LGBT and the Christian Story (Part 2) – Might drama make for a better evangelical story?

A few weeks ago I penned a piece that began with Peter Oulds assertion that ‘Evangelicals need a better story’  in regard to how situations of LGBT are dealt with, and the piece ended with my own story of growing up evangelical, and the predominant silence on the issue, a silence which meant that as a young person I had no way of assessing the few perspectives floating around that were predominately negative, and where the churches were represented as being guilty of committing spiritual abuse against individuals. If you want to read that piece it is here: ‘On LGBT and growing up Evangelical- the Silence’

This is the follow up, and tries to respond to Peters original question. One key motivation for me in regard to this piece, is that I was in conversation with a young person recently, and in asking them about ‘difficult issues that they face’ they said ‘well i have my spiritual beliefs over here, and my personal ones here, I go the Pride march locally as I want to support it and am for it, but its as if i have to hide being a christian, or keep my spiritual beliefs separate’. I paraphrase a little. But isnt it a shame that this was how a young person in a local church, growing up evangelical, dealt with what they saw were a divergence of beliefs and values? A better story for them would bring coherence. And i realise coherence isnt everything. But it might help young people growing up evangelical today. Amongst other things.

So, If there needs to be a better Evangelical story ;  Might that story need to be a bigger one? If the only evangelical story in town is to denigrate those who stand with pride marches as having a cartoon faith, and creating an either/or argument, then Peter is desperately right. The tone of the debate continues to sound nasty, and it is evangelicals playing the doom drums.

Where the conversations have been about Vicky Beechings book ‘Undivided’ which is getting alot of positive and dismissive comments.

But if I am brutally honest, when the battle lines are drawn in this debate both lived experience and good humanity become sidelined to bit part players in the great theological conversation. The lived experience, personal ministry and horrific experiences of oppression in the church do have to be wrestled with, are valid, dont mishear me.

If the lines are drawn as ‘lived experience’ vs ‘what the bible says’ then the rut might be stuck in for a while. The tools in what seems a battle have barely move on since i was a teenager. To be evangelical is to still believe in the Bible, yet no evangelical believes in the whole bible anyway, all is culturally appropriated. Thats still not, quite the point.

Yes it has taken 1000 words of preamble, and so this might be the first of a number of posts, but in terms of a framework for using the Bible, and also exploring inclusion, acceptance and participation in the faith – does a Theodrammatic framework help?

Of course, in thinking like this, we have to ask whether we want to find a way that accepting a theological premise that offers acceptance and inclusion with the LGBT community is what we want – if this isnt what is wanted, then no premise will have any affect anyway – because the heels are already dug in and no fancy 2000 word blog is going to change that. But if you humour me a little, and want to work with me to think about a better evangelical story, then read on…

How the Bible is used – is a question that doesnt as often get asked as ‘what does the Bible say’ , neither ‘what is the role of the Bible’ in this or any debate- and this may well be where thinking about Theodrama might also be helpful, in not just providing us with a better story, but also a way of understanding how the bible is to be used.

And one key aspect at stake is the use of the Bible, which, according to the critical piece above is phrased as having no need for interpretation, for only a literal one will do. How the text of the Bible is used is undoubtedly an issue. An issue that isnt picked up on by Ian Paul in this piece, but he does helpful highlight the potential factionary nature of the debates.

but moving on…

Can there be an evangelical story that is the different one that Peter Ould is trying to find?

I am wanting to believe there is.

I wonder whether the limitations described by Peter in his piece on ‘The Christian story’ are also related to the notion that ‘Story’ itself has limitations as a descriptor, its something I have talked about before here in this piece: ‘Does a 3 way Drama help?’ and I suggested that the limited nature of story is that it restricts the participative nature of God in the current story of humanity. It can feel as though what is described is as if the separate story of man and God only connects at certain points. And I am not sure thats Biblically or theologically accurate.

I wonder whether Theodrama helps to create a better story? Where it is not Story, but Drama that is the descriptor, and metaphor that is used to describe the Christian narrative, mission, expectation and purpose.

There will be references to Theodrama at the bottom of this piece, if you want to read further, but for the content of this piece I will try and keep things as fairly simple as possible. Thats if you’re not lost already, please try and bear with me on this.

In thinking about Drama, Balthasars original descriptions evoked Shakespeare (all the worlds a stage) and also Greek Philosophy, in which theatrical language was used to describe the human condition and place in the world. What Balthasar did with it, in 5 volumes was to suggest that the field of Theatre was both underused and devalued by the church, and that it had much to offer that had been sidelined. In particular Balthasar focussed on the nature of the relationships that occur between the script, the author, the playwright, the director, the audience and also the actors on the stage. Principally describing that the actor has both the freedom to perform on the stage, with knowledge of previous performances, the written script, (thats been tailored from the original piece of literature), their relationship with the author, relationship with the director – and also that their performance is being realised on a stage in front of the audience. I think we can get this in terms of a metaphor for the Christian life, in which the human responds in freedom to the author, director, audience, fellow performers and tries to act in a way that brings the audience closer in awareness to the script. (Wells 2004, p49, and Von Balthasar, Theodrammatic 1, The Prolegamma). Shannon Craigo Snell (amongst others) have alligned the various aspects of a theatrical performance to that of the Christian drama, with, the world being the stage, God the director/producer, and performer, and humans/christians as also actors on the worlds stage.

As with this analogy, different methods of theatre in your mind make give this metaphor variety. If you have improvised or interactive theatre, then audience participation and improvisation is high (as is the skill of the actor to incorporate massive disruption and divergence), the more bourgeoisie theatre with clearer boundaries (except when the audience is involved in a panto scene) permeates a different image of what performance is expected. Boals descriptions of Theatre for the Oppressed are helpful here, and I have not done theatre studies. But there’s a glimpse here on how Theatre has possibilities for a metaphor, especially as interactive and improvised theatre suggests that drama as Wells suggests celebrates and embraces an open and social future in a time to be explored. Theology in the Drama engages with time in its openness. (Wells 2004, p50)

A number of people have written further, using the metaphor of theatre as a way of bringing together free will, the creator/creature relationship, the answerability of Man to God, (Balthasar), the church (Nicholas Healy, Craigo-Snell, Wesley Vander Lugt), Trinity (Balthasar/Vanhoozer) calling and salvation (Vanhoozer, Balthasar), Ethics (Samuel Wells) and maybe as importantly for the discussion about the christian story, The bible itself (Craigo-snell, Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Wells, Vander Lugt, Trevor Hart)

Imagine for a moment that the Drama is the descriptor for the Biblical narrative and not story. And so, in that dramatic imagination, think about the historic and present timeline of the Biblical action, whilst there is a bit of a small dispute (and its not worth a discussion) on how many acts there are to play in the drama, for me its easier to think of the framework as five acts of God, four that have happened, and one that is in the future. These being

  1. Creation,
  2. Covenant,
  3. Christ,
  4. Church, and
  5. The Consummation

Hopefully, this still feels evangelical. The Bible contains reference to all of these in the canonical text, and what this time line also does, as Samuel Wells describes, is that it put us is in our place  – being in act 4 of 5 – and thinking about this is below. God is at work in all 5 of the ‘acts’, they are the acts of God that permeate through the Biblical text and these key moments. Though in this description Wells described adequately the chronology of the Biblical narrative, it is laking reference to the Biblical themes, and an alternative is suggested by Vander Lugt who presents it as:

  1. Formation (creation)
  2. Deformation (Fall)
  3. Transformation emerged (Isreal)
  4. Transformation Embodied (Jesus)
  5. Transformation Empowered (church)
  6. Re-formation (new creation)

This carries with it something of the impetus of our current situation. For, as people in the ‘church’ act of the drama, our prime role is of having been empowered to witness, empowered to sustain the faith, empowered in christlikeness and empowered to cultivate and make disciples. And transformation is expansive enough to include other salvific acts such as reconciliation, ransom, adoption, victory, liberation and justification..

This post is not about a theological understanding of LGBT per se, It is meant to be a way of re thinking the Christian story, to drama, and Gods Drama (Theodrama) that might ensure that the Evangelical Christian story, does itself have a better and i hazard a though, more accurate story.

So, for the remainder of this already length piece Ill focus on the question – If there is such a thing as a 5 part Theodrama – what part in this metaphorical drama does the Bible play? And as a result, what is the Bible for, especially given that literal uses of texts (albeit subjectively used) are often weaponised in an LGBT theology-off.

Within the Theodrama, it might be that the Bible is easily determined as the script. But not so fast. For the script of the Bible rarely corresponds to current events, neither do the current actors regimentally act it out. Indeed, the whole theatrical methaphor might itself be under threat in the questioning of whether the Bible is a script or not (Vander Lugt, 2014, 92-93) Although there are many compelling reasons for suggesting the bible as the script, Vander Lugt suggests that it is better to think of the Bible as  a Transcript and a Pre-script. Vanhoozer himself deviated from his original thinking on the bible as a script between Drama of Doctrine (2005), and Faith Speaking Understanding (2014).

With the Bible as a transcript, Vander Lugt paints a picture of God (the playwright) who has a comprehensive view of the whole drama, but guides certain writers in transcribing a long series of improvised performances in interaction with his own performance. Not all is recorded, only those which are events, interactions and notes that contribute to a cohesive story (the OT), and this theme continues by the disciples who improvise with earlier performances and then interact with God playing a lead role (Jesus), and then following this the playwright includes letter from assistant directors ( peter, john, Paul)  to their companies who provide creative ways of performing  in various situations guided by the producer (Holy Spirit), and all these become adapted for future performances, and some even include how the play will end – so actors are required to reincorporate by memory what is transcribed while pre-incorporating with hope and imagination elements from the ending. (A slight rephrasing of Vander Lugt, 2014, p94)

Actors therefore have freedom to improvise within the structure provided by the playwright, protagonist and producer, with God also involved in the ongoing, immediate and present – as he is and was always (it was only written down afterwards) . Scripture may not be a script, but a transcript of what was that serves as a pre script for ongoing fitting and appropriate performances in the future.

I cannot continue this piece any further. It will get longer than the Bible itself.

What I hope that thinking of the Christian story as Theodrama does is bring expansiveness of thought to the concept of the biblical narrative, using theatrical language that has this potential, and uses terms that many people who are adept at film/theatre or music fields can understand. It might be accused of over complicating what for decades evangelicals have harped on about making faith simple. The christian religion as Max Harris describes is a religion of the stage, and not just a religion of the book (Harris, Theatre and imagination) . This is not the place to discuss what it might mean to ‘perform’ the text in an improvised way, and neither is it the place to think about passages that are used in the heat of the LGBT text warfare.

In conclusion, The Bible is a central aspect of Gods own performances by which he reveals to us the theodrama and invites us to be participants in it. The Spirit speaks to, and with ongoing performers who respond to the directions and who are capable of fitting performances. Scripture records particular performances that taken individually and collectively provide a trustworthy transcripts of the theodrama and prescripts for continued participation in the theodrama today. Simple… ?  So what does this mean for the christian story? Its a drama where transformation is the impetus and we are improvisers empowered to perform it, in the everyday of now and tomorrow.

Conceived as a drama that requires participation, Theodrama is a drama that has a transcript written and has elements, themes and examples that form a prescript for todays performances- which are to be improvised in the current context, with the actors freedom, creativity and ongoing responsiveness to, as Vanhoozer describes, the Holy Author in the midst. What does this mean for inclusion, for participation in the drama- well its then a matter of who God speaks to and calls, who is directed and prompted, its a drama of participation in the mission and kingdom that requires Christlikeness and childlike responsiveness to obedience to that call. Is gender important? or transgender important – maybe thats for part 3…

Its Theodrama – with God still speaking and acting in the very present – its more that an old old story – but a present that has ongoing participation, responsiveness, action and transformation as its directives. Its a drama yet to be performed. How do we play the next scene? Is it love that compels or judgement?

To many young people- including the friend of mine – drama might bring coherancy, and expansion, to christian beliefs that remain evangelical, in its overall framework, provide insight into how we are participating in Gods drama that is in need of attentive and fitting performances that take into account the script beforehand, as well as the current context, trinity and the theodrama itself, the drama of Gods covenantal love for the world.

 

References

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, 3rd edition 2005

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine 2005, Remythologing Theology 2010, Faith Speaking Understanding 2014

Shannon Craigo-Snell Command performance, rethinking performance interpretation in the context of divine discourse, modern theology, (16/4, 2000) pp 475-94

Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2004

Wesley Vander Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

Hans urs von Baltasar, Theodrammatique 1-5, 1980

 

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LGBT and the Christian story (Part 1) -On growing up evangelical and the damaging silence

The short term prompt for this post is Peter Oulds piece in Christianity today, in which the title reads ‘why evangelicals need a better story’ which you can read for yourself here , it is a response to the conversations from a variety of high profile publications from prominent christians who profess to identify as LGBT,  his published piece includes the lines:

And this is something the evangelical church simply fails to do time and time again. Even today with so many gay conservatives being open about their sexuality, it is incredibly hard to stand up and say ‘I’m gay’ in the middle of an evangelical church teaching traditional orthodox theology. There is still too much suspicion, too much assumption. There is the fear about how you’ll be received, whether you’ll still be able to do the ministries that you were involved in. It’s getting better in many places, but it’s still a problem and needs to be addressed. You see the problem in the way that the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe (which might have been avoided if the church in question had taught clearly from the front that being gay was not in and of itself sinful) is currently being weaponised by liberals as a tool to promote revisionist teaching.

This is the point. The reason why Vicky Beeching couldn’t continue her ministry wasn’t because she came out, it was because she came out and accompanied it with a particular theological position. When Beeching chooses a title like Undivided she is actually playing a very clever game, because revisionists want to so conflate orientation and activity that in society’s (and the church’s) inability to divide them we find ourselves defending both because there is no other possibility.

And I think he is right, I think a different story needs to be found within evangelicalism, one that is more expansive, and takes maybe more into account. That will feature in part 2 of this two part series. This first piece is on the silence of the story, or shall i say the silence of the LGBT position within the story, that I and i think a whole load of people experienced growing up evangelical in the 1970,80s and 90’s.

Yet in the interests of self disclosure, I have begun to reflect on my own personal journey in thinking, believing and opinionating about the issue of gender inclusion and the church, or more so, gender inclusion and the evangelical church.

Questions that I ask myself have been like – when did i hear anything about LGBT as a young christian?  Where did i get information? when did i think or realise even that people could be ‘gay’?

In terms of my story, it was a post brethren evangelical church that I grew up in. One in which had a relative position of strength, at the time, it had built its own building locally and was becoming influential locally. But growing up, conversations about gender inclusion and sexuality were fairly low down on the list of regular sermon topics, or youth group chat, and all a bright eyed teenager like myself really had the tools to deal with it was to ‘look at what the bible said’ . Even Steve Chalke in his ‘lessons in love’ videos which we watched in youth group,  didnt mention that Boys and Boys could be in a relationship. So, when dangerously right wing Ken Ham and his creationist brigade turned up, and talked about Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, and the literal reading of creation, i kind of wished i hadnt but, i kind of lapped it up. After all, it felt like, or i wasnt encouraged to, critically think about what was being said and the perspective being offered, at 15 I thought that being compliant with a perspective was what was required, what was needed to be accepted in the church. Only the compliant survived, or so I thought.

Teachers at school were bullied for being gay. I dont think i joined in at the time, i hope i didnt. I might even have thought that they were evil for being gay. forgive me.

In early 1994, a trip to see the film ‘Philadelphia’ and being moved to tears, even as a 15 year old caused me to think about gender, and relationships, and how this seems to be at odds with an evangelical faith that i knew of. Or at least scenes in it where the church  is represented by those who protest against someone, who may have life/death decisions to make. Whos side would i be on?

I have my A level English department to thank for pushing this further.

I had to read ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson, as one of the key texts in the A level course. It famously tells of the powerful story that was based on her own experiences of awakening sexuality, lesbian attraction and how this was met with the full fury of a ultra conservative Pentecostal church. Where deliverance and prayer was being enforced whilst the young Jeanette was being pinned down on a chair to receive healing and the removal of demons. It seemed like the worse crime in this story was of spiritual abuse, and childhood neglect.

These children have fallen fowl of their lusts’ – said the preacher to the girls (including Jeanette sitting in the pews)

These children are full of demons’ 

and as the girls protested verabally

Listen to Satans voice’  (Oranges are not the only fruit, 1991, p102)

Could I ask about this story in church, should I- did I – no. The stories stayed separate. Two competing messages were going through my head, the adherence to evangelical beliefs and a story that seemed to ignore, or not engage with homosexual identity, relationships and faith – and on the other hand a growing awakening of the oppression in society and in the church against those who professed to be. And brothers and sisters within a faith who caused damage to others. Call me naive, but that was what i was exposed to and culturally grew up in. Honestly, that two of my relatives were in a same-sex relationship actually was never said to me, just implied.

I could have dismissed the experiences of Jeanette this at the time written it off in class as something that representing the 1960’s or 1970’s. But, unaware to the real world of my A level english class, , there was something of a movement of spiritual renewal happening in churches in the UK at that time. And healing and demon possession removal was back in vogue with the various ‘blessings’ that were being caught, shared and distributed around. So, the practices of ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ were back in vogue. But we’re they coupled with a greater compassion? Ill get to that a bit later. What certainly wasnt happening was conversations about homosexuality and faith. For me they were happening, at least a little bit in school, in A level English. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Though what i will say at this point was that conversations about same sex relationships were tentatively explored, though fairly quickly shut down at conference Q&A’s at Soul Survivor, the one i went to in 1996, and not much mention of it as a conversation at any of the youth meetings i ever went to at spring harvest, on 5 occasions as a teenager (again dont judge me) .

I might not be alone in some of this. That sense of growing up evangelical, I have talked about before, trying to cling on to it or find a way of leaving it that doesnt damage faith, what I hadnt necessarily thought about is how an evangelical upbringing, in the 1980’s/90’s provided little in the way of tools, discussions or conversations around human sexuality, and, as a teenager, I was picking up snippets from a whole host of directions, without the building blocks or frame work, or even culture to meaningfully work through these things. It was a subject of too much cloak and dagger. To complicated to try and establish a perspective, to easy to ignore. A subject given the silent treatment. Left for the young person to work it out.

An example of where I was was as follows. Between 1996-1997 I was a team leader of a team of 4 on the Oasis Frontline teams, and sent to the north east, Hartlepool, to work in a team of four in a church doing childrens and youthwork for a year, if anyone wants to know with what i did with 2 years savings from retail work, thats what i did, spent it all on a gap year scheme in the north east, anyway, part of the deal was to undergo training, and this occured above a christian bookshop, the now closed Bridge books and music. I guess this is where i also discovered a love for learning through reading, as many of the sale books ended up on my bookshelf. And, having lived through and now being in what I would have said was the back end then of the renewal movement, I was keen to read more into it, or even to learn of its originators and the theology behind it. So, one of the books I read at the time was ‘Power Healing’ by John Wimber.

Everyone sort of knew who John Wimber was at the time. And if i was to go into Christian Ministry, at this time, knowing about Healing and Renewal seemed to be not a bad way to spend a few quid and give it a read on my next long train journey home. Tell you the truth at the time, it did open my eyes. At the time, only 19, i was sort of impressed by use of the Bible, and the stories in the book, and felt that Wimber talked about something that wasnt really what had been happening in the UK, its as if the movement had shifted from its original intentions.

At the time I probably thought that this section in the piece was fair game. On demon oppression, the following was stated;

‘The presence of one of more of these symptoms indicates the possibility though not the necessity that the person is demonised; contorted physical reactions, addictions to drugs or alcohol, compulsions such as lust, pornography, homosexuality, masturbation, stealing,  murder, lying, suicide, eating disorders’ (Wimber, Power Healing, 1985, p136-137) 

In a way this backed up what I had seen in Oranges. So i didnt question it.

Also it backed up some of the talk about deliverance and the Holy Spirit that had been evoked in the previous 5 years in the UK. Spiritual renewal was back in vogue, and it stemmed with Wimber, and others via Vineyard. Nothing about this caused a reaction to me then. I was part of the evangelical bubble, and with limited  other conversations about homosexuality, this was still the only one in the show in town. Being Homosexual might/might not be a sign of demon possession. Being Homosexual meant that you were a project to try and deal with through deliverance. And as it was said by Wimber, and he was influencing David Pytches and others in Chorleywood (so says the forward to the book), then it stands to reason a bit that this is where some of the UK learning about renewal might have come from. Add this to the sense, that no one is actually going to read this stuff themselves in the evangelical world, just hear about it from others, and the great divergence even from what was written takes place. If Wimber says ‘may or may not’ but see deliverance of homosexuality as a demon possession thing, then what will they go with?

It is only as i re read Wimbers Power Healing last week, on the back of Vicky Beechings experience that I look at what Wimber wrote, and the influence of it, and him, that things make sense. In that bubble, I hadnt questioned this aspect of what Wimber had said at the time. I do now. Why couldnt I then – what was the teaching on homosexuality? Did anyone share or engage in one? In an evangelical bubble where homosexuality is a non conversation, the only conversation that seems to resonate is one of fear, continued ignorance and distance the evangelical community from the deemed impurity of anyone who might be considered homosexual. It all made sense, as did the stories of evangelical parents who kicked out their children as they ‘came out’.

As I said, this is me reading this back 20 odd years later, and recognising the non conversation growing up evangelical about homosexuality. Realising that Oranges was not an extreme case. Realising that permission was even in print to do this. Realising that a silent culture on a subject could allow for positions to foister without challenge, or alternative. And Wimber wasnt as far right about it as Ken Ham was he..? Wimber was, in the evangelical world an established leader, success was following him around.

In Gemma Dunnings excellent chapter ‘Integrity and Imago Dei’ in 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers (2018), Gemma talks about how unprepared she was with doing ministry with young people in a variety of settings who had been excluded from communities because of profession of or being found to be LGBT, She found that in developing an awareness of informal education, and anti-oppressive practice, she was able to find a method, or at least a view of humanity that helped, as undoubtedly being in the presence of and with her local LGBT community to hear stories will do as well.

And that probably is a similar place to where I pick up the story, for myself. In the mid 2000’s. Talking about anti oppressive practice and equality within youthwork and theology degree course at ICC ( Now NTC, Glasgow). Discovering, because I had ignored, the issues that LGBT identifying young people were likely to experience in society, families and schools, and how youthwork practices could, should help, and create safe spaces for conversations. And not only that, thinking for the first time about how equality is a faith issue, and theology is for those who are oppressed.

This is only the part of this blog in which i have personally looked back at how homosexuality was the big non conversation in growing up evangelical. There was no conversation. LGBT was given the silent treatment within evangelical churches, families and culture, for at least towards those who didnt profess to be LGBT there was no conversation about it that would help create the possibility of a good story about it. The dominant voices were negative, cruel and damaging, and only had one version. One version that was powerfully communicated, one version in which compliance and power to it was rife.

I would like to think that a conversation on LGBT is not as silent in churches for young people today as it was for me 30 years ago. I would like to think so, and Gemmas book, would certainly be a help for anyone wanting to begin a conversation on it. Young people professing LGBT need community more than ever, as churches we have got to normalise 100% acceptance. The silent treatment is just not good enough.

This is part one, of two, the second to be published later in the week, this is a little of what was for me, the LGBT conversation and growing up evangelical. For the many young people in churches in the UK today, there needs to be a different story. One where the two cultures are not separate, and where the stories are more coherent. At least where there is conversation. We owe it to young people to offer spaces of conversation, of listening and place to learn, have question and consider a number of views on LGBT and the christian story. Silence and putting it off isnt going to help anyone.

References

Winterson, Jeanette, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, 1991

Wimber, John Power Healing, 1986

Gemmas resource, Pastoring LGBT teenagers can be purchased via this link: 4 Views on Pastoring LGBT teenagers

This is a powerful read too: http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2018/7/29/evidence-of-shockingly-prejudiced-attitudes-to-lgbti-people-in-the-church-of-england

FYT Streetspace Gathering 2018; feeling the movement

The pressure was on.

After raving about it every year, writing blog pieces on it each year (including this post, my second most popular in 2017), This year, I, as part of the staff team was part responsible for planning the FYT Streetspace gathering, The national gathering of pioneer youthworkers. The pressure to make it work, or make it better, or make it more original, more radical, more provocative and be what people needed, wanted and would want to come along to. Before as a punter, a project leader i could come along (and bring my son) for a ‘ride’ take part and enjoy it. This year, it was going to be different.

This year, the gathering was also different, for me at the end of challenging month, with the job itself ending, my wife having an operation, and then also at the same time the dog getting ill.  Head and Heart space was severely distracted away from doing the last minute, stuff, (and I am so thankful for John and Dan for picking up alot of my slack on this) , this year i struggled to want to go to the gathering, because I knew it occured at the end of a month that i was already shattered, being practical all day every day in the house, and trying to do work, and even apply for new jobs. I neednt have worried. But i was, worried too about the awkward conversations like, so what are you going to do be doing on monday? when theres nothing in the diary. The pressure, though, to make something good, still good, make something meaningful, still meaningful, was kind of on.

 

The themes of the weekend were to reflect on the current strategy of FYT, create a Home for pioneer youthworkers, improve practice and encourage risk taking with practice and be prophetic raising a voice to challenge structures, oppression and stand up and stand with those in the margins. It had also been agreed, and pushed that we wanted to continue the conversations that had started in 2017 (and before) on gender, sexuality and inclusion/participation, pinning the colours of FYT to the rainbow coloured flag both metaphorically and literally.

Thats the background. The reality was that everything, and more that was good about the previous weekends happened again and more.

A place of home was stated and created, with cushions and lights, and coffee and comforts. Like crumble and custard, and board games and mealtimes. Yet that held a space of challenge, of hurt, and reality. We should be sick of pretence, when the real is far more beautiful. The pretence might want to be bouyant and hopeful, but it is false hope. Real hope is found in the ditches of the margins. When compassion meets determination. The cross is where hope is found, and that cross was dug deep into the ground. In the dirt and soil and mud. Hope goes deep. Starts deep. Foxes have homes, ‘I have friends’ said Jesus. His friends were his home. Friends make homes.

A place of family was created, as the home had practical things to do like cooking, and washing up, outdoor spaces, the sound of babies, toddlers, children and a couple of teenagers. Not grumpy sullen teenagers, but people who raised their game for the occasion where they were given the space in the home to be able to. Space to raise their game, space to try and fail, space to take a risk. Not excluded, given something ‘instead’ teenagers. But young people given the chance to be youthful and adult, to dream the possible. Space to share a personal story, a personal prophetic challenge, or to play the comic at the evenings entertainment and hold an audience. Teenagers who could raise their game, and at 15 weren’t barred from a youth workers conference. (fancy that) A place of home where toddlers has space to be free, and parents kept a long ish lead and a watchful eye was maintained, by 35 other surrogate aunts and uncles for the weekend. But the noise of a joyfilled toddler filled the room that they occupied.

The real got shit real

The youth participation cranked up considerable notches.

The provoking came from the young people.

The needs of the oppressed was told by their voices

The provoking came from being present.

A session to learn about LGBT and diversity, wasnt enough.

For ‘theyre’ not a token. ‘Theyre’ not an ‘other’.

they needs to become we.

 

It was a place to cry and dream

A place where the magic happened in interactions

Where the movement took off its masks

and shoes

and was served by those used to being pushed down.

The young, the queer, the female, the new

but that wasnt enough. no it never is.

 

For the movement of friends is not service and served

and many are missing, who we want to include

in the home of the movement, the pioneer dreamers

make the movement not ours, but yours to be part of.

Im not sure I could do emotional this weekend, friends. Many did. And many who grieved, and wept, went deep. A movement of pioneer dreamers, with feet in the mud. With hearts made of soft stuff, the clay of the earth. A group of youthworkers whose default chip wasnt frustration or angst, or pie in the sky. But dealing with tough stuff, the stuff to ignore. The stuff to push down on and hope it goes away. So the corks were opened. The bubbles emerged. Shit got real.

There was just empty space. No music or drums. No carrion call or manipulation. But silence and space. A place to grow up in, to grow out in, to grow deep in.

Like the seeds in my shed, that on thursday were nothing and today: 

Just space, silence, food, light. Growth happens. In the dark, with light poking through, and warmth.

From the deep came the song, the poem, the voice. The margin spoke, and not spoken for, and it felt.

The movement was felt.

Step up was the call.

That rose from the deep.

Do better.

Take risks.

Stand with.

Love courageously.

Step up.

Step was was the call, the rose from experience

and called us do better.

And say that we mean it, and take risks and challenge, ourselves to a new place.

 

And as we tidied away, the yurt was folding down. The kitchen was a mess of left overs, and the plan for take away lunch was crusting at the edges (though i dont think anyone went hungry all weekend, just death by midgie bite). Nature came knocking, reminding, provoking. As from the distance, one by one, three Red Kites started circling above us.

So over that yurt was a pocket of air, that was thermal and warmed. Where Kites came and played. For a while, then they soared. Stopped off for a breather, then went back on duty. Our eyes looked above, we stopped all the rushing. And paused. Again.

Our path from gathering was not feathers and flight. Though step up to the plate is the task that we might. The kites did not land, for their task was too great, to stop off too long.

They felt the movement, the warmth in the air. And us on the ground. Our flight path all wonky, and broken and beaten, But homes are all messy. And risks can be taken.

I write this on Monday, and life does not stop. The future still blank and open, uncertainty raging. But back to the living and dealing and busy of coping. May was a tough one. But im not alone. Our kites felt the movement, and are now soaring away. And Jesus, he washed the feet of his friends, their feet full of sand, taking the mud and the dirt with a cloth, and making them free, clean and able. To step up to the challenge. Yet its love that cleanses.

And this love is not selfish. It gives it away, and away and away. It gives and it gives. It loves from the deep, and the tough and the real. It loves in the risk.

What is Frontier Youth Trust? and what does ‘Frontier’ mean? lets not get stuck in the wording, stuck in that mud, but be a movement of dreamers who love to the depths – of our faith and our being.

Thank you all, in the small, in the significant and stupid.

Now to Step up.

 

To read of Streetspace gathering 2017 click here: Gathering 2017 , and FYT click the link above.

To buy Gemma Dunnings resource on Pastoring LGBT teenagers click here: http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1  as a way in to start thinking about LGBT and young people, the language and develop understanding, start here. Step up might be your call too.

 

Churches should be the safest place for LGBTQ young people (A review of ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers)

That is the bold confident claim and dream in the recent book ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers’, by the Youth Cartel, that includes contributions in this edition by Gemma Dunning, Shelley Donaldson, Nick Elio and Eric Woods, this is my review of this piece of work.4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers: Effective Ministry to Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer, and Questioning Students Among Us by [Oestriecher, Mark, Donaldson, Shelley, Dunning, Gemma, Elio, Nick, Woods, Eric]

There is much to be commended in this book. Though in one sense, the writers readily confess that their four views share a whole lots of commonality, three of the views are from a US perspective, all bring to the table personal and/or professional experience of shared lives and practice with young people, some of whom would identify as LGB or TQ, and each of their views brings together the realities of how this experience of young people affects parents directly, churches and also the specific dynamics of groups of young people in church activities. What the contributors share also is that there is a complexity to trying to ‘work’ out a particular standpoint, perspective or set of coherent statements to this concern that they have and share with us. The contributors recognise the complexity of trying to juggle what appears to be the conflicts within the theological position of conservative evangelical youth ministry and churches, with ecclesial politics and also the lived experience of young people growing up in societies in which they as LGBTQ identified need to be given an abundance more of intentional inclusion than other young people.

As I say there is much to be positive in this book, and I mean this, its not a prelude to a long ‘but’- This is a detailed if not personal exploration of how four people in Ministry came to revelations about the faith, their practice, the world of young people and their struggle, challenges and culture doing so in christian ministries that caused them to have to dig deep, make sacrifices and begin a process of education and change within churches (that they were employed within) to enable young people to receive the kind of welcome, support and space to be that their dream for every LGBTQ young person might need.

If you want to be a church community that has the desire to offer this kind of welcome and space for young people – then this book is for you, as there are many practical tips, and also pointers to the challenges that this might bring, especially in terms of trying to gain consensus on a particular view of LGBT (and if even Consensus is what is required). As they say, though, dont try and be inclusive if you dont mean it, and arent prepared to be it. I specifically enjoyed that when churches say ‘All are welcome’ some who identified as LGBT may still want to know if they  are included in the ‘all’ – and so without having to make an extra phone call to the church office, the church should go out of its way to specify that it a welcoming space for those in the LGBT community. It would be  simple thing to say, but might need considerable conversation so that a church might mean it. This is one practical tip, there are others, that specifically relate to young peoples activities such as residentials and small groups, all of which might give reason to not know ‘what to do’ but each is given due mention in this book, and ultimately many of the issues that might be raised are solved through respecting all young people and giving them all opportunity to contribute to how a situation might be ‘resolved’. This ultimately is good youthwork practice.

It is ‘this good youthwork practice’ that leads me to the ‘however’ of this review.

What is revealed in this book is that little preparation was available for youth ministers in the UK or USA to start ‘dealing’ with (and i use this phrase lightly) this concern. It is as if there has been a dawning of the reality of LGBT as a possible identifier for even christian young people is a recent thing, what is of concern is the underpreparedness that it seems each of the four persons were – at least Christian ministry training did not prepare them for. For Gemma, it was the approach of Informal education (youthwork) that enabled her to bring an approach of inclusion in conversation with the christian faith, and then this gave her a language and framework in which working with young people might mean in this way. Young people in this book are absent. To a point though one young person, whos is known to the writer exclaims

Why are you still talking about this?

As if the world and her have moved far on, but the church is still having to continue having conversations about this issue. The conversations itself that highlight that the complexity that the church might face in the ongoing to act meaningfully and inclusively with young people in the way the writers dream for in this book. But for youthwork in the UK, (not youth ministry) this conversation is a non-starter, there have been LGBT groups, conversations and friendly spaces for years, the LGBT youth clubs in Scotland have been active a long time. Because it is inclusion and anti-oppression first – (without conservative or evangelical theology in its way). It is telling that youthwork/informal education is absent in the US youth ministry context and conversation, and it is sadly absent in this book. But for youthworkers there is a sense that why are we talking about this? – its 2018 for crying out loud. On the other basis – No one has been talking about this as nothing has been in print on this concern, within youth ministry. 

It is the ongoing voice of young people that is however sadly lacking in this book. Some of these stories are painful, some are brave and some complicated. But this book has alot of is the voice of youth leaders who are shaping ministries, churches and lives to accomodate and be inclusive to LGBT and all young people. It is a shame therefore that the table is not extended to hear directly from LGBT young people themselves. We hear statistics of LGBT young people and recommendations of churches to young people, but it is their voice that is absent. There is not a story of how LGBT young people have found the desired welcome in a church. It is a minor thing, on one hand as there are not many youth ministry books that include the actual voice of young people, they tend to be the cumulative experience of youth leaders and academics. But a personal story and one from an LGBT young person in this book about inclusion might have been helpful.

Churches should be the most safe place for young people to ‘be’ LGBT. I wonder. This might reveal that youth leaders feel that other spaces arent safe. I would say in the UK that there are inclusive spaces for young people to ‘be’ LGBT are common and a church is lower in the pile that a young person might go to. However, a young person who has grown up in the church who identifies as LGBT at a time during their child or teenage years, needs to know that the relationships they currently have with supportive adult in their christian upbringing are going to stay the same when their LGBT identity is known. If the church is serious about being with and for young people, then this dream has to be a reality. If you want tips on churches being safer places for young people to be LGBT then this book is for you. If you want to use it to start a conversation that should have already been had, then use it, If you want it to have all the answers and something concrete for you in your situation then its not for you, there is much to be worked out in each situation, and much to i think do in order that churches might live up to the dream of being safe that this book aspires churches to be. Though- better to start a conversation about this, than only react later.

To buy a copy direct from Gemma, here is the link http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1

A kindle edition is available via amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Views-Pastoring-LGBTQ-Teenagers-Questioning-ebook/dp/B079YJ61QS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1521663465&sr=8-3&keywords=youth+cartel (here its slightly less at £10, but you cant share it as easily around the church leaders compared to a hard copy..)

 

How might churches communicate to young people that church really is a healthy place for them?

Most church websites, when talking about young people say something like this:

We have lots for our young people to get involved with. From mid week groups to mentoring we’re passionate about walking alongside the youth to help equip them in their personal lives.

or

Our Connect Groups meet in _______ for all aged 10-17yrs old. Great fun, with food and talking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

or, now and again, the section on youth and children may even include aspects of policies:

______welcomes children and young people into the church. At our 10:15 service on a Sunday morning we have a range of groups catering for all ages from 0 to 18 years. We also have a range of mid-week groups.

See more about the groups and events we have for chilren (under 10s) and youth (10s and over) by browsing the tabs on the left.  All our groups work within social service guidelines for adult:child ratios and our volunteers are regulated through the Diocesan Child Protection Scheme.

_____Protection of children and vulnerable adults policy is linked with the Diocese of Durham Safeguarding document available here. (and then a link is provided)

And though these three examples arent completely representative, two were large anglican churches and one a charismatic church in the north east, they are three of the larger churches that might be able to put more resources into keeping a website updated. If I was a young person, what i would hear from these website is that my only access to be included in a church is though being part of groups or services. Activity and being busy is the connection with faith and the church. And in the main, it is good to know what is on offer. Thats what the website is all about.

Some churches want to let everyone know what they think about young people, often saying that ‘here at _____ church we think youth are amazing’ , or that ‘we believe young people are a chosen generation and ready to be raised up to win hearts for Jesus’, though i am not sure that this jargon isnt going to put some young people off, less make them curious.

One of the things that the Fuller Youth Institute identified about a church that was able to keep young people, in their research of over 1500 churches over 4 years,  that had 15 year olds in them, was that church was a healthy place, that took young persons intelligence and critical thinking seriously and where faith became meaningful for them. (The link to the research is here on this post of mine in this site: https://wp.me/p2Az40-NP )

So, in thinking about creating and being a healthy place for young people – i wonder what does the church website communicate about young people- and how the church is a healthy place for them? (and yes a website isnt everything, but it can be an entrance point)

As someone who is meeting young people on the streets with all kind of questions, and concerns about their life, faith, identity and sexuality, through being involved in detached youthwork projects – I guess I would want to be able to know – and so that young people could see from the church website whether they might be accepted or welcome into the church if

  • They were struggling with mental health or depression
  • They had a disability
  • They were diagnosed with ADHD (as an example)
  • They were LGBT and identified as being part of the LGBT community and also wanted to explore faith.
  • They didnt like being part of groups

as a few examples, there are others.

And if a church is active in sharing its inclusiveness- especially via its website-  then its going to be easier for a young person, or a young persons friend to feel as though the church is thinking and ready to accept them within it, regardless. And if theres something said on the website, it also communicates to a young person that the church has discussed and thought through the specific ‘issue’ (if LGBT is seen as an issue). It communicates confidence, as well as inclusion.

A church might say it welcomes all, but for young people especially, this might need to be more specific, and should be.

Moving on to other matters; What else might a church website communicate about young people? And communicate about its community and attitude that it might be practically for young people? could it include things like:

  1. Come along and be challenged to try a radical lifestyle of self denial and a faith that is controversial? 
  2. In this church we welcome young people who have tons of questions!
  3. If you’re here longer than 6 weeks be prepared to get involved and serve (we want you to be part of what we do) 
  4. We love to give you new space to try new things – especially that help you show Gods love to the local community
  5. Dont worry if you have doubts – we all do – just come along and join in finding out more together
  6. Oh and we all fail, so just give things a go – thats what we’re all about

again, i would think that there might be more things that could be added- but what might be the kind of messages that could be communicated to young people on the church website – to say that church is a healthy place – a place for curiosity, participation, questions and doubt and connectedness.

At the very least, as one church did do, mentioning something about how the church is making steps to ensure that those who work with children and young people are adequately disclosure /dbs checked is a good thing. It should be a bare minimum – but what about other policies that a church could communicate about how it works with young people – such as confidentiality, inclusion of aspects said above, or even a complaints policy/whistle blowing policy for children, and young people and parents to be able to make complaints should they need to. All part of a transparency to a point, and creating a healthy space for young people.

Then, how else might church be a healthy space?

  • how or who decides that groups change or end – that affect young people
  • might young people be avoided of embarrassment factor – being asked to do services from the age of 12 unless they want to
  • where peer groups can stay together – regardless of age
  • where young people can develop their gifts – not just pigeon holed into what the church needs doing
  • and they were not pressurised to do the thing that the leaders want them to do, because its what the lleaders feel is how faith is/was expressed – ie the worship youth event, or the summer festival – when there are other alternatives to being together and connecting spiritually.

And again, i would think there were other things, for churches to think about in terms of how they might be healthy (and challenging, meaningful) places for and with young people to participate and be disciples of Jesus in. The fuller research also identified other examples take a look at the report.

What do you think – how else might a church communicate, that it is trying to create a healthy space for young people? And let young people know more than just the activities on offer in a church.

Some of the inspiration of this post is from  the book ‘4 views on pastoring LGBT teens’ , a copy of which can be ordered here: http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html

Why is The Greatest Showman is providing joy to young people?

Whisper it quietly, there is a new ‘youth obsession taking over’ , as every week since Boxing Day, 1,000’s of young people in the UK  have been hearing a story of hope, of life, of inclusion, dance and controversy. No they haven’t been attending churches, or signing up to ‘old labour’ , it is not a superhero film, or Pixars latest, no, many young people in the UK are in the throngs of a ‘Greatest Showman’ obsession. More young people (i think) saw this film on its opening night, than go to church in the UK – probably.

Maybe it is the ‘High School Musical’ Generation finding its feet again with a new outlet, that was satisfied with repeats of Glee for a few years, maybe its that the film has managed to pitch itself delicately in the middle ground, so that fans of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron go home happy,Related image

maybe as a film it has developed its own rise above the ashes and beaten back where critics ahead of its release were casting doubt on its success. What i do know is that for the first time a film has gone back to the No1 in the ratings (we 9/2/18), in its 6th week of release, something unheard of. What is also known is that the soundtrack has been nominated for awards, but also downloaded and streamed in its millions. And the sing a long showings have sold out.

 

 

Image result for the greatest showman

So – What is it?

What about The Greatest Showman that has thrilled and delighted. It has (and I have seen it) many redeeming charming features, yet at the same time, where critics have labelled it as fake or hollow , because in an age of authenticity i guess, we have become used to the failings of lead men trying to sing ( Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, or Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman (again) singing in Les Miserables (2012)), and be authentic in doing so – The Greatest Showman is instead slick, and gives off much more a whiff of a series of music videos. So it is not that it is in any way authentic that gives reason for young people to be attracted to or love it so much. It isnt as real, and that, actually hasnt mattered.

Image result for lines from the greatest showman

For all its fake-ness, it doesn’t lack charm. But also doesn’t lack edge. The flawed genius making something against better odds or judgement (or his wifes permission), who used the weird and wonderful in humanity to initially be pawns in his business, yet through the opportunity find themselves strong together, and with abilities able to delight and provoke reactions in an audience. The class war that ensues pits the view of art from the upper class against the lower class, yet those who perform for the bourgeoisie are shown to be more needy, fake and hollow, that the genuine band of ‘freaks’ clumsily assembled in PT Barnums Theatre.

At this point the line, made by PT Barnum to the theatre owner up the road is key; ‘You sell virtue to the burgoise, whilst we provide joy to the poor‘ was a particularly apt one, and one not as popular in the craze of turning movie quotes into pictures (see above, left).  And, for young people, joy is what they find in the greatest showman itself. It is unabashed, it is loud, proud and confident. (NB what is it churches offer…? )

It would be sniffy and patronising to say that young peoples attraction to this movie is because it a popcorn veneer of real life, an escape of caleidoscope images and sounds, and Zac Efron. This misses the point. It misses the point because young people are cleverer and smarter than this, yes even those who have seen The Greatest Showman 8 times. For what it is is as much as story of inclusion, of hope and fulfilling dreams, that many many young people are not finding elsewhere.

It would be easy to rail off where young people have lost hope in the world today, The Greatest showman isnt just an escape, it is a place of hopes, of dreams, and where many people who had been written off for their ‘weirdness’ found a space to dream, be united and redeem their weirdness into abilities and dance in the faces of those who scorned them.

The Greatest Showman is a story of liberation, it encapsulates some of Augusto Boals Theatre of the Oppressed and challenges the order, masks, and hypocrisy that entertainment and theatre became. In the current climate, it gives hope to the young person seeking to develop their own music ability (but told repeatedly that it wont amount to much), it gives hope to the young person afraid of what people think of them, that it isnt just the establishment that dictates the dream. It is a story about the risk taking required to cause something to happen, the imagination that goes against comfort, risk taking that is sometimes misguided. Image result for lines from the greatest showman

It is a story of inclusion, in an era where young people, who are growing up more inclusive than ever before, where those who are lost are included, where it is more than just the one talented person who gets to stand on the stage, but the many, the downtrodden and those who dont fit. And more and more, young people are not able to fit, not fitting for many reasons, through being misunderstood, maligned, politically, sexually, socially or spiritually.

The Greatest showman has given young people the opportunity to sing ‘This is me’ and be defiant, be confident and be brave and so it might be the song of the young person is more sure of who they are, rather than the questioning song of culture that wants young people to be afraid of themselves and sing instead ‘Is this me?’.

Is there something about Theatre, about Joy, about Community and about inclusion that The Greatest Showman that is delighting and encapsulating the imagination and dream of young people across the UK and beyond, yes. Might this be something that in youth work & ministry and the church that is reflected on? – this is not just a craze for young people, it is a revelation of what kind of community and world that they might just be hoping and dreaming for.

This is from the BBC, in its 11th week, TGS is still very popular! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43385034

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