving from religion to spirituality. I was surprised that he did not directly refer here to the work of Linda Woodhead who has been one of the main advocates of this view.

Finally, he outlined the strand of thought that says church has failed to adapt and it has been self-limiting in relevance, availability and organisation. He used the analogy of the decline of cinema in the late 1970’s and said that what the organised religion in the UK needs to do is to recognise that it has lost relevance and it needs to change how it does things. He highlighted particular problems which exist are the way churches set rules and in doing so limit accessibility and how invitations to participate are on our terms. He also highlighted that the way budgets are set in churches the bulk of the money is spent on us.

He finished his presentation by posing the question, can the church adapt? If so what would that adaptation look like?

The discussion which followed was interesting and very positive. Within it Moynagh expanded upon what he had said earlier, and I suspect gave us more of an overview of the material within his new book Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice.

Key points he made included that churches tend to have an attractional come to us approach which is discouraging. Whilst there are examples of growth in Cathedrals (which the Church Growth project  I referred to in a recent post is looking to explain amongst other areas) his overall view was that the decline within inherited church will continue. However he was, (unsurprisingly for somebody employed by Fresh Expressions), optimistic about the growth of small new forms of church focused on group whose needs were not met by other churches. He then went on to point out what I think is vitally important inherited forms of church and Fresh Expressions are not exclusive and we need to recognise and encourage the links and overlaps between them. Referring to research in Liverpool and Lincoln he outlined how there were more of these groups than the figures recognised. He then outlined a central strand of his overall argument that whilst the church and its influence could be declining at national level it could actually be becoming more relevant at local level and the difference could be coming from the bottom up.

There is he went on to say no such thing as risk free mission. We are on the knife edge in part because we are faced with the choice of whether we take Godly risk or not. He argued that there is a culture in many churches of wanting to play it safe, but he suggested that this is the argument which will lead to terminal decline.

Towards the end of the session he explained that there is a real issue around how we connect things up. The reality is that if you want to achieve change you have to be organised and so the “anything goes” mentality needs to be resisted. However, that organisation needs to occur with lightness. We need to integrate celebrations and parties. We need to bring different groups and ways of doing things together rather than seeking to pull them apart.

Then he went on to bluntly point out that the bottom of the church is going to fall out of the church between 2015 and 2030 as a majority of current attenders die. And it is the impact of that which we can’t predict.

He concluded the evening by saying “Church is God’s gift to the world. We are called to serve and we need to keep the huge picture in mind.”

Moynagh was realistic yet he was also giving hope. Apart from the male-stream aspect I was refreshed by the evening and agreed with most of what was being said both personally and from an academic perspective. Over the few last years, particularly in saying the dichotomy being set up between inherited church and Fresh Expressions is false it’s actually more integrated, I have felt like I’ve been banging my head against a wall in isolation. Hearing a respected practical theologian who is a key voice in the establishment saying the same thing made me want to cheer.

As a practitioner on the ground seeking to be involved in projects and communities both within and beyond the institutional church it also felt like a really affirming evening.

CLGS info

The Pacific School of Religion is home to the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS). I was interested to read of a forthcoming event they have coming up in November the Transgender Religious Leaders Summit.

There are several things about this conference which have interested me.

The first thing to strike me about this event was the way they define what a leader is, and so who the event is aimed at. They say, “Who is a faith leader? If you are an active member of a faith community and are promoting transgender inclusion, acceptance, and dignity then YOU are a leader!

This definition fits in with one of the sessions which is being run entitled “What Does it Mean to be a Leader?” which is described as follows: “Topic Description: Do “Trans Religious Leaders” really need to be clergy?  There is a tendency to align leadership with the need for PhDs and MDivs. This session will focus on the kinds of leadership needed that fall outside of traditional seminary/clergy credentialing tracks.

I am not sure if the reference to post-graduate qualifications is as relevant in the UK as the US but there is certainly, in the mainstream denominations, a link between academic qualifications in theology and ministry and authorisation. Over recent years there has also been a professionalisation of leadership roles (both lay and ordained), as various theorists have discussed. Even within the pioneer church movement (linked to Fresh Expressions and Venture FX) there has still been this issue of authorisation and professionalisation to some extent with programmes such as the CMS one being introduced to give academic accreditation up to MA level. Therefore, whilst this discussion is related to the trans community it relates to an issue which can and should be more widely discussed.

The next thing which grabbed me as I read the conference agenda was the way that it had such a varied group of contributors. It is inter-faith in the widest sense, including both Wiccan and Jewish contributions, but also very Christian in content.

Then there is the way it is a both an academic conference dealing with biblical and practical theology and an activist/ support gathering by the looks of the programme.

I couldn’t work out if this is pretty much intended as a Californian gathering or whether it is more widely attended from across the United States. If it is primarily Californian then that in itself raises a range of questions about whether there is a west-coast power base which impacts the wider nation.

I, for reasons regular readers will be familiar with, was also interested in the launch of the Transgender Families of Faith Support Group, although I suspect this will be a US based rather than international support group. As the description of the session launching this organisation says, “Topic Description: Gender non-conforming family members impact the entire family. Some of these issues are difficult to live with especially when there are issues of faith to consider. This will be the launching of a new support group for family members of transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Overall this seems to be a somewhat unique event which does not have a UK equivalent. Whilst cultural differences between the US and Britain do need to be acknowledged many of the questions it raises and is intending to discuss still apply this side of the Atlantic and have relevance within and beyond the trans and inter-sex community. For example what is a leader? How do we nurture leaders in a way which is not linked to the professionalisation of ministry or to academic qualifications? How can faith leaders (however we define that) “act as ‘bridges’ to communicate life-changing thoughts and actions” by giving voice to youth within and beyond faith communities?  How can the experience of different groups change or influence our liturgy? How do we create “change within and without spiritual communities?”