#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!

Changing patterns of ministry

19 07 2011

One of the great joys of being a minister (or a vicar) is that you get the chance to diversify and grow in your chosen fields of interest. In my ministry I have been able to pastorally care for rural church communities, for middle class suburbs and in an urban city centre context. I have also been able to explore youth ministry, fresh expressions, church growth, training and education and lately emerging church and academia.

I have been lucky enough to have been a lay worker in the Methodist and Anglican Church, a youth worker for local authorities, a circuit minister, a circuit superintendent, a church planter and a pioneer minister.

In each case it has been important to locate what model or style of ministry resonates most closely with my experience. Lately, as a pioneer minister, I have felt the call of the wandering friar. Often I spend my time wandering around looking for moments of what I believe are God’s activity (and that is always a personal opinion – others might see nothing of the Divine in it!). When I see that activity I decide to rest a while and eventually move on. It is a wonderful way to live and begins to make sense of the rather pointless endings of Paul’s letters.

Say ‘Hi’ to Pete and the gang and tell Gary I’ll pop by the next time I’m in town

Well it seems my style/pattern of ministry has changed again! As many of you know I am appointed as a pioneer mission leader with Venture FX of the Methodist Church. I am now going part time with Venture FX and have taken up another part time appointment as the tutor for evangelism and church growth at Queens Foundation, Birmingham. So basically I am working part time for Venture FX and part time as a theological tutor at Queens.

Those who have known me for a long time will know that this is a dream come true! I get to have my cake and eat it! I now get to push the boundaries of church and get to explore that academically.

I cannot over state how excited I am about this appointment. For the romantics – this is everything I have dreamed of! For the working classes (to which I am proud to come from) – this is everything I have worked for! For the theists – I feel completely blessed!

That’s not to say I’m not daunted about the future. But for now I’m going to bask in the absolute joy that today I am a pioneer minster and theological educator.

As a colleague wrote in an email – ‘Roll on September!’

#iqtank – a modest start

12 07 2011

Met up today with a few folk interested in the #iqtank idea. It was a great conversation and, interestingly, just as random as our twitter conversations!!!

What we would love to do is this:    

  1. Encourage a dialogue about mission; and
  2. Discover what it means to live in the mission of God.

This is both a place of learning and practice (we strongly believe that the two can’t be separated)

We are going to start off by inviting people to write blog posts (on their own blog, or guest write on someone else’s) on the question: what does it mean to live in the mission of God?

We will then sign-post people to those blogs and start a conversation either through twitter or on the comments on the actual blog post. We already have about 20 people in mind that we want to ask so if you fancy writing one, or if you have someone in mind – then please do let us know. We also want to start an ‘archives’ blog (or something) that allows people to follow the journey. We are not quite sure the best way to do this so if you have any ideas then let us know.

Other ideas to follow:

  • Local tweet ups and conversations.
  • Book reviews.
  • Video upload ‘conversation starters’
  • Practical mission ideas that others can participate in.


If you want to join in then just follow #iqtank on twitter and Facebook. If you have stuff you want to tweet or blog about that fits broadly into the headings given above then please feel free to use the #iqtank hashtag (we don’t own it!!) and if you’ve got other suggestions about what #iqtank could do or be then leave a comment or drop me a tweet.


Methodist Conference – a view from the podium

9 07 2011

This is a bit late but hopefully still relevant. The last day of Conference was different for me – I was there!! The last day is not the best day to be at Conference with lots of bits n pieces to be finished off (and a very tired delegate population) but it was still good to stand in the room that I’d been watching from afar at home for the last 3 days. It was also good to be taking part in the opening worship of conference.

How did I get involved in that?

Well I’m proud to be a good friend of David and Ruth Pickles (Vice President) and Ruth asked me to be involved and to bring a friend! Carla is Synod Secretary to the President (Leo Osborne) and also a good friend of mine so I asked her to help me. Voila! The order of service had to be in weeks ago so the basic structure (and anything that needed to be on the screen) was already planned. But as the twittersphere became populated with online observers it became apparent to me (on this side of the screen) that we needed to try and include our online audience. So we did our best with the short time we had and the constraints put on us by a)15mins and b) conversion of an already planned service. Thanks to those who have offered their kind comments – Carla and I really appreciate them; and for those that wanted a copy of the prayers etc. Click here and those that wanted the link to the video click here.

Conference was great – it was good to see the faces and have brief chats with friends from a long time ago and it was brilliant to have a chat with a group of young people about possible future directions of social media and young people in the church. Social media made a real difference to many people this conference. Click here and see the kind of impact it had. Unfortunately, it seems that there are still some in Methodism (and they are usually in influential leadership roles) who are not taken with social media. In fact, I think some may even be actively against it! No-body has made a negative comment to me (one of the joys of being a pioneer is that you are expected to be edgy and a bit out there) but I know some people who have invested a lot of time, energy and research into this area have been hurt by some peoples comments. In years gone by that would have added to my contempt for the dinosaur church that I called Methodism … but not this time.

I was so energised by the content of Methodist Conference this year and felt so connected through twitter and the live stream (see Pete Philips blog here) that this lack of vision for social media by a few ill informed Methodist leaders had no power anymore. In fact a quiet revolution is beginning to emerge, which, for those of us who have intentionally placed ourselves to bring about radical redirection in the Church, is reward for a lot of hard work, many ‘fights’ and much misunderstanding. Brilliant!!

That revolution seems to have gathered a subversive momentum. Last night, sat enjoying a bottle of wine, I witnessed the birth of #cpol on twitter. The same group of young people that I spoke to at Methodist Conference wanted the energy and connectivity of the #methconf to carry on. These young people, who are deeply passionate and highly politicised, with a little help from a some not-so-youth, managed to get a group of people connected that will become a kind of digital Christian bipartisan political lobbying and action group. Wow!

Which coincides with a piece of work I am involved in called #iqtank which is a missional think tank that wants to think differently and digitally about mission. I’ll write more on this later but for now follow the #cpol and #iqtank streams (and #digidisciple – I’ve just signed up as one of the blog contributors here)

Long live the revolution!

Methodist Conference – a view from the sofa

6 07 2011

Wow! What a day! I was able to spend most of today listening to the live feed on one laptop whilst working on another (not to mention nearly an hour cutting out paper crosses from newspaper – more later!)

Two things:

Firstly, there seems to be a real sense of positive energy building up around conference over this last couple of days. I heard that the Youth President and youthy things went through yesterday and today the highlight (other than Revd Gamble) was the Big Society/poverty report. Many people were tweeting about how proud they were to be Methodists and I caught a glimpse of the intangible that draws me to the people called Methodists. Incidentally, there were a number of conversations about Methodist identity and who ‘is’ a Methodist and ‘how long’ you have been a Methodist. Strange, then, that the thing that made it Methodist was a sense of purpose and narrative rather than a verbal or affirmation of identity. Need to think about that a bit more …

Secondly, Social media is rocketing! Another great day on twitter with connexion 2.0. One of the most amazing things is that people are actually joining twitter to become part of the conversation (how cool is that!!), a parable of evangelism just do what you do and others will want to join. I think most of us have been amazed at the presence of social media this conference (even those who know it far more than I) but one of the challenges has been to get the visuals seen by real life delegates also seen by virtual observers. So, with this challenge in mind I, and my colleague Carla, are planning the opening devotions for tomorrow’s conference (I will be on the 6am train). They only last 15 mins but I have spent today wondering what worship will look like on this side of the screen. The real challenge was that I am using a video as part of the devotions. I have spoken to the Techy team and they can show it but needed to be assured that we had the right licenses to broadcast the video – we didn’t. So I have spent most of the day today conversing with people in America (when they got up!) to see if they will give us permission to play the video on the live stream – eventually they did! Now I just need the Methodist Church law and polity bods to sign it off and we are up and running.

Also – if you are going to be watching the opening devotions on twitter then you will need a cross cut out of old newspaper (I’ve cut 500 out this afternoon, I’m not doing anymore!!)

Let’s see if the worship works on both sides of the screen – let me know how my first tworship went.

Early night tonight

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