#breakout notes from Jonny Baker

23 09 2011

For those who want to follow up more of Jonny Baker’s stuff from Breakout go here


#breakout – Day 2: what I didn’t want to hear!

22 09 2011

Day 2 of Breakout has been good but I’m beginning to feel a little conference fatigue! If you want a fuller set of notes about what Johnny Baker has been saying then visit Andrew Dunlop’s blog here. I haven’t taken any notes (because I don’t do that kind of thing) and unfortunately, my mind has been taken up with an awkward undercurrent of thought:

You know when you think you’re on a trajectory and you feel comfortable and at peace with the direction and speed of that journey?

Then you hear something that sits uncomfortably with that trajectory?

And then you hear someone else say it (and there is no way that they could have conspired)?

And then another?

And you start to wonder is this some cosmic mind? Or just the trending conversation?

And then you think ‘well even if it’s the trending conversation’ and nothing to do with a greater force – surely I need to take it seriously’.

Well that’s kind of happened to me!

As regular readers know, I have struggled with the idea that the inherited church (which for me is The Methodist Church of Great Britain) has released a few pet pioneers into the world and told them to be brave risk takers only then to tell them that if, in the end, it doesn’t look and smell like a Methodist Church it ain’t a church! or at best if it doesn’t look and smell like what they say a church should look and smell like – then it isn’t a church!’

And I’ve struggled with the inequity of theological discourse where inherited models of church have chosen both the model and the place of theology (which, as a colleague pointed out to me, is how you win battles!) and so, I felt that what pioneer ministry must do, and what would be the end result of this process was the birthing of something new, something that would not be Methodist.

But! Throughout the Breakout Gathering I have been hearing a new song, at first I thought it was the Anglican’s who just weren’t radical enough (which might well be true), but then I started to hear it in other places too, and it started to resonate with my growing understanding of who I am and what I am called to do. And then Jonny Baker went and said it from the platform! Cheers Jonny!!! I’m paraphrasing but he specifically mentioned Venture FX and said something like: ‘I’m impressed with the Venture FX stuff in the Methodist Church, but you pioneer’s are only loosely attached to the church and if you want to make a real difference you have to refound the church from the heart!’ he was speaking in the context of dissenters (read Andrew Dunlop’s blog post).

That’s not what I wanted to hear! I wanted the project to becoming self sustaining as soon as possible and then, if necessary we could grow independently of The Methodist Church. Don’t get me wrong here – this isn’t empire building! My hope was, and still is, for a small missional community that does not necessarily grow in size but has a massive transformational impact in local communities and on people’s lives.

So now, it looks like our little missional community in Stoke is taking off (more on that soon) and I am a member of Methodist Council and other connexional committees/groups and I’ve been elected to conference 2012 and I have been appointed a tutor with a specialism in mission, evangelism, church and culture.

And it got me thinking …

Maybe this missional community doesn’t just jettison itself off in a different direction? Maybe it becomes the place that supports me and funds my imagination as I, alongside others at the heart of Methodism, seek to reclaim and refashion the narrative that is Methodism?

If that’s true then this is going to be messy – because it isn’t simply about rolling over and adopting the status quo, it’s about becoming dissenters at the heart of the community. It means me, along with other pioneers and dissenters will pick the place and mode of theology. Our practice will credit our theology bank and our vindication won’t be because the permission givers have said Yes! But rather in the very act of our performative truth claims (in other words – what we do will tell people who we are – not a carefully crafted Church Document that everyone can sign up to).

Is this the divine trajectory for pioneer ministers? Venture FX? me?

I’m hoping not …

But I can’t stop hearing it …

#breakout – pioneer gathering: day 1

22 09 2011

So for the next couple of days I’m at Breakout a pioneer ‘gathering’ (not a conference) at High Leigh Conference (gathering) Centre. It’s a gathering of pioneers from the Methodist, Anglican, Church Army, URC, Salvation Army …. basically anyone who wants to come!

Jonny Baker is our key note speaker from the Grace and has chosen prophetic imagination as his theme. For the Brueggemann fans amongst you, you will know that Prophetic Imagination is the title of one of his books. For those of you who know me well – you will know that I am a diehard Brueggemann fan!! So – this is all good news to me (see my post here on Divine Imagination).

So how’s it going?

Well Jonny was brilliant! And opened up some great ideas and themes. None of them were particularly new to me but it was good to have them aired in this environment. What has been interesting, as is always the case with these kind of conferences, is the conversations in other places. One of the breakout groups was particularly interesting.

I was in a group of about 14 people (3 of which I knew well) which included Salvation Army, Anglican, Church Army (and Methodist) folk. we were each in very different situations from rural ministry, parish based curacy, youth ministry, artists, cell church, church in the pub, missional communities … there was a lot of spirit-activity on offer from these 14 women and men!

The question came round, as is inevitable with a bunch of pioneers, about the relationship between the work we are involved in and The Church. A conversation developed with, on one side, a cry that we are called to love The Body of Christ and, therefore, work within the mixed economy/mixed modes of church; and on the other side a longing to birth something new that might well leave the parental nest and head of in its own direction.

We ran out of time and didn’t come to any conclusions, but one strand of thought that developed at the end was about genuine honesty and integrity between the church and Fresh Expressions/pioneer work/emerging church. Let me give you an example that was used last night:

If the Methodist Church believes that the core purpose of Venture FX is to give the Church a heart transplant – then we are likely to find ourselves in a mess in a few years time. However, if Methodism believes that it might be birthing something brand new, and that it is likely to be in a painful and costly labour for some time, then an argument and fall out might be avoided in the next decade. Why? Because we were honest enough in the first place and no-one was betrayed or hoodwinked down the line.

The Salvation Army confirmed this from his own tradition. He said that when they began planting out 10 years ago they were expecting clone copies of the same, but instead they ended up with churches, birthed by the Salvation Army that didn’t wear uniforms and even baptised! So they shut them down, lost a lot of passionate and experienced ministers and wasted a whole shed load of money! And then realised that they couldn’t stop this thing ….

So is this pioneer/fresh expression thing unstoppable? And is The Church capable of that kind of shift?

It reminds me of a question that my physics teacher used to ask ….

What happens when an unstoppable force hits an unmovable solid?

More later ….

Round 3 – why not?

8 09 2011

Fascinating day today!

Firstly, the beginnings of a missional community have grown beyond embryonic and are starting to take shape. This has been the result of a lot of conversations, a lot of false start and a lot of hurt – and I suspect that is not the end of the conversations, the false starts and the hurt. This news is not entirely unrelated to the rest of the post but it is kind of stand alone!


I have spent today defending, explaining or correcting my previous blog post! Which is good – I’ve enjoyed it, but rather than add more to the comments stream (and thanks to @drgeorgemorley and @RicStott for leaving comments) I thought I’d write more here.

Firstly, an apology to Pete Philips. It has been suggested that I tried to set up Pete as a traditional laggard and Kester as a Jedi knight hope for the future. If that did come across I didn’t mean it to! Those who know Pete well will know that he has stood up in many council and conference meetings and defended the work of pioneer ministry and fresh expressions. I was trying to show that these conversations are erupting across The Church and more has been written here, here and here and trying to relate some of my thinking to what they had written. I stand by what I wrote (for now) and I am still worried about who decides who does theology, where and how? I’m also concerned that the church pays little attention into reading what lies behind those that challenge it and even less attention to their sources and methods. In Barbara Glasson’s latest book The Exuberant Church she writes of communities such as the GLBT community and those who are survivors of sexual abuse:

But these communities, on the whole, do not sit easily with the church. They are an uncomfortable presence. They cause the institution to be challenged to new ways, just as I have been challenged to minister amongst them. I know that in being alongside these diverse and troubling people, I have also had to re-examine the masks I wear in my role, that I have to acknowledge that I am not what others assume I am, that I have moved significantly and profoundly to a new way of understanding mission and the church, and that this process means that I hang on in the institution by a thread – as do many of my colleagues. But rather than despair of the church. I sense there is a real source of hope – if we can attend diligently to these prophetic communities and learn from the process of ‘coming out’ – that I am beginning to see as both profoundly human and deeply of God.

The emergent’s are not in the same category as the communities that Barbara is speaking of and it would be insulting to even hint at it. But the language could describe the relationship between inherited models of church and emergent thinkers and the effect emergent thinkers are having on the church. I can highly recommend the book for those who, like me, are struggling to hang on in the institution but are wary of being labelled an emergent (or anything for that matter!)

Back to my opening sentences – I was speaking to one of the possible members of this new missional community who has been burnt a few too many times by, what she called, ‘conservative Christians’. I showed her my blog and after she read it she said ‘so what’s the fuss about?’ – there is a thirst for this stuff and a desire to think and be different to that which has gone before. The form and content of such a future? …. who knows?

One last thing – I am not saying that emergents, pioneers, or fresh expressions are the answer to some kind of crisis in the church and I do not know of any Venture FX pioneer who would make such a bold claim.

For now, all I can hope for is that the conversation continues, that the church leans closer to hear fully those disruptive voices and that those voices find a confidence and a coherence to articulate themselves fully; and that both will be humble enough to live with alterity and not assimilation.


Ding ding – round 2: Emergent’s vs The Church – a question of authority.

6 09 2011

In order to make sense of this post you will need to read carefully Pete Philips’ post and Kester Brewin’s post.

In many ways it’s the healthy backlash of Greenbelt conversations that are now made more public through social media than might have been the case in the past. The debate centres round the Emerging Church and its relationship with what is sometimes called the inherited church (the church today as it has been received through the various traditions). This post is not an attempt to define the emerging church movement, but there are certain names that are associated with the movement who can help you gain a better sense of it such as Maggi Dawn, Kester Brewin, Andrew Jones, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Pete Rollins.

Part of the argument is that emergent thinkers do not take seriously their inheritance. In fact, some might say that they consistently and intentionally deconstruct the inherited church and its theology and rewrite its own rules and structures (or lack of them). But this raises some serious questions that both sides need to pay more attention to. For instance:

  • Where does authority lie?

If, let’s say, emergent’s begin with philosophy and theologians begin with the bible then they are likely to end in different places. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a classic example – let’s just imagine there are only four sources for theological enquiry (Scripture, reason, experience and tradition). Depending on which one of these sources you begin with will depend on where you end up. Let’s use the controversial issue of homosexuality and the church – if a person wants to reflect theologically and they choose to begin with scripture they are highly likely to find texts that confirm the incompatibility of the Christian faith with same sex relationships. However, if that person begins with experience and that is of knowing well someone who is struggling to be a person of faith and a homosexual they might well find themselves in a different place to those who begin with scripture. Why? Because they place a greater emphasis on experience than they do on the biblical text. Experience has greater authority than scripture. Neither is right – but they began in different places.

So do the emergent thinkers and the theologians of the inherited church believe the same about authority? And where it lies? I suspect not and we might be in danger of comparing apples with oranges.

Something else that lurks beneath this discussion, and something I’m very uncomfortable with is a Christendom sense of power that assumes that the church needs to subsume everything (even language) so that emergent thinkers will ‘come over’ to the light. The church stands its ground and eventually others will see the error of their ways and become more like us.

More could be said …

  • What is the purpose of theology?

This has been an interesting debate in the field of practical theology. Paul Tillich believed that the context (the world) provided questions to which Theology would provide the answers. In that sense the purpose of theology was to answer the problems of society. Seward Hiltner was influenced by Tillich but took a different approach he believed that the context ought to change the theological assumptions so that both the context and theology could be transformed through enquiry. Today we have Ballard and Pritchard, Emmanuel Lartey, Stephen Pattison etc. Who want to see a much greater dialogue between theology, context and other academic disciplines. What I suspect is happening in the emergent vs church debate is that theology is being used differently and for different reasons by the two sides. Is this apples and oranges again?

More could be said …

  • Why have the emergents emerged?

This is a serious question that people like Phylis Tickle are beginning to open up but I don’t think academia has taken seriously enough. I can only speak for myself here, but my narrative does resonate with other practitioners. The reality is – theologians have let me down! They have failed to provide the resources and conversations necessary for me to make sense of my faith and my context, and, therefore, I have been compelled to begin to pen my own. In fact, I was trained to do so! – I was trained not to be a Methodist Minister but a theological reflector, and then when my reflections lead me to a place the church doesn’t like I am labelled a liberal, an emergent, a heretic (take your pick) – it’s the alpha model of evangelism: ask any question you like but this is the answer! So are the likes of Peter Rollins offering alternative (and negative) theologies because the theologies they have inherited are not fit for purpose? It says a lot (either about me or about the church – you choose) that the most stimulating Christology book I have read in the last couple of years is by Philip Pullman!!! It is interesting that in my Methodist tradition I am being asked to ‘take holy risks’ as a pioneer and practitioner, but our theologians are not given the same instruction. Instead out theology remains safe (although one exception would be our thinking around the Palestinian/Israeli debate). But not only does it remain safe, it fails to match my experience or context. Next year the Methodist and Anglican church will produce a document exploring the ecclesiology (the understanding of church) for Fresh Expressions. I have no idea what this document says but I am worried about it – I’m worried that it will not resonate with my practice and experience. If it doesn’t then I might need to re-assess where I sit in relation to the church. But … more worrying still – what if this document doesn’t resonate with the experience, theology and practice of a whole host of pioneers? Does that make the theology wrong? Or are we in need of correction (like the heretics we are!). Or will we have the courage to pen our own ecclesiology (which takes us back to Kester Brewin’s post). Or, even more worrying … what if it is so bland that we can all sign up to it!

The crisis of the church isn’t simply about outmoded worship, and outmoded structures – it’s about outmoded theology. The thrust of Kester’s post and the end of Pete’s post ask if those who want to identify with the so called emerging church are willing to articulate with a much greater clarity and confidence what they really believe and unless the theologians of academia and the church appreciate and are attentive to the needs of those known as emergent – there will be no dialogue.

More should be said …

Now here’s the disclaimer: This is huge! And I may well have misrepresented certain stances and I may well not agree with what I have written here next week! What I can be sure of is that this post hardly scratches the surface and this issue will not go away!

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