Chasing Francis [Part 3]: Community

31 03 2010

The second principle Cron holds before us for an emerging church is community. And here, I think, I’m struggling. It’s not so much that I don’t understand it … it’s more that I can’t do it – or at least it costs me so much to do it properly. I have often preached at baptisms of children whose families barely darken the door of a church. It is a difficult context. Do you offer something that will attract them to come again? Or do you offer something that will feed the regular worshippers and reassure the baptism party of all their prejudices? (I know that the dynamics are far more complicated, but you get my jist). I usually end up saying something like this

If you are searching for a way through life, money problems, relationship problems, lack of self confidence, worry about kids, stress at work – anything that makes life a long, hard haul rather than a Fabreze advert. Then come and journey with us. We too are trying to figure out the best way to live, we too are struggling through life (desperately trying to move from survival to living) and we too are engaged in the messy business of being.

It never works. They see through it straight away. I think they know that if they came to church and proclaimed their stuff (‘me and the wife had an argument yesterday because she caught me looking at porn!’ – kind of stuff) then the church would blush, then get very defensive (or offensive – attack is always the best form of defence), then begin to quote scripture (or something like that!). I once heard a minister recounting a session she had led with other women on faith development. As she turned to write something on the whiteboard, she heard a woman say ‘the problem is, there just isn’t any love in the Church’. She said that she felt her heart had just been crushed.

Cron wants us to consider other aspects of kingdom community. He suggests that we are peacemakers and that we reject any notion of just war theory. He wants us to be very wary of the money we have and to ask ourselves if we buy into the ‘I shop therefore I am’ philosophy. I was a t a conference recently where Bishop Graham Cray suggested that if the church doesn’t make disciples then the world will through consumerism. We were all nodding in a kind of ‘he’s-right-thank-God-I’m-different’ kind of way. He then said ‘let he or she who hasn’t bought themselves something to make themselves feel better cast the first stone’. I felt like I’d just being caught lying by my dad! Cron goes onto ask if we can live radically generous lives. To give away all we can both in physical and personal resource. To give to others in such a way that it is clearly a radical alternative to the predominant way of living.

I know this stuff. I want to belong to a radically generous, peacemaking, journeying community. A group of people that can be so honest with one another and love one another into being. A community that loves people for who they are rather than for what they might be But I can’t! Why? My theology gets in the way, my ethics get in the way, my own fragile self gets in the way.

But that’s no reason for me to stop trying or longing for it. There are Christian communities out there that live such radical lives, and I yearn to be part of one in Hanley. Whether I pioneer it or find it already nestled in the mud and thorns of life.

So I keep journeying … always attentive … finding others who are travelling in a similar direction.


Chasing Francis [Part 2]: Transcendence

30 03 2010

In a previous church I began to create Labyrinth’s in the worship space during Advent and Lent. After the first attempt a few others joined in and eventually a team of us became quite good at creating God-Space. The labyrinths weren’t brilliant (you wouldn’t take them on tour!) and they weren’t new (about 1500 years or so too late!) but they were effective. Those who journeyed the Labyrinth were moved, some quite visibly, and many had to journey towards difficult territories of the heart and mind as well as deal with inhibitions and a fear of the new and strange. My purpose, I thought then, was to enable people to travel further into the heart of God and to meet him in a place that was closer to their hearts than their minds. Reflecting on it now, I think I still payed homage to the God of Church growth! I did want people to experience something revelationary, but I also longed for people outside the church to start coming to church because of it.

In Cron’s Chasing Francis, the first of five principles he identifies in an emerging church is Transcendence. It seems to me that the Protestant Church needs to rediscover this facet of spiritual life a little more intentionally. Cron makes a case that we will not convince people’s minds of God, but there is a chance to persuade people’s hearts. We do that by creating Space for encounter. Space for Otherness (Elaine Graham calls it Alterity in Transforming Practice). At a recent conference I heard Rowan Williams speak of the need to enable others to enter into the space that God creates.

I knew this way back when I was learning the art of Labyrinth. But somehow it had moved into the back of the church growth cupboard. I’m a theologian at heart – I love to deal with God in my cranium and hope that he trickles through my soul. I don’t want to lose my ability to reason and think theologically, but nor do I want to think my heart out of existence. I need to find a way to compliment both my head and my heart.

As Cleopas and the unnamed one walked to Emmaus, they found themselves in the company of an Other. The Other explained to them the scriptures and later they reflected that their hearts ‘were set ablaze’. Head and Heart – someone capable of reason and yet attentive to the Spirit – a Reasonable Charismatic!

Another challenge I face, in pioneer ministry, is how do I create moments of encounter and alterity for those who have yet to discover the riches of the Christian tradition and narrative? John Wesley claimed that Holy Communion (The Eucharist) was a converting ordinance … but somehow I can’t see that being entirely relevant in Hanley. Or at least I would have to do a lot of creative thinking to help it be.

Chase, the minister in Cron’s story says

To create faith producing moments, we need to reacquire some of the practices and attitudes Francis did. We also need to learn from other Christian traditions that emphasize different ways of encountering God, and integrate the best of their practice into the life of our church. No, we’re not going to abandon theology …. but the days when we could rely only on rational argument as the entry point to a relationship with God are fading fast

Chasing Francis [part 1]: A personal response

30 03 2010

I have finally finished reading Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (Navpress 2006) (ISBN 13:978-1-57683-812-9).

This is my story: I was at a Fresh Expression Conference in Lincoln. In Archbishop Rowan Williams’ speech he mentioned the book by Cron. At first I thought he had said Crom so I came away from the conference searching frantically for a book by Crom about St Francis. Eventually, (after about a week) I discovered my error and found the right book on Amazon. By now, there was something deep within me that yearned for this book that I couldn’t find; my joy at discovering the book is ludicrously indescribable! It was as if I knew that it would be a major building brick in my continual formation. I ordered the book from one of the Amazon suppliers only to be sent an email 2 days later telling me they were out of stock (why do they put it on Amazon??!!). I re-ordered from another supplier only to be told the same thing (this time a week later); eventually I found a stockist and within 2 days received the coveted book!

As I read, it immediately had an impact on me. It is a novel about a young minister (39) who had a crisis of faith. It wasn’t the fact that he stopped believing in God, it was more that the Jesus he thought he believed in was beginning to unravel. He had a growing sense that there must be more to this faith business than what he was currently experiencing. In the end the minister broke down in front of a packed church and declared his faith-less faith. He then, through a complicated twist of events, ended up spending time in Italy with Franciscan Monks retracing the steps of St Francis of Assisi. By the end of the book he identifies 5 principles he wants to see within a church transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning.

The beginning of the story so mirrored my own that at times it began to scare me! But, I will always remember this book for reminding me why I got into this Church thing in the beginning. I learnt a lot about St Francis, but I didn’t really learn anything new about what I believed about Jesus, faith, and church. Rather, I rediscovered something of the beauty and wonder of faith that somehow got lost in institutional church. I reclaimed for myself the Jesus that I came to know so many years ago and ditched the one that the church had coerced me into adopting. When I say the church I mean those in local churches who, with my help, managed to get lost in an internal logic that turned Jesus into some kind of egotistical, worship needing deity and the church into a group of people who loved property, increasing, worship fuelled adrenaline rushes, and winning tickets into heaven.

For those struggling to find home in the church and desperately trying to hang onto a faith perspective framed by the character of Jesus of Nazareth – this is well worth a read. It would have been easy for Chase (the main character and minister in the book) to take one of two options; to abandon the idea of a deity and the narrative of Jesus or to carry on believing the same story he and the church had been peddling for years. Instead, he took the brave (and most difficult) decision – to rediscover Jesus in a new context in the light of experience. In doing so he has to unlearn that which he took for granted; he has to challenge his own assumptions, prejudice, motive and desire; and he has to get his hands dirty as he (Re)discovers that being a disciple of Jesus can only be learnt on the job.

As you can see – I’m a bit of a fan! And this is not the most critical of reviews; but I wanted to lay a bit of a path so that I could spend some time blogging on each of the 5 principles that Cron outlines.

You can read the series of reviews here:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Playing Chess

16 03 2010

I had a good day today. I met up with a fellow Pioneer minister whose working with Urban Expressions. Apparently, there are two Urban Expression Pioneers in Stoke. We shared our journeys so far (He and his wife have been in place for 6 months or so) and there were many points of congruity in our narratives. We both had experienced the joys and pains of church based ministry; we both had a passion for working in urban areas (although never really served in one in our past ministries); we both felt that we had been told to be patient over the last few years of our ministries; we both had a passion for Stoke and the people of Stoke; we both recognised a need for listening and bedding down before we did anything; we both felt that co-operation was the default position for pioneering.

It was good to have a conversation with someone who still believed that God was capable of doing something ‘in our midst’.

It confirmed something that I have been wrestling with for a while. It seems that God has, for a number of years, being actively bringing together the right people in to Stoke in order that something (and I have no idea what) might happen. In and around Stoke many communities and individuals have been raised by God over many years. It now seems that that these individuals and communities are coming together in a way that can have a real impact throughout North Staffordshire. As well as the Pioneers mentioned, we have The Galley, Taste and See, The Beacon, The Potters House, Swan Bank, Cross Rhythms Radio and Saltbox. There are also many other faith based activities going on.

But why am I wrestling with it? The problem is that it does not fit neatly into my theological framework. I’m not convinced of a God of pre-destination. I find it difficult to believe in a God who knows exactly what’s going to happen and engineer’s creation to bring it about; like moving chess pieces around a board to make that decisive check mate. I find that kind of God difficult to worship. Instead I prefer to think of God’s omniscience in terms of The Cosmic Mind of God in which all possibilities are possible (I think I picked that up in my early days of theological enquiry in God, Chance and Necessity by Keith Ward).

Yet it seems that God has put the right people and the right communities in the right place (and I believe there is more to come!) so was this part of some master plan? Am I just a pawn or a knight (certainly not a bishop!) on a divine chessboard? Or is it more likely that those who are tuned in to the missio dei are drawn, like Moses to the burning bush, to divine activity? If the latter is true, then there is no need to keep praying for God to ‘break into the city’; rather we ought to assume He already has … I just don’t always see it.

Divine Imagination

14 03 2010

If you click on the re-imagining the church link above you can see a paper I gave at the Chester and Stoke Methodist District Synod last year. The paper was offered as an attempt to begin to think more theologically about the ‘mapping the way forward – regrouping for mission’ process within our district. For those not in the know – mapping the way forward is a course of action that the Methodist Church has being on for some time now. It is primarily about restructuring the church in order to make it more efficient and effective in mission and over the last year the emphasis has moved away from mapping and towards mission. However, there is, in my experience, a lot of resistance. The process demands circuits and churches to ask questions of themselves about their ability and capacity for mission. This obviously raises some concerns and even doubts for loyal members of local churches. Instead of embracing a bold new future, they would rather sit out the present (even if it is a death fulfilling present). This paper was an attempt to encourage others that God has not finished with us yet! Or as one fine writer once put it

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.

The power of prayer

13 03 2010

Kid’s have just rushed in from the garden screaming ‘Dad! We just prayed to God and he stopped the wind!!!!’

Apparently, they have just built a den and the wind kept knocking it down. They sat inside and asked God to stop the wind in order that their den would remain in tact! They said ‘as soon as we asked him –  it stopped!’ then the youngest cried (looking out of the window) ‘It’s started again’ let’s go out and pray’. With that they all rushed off.

I suspect Jesus was right when he held up a child as an example to us all. I only hope that as they grow up … I grow down.

Stationing Art

13 03 2010

One of my fellow pioneers, Ric Stott, has organised an art exhibition for holy week. It’s at Banner Cross Methodist Church, Sheffield. Sunday 28th March – Saturday 3rd April. Ric’s vision is to pioneer new Christian Communities within and through the creative world of Art. This is his first project since becoming a pioneer minister. This is what he writes:

For over 500 years men and women have been moved and challenged by the Stations of the Cross: a series of images depicting the final hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In this exhibition a group of artists with a variety of world views have come together to produce a collection of works exploring this ancient story.

Should be well worth a visit!

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