What might a theology of strategy look like?

Last week I posted a lengthy piece on developing strategy within organisations, for those who read it it got many positive reviews and comments, a link to the piece is here   if you want to read that one first  , but please remember to come back…

Over the course of thinking about strategy and planning, it occurred to me to ask the question, Might there be a theology of Strategy? The reason being, is that there is something critical to be thought of further in regard to the developing of strategies as a theological task with theological intentions and underpinnings. Theologically where might we start with thinking reflectively about strategy?Image result for strategy

What is a strategy in the first place?

Is it a plan, a way of working, a development of ideas? could be all of these things, and a bit more. It is a commonly used word, in sport, business and games.

A Broader conversation, theologically, might start with thinking about planning, and this is an overdone topic in a way. Talk of ‘Gods plan’ and perfect plan, are common, and especially in regard to free will, predestination and also how someone might live their life, and some of this I might come back to later. Before thinking about the content, it might be good to think about the theological method, or what might be meant by a ‘theology of’ something.

A simple, helpful start to think about developing a theology of something is Paul Nashs Grove Booklet – What Theology for youth work? For, whilst youthwork is his object in this – his subject matter is the different theological positions that could be taken. It is a starting point, and worth a quick read to reflect on the different theological starting points, or at least some of them.

Practical Theology and Qualitative research (Swinton) describes how there might be a critical conversation between theology and social science research, one that informs each other, again this is helpful, in thinking how the ‘on the ground’ practice of strategy development converses with what might seem to be the metaphorical and narrative artistry of the Biblical scriptures, written in a vastly different context.

For the purposes of the remainder of this post, I want to focus on Helen Camerons (et al) work Thinking about God in Practice (2010) for thinking theologically about Strategy.

Within her work, Cameron suggests that in the process of theological action research that we might be attentive to FOUR voices within theological reflection;

The Formal: Theological reflection discovered from the Institution, the university or academia, the product of hard study, interdisciplinary work and conversation.

The Espoused: This the Thei=ology that is discovered through the artifacts of an organisations literature, so for example a written constitution, statement of beliefs, creed.

The Operant: The Theology that is uncovered through observation of an organisations actions – it is what is implied in what people do

The Normative: These are the theological positions that are considered as default within the Christian (or any faith) tradition, and encompass the creeds, liturgies and what might be considered official church teaching on the matter.

Cameron is keen to point out that these voices are not invariably distinct or separate, and each voice is not simple. It may even be these as a tool are not helpful on this basis, but for the purposes of this discussion it might be good place to start.

It feels like the use of strategy within organisations is almost normative as practice. Ways of scientifically organising people to tasks and work go back a long way, from the industrial revolution, to the advent of factories and processing people into order to create an environment where tasks are completed. Strategy thinking of one form is almost normalised, to the point where ‘bad strategies’ are critiqued not ‘not having’ strategies. Not having a strategy is frowned upon. Though this isn’t a history lesson on the development of strategy within organisations. What I am saying though is that there is a considerable weight of pressure from businesses and organisations to develop strategies – it is their normative position. Standing counter to this, is going to be difficult.

So, if we started to think theologically about strategy, against the weight of normativity of this in other organisations – where might we start?

We might ask the question – is the church an organisation? And if so what is its type, purpose and nature? In that way we glean something about how a church especially might become inclined towards the normativity of other organisaions in strategy development. Another question we might asked is what is faith? Especially for a church- considered a faith-based organisation. Faith as a definition, ‘to be hopeful in what we cannot see’ might in itself be contrary to strategy planning at all, especially iif strategy planning might be considered as the thinking ahead to mitigate risks. If church instead was created as a movement – its possible intention – then does something need to be rethought again?

So, to continue on this vein, What might be some of the normative teachings on planning and strategizing from church traditions, the Biblical text even? In his work Leading, Managing, Ministering Nelson outlines some of these, though focusses on leadership and management. There are a few others – to be found via this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Managing-Ministering-Challenging-Questions/dp/1853112380/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521800521&sr=1-3&keywords=nelson+leading (and the other similar titles)

Often God plays the role of the great disruptor of Human plans. Abraham has it all in one place, probably his life, and pension all worked out, and then God calls him and his family to something and somewhere new.

Joseph seems to follow God in the midst of an unplanned out life where things are put in front of him to react to, Moses might be similar. The plans of God were hidden, and when disclosed weren’t always obeyed. When there were plans, they seemed to be thwarted. The God has plans, people disobey them is carried through in Jonahs tale, and is indicative of Amos’s warnings of Israel. Through prophecy, Isaiah brings to the attention a pictoral glimpse of the plans that God might have – but this certainty leaves the space within it for Human planning to be minimal. All we have, to a point, is knowledge that God might also have a plan for us, in the oft taken out of context Jeremiah 29:11 verse. In a way this might be reassurance that a human plan and strategy is less required, than it is to trust and have faith in God who knows these things.

Then strategy might be considered in the New testament. In the parables faith is not seen in the man who builds bigger barns – again planning for the future. Stability is in the house built on obedience, not the barn built on planning. When Jesus sees the people of Israel like sheep without a shepherd (might considered as ‘without a plan’) it is a compassionate response, not a desire to organise. Again, many of the livelihood of the disciples is interrupted, temporarily by Jesus call to follow – though some might have used their skills and income in the ongoing movement of faith. Saul/Paul is another whose strategy in life is interrupted, and this continues as the journeys taken by these early missionaries is thwarted by acts of nature, sometimes attributed as active resistance to Gods plan, and other times as Gods plan. The closest we might get to thinking about strategy=ie and organisations , rather than individuals is through the epistles which are letters to new churches, and also to the letters to the churches in revelation.

So, we are beginning to build up a picture of some of the biblical precedents for and against developing strategy, and a part of the overall drama of scripture and the path towards redemption, these should be heard and reflected on.

However; An espoused theology of strategy needs to drill down to the actual practices. Where there are plans and strategies, there also is a belief that strategies are the implied way to do what the tasks in hand require, and a belief in strategy planning as a process. From a fundraising strategy, to safeguarding, mission strategy or youth strategy – by having a strategy as an artefact within an organisation is its own testament to how it should be organised. Whatever might be normative – through biblical theology, could be usurped by an espoused way of doing things that has become the norm. From plans and strategies, can come order and control – and actions, results and behaviours brought in line to the pre determined plan and strategy. The espoused theology might regard highly the biblical warnings – (is a parable a warning?) about ‘without vision the people perish’ or the ecclesial determination that Jesus loves the church and wants it to succeed. (then there is the success narrative) But this in itself is problematic, as it can merely use strategy as a way of ‘keeping the church open’ through planning – and endorsing this as the right way to maintain an organisation. Even the most realistic of plans might not be the best way of causing change to happen. The strategy itself might lose the intention, or virtue of the action.

An Operant theology might be determined by how an organisation behaves. So – actually – what is the talked about theology or reaction to the strategy? (just new flangled ideas..?) does the church congregation act in a way about the strategy that endorses, or deliberately objects the desires of the strategy itself? There might be opposition socially or politically to the strategy – but there may also be prophets who disagree theologically and spiritually too. But I wonder whether at its heart churches aren’t a place theologically where strategies and plans sit very easily. So an operant theology of strategy is one that whilst exemplifying compliance within a structure – usually- is also reluctant to embody the normativity of strategy thinking, causing active disruption. But thinking about what might be the operant theology of strategy is to look closely at somewhere specific. The point of Camerons research method in the first place. So – what does your church or practice operate as – in regard to plans and strategies? Does strategy seem to be ‘the way out of a crisis’ or the ‘way to do things’ – and how is this viewed? How is strategy justified theologically through those who adhere or dispute its implementation or necessity?

Finally, there might be a formal theology of strategy. Through the few published works on this subject, the working practices of theological academia, and the dissemination of research, hypothesis and ideas on this subject all contribute to a formal theology of strategy, that probably, with the weight of normative use in the business and commercial world, contributing to a general endorsement that strategies are a positive and necessary thing. Nelson book seems to endorse planning and strategizing and notably the transformation leadership culture that underpins the strategy thinking in the first place. Others in different discipline to ‘church leadership’ have been less enthusiastic of ‘strategy planning’ especially where is contravenes values and approaches. What is interesting is that the ‘secular’ youthwork approach dismisses strategy planning as something that is against values, and ethics, yet the church – which could have stronger values – does not always. Maybe church sees itself as a stronger organisation and culture- than the youthwork profession.

What if theology itself was more of an improvised play than a planned action? What might that mean in regard to trying to develop a theology of strategy?

Martyn Percy says this:

The belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not an arid set of directives, but rather a faith that is embedded in a community of praxis which makes beliefs work and gives shape and meaning to the lives that believe. So religious belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics; it is rather, performed-much as one might perform a play. Indeed the beliefs must be performed in order to comprehend the drama. Simply reading the scriptures as a text is about as effective as reading a play as a text. To understand the life of the drama and the intention of the author , the play needs to be witnessed as a performance. Christian faith is, first and foremost the performance of God’s drama”Image result for passion plays

And others the same. Im not going to rehearse these again (just see the Theodrama link on the right)

Do plays need strategies? – they need scripts (we have one its the Bible), they need actors, directors and an audience. There is planning in the acting as actors respond to the cues and know how to respond. Training to act might be more repetition of action than planning of action. Yet whilst the great theatrical performances of the bourgeois need promotion and strategy – the improvised theatre and the mystery plays had word of mouth and reacted in the moment – live. Does the production of the drama of Gods redemption need strategy? Goodness is slightly less good if its planned isnt it – its strategic and false. Authentic reactions in the moment cant be pre planned or strategised. In the great drama of Gods redemption that we are part of – does strategic planning have any place at all? Where there was Chaos – God brought order into creation – but ever since doesnt it feel as though God is continually disrupting the order we try to make ourselves?

I caught a glimpse of ‘Scruffy Vicars’ recent post this week on ‘The Ideal and the Ordeal’ it is here: https://scruffyvicar.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/the-ideal-and-the-ordeal/  and practically this is a problem with aloof strategising. It is to envision the outcome, and not be ready for the actual, normal and effort required. It took me to think about not only what Jon Ord talks about in Critical issues in Youthwork Management – that we should plan for opportunities and not outcomes. But also that when Jesus told the seventy two or twelve to ‘go out’ he gave them instructions to create the right scene – what he barely said was what to do when getting there (except to stay when welcomed) neither was the outcome part of the plan. (aside from leave if unwelcomed). But these instructions we to his own people. In Matthew Jesus’ instructions are that the 12 go to the lost people of isreal. So in effect, Jesus was saying, go and try and find a  welcome in your own land, with your own people. Be receivers of service. It was not outcome strategising, but strategising – or preparing for opportunity.

We need to strategy with an emergence and a readiness on one hand, as well as some thinking and dreaming on the other. In ministry we can be disillusioned with too much dreaming and no reality, or too much thought about strategy before anything is done. Its like in the BBC2 series Red Dwarf, Rimmers Revision timetable takes 4 weeks to put together all colour coded, and only gives him 1 day to actually revise. i digress, let me close. (if youve even got this far)

The four voices of might be needing to be attended to, for the purposes of doing qualitative research into a practice and to work out what a local theology of strategy might be. Here it might be enough to reflect on strategy theologically and critically from a few different angles to begin a conversation. Where there are organisations there might also be strategies, but where there are disruptions – is this the voice of God calling us out from the order we think we have created? God might be in the strategising, but that in itself is action on the stage of the world, and it needs to be performed with the same love and goodness of all the play.Calling to perform his improvised play that is emerging on the stage of the world?

What might a theology of strategy begin to look like…?

References

Cameron et al: Talking about God in Practice – 2012

Nelson Leading, Managing Ministering, 1999

Martyn Percy, Shaping the church, 2012

On Theodrama – Vanhoozer, 2005, 2010, 2012 and many others

Ord, Jon Critical issues in youthwork Practice.  

 

 

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Help! Is it possible to be a critical christian and have purposeful faith?

As a four year old, I used to like trying to work out how things worked. Nothing was safe, clocks were a favourite, I’d take the backs of them and then remove the springs pulleys and mechanism. Sometimes I could put them back together, on other occasions there would be a mess of wires and springs on the bedroom floor and no clock possible. I’d take apart bikes and put them together again when I was older. I was curious from an early age. It was more than just asking the ‘why’ question but the ‘how’ question.

My school report might read that I was messy and untidy, but would also say that when it was something that I was interested in it be normal for me to continue that same curiosity. I had an active brain. Being perceptive was something that I had been commended for. Growing up asking questions, growing up thinking. I dont say these things as thinking of myself in any way special or unique, if faith and social development theories have anything to go by then curiosity and exploring are so much part of growing up.

I guess what I didnt do was stop at bikes, or clocks, but continued to ask, sometimes the stupid, questions in my growing up in church; why do you believe in that? why do we do things in a certain way in this church? my own perceptive brain was thinking, and didnt want i guess the stuff of faith that i was drawn to, to be a back alley or cul de saq that hadnt been thought through. Yet even then, I had blind spots that needed others to point out to me – as sometimes the answers to my questions positioned faith in a certain way within the box of that church tradition i guess- within the safe.

Recently I was reading faith formation in a secular world, by Andrew Root, in it, he brings to the youth ministry attention the observations of the world as proposed by Charles Taylor. In a way it gave me a sense of relief – but also a worry.

A relief, in that what Root explores from Taylor is that faith exists in a context, largely that is critical of it. Critical because of religious institutional scandals, cover ups, because of perceived prejudice against groups and inequality, and , the main thing when i was growing up, a media perception of its irrelevance, boring, or something generally to take the piss out of.  I think I also grew up, in that same zone of perception and criticalness that meant that it became difficult to accept completely what was said by powerful people, one example being to ‘stand at wembley stadium and ‘feel’ Jesus at work whilst singing along to a song’ as one example. I guess i questioned the evangelical way of things, that at the time had also fed and nurtured my faith since birth, to a point. But growing up questioning, found a critical edge, and then, in my mid twenties, a further space to enjoy being questioning, and opening up more of the how and why of things through academic study at ICC. (Now SSCM, Glasgow).

I had an avenue to be critical, to think, to read, and in the main ever since I have enjoyed reading, thinking and also being at times really awestruck by images, metaphors and descriptions of God through writing that has broadened, and aided me in personal devotion. Be a critical reflector, thats what they said.  However, there is still a snag, a big one.

My own critical and cynical nature.

What I struggle to do is peel off the onion layer of critique and expose myself to the vulnerability of faith, even that innocence of faith. Im too battle weary, too thoughtful, too much a product of the critical age, and a culture of realism that besets the same. Dont get me wrong its not culture I blame, but aware that it is this culture that it is easy to fit in. And at the same time easy to be critical of ongoing practice that seem at odds with what i might perceive as the truth or the performance of theology, or even just poor ethics. The hand that used to feed me, the evangelical church tradition, is probably the one i bite the most.

But as a contrast I have found solace, spiritually, in a theological framework that remythologises and constructs. The great Theodrama that expands the metaphors of action, of time, of God interjecting and the drama of everyday life. A built up theology of Gods voice speaking in the everyday and a drama of ongoing redemption that connects us all in an overall plan of redemption. It is a thing of great beauty, of humanity and of promise. It is what in every day should cause me to wonder, to believe and take hold of.

But instead, beautiful theology meets skin of cynicism.

Where the Theodrama prompts and provokes – the me of my time kicks back the question and writes it off.

Once the critical has been unleashed is the fear that it wont go back in the bubble? Can I not just have an innocent simple faith anymore? I never had an innocent simple faith, and if im a realist, i dont think anyone has an innocent simple faith anyway, unless thats just my projection. Innocent and simple faith, is that what we’re called to have anyway? see a load more questions. Then a shred of doubt? Can God still use me even if I am critical and cynical at times, or might he use me because of it? Have I spent too long trying to be someone else, someone who isnt full of questions, thoughts and exploring? What if i need to not be for a moment, can i switch off the radar, and just relax and be in the moment and faithful.

I was visiting a project a few weeks ago, that were doing detached youthwork out on a fairly wet night in Glasgow. Before we went out we met at a house with others and spent some time praying together, at least they did. I couldnt help but think that it was the kind of moment that I hadnt had for a while, spending time praying with people, or more to the point, praying with people who seemed to have that innocent faith, combined with an missional heart for a local area that they were prepared to do something. The haggard me realises that I have had to lead prayers in staff meetings previously when much of the time there was foreboding and challenge in the air. On other times involved in prayer meetings where there was too much amazeballs going on that honestly it was difficult not to feel threatened, or that its so unreal that it doesnt make any sense, or its power games and trying to be the most charismatic pray-er in a room of exciting youthfulness. (back to me dissing the evangelicals again – apologies) .

In the great Theodrama, there may be a role suitable, though its not the critic.

Its the Theologian. The task of the theol0gian is to help the play towards its redemptive ending, to keep it guided along against the script, however difficult this is. It is not to ask critical questions that derail the drama of redemption, but ask :

are we on track with the Theodrama?

Is what we’re doing the way of Jesus?

Are we performing in and acting it out in obedience to the prompts of God in the midst?

These are the questions for the theologian to ask of the action before it, is not to critique the play of others, as they do their performances, but to steer guide and help gravitate the existing plays to develop Gods plays. As The Greatest showman realised, critics can say one thing about a performance, but the audience another. But in the Theodrama, the audience is the guest not the critic, and the theologian is the dramaturge guiding the play to be closer to the way of Jesus, but also in doing so is part of the action in obedience to the action. As has been stated previously, who are the theologians, who are those that know in innocence the heart of God – thatll be the children, the intuitive theologians. Those with innocent left, not with innocent lost. More are theologians that just the academic, for, its also the task of the theologian performers, the pastor-theologians who look after the flock, and those who expand the stage to include others in the performance, theologians one and all in the midst of the drama. Shaping from within, listening to the prompts in the heat of the action. Being followers of the great improviser on the stage. As i said, this is rather beautiful.

There might well be space in the Theodrama for critical and helpful questions, sometimes depending on the audience or performers, these rent accepted or heard, other times they are questions loaded with too much malice, cynicism or motive, and  i know i struggle with getting this balance. What i struggle with as much though is hanging onto a kind of accepting faith when my inner cynic, cant keep quiet, and neither my mind and spirit is rarely still. Is it possible to be critical christian? – and yet still have a role to play in the overall drama, and also the day to day drama in the world.

In a way what right do I have to think of myself as a critic, how do I know the acts and wonders of God in the midst, prompting the faithful to new performances, what can I do but contribute to the performances and helping others with theirs. It is no relief to be like this, however much I might be a ‘product’ of a questioning culture. It makes it harder to see God in things, to relax in the transcendance space and to accept an innocent of God involved. Can a critical christian have faith – yes- it just might not be an innocent one anymore. In a way, that is ok. It is trying to find the grown up faith beyond and through the questions that I am struggling to find – when faith seems only to be about simplicity, innocence and acceptance. Can I still have faith, even more so. Is it a learning faith that retains curiosity (as part of our Humanity Acts 17) very much so.

There is no going back for me to naive innocent faith, once the can has been opened and new light has dawned. But that is not either what we’re asked to have. We are meant to grow up in faith, and be aware that our critical nature is part of who we are, and so developing learning, being challenged must be part and parcel of discipleship, and despair and cynicism, like the psalms might be left to our moments of personal reflection, angst and anger. Help! i may be a critical christian thats lost his faith in evangelicalism, but that doesnt mean that i dont have a faith or purpose. What im trying to work out is how the beauty and mystery of God can be realised even with my critical nature as part of the deal. Does God accept our critical nature? take us as we are?

 

References

Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Vanhoozer, K, Remythologising Theology, 2010

 

Young people will go elsewhere for rebellion and danger- if faith in our youth groups is tame and safe

Young People need to be more than just participants in institutional faith -(Andrew Root (2017))

Faith Generation needs to enable young people to explore identity and meaning, and engage in acts of faith that generate experience and engagement with God’ (Nick Shepherd, Faith Generation, 2016, p170)

By Being creative faith activists and taking liturgy to the streets, the prophetic church today can re-imagine space and time through the liturgy, baptizing the community into festival time, and gathering the community to create spaces of Hope in the City  (Peter Heltzel, the church as the theatre of the Oppressed, the promise of a youth-led Urban revolution, in Theatrical Theology, 2014, Hart/Vander Lugt)

I think I have lost count trying to help churches to try and connect with young people in their local community, only for them to find young people and not really know what to offer. I have equally lost count the number of churches who ask about ‘trying to keep’ young people within the church. Its a question that hasnt gone away since Sunday Schools kept 4 million for a few years before 1900.

One of the situations churches find themself saying, and also perpetuated by the relevancy narrative within youth ministry, is that they are boring or irrelevant for much of the last 60 years (or more) the trying to be relevant in practice has been one of the key games within youth ministry, games and themes, or even that a fear of irrelevancy might set in (its one reason why youth ministry orgs re brand themselves, and repackage the often very similar teaching and formational material). Criticisms theologically of this, are well known and not to be repeated here.

Positively.

I think, for the sake of young people, and the gospel, we need to change the metaphor, and the starting point.

We need to view the Gospel as an ongoing Drama, and Discipleship about being a performing actor following the directions of Christ (also acting) on the stage of the World. 

In slightly shorter – we need to be training young people for the task of performing the Gospel – and to be attentive to the ongoing voice of God in their everyday midst. Image result for drama

It would be easy to be critical, rather than constructive at this point, when I have the expansive metaphor of theatre to hand it is within this that I should write, however, for a small second it is worth mentioning here, that for the most part the things that we are getting hung up on in the church regarding young people and discipleship (and Andrew Root confirms this in the US also) is on the aspect of discipleship that is principally about formation.

Many of the programmes are essentially about making the formation aspect of faith ‘really exciting’ , yet for many young people it is still a glorified Bible study, or a non participatory God slot at the end of a series of games or activities that are the ‘fun bit’. Making formation ok enough so young people dont leave the youth group is about the maximum success, even better is to turn them into a leader. One indicator of this is that articles here that are about ‘keeping young people in the church’ are some of the most popular. However, in the metaphor of Drama, formation is not enough. The Drama student needs productions to hone their skills, the playscript needs to be seen, the action needs to happen. Acting is risk and dangerous. Rehearsals behind closed doors are safe.

In a way, its not that the youth group needs to be exciting – its that the Radical Gospel of Jesus needs to be given its full credibility status as a transforming direction that challenges and provokes humanity into a radical way of being in the world, and that discipleship is a task of performing it. 

What young people need is a way of living, and a way of believing that is believable, that is credible and that shapes their whole being (Shepherd, 2017).  The problem is that the Gospel is seen as boring as the church is thinking it is, and the answer is not to make youth groups more youthful, and authentically youth feeling – but to make the Gospel something that young people want to perform on the broadest of world stages. It is to make discipleship meaningful again.

It may also be to make discipleship collective again. It is far easier to perform as a troop that an individual. Monologues of performance are difficult to do, but often we task young people to stand alone and ‘be christian’ on their own.

As an addition, performances are also key to formation.

As every actor knows, they are learning new things about every performance as they perform it, and learning each time, about new audiences, about nuances and cues. Thats before we mention improvisation. (Im trying to keep this article short), and so 5 quick things to think about- if we view youth discipleship as performing the gospel:

  1. The Gospel becomes action orientated – how young people read it is as a script and guide to shape them, it is more than history, or morality – but cues to current action
  2. The world, and everything within in, becomes a stage on which they have the opportunities to enact, in the new situations
  3. Our role as the church is to facilitate good performances, through liturgy, through connecting young people in the story/drama, and helping them know their part (s)
  4. We have the responsibility to help them discern Gods ongoing voice – not just praying, but listening in the everyday
  5. We might avoid ‘fat’ or ‘festival’ christian syndrome, where high formation and attendance is at the price of performances and action. 
  6. Collective social action might be good to put in the youth group programme (it might be the programme)
  7. Participation as an ongoing principle within youth work (which i hope it is- see prev posts) also has a theological premise – the two way participation in which God indwells in us, for the disciple to also participate in the ongoing story
  8. We have an opportunity to make youth groups action and risk taking orientated. Being safe for Jesus doesnt seem to be much of an option.

The above example, from Heltzl is of a youth movement in the USA who acted out of peace and reconciliation within the city of New York, they in effect took their desire for peace, for equality and for the goodness of the local community and made a peaceful protest against the building of a road that would destroy a community in their area. The same might be said today of the young people protesting against Gun crime in the same nation. These are collective protests for the common good being made by collections of young people. What performing the gospel might mean in your context might look very different to these, but what it might help to do is give young people not only a local cause to believe in, but also a faith that is to believe.As Jesus said, it is when we are put in front of the magistrate is the moment where ‘the spirit will give you the words to say’ (Matthew 10:19).

Lets make the youth group and the church the training ground for dynamic local gospel performances, not just a culture of conformity and an ongoing repetition of being part of the christian club going to events. We may not want to neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10; 25) but as the previous verse indicates, lets meet to inspire each other to do good and love each other (verse 24)- to perform the gospel in the context… 

We shouldnt worry about trying to keep young people – if the place of faith is also a place of planning to do good and to love each other. We neednt worry about keeping young people if discipleship was encouraged to be a dangerous performance of goodness, that challenged the norms of the world, and gave young people opportunities to have acting parts within the Holy Drama.

There is considerably more on this, the Theodrama, on these pages elsewhere (see the categories/tags tab). FYT have a resource on ‘Experiments’ which gives actions for young people to perform (first) before reflecting (second) on the activity. Its a change from the formation first stuff. It changes the order, and so for individuals and groups it gets them doing stuff first – and 100’s of groups are really being challenged by it: its here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/resources/the-experiments/

References

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a secular world, 2017

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

Hart, Lugt, Theatrical Theology, 2014

Boal, A Theatre of the Oppressed, 2005

 

Without theology- can youth ministry keep the faith?

For those who keep up with these things, this is the fourth of my posts that is loosely related to ideas that emerge from Andrew Roots book, Faith formation in a secular age’ a book which is going to be discussed and referred to quite a bit over the next year within the corridors of youth ministry brand UK, possibly because we cant in the UK get enough of what the Americans think about youth ministry (even if their context, ecclesiology, missiological practices and political context, and spiritual context are vastly different), and that there can be a tendency to give a free ride to anyone intellectual that isnt that critical themselves. What Andrew Root does do is tell it like it is to his own audience. What we need to do in the UK is discover whether the message needed is the same. And there are questions. But for now, I have a different question. In a book so concerned about the formation of faith, and the context within which faith is formed – why does Root only spend a short time reflecting on what faith is, why faith might be important for young people?

In Chapter 8 of faith formation Root, after finishing an exploration Charles Taylor, sets to work on developing a framework of what faith is, in accordance with , essentially, Gormans view of The apostle Pauls salvation. Stating that faith is about negation. It is that Jesus entered negation, and that Saul (Paul) saw faith as

a transcendent experience born out of negation (death, brokenness and longing) . Faith is to experience the encounter of Christ, through the negation of the Cross, faith is not just an act of trust, but to ‘enter’ into Christ and have our own being taken into the being of Jesus’ (Root, Andrew, 2017, p119-120)

Faith, in this description Root gives is about negating, about giving up, and it is about participating in the actions of Christ, divine action, which Root goes on to say is a cause for a believer to become a minister, to become one who minister to others, and this is explored by Root in the next chapter, 9. Stating that Faith is about the experience of ministry, and in that ministry which arrives through negation, comes the divine action.

What this means is that Faith is something practical (ministering to others) and Prophetic (causes a giving up, negation, a simplicity) and also transcendent (in an age of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’). This links significantly with Healys view of a Theodrammatic framework for ecclesiology, church within the Theodrama is to be practical and prophetic, and not worry about its blemishes, history or ideals.

And culturally talk of faith is cheap. The key conversations surround growth as an antidote to decline within organisations, and this can be reduced to over reliance on the business models that spawned successful or profitable businesses. But Jesus wasnt about being a successful business. Jesus was someone who recognised faith, and asks of us that his return ‘how many will he find on earth who have faith?’ (Luke 18:8)

Faith has 55 references in the Gospels, many directly the words of Jesus who commends or rebukes those who do not have enough, or have enough of it, faith to be made well, faith as much as a mustard seed, faith as much as this– many, many references to the faith of those around him. Often rebuking those who think they have it, and commending those for whom their actions show more faith than they thought. So what might this mean for the ‘faith’ of churches, the faith of people around us in our communities and churches. Are the faithful the large – or the faithful the invisible?

However, Can we take what Root argues for without critique? – after all – Faith will be what the Son of Man comes back to see, and faithful ministry, (that might also be growing) might be the call of the minister of faith. Yet still- talk is about faith- without really pinning down what faith is. Often it can be a tag line, a descriptor- such as ‘faith-based’, or ‘faith motivated’ especially for youth work practice.

Referring to the Bible, Faith is described by the writer of Hebrews as : ‘Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen, it gives us assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11;1) Then follows a log line of people who acted according to faith. What they reveal about God is that he communicated and spoke to these people in the midst of day to day and called them to action. Action, that Root might suggest, caused negation – the giving up of a home (abraham), the challenge to build a boat, the giving up of a child (Moses), a welcome to the spies (Rahab). Faith requires action, and God seems to be present in that action. It is as Vanhoozer and others might say, a Divine Drama of Gods being present in ongoing communication (Vanhoozer, 2010, Remythologising Theology)

In The Hermeneutics of Doctrine Anthony Thiselton, refers to Wolfgang Pannenburg who writes:

There is no separation between history and faith; we must reinstate today the original unity of facts and their meaning’, Knowledge is not a stage beyond faith, but leads into faith.

For Thiselton, ‘faith as based on the trustworthiness of that to which it is directed, hence ‘christian faith must not be merely subjective conviction that would allegedly compensate for the uncertainty of an historical knowledge about Jesus’. Jesus stood himself in a horizon where people expected a Saviour, and did not demand trust in his person without giving reasons for it. (Thiselton, 2007, p411-412)

Faith then is inextricably linked to knowledge, for without knowledge of an idea, a situation and belief system then there can be no faith. As Root himself says, young people within evangelical settings (especially youth ministry) now know very little about the tradition, but have been taught over and over about how to get high on the idea of Jesus. The need for knowledge within faith played down, only simple knowledge was enough, and within a vacuum of knowledge (of God) dangerous theologies and the idolatorous worship of these theologies reign free (prosperity gospel etc) , but it is also Knowledge of God and Theology that Vanhoozer brings as his anti-dote the dangers of MTD, the disease often said to infect american youth ministry. (Vanhoozer, 2014)

From both Root and Vanhoozer, Theology must come first, then practical ministry and action. (In the UK, Pete Ward was arguing for the same in 1997) Faith is inextricably linked to knowledge of God and knowledge of the story of God and accepting an ongoing role in the drama of it all.

When talk is of growth and growing youth ministry, what effect might this have on faith when real faith requires slow knowledge, self sacrifice and denial, living a radical deducted (even simple life) and not just Jesus as the great confidence giver and permisser of a materialist life. Faith seems to be more than belief, it is an act of the will to live a different life. Can growing and growth be detrimental to depth because the emphasis might be on quantity, efficiency and speed.

A faith based ministry or church- what might that mean, based on a faith and acting like the faith that is required. Without a theology of faith, what are young people having faith in? An experience that makes them feel good or gives them a high? Or the kind of dangerous self giving generous discipleship which loves their neighbour and in obedience hears the holy author prompting in the midst, to act in faith towards human and community flourishing? (And it’s not too young to start)

Andrew Root has put faith formation back into the youth ministry headlines, what is as required is to contemplate the life of faith that is required of those who accept the challenge to take on Jesus discipleship.

References

Root, Faith formation in a secular age, 2017

Thiselton A, 2007 the Hermeneutics of Doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2005, The drama of doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2010; Remythologising Theology

Ward, Pete, 1997 Youth work and the Mission of God

Millenials dont want a youthful church – they want one that meaningfully performs the gospel

I am nearly 40 and i still keep going to church. Just. So, I am not a ‘millenial’ that has left, yet I grew up evangelical, and often find myself growing out of love with the church. And I have tried a number of different ones. Some try the intentional youthful approach, trying to stay young and full of students (and this keeps the cycle of youth attractiveness going) some more institutional that age sometimes not o gracefully, others somewhere in between.

According to the general theories I am in the bottom end of the Generation X group, if these boundaries exist in anything other than sociological textbooks that seem to be the flavour of the month and adopted uncritically by those trying to work out the future of the church in context, more so that what theology might say. However, another blog rant aside, the following piece came out this month that was all about the reasons that people in their thirties who grew up in churches, have left the church. That piece in full is here: https://faithit.com/12-reasons-millennials-over-church-sam-eaton/ The writer starts in a similar way, he wonders- what ever happened to everyone else – the other 30-40 year olds?

This is a real problem in the UK, because for 30-40 years now we believed that trends and practices of youth ministry since the 1970’s were having an effect. They havent. At least not in an intentional way. But looking at the list of the 12 things, there is evidence of the effect of youth ministry on the church- and how this has ironically meant that the church has become unimportant, and non significant for anyone over the age of 20.

Image result for millennial

The 12 things were as follows:

So, at the risk of being excommunicated, here is the metaphorical nailing of my own 12 theses to the wooden door of the American, Millennial-less Church.

1. Nobody’s Listening to Us

Millennials value voice and receptivity above all else. When a church forges ahead without ever asking for our input we get the message loud and clear: Nobody cares what we think. Why then, should we blindly serve an institution that we cannot change or shape?

Solution:

  • Create regular outlets (forums, surveys, meetings) to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church.
  • Invite millennials to serve on leadership teams or advisory boards where they can make a difference.
  • Hire a young adults pastor who has the desire and skill-set to connect with millennials.

2. We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements

Sweet Moses people, give it a rest.

Of course as an organization it’s important to be moving in the same direction, but that should easier for Christians than anyone because we already have a leader to follow. Jesus was insanely clear about our purpose on earth:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

“Love God. Love Others.” Task completed.

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Why does every church need its own mission statement anyway? Aren’t we all one body of Christ, serving one God? What would happen if the entire American Church came together in our commonalities and used the same, concise mission statement?

Solution:

  • Stop wasting time on the religious mambo jambo and get back to the heart of the gospel. If you have to explain your mission and values to the church, it’s overly-religious and much too complicated.
  • We’re not impressed with the hours you brag about spending behind closed doors wrestling with Christianese words on a paper. We’re impressed with actions and service.

3. Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority

My heart is broken for how radically self-centered and utterly American our institution has become.

Let’s clock the number of hours the average church attender spends in “church-type” activities. Bible studies, meetings, groups, social functions, book clubs, planning meetings, talking about building community, discussing a new mission statement…

Now let’s clock the number of hours spent serving the least of these. Oooooo, awkward.

If the numbers are not equal please check your Bible for better comprehension (or revisit the universal church mission statement stated above).

“If our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is in us at all.” –Radical, David Platt

Solutions:

  • Stop creating more Bible studies and Christian activity. Community happens best in service with a shared purpose.
  • Survey your members asking them what injustice or cause God has placed on their hearts. Then connect people who share similar passions. Create space for them to meet and brainstorm and then sit back and watch what God brings to life.
  • Create group serve dates once a month where anyone can show up and make a difference (and, oh yeah, they’ll also meet new people).

4. We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture

From Elvis’ hips to rap music, from Footloose to “twerking,” every older generation comes to the same conclusion: The world is going to pot faster than the state of Colorado. We’re aware of the down-falls of the culture—believe it or not we are actually living in it too.

Perhaps it’s easier to focus on how terrible the world is out there than actually address the mess within.

Solution:

  • Put the end times rhetoric to rest and focus on real solutions and real impact in our immediate community.
  • Explicitly teach us how our lives should differ from the culture. (If this teaching isn’t happening in your life, check out the book Weird: Because Normal Isn’t Working by Craig Groeschel)

5. The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Affect

There is this life-changing movie all humans must see, regardless of gender. The film is of course the 2004 classic Mean Girls.

In the film, the most popular girl in school forgets to wear pink on a Wednesday (a cardinal sin), to which Gretchen Weiners screams, “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!”

Today, my mom said to me, “Church has always felt exclusive and ‘cliquey,’ like high school.” With sadness in her voice she continued, “and I’ve never been good at that game so I stopped playing.”

The truth is, I share her experience. As do thousands of others.

Until the church finds a way to be radically kinder and more compassionate than the world at large, we tell outsiders they’re better off on their own. And the truth is, many times they are.

Solutions:

  • Create authentic communities with a shared purpose centered around service.
  • Create and train a team of CONNECT people whose purpose is to seek out the outliers on Sunday mornings or during other events. Explicitly teach people these skills as they do not come naturally to most of the population.
  • Stop placing blame on individuals who struggle to get connected. For some people, especially those that are shy or struggle with anxiety, putting yourself out there even just once might be an overwhelming task. We have to find ways to bridge that gap.

6. Distrust & Misallocation of Resources

Over and over we’ve been told to “tithe” and give 10 percent of our incomes to the church, but where does that money actually go? Millennials, more than any other generation, don’t trust institutions, for we have witnessed over and over how corrupt and self-serving they can be.

We want pain-staking transparency. We want to see on the church homepage a document where we can track every dollar.

Why should thousands of our hard-earned dollars go toward a mortgage on a multi-million dollar building that isn’t being utilized to serve the community, or to pay for another celebratory bouncy castle when that same cash-money could provide food, clean water and shelter for someone in need?

Solution:

  • Go out of your way to make all financial records readily accessible. Earn our trust so we can give with confidence.
  • Create an environment of frugality.
  • Move to zero-based budgeting where departments aren’t allocated certain dollar amounts but are asked to justify each purchase.
  • Challenge church staff to think about the opportunity cost. Could these dollars be used to better serve the kingdom?

7. We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At

Preaching just doesn’t reach our generation like our parents and grandparents. See: millennial church attendance. We have millions of podcasts and Youtube videos of pastors the world over at our fingertips.

For that reason, the currency of good preaching is at its lowest value in history.

Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes.

We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?

Solutions:

  • Create a database of adult mentors and young adults looking for someone to walk with them.
  • Ask the older generation to be intentional with the millennials in your church.

8. We Want to Feel Valued

Churches tend to rely heavily on their young adults to serve. You’re single, what else do you have to do? In fact, we’re tapped incessantly to help out. And, at its worst extreme, spiritually manipulated with the cringe-worthy words “you’re letting your church down.”

Millennials are told by this world from the second we wake up to the second we take a sleeping pill that we aren’t good enough.

We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations.

We need a church that sees us and believes in us, that cheers us on and encourages us to chase our big crazy dreams.

Solutions:

  • Return to point #1: listening.
  • Go out of your way to thank the people who are giving so much of their life to the church.

9. We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)

People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image.

We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.

No, I don’t think a sermon-series on sex is appropriate for a sanctuary full of families, but we have to create a place where someone older is showing us a better way because these topics are the teaching millennials are starving for. We don’t like how the world is telling us to live, but we never hear from our church either.

Solutions:

  • Create real and relevant space for young adults to learn, grow and be vulnerable.
  • Create an opportunity for young adults to find and connect with mentors.
  • Create a young adults program that transitions high school youth through late adulthood rather than abandoning them in their time of greatest need.
  • Intentionally train young adults in how to live a godly life instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

10. The Public Perception

It’s time to focus on changing the public perception of the church within the community. The neighbors, the city and the people around our church buildings should be audibly thankful the congregation is part of their neighborhood. We should be serving the crap out of them.

We desperately need to be calling the schools and the city, knocking on doors, asking everyone around us how we can make their world better. When the public opinion shows 1/3 millennials are ANTI-CHURCH, we are outright failing at being the aroma of Christ.

Solutions:

  • Call the local government and schools to ask what their needs are. (See: Service Day from #3)
  • Find ways to connect with neighbors within the community.
  • Make your presence known and felt at city events.

11. Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)

Words without follow-up are far worse than ignoring us completely. Despite the stereotypes about us, we are listening to phrases being spoken in our general direction. Lip service, however, doesn’t cut it. We are scrutinizing every action that follows what you say (because we’re sick of being ignored and listening to broken promises).

Solutions:

  • Stop speaking in abstract sound bites and make a tangible plan for how to reach millennials.
  • If you want the respect of our generation, under-promise and over-deliver.

12. You’re Failing to Adapt

Here’s the bottom line, church—you aren’t reaching millennials. Enough with the excuses and the blame; we need to accept reality and intentionally move toward this generation that is terrifyingly anti-church.

“The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.” —Bill Clinton
“The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” —Kakuzo Okakaura
“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” – H.G. Wells

Solution:

  • Look at the data and take a risk for goodness sake. We can’t keep trying the same things and just wish that millennials magically wander through the door.
  • Admit that you’re out of your element with this generation and talk to the millennials you already have beforethey ask themselves, what I am still doing here.

You see, church leaders, our generation just isn’t interested in playing church anymore, and there are real, possible solutions to filling our congregations with young adults. It’s obvious you’re not understanding the gravity of the problem at hand and aren’t nearly as alarmed as you should be about the crossroads we’re at.

You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction. A smattering of mostly older people, doing mostly the same things they’ve always done, isn’t going to turn to the tide.

Feel free to write to me off as just another angry, selfy-addicted millennial. Believe me, at this point I’m beyond used to being abandoned and ignored.

The truth is, church, it’s your move.

Decide if millennials actually matter to you and let us know. In the meantime, we’ll be over here in our sweatpants listening to podcasts, serving the poor and agreeing with public opinion that perhaps church isn’t as important or worthwhile as our parents have lead us to believe.

The prophetic call that I take from this piece, is that participation in the relationships that enable the meaningful performing of the Gospel are what is craved by this age group. What is called for is validity and respect to participate, and be involved. The church is to be both practical, a healthy space to be honest and real, and prophetic and offer a meaningful alternative to the hustle and materialism of the world. And shock horror, its not guitars or powerpoints, but real action, the realness that loving the world is the task that church is a rehearsal and practice of.

What i also take, is that harnessing the views of those who have a critical voice and have a foot in the camps of both church, community and day to day world might be the best advice that the church could receive. What I also take is that I am still a youthful dreamer, just like this writer. I am only frustrated by the church, because it could be so much more, be so much more loving its neighbours, be so much more active in the participation of Gods actions in the world.

I read this blog post not long after reading Andrew Roots book Faith Formation in a secular age and what he says about the church’s desire for youthfulness, is shot through in the piece referred to above. What Millenials it appears want is a rejection of the churches of MTD (moral therapeutic deism) that has been their upbringing, and not to replace one kind of authenticity with another for the sake of it, but one that might have meaning for society too. Essentially the adapting of church to be youthful has forgotten the people for whom this may have been intentionally for, because they didnt want ‘for’ they wanted ‘with’. They didnt want churches run like businesses, but churches run as soup kitchens, churches going the extra mile. Its not a youthful church that millenials want, its a gospel performing one that they can be involved in. Its a trying to be youthfully authentic church that has emerged out of youth ministries desire to be relevant.

Maybe this is deep down what many want? – who let millenials have all the good frustration?

I said something similar, on discipleship and young people last year here ; why discipleship needs to be more dangerous!

Performing the gospel is what is implied through thinking about the gospels grand narrative as a drama, for more on this click on Theodrama in the categories or Tags on this site.

A follow up is is herehttps://wp.me/p2Az40-1eX

References

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age – 2017

Theres nothing comfortable about doing mission with the risk taking God

It is a fairly well known story, even to those who didnt have to colour in pictures of sheep during sunday school. The story of the Lost sheep. Jesus, when being complained to by the Pharisees about who he spent time with, told them it, and it goes like this:

So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15: 3-7, New living version, taken from Bible Gateway.com) 

What this, and the two other remaining parables in this chapter of Luke illustrate is something about God. Something about what God is like is described to us by Jesus. And what is God like?

God becomes the risky sheep owner, who leaves behind the ones he knows where they are (barely safe themselves on in the wilderness of isreali country fields) , to go alone and find the one that he doesnt know where it is. God is shown to leave those he knows, to take action to find those apart from the community.

I wonder what the 99 felt – when their owner left them? – couldnt hear his voice, or smell his scent- would any inquisitive sheep tag along- following their leader in the path of finding the lost, being protective or inquisitive- taking a risk themselves.  Image result for israeli sheep

A few years ago I penned this piece on ‘Dancing with the Hide and Seek God, in Mission: A post i was reminded of as a I rethought this parable. See, for the ‘found’ – God becomes intentionally absent, he leaves them to act for and with the lost, the action of God is elsewhere- and for those who want to act with God – he is ahead, he is channeling a path, creating opportunities, and encouraging an action through an emptiness of his non active presence in the place of the found. To act with God, in the picture of the lost sheep, is to be as focussed on being active in the process of searching, and finding God active looking for the alone sheep. To Join in with the risk taking acts of God. God, who is concerned about losing 1%, that he calls out in the wilderness and hopes for responses to that call.

What is God like, and what does that mean we are called to do in continued action with him – to leave conformity, leave comfort, and follow God already prompting and already at work with others.

When the sheep is found, he isnt reprimanded, he is carried. It is only Luke that infers the sinfulness of the lost, from the parable- Jesus describes that man (a picture of God) just carries a sheep home on his shoulders and brings it to the rest of the community. Those who have been isolated, need carrying. Those wondering are to be lifted and receive the strength and support of others, and loved back into community. Luke throughout his Gospel is shows the inclusiveness of Jesus to those unexpected to be – so here its a slight on the pharisees, and their sinfulness.

The physicality of the actions reminded me of being involved in the kind of youthwork for the last 15 years that hasnt focussed on the ‘found’ young people – but to be involved in walking and meeting young people in their lost spaces, places of feeling alone and ‘lost’ to the church. There is nothing more spiritual that connecting deeply with someone in a place and space where Gods prompting and provoking is evident. The prompting with God is that he loves beyond the known, and those already feeling ‘included’ and ‘part’- he leaves them to love others. This parable is a challenge to expand a vision of God and realise that Gods priorities reflected in this parable are the one. If church growth is about the numbers game – then the 99% arent important – one is. God shaped mission is about risky love for others, risky love for the world, risky love that requires us to do the same.

Theres nothing comfortable about doing mission with the risk taking God. There may even be curious or questioning looks from the other 98, as we follow the coat tails of God at work.

 

When Ministries & Organisations close; Can we be better prepared for it?

As the snowdrops begin to open in my garden, and lightness in the day starts to get a bit longer, and the early signs of spring are in the air, there is the sense of promise, the hope for something new. And hope, and waiting and growth are key phrases within Christian ministry and organisations. There is a pining for growth, new growth, revivial is what it used to be called. That something new is awaiting, dawning and ‘moving forward’ are part of this.

But my thoughts this week have been on where I was a year ago, and where I was about 5 years ago also. This time last year, my situation was anything but growth (as in the archived posts on this site for february 2017 will reveal). This time last year I was preparing myself, and preparing staff within a youthwork organisation, and making decisions about it that would put the process in place for its closure. That post on redundancy, closure and failure is hereImage result for closing down

One year on, and i think it needs to be said. There was no preparation for closure, what it would feel like, what i needed to do, what impact it would have on staff morale, spirituality and vocation – or my own. There was no preparation for closure, it doesnt appear in the youth ministry handbook. Theres 10 secret formulas for starting youth ministry, or 10 ways to tell kids about faith, or top themes for theological ministry amongst the urban youth. What there isnt is ‘how to survive when youve had to close someone elses ‘baby’? or ‘where is God when you feel like closing is whats needed’? . In training for youth ministry, there was none of it, in the writing about youth ministry there is precious little. After all its all about Growth- or desperately avoiding closure.

Image result for church closing down

 

But the more I talk to people, the more i realise quite how isolating it has been for others too. And not just isolating but also very common. Yet there is silence on the subject in the seminars, conferences, and blog spaces- mostly. No one wants to talk about closing down. Because no one want to talk about it, no one wants to help others be prepared for it. For some, more than me, it might have been their own project that they had to close – the pioneering ministry- that caught local or national attention, for others they are employed to rescue something – but that something might be beyond rescue , others are deliberately appointed with no idea that closing a ministry is what they may have to do within a short period of time.

Talk of opening, developing and making new things happen is easy to have energy over- but a stark reality also exists that closing ministries is all the more likely and common in the coming weeks and months ahead. It may be that you have never had to stop, close or end a piece of work, but my haunch is that if you have had to, it took a brave decision, to do so, and one made with little support. May be it is why churches and ministries dont like dealing with the honest questions like ; who is this ministry for? and ‘who is it benefiting?’ – it is easier to keep something going, and avoid having to make difficult decisions.

I think we do a disservice to many many good youth workers and ministers by not talking and preparing them for what might be the inevitable closing down. It is all well and good ending to have something new in mind- it softens the blow somewhat, but that doesnt really prepare for the process, both organisationally, personally, professionally and spiritually for the communication, questions, interactions, politics of closing.

Image result for church closing down

For the theologically minded, the metaphor of death, of closing, is part of the redemption story. Without it, there is no life beyond it. Andrew Root talks about faith being a negation (Faith Formation in a secular age) , faith itself is about a giving up, reduction and potentially a closing. It might be suggested that Jesus tried to prepare for his own death by communicating with the disciples so they knew – but they didnt want to hear. There might a time when you know that the writing is on the wall for a club, group, church or organisation – but that others do not want to hear (or neither might you want to either). There are theological premises for closing, The churches in Revelation report card details why some churches had ‘yellow cards’ and warnings that could affect their longevity. But even though there remains a distinct possibility of closing, and what could happen to churches – actually talking about practically, and in youth ministry practice is rare.

So, if you’re about to go into youth ministry, about to start a ministry through ordination – there might be little talk in the way of closing and ending a ministry. Maybe it not something you will ever have to do. It is fair to say that if you’re in the voluntary sector, and relying on funding, or volunteers from churches, or donations – then there may come a point where this might be a reality.

A Year on, and I begin to realise the effect of all this. I realise that it causes me not to want to have to close something down again – so fearing starting something new that i have responsibility for, losing confidence in my own strategic thinking, or in wanting to let young people down. Not things i thought of at the time. And what of me spiritually, or psychologically – or the others who were part of the organisation. It could be that we become hardened with tighter resolve for next time. It could be that some have found a space to be in ministry elsewhere, or that it confirmed for others that youth ministry and its politics and the management of it wasnt for them. It might be said that when one door shuts, another opens.

When it comes to the psychological or spiritual effects of closing or ending ministries – what might be done to help prepare others. For one we need to talk about it. Why not have seminars or sessions at conferences on it, or talk about it more.

If there is Drama in the Christian life – then the tragic and comic may occur simultaneously- the tragic of others might be easy too deal with – to stand alongside anothers pain, their loss and grief – it might be our calling to do so and be pastoral (and im thinking of a funeral here) – but that drama of christian ministry may also include the tragedy and ending of ministries to which we are responsible, or part of. Fortunately in the drama, God is still the key actor, fortunately there overall drama is one of redemption, but at times that hoped for redemption in the midst of current situation feels away. But God is no less present – if anything the crisis moment is where God is more likely to reside, if the biblical narrative has anything to say. It is not the proud, but the humble who are lifted up.

Being prepared for closure, a year on I realise quite how much I wasnt prepared for this at all. I was even doing an MA in managing youthwork – and closure was barely mentioned in the module! But barely was better than none. A year on i realise that many others have the same kind of unprepared alienating experience, and are disorientated in ministry because of it. Ill happily have a conversation with you about it, or talk to emerging leaders about what this can all be like, the one reality in ministry no one wants to talk about. Lets talk about it more.

How might we make the time we have with young people count?

In The Hobbit, Gollum asks Bilbo the following riddle, one to answer in order for Bilbo to save himself:

This thing all things devour

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers

Gnaws Iron, bites steel; 

Grinds hard stones to meal

Slays King, ruins town

And beats mountain down

It is the fifth riddle of their six, and one that takes the longest to make a response. Spoiler alert, but the answer in case you didnt know was ‘Time’.

Last week, I was leading a session with a group of volunteers at a church in the North East, who were thinking about how they might begin to make connections with young people in their local area. Usually, these conversations begin with fairly negative opinions about young people, followed by ‘we tried a youth club in the 1980’s but they smashed the windows, and theres no way we’re letting young people into our newly refurbished church building’ but this time it was different. The volunteers recognised a different problem. And this might also be common. Image result for time

Young people had no time.

The young people in their local area had been signed up to uniformed organisations since the age of 2, sports clubs since birth, and were busy busy busy. Their time was precious. But their time was preparing for day to day activities, being taken to them, recovering from them, doing homework, achieving certificates, and ensuring that they were putting as much stuff on their CV, or being given every chance to be the darling of a family. Young people in that local area had no time. There was no gaps of ‘wasted’ time ‘with friends’ – minutes were occupied.

The discussion went a number of ways. But it got me thinking, and I have begun to reflect on a number of things in regard to ‘time’ since. Please excuse me for sharing them. I was part of a ‘generation’ of volunteer faith based youthworkers for whom one of the mantras that was used was ; ‘In regard to young people, how might you show them that you care deeply about them? – give them time’  or ‘Spell LOVE, T-I-M-E’.

In Nicholas Healys writing on The Nature of the church, he settles on the sense that in the Theodrama of Gods ongoing redemption (see other posts on this), the church is called in its ministry to be both Practical and Prophetic. Giving people, especially young people, Time, is both these things. 

Time within Christian youth Ministry can often be talked about on the basis of ‘God’s Time’ ie Chronological time, (Chronos) and Kairos – the time in the moment, the present moment of ‘the now’ of being present to hear God in the moment, God interjecting into the time and space of the now in a disturbing way. These are talked about alot. In the Theodrama, it is said by Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘that God creates and enters into time in order to communicatively relate to creatures’ (Vanhoozer, 2010, p272), and that Theodrama is the space and time of Gods dialogical communication with Human actors and respondents. (p273). In a way this is not the place to expound on this further, the references are below, and Anthony Thiseltons The Hermeneutics of Doctrine is also useful on this.

Time, is often given the precurser ‘Space and Time’ also (as above) , that ‘we need to give young people space and time’ , and in thinking about this phrase, I have often thought more heavily about the ‘space’ aspect of this, and thinking about how ‘spaces’ become ‘places’ (places of Home for young people, safety, belonging, conversation), as the environment can be/ is critical for youth work practice. What i hadnt thought about as much was ‘time’ in that phrase. Not so much. And not so much in thinking about ‘Time’ as being practical and prophetic in Youth Ministry.

However, the piece of thinking that ties some of this together is from Girouxs essays in ‘On Critical Pedagogy’. The construct of Time has emerged in one of his essays, obviously he does not deliver a theological piece on Chronos or Kairos time. Instead brokers a conversation about two other forms of Time. Public Time, and Corporate Time. And i wonder. Which type of Time are young people subjected to the most?

For a moment – think about Gollums riddle. Time is not the precious, Time is the enemy. Time consumes, destroys, speeds up. Time and how it is allocated is about power, influence, authority, and shapes identities through sets of codes and interests. In short, Time (you wont be surprised to hear) is political.

“Time has become our enemy, the active society demands that we keep moving, keep consuming, experience everything, travel, work as good tourists more than act as good citizens, work, shop and die. To keep moving is the only way left in our cultural repertoire to push away….meaning…(and consequently) the prospects and forms of social solidarity available to us shrink before our eyes” (Peter Beilharz)

Corporate time is rush rush rush. Corporate time distracts from critical thinking. Image result for timeCorporate time consumes the spiritual. Corporate time strategises.

Public time, according to Giroux, is the opposite. It rejects the fever pitch, the rush and the speed, and Slows. It. down.

Public time gives space.

Public Time refutes the technological invasion (regardless of the technology)

Public time offers room for knowledge, learning and critical thought, it is a time for questions, learning and ongoing self awareness and understanding.

Public time unsettles common sense.

‘Public time challenges neo-liberalisms willingness to separate the economic from the social as well as its failure to address human needs and social costs’ (Giroux, 1999, p115)

Whilst Giroux’s critical essay is directed squarely at the North American Higher education system, circa 2000, and specifically Bush, Reagan and Obamas Educational policies. His plea is that Higher education can maintain Public time within its institution, his fear is that corporate time has won out, and young people are subjected to only efficiency education, testing education and education that serves only corporate american, reducing and narrowing the curriculum. Why am I saying this? Well, he also suggests with no hint of optimism, that any place in which young people are educated has the opportunity to give them spaces of Corporate or Public Time. Where he obviously favours the latter.

Lets rewind a bit. If a church is to be practical, and prophetic in regard to how it views young people, and engages with them, might that include being prophetic about how young people ‘pass’ through time? 

One of the most common questions when I am on the streets on detached, is that young people ask ; ‘what are you here to do?’ There is an inbuilt ‘corporate time’ aspect, there is an expectation that they are only a project, a strategy, a pawn, that I am only engaging with them to ‘do’ something. It is challenging to offer ‘time’ for nothing. Often challenging to communicate this too, in the heat of the moment. Life in a transactional lane for young people is corporate time and a wagon they cant get off without being suspicious. Yet church can offer public time. Sadly, it can be as guilty of only offering another version of corporate time.

There can be a tendency to make Jesus rush around (thanks to Marks gospel of ‘then Jesus did stuff’), but though much happened, there was plenty of ‘non’ space that Jesus had walking, travelling, talking and responding to the questions of the disciples. If he wanted an easy ride, he wouldnt have included Peter in the party. Peter asked questions and hoped to understand. Peter slowed Jesus down a bit. Jesus gave Peter critical awakening time. Discipleship in that relationship was about Time. Public time.

What might a local church do – to be prophetic about young peoples time? On one hand it isn’t to make their time more precious or busy. But might it provide space and time to help young people slow down. Maybe the choice and contemplation of the cathedrals is one reason they are popular. Maybe thats what people like about coffee culture, its time to slow down. Maybe thats why discovering young people in their ‘public’ time moments on the streets, or gathered in places of choice is so precious for them, they need space to escape or react to pervading corporate time.

Turning churches into businesses, and looking to the corporate world for Business strategies, has the effect of a church becoming run on corporate, not public time. Efficiencies, business, activity, plans, meetings, can all reduce the value of prophetic public time. The space of conversation, the space to slow down and value a person, and value the moment. Time is political, and for ministry with young people (and all people) an understanding of public over corporate time, might help us in our work do practical and prophetic ministry.

How might we help young people value time? How might we help young people value the space of slow time?  What might the church offer by way of time, to give young people seclusion from corporate time on their lives? How might we create time for young people?

Image result for a time for everything

 

 

References

Giroux, Henry, On Critical Pedagogy, 2006

Thiselton, Anthony, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 2007

Vanhoozer, Remythologising Theology, 2010

 

Is the most faithful discipleship happening ‘outside’ the church?

As part of my role with Frontier Youth Trust, and also, my experience of being a youthworker over the last 10 years, one of the common conversations in the many Christian based projects, activities and ministries reverberates around the following kind of statements:

We met with _______ person the other day – they would really love to follow Jesus and show signs of being interested in believing in God – but I couldnt imagine them going to a local church

or

Young people we work with, we have great conversations about faith, we also have conversations where they tell us how church has damaged them before

or

These young people would be considered on fire for Jesus for what they do, serve and be loving in their community, but because they dont go to church on a sunday the church arent interested.

So the question I am left thinking is the following

Can (youth) discipleship happen ‘outside’ the church?

or maybe, pertinently, might better youth discipleship happen outside the church?

Obviously no discussion like this can happen without first trying to define what church is and what discipleship is, or at least that are both discussions within studies of Ecclesiology, although a study on what ‘discipleship’ is more difficult to find. There are calls for ‘True discipleship’, ‘deeper discipleship’ and ‘radical discipleship’ often, even within these pages, though cementing a definition is difficult. Skipping over the complex nature of both of these things, is not done because it is not important to think on these matters, but need extensive study further. Nicholas Healys definition of Church within the Theodrama, existing as an ongoing reality that is practical and prophetic is one that i find helpful.

In regard to discipleship, and building on that Theodramatic theme, Wesley Vander Lugt separates it out into two aspects ; formation and performance, both as he says in Living Theodrama are interlinked and inter-dependant of each other. What tends to happen is that Discipleship can often be short hand for ‘learning’, attending bible study groups, house groups or church activities – when this might usually only reflect the ‘formation’ element of it. Thoughts on thinking of Discipleship as Pedagogy practices ive written about here

In previous posts i have talked about developing action first discipleship – if you’re interested take a look here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1af  there also youth resources that FYT produce that encourage action first – thinking second as a shift in focus for formational discipleship , see http://www.fyt.org.uk.

So, If Discipleship is about Formation and Performance – can it occur outside the ‘walls’ of church? – and not just could it, in some cases – should it?

What has been discovered across the country, is that as youthworkers, chaplains and mission workers connect with people and create places of home, support, acceptance and deepen relationships, then these have intrinsic spiritual (not just emotional) value. A place of home and safety is created in the relationships, and these relationships are the source and space of faith, of discovery and ongoing learning. Attempts to use relationships as  strategy seem unfulfilling, and against the ethics of some practices.

Sometimes what gets tried is to ‘bolt-on’ formation in the place of ongoing open conversations and youth work practices – such as ‘if anyone wants to do it, theyll be a ‘discussion’ group, on a certain evening’ and sometimes these things, when developed with appropriate process, care and attention may encourage formational thinking on faith within that space. Other times these things crash and burn. It is more likely that gradual processes in this direction , gradual risk taking, is more likely to produce enthusiasm for faith formation. But faith formation, can occur in other ways that ‘sit down’ discussion groups. The default for this shouldnt be youth alpha, or equivalent. And there are plenty of spaces where performative/action discipleship can occur in a youth project – as young people participate in it, and develop consciousness of local community activism.Image result for acting training

But the question remains – can Discipleship happen outside the church? 

In another way, forget the projects working in local communities. Think of Youth Groups. The separation of youth groups from ‘church’ (albeit there are often church attending volunteers of workers) – the youth group is a place often where formational discipleship happens, (whether it actually happens and is any more than a social club to keep young people involved until next years soul survivor is another question), and many young people attending youth groups don’t attend church either. So it is not just the community based project, but the youth group too.

Is it ever appropriate to encourage young people not to go to church? I mean, for their own good – do they ‘have to be ready’ for it, prepared even. A project leader recently told me that they knew of someone who said that ‘they could cope and agree with being a christian, but go to church and belong to that group of people?’ no thanks. So, in a way as we create connections with people outside of the walls of the church, we will meet many many people. As church we need to be relaxed enough about our identity and self critical to know that the faith community has a lot of baggage, and many not be an encouraging place for ongoing faith journey, or insight into the way of following Jesus, that someone outside is desperately looking for, or at least enquiring.

Can discipleship happen outside the church? One on hand, developing new church communities and groups as part of an ongoing movement is how the church grew, and continues to do so. Increasing existing gatherings is difficult, starting new ones (as both church planters and emerging church leaders tell us) is a key way. What we might be doing, accidentally, is expanding the stage where God is active in local communities, through the conversations we have with people where they become opters in of God prompting them through us, being formed and becoming performers, the question metaphorically then is do they need to be part of the existing theatre troop, or have that troop help shape new theatrical acts and scenes in different contexts, even in the same town, but with other people groups.

Of course, the path is paved with sharp pebbles and stones, and no two performances are the same. The church’s role is to water and provide food for the emerging shoots that are located and planted already, not keep hoping that the root is uprooted and located elsewhere for feeding and watering, thus making it weaker, and also out of its place. Is there a sadness, that local acts of mission and discipleship are not being used to shape the practices of local churches. If people find a home, and space of discipleship in the local foodbank, with volunteers, how might a church be as accessible, be as a home, be as inclusive and welcoming, on a sunday, the same for the young people at the youth club on a tuesday evening.

References

Living Theodrama, Wesley Vander Lugt, 2014

Here be Dragons, Youthwork and Mission off the Map, R Passmore, 2013

Ecclesiology and Ethnography, Pete ward, 2013

The church, the world and christian life, Nicholas Healy, 2000

 

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