One trick? Pony.

30 01 2009

I’ve got a process I’m setting in place. I’ve got a plan. The periods I’ll spend immersed in each mission context give me a chance to ground my discernment in some real engagement and experience. (By the way, when I say ‘my discernment’ I don’t mean it’s just me. I will involve a whole range of people.) I don’t want to shortcut that process but there have been some tantalising nudges so far.

One of the biggest is the express desire of the Portsmouth Street Pastors co-ordinator to link up with another project that would provide a refuge/safe space for people they encounter in the Guildhall Square in the late/early hours of a Friday and Saturday. It’s one of the possibilities I saw straight away. Linking up with an existing and well known enterprise such as Street Pastors could shortcut a lot of the inevitably time-consuming work with city ‘gatekeepers’.

I think the model that Street Pastors have in mind is the Friday Fridge. It’s a model that would maybe work really well if it was recontextualised for the Guildhall Square pub culture – an area which is quite different from Southsea’s own pub culture. (Though I suspect one would meet a number of the same individuals.)

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘Friday Fridge… qué?’, first of all well done for reading a blog in English rather than your native Spanish. Secondly, Manuel, let me explain…

The Fridge was a mission project I helped get off the ground in the neighbouring parish of St Jude while I was curate. Basically some of the side rooms in the church building are temporarily redecorated with drapes, low lighting, funky furniture, screens, projectors and the like every Friday night between 22:30 and 01:30. This creates different zones: a Café, a quiet area and what’s called the encounter zone. This is basically sacred space with contemporary prayer/reflection stations. The chilled out Café serves hot drinks and bacon sarnies and most importantly, a chance to share in conversation with people who won’t judge you or try to evangelise you but will be genuinely interested in your story and offer what care they can out of their Christian commitment and experience. The encounter zone is a place to do something more explicitly spiritual if people want to.

People out and about on a Friday night first encounter the Fridge on the street. There’s often a couple of people out there serving tea and hot chocolate and again, the all important conversation. That conversation often includes an invitation to visit the Fridge itself.

It’s been very positively received generally. People know about it and think it’s an okay place to go and hang out.

A handful of other people (as well as myself and the Street Pastors co-ordinator) have independently [maybe – one never knows what conversations have taken place] identified it as a model that could be really effective and helpful in the Guildhall Square; including some of the people involved in the Fridge in Southsea.

I said from the outset of the conversations I had that led to this appointment that I didn’t want to just import a brand I’d devised into another setting. Because, 1. I didn’t devise the brand on my jack – it was a collaborative invention; and, 2. different contexts require different responses. The history of mission is littered with examples where a model of the Christian community has been imposed on a setting in a way that crushes the local culture and polarises the local people. Now there are sayings of Jesus (and stories about Paul) that suggest that the latter (polarisation) is an inevitable response to the gospel. But the whole point of the Incarnation is that God is found in the midst of culture. The kingdom breaks out among people, not wholly over against them. There is an internal critique of the prevailing culture but Jesus’s response to the indigenous culture (in which he lives) is not like Caesar’s. Basically I have wanted to avoid anything that smacked of colonialism.

I didn’t ask for this job just to peddle my product. I wanted to operate in a more sophisticated way than that. Funnily enough, I think I may have detected the tiniest bit of disappointment at that! I even heard of one parish expressing the desire that Fridge be set up in their patch too.

Back when I had a proper job, I was a graphic designer. So I have a background in corporate identity and small-scale branding. So in one way, developing and exporting a brand is something I’m quite well positioned to do. And brands aren’t always a bad thing. Street Pastors is itself a brand. Brands build awareness and understanding if they’re used well. Think how much easier it is to get street ministry going in urban areas both for the churches and secular authorities. I’ve even seen fresh expressions ‘brands’ developed in this diocese (Portsmouth) too – I’m thinking of Messy Church. The danger is when buying into a brand shortcuts the really hard contextual exploration that needs to be done before discerning the christian community’s particular vocation in any setting. 

There’s another part of me that’s also wary of getting a reputation as being a one trick pony. Now actually if the thing I’ve already been involved in would be the most appropriate model for the city centre, I guess I’m going to have to get over it. What people think of me should be neither here nor there. But it does come into my thinking. I admit it. I’m human. I have an ego. So sue me! Actually I think if I did have only one trick, that would be pony. But it just may be these nudges turn out to be the Spirit’s gentle prompting. If that’s so, I will just have to get over myself and go with it. Just like I once asked the Bishop’s staff not to rule out the possibility that where I already was (St Jude’s) might be the best place for my curacy, so I’ll have to remain open to the possibility that what I’ve already been involved in might be the best model for where I am now.

The point is that despite the tantalising suggestions, there really is no other way to discern what the vocation is for the city centre than listening, through prayer, through study, through conversation and through immersing myself in the place. I really don’t want to be a one trick pony. But I have to let that one trick be a runner. It might just be the winner at the end.

Building: the future?

29 01 2009

Alex and I have spent the last two and a half days in the bowels of the University learning everything you wanted to know about development but were afraid to ask. We both feel a bit now like we wish we hadn’t. Asked that is.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t an interesting and really potentially useful couple of days. It was. I now know how to capitalise future income as a net present value and what a monte carlo simulation is but the most important outcome was the realisation that developing/redeveloping a building is a massive undertaking. If we were to get involved in developing the buildings in Somerstown for which we currently have some responsibility, it could eat up all of our time. It would then come back for seconds. Maybe even thirds. And still have room for pudding.

I suppose being involved at St Jude’s as the church prepared for its building programme should have brought me to that realisation already. The difference is that in our situation, there is not the large pool of capable people to draw on. If we were to embark on a building programme we would have to drive it forward personally.

That presents us with something of a dilemma. On the one hand there’s the obvious question about whether this is what we were licensed for. We already have a massive job on our hands helping two struggling congregations to discover their vocations, sustaining their worship and discipleship and even, hopefully, leading them into growth — yes in numbers as well as depth. Add to that our desire and vocation to see the church at the heart of the transformation of this community’s aspirations and prospects. Add to that my peculiar vocation to see the church engaged in the city centre in new ways and it all looks a bit beyond us.

On the other hand, redeveloped buildings could… could… be a vehicle for all those things.

Before I started my new role, I swore blind I wasn’t going to touch the St Luke’s building. Trouble is, it’s going to rear up and bite us both if we don’t give it some of our attention. It’s a bit of a mess!

This is part of the inevitable messiness of the dual role I suggested and then took on. A purely pioneering position might have avoided my having to deal with these issues, though that isn’t altogether certain. We’ll see how long I can avoid the question given that I am required to operate in a mixed economy that includes both opportunities for (a) new form(s) of church and related to it/them struggling tiny congregations and dilapidated buildings.

A meeting of minds

23 01 2009

Last week, I had a very positive meeting with one of the leaders of one of the new churches in the city.

We found that our approaches to mission converged a great deal. It was encouraging to find so much common ground with someone from a different tradition. Several points from our conversation were particularly stimulating.

First, we both identified a tendency within the city, whether we called it a cathedral or a mega-church mentality, that wanted to attract people into a large, gathered congregation. The problem we identified with this approach was that, again, as welcoming and hospitable as we might actually be, we were still expecting people to come to our party.

This prompted me to reflect on Jesus’s style. He’s always at parties. But he is always at somebody else’s party. It reminded me particularly of Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus. Zach responds with openness to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell Zach to come and join his gang. Instead he says, “the kingdom is here, so let’s have a party at your house!”

We also reflected again that the overwhelming proportion of Jesus’s time with his disciples isn’t spent on the ‘mountaintop’ but in, with and for the crowd.

Perhaps more controversially we both wanted to affirm that Jesus has no strategy. I have heard people talk about Jesus’s strategy but that’s always seemed anachronistic to me. It’s trying to impose 20th century management speak on a first century wanderer. He may well have a good idea of where he is headed. He also has strong and clear values based on what he understands God’s kingdom to look like. But he mostly avoids a mission statement, vision and strategy in favour of just making relationships, seeing what his Father is doing and getting stuck in to that. Very pioneering!

The crowds press on around him and he sometimes as a result wants for rest but there’s no sense that there’s any frenetic drive from him. It looks to me that although his awareness of where this is all probably leading brings a certain sadness and seriousness from time to time, he’s mostly relaxed and (back to those parties again) having a lot of fun.

We also had a more challenging discussion on the appropriateness of or need for ‘sacred space’ as part of our mission. We had a difference of emphasis here. We both recognized from our own experience, he from chaplaincy, me from the Friday Fridge, the primacy of conversation. But though my friend, a fan of Celtic spirituality, recognized the value of sacred space for himself, he was not so ready to recognize its pertinence in mission in public spaces. For me sacred space provides both a reflective response to or follow on from conversation and also, if it’s sufficiently arresting in its conception and implementation, a focal point for conversation. It can provoke interest and question. Going back to the reflection above on how Jesus works might suggest it’s superfluous but I think he creates sacred space and sacred moments through his very presence and where he takes people them in conversation. Sometimes people run away. More often they break down and found healing, peace and new direction. I think we need to be creative to enable those moments of opportunity and encounter for people. We don’t quite have the same force of presence!

So I still think sacred space is worth pursuing in the city centre. We need to pray for some premises! Be they permanent or provisional is yet to become clear but my hunch is that the latter speaks more of the kingdom of God.

A man with a plan

23 01 2009

So one of the great things about having a close colleague is that they just from time to time prompt you, in the nicest possible way to get on with it. Alex and I were having an extended meeting the other day where we were going to talk about where the pioneer stuff was headed. Preparing for that meeting just made me get my head around what I am going to do.

So here’s the plan.

Over the next six months I’ll spend the best part of two or three weeks in each month immersing myself in one of the potential mission contexts I have begun to identify. None of the arrangements are fixed yet, but I reckon these will be

  • one of the pubs in the Guildhall Square area
  • the Guildhall Square itself
  • one of the substantial tower blocks in the Northern half of Somerstown
  • A Somerstown primary School
  • A Somerstown secondary School
  • an area that includes a Surestart centre,
    a community café and a community arts centre.

There are other areas, such as the train station, the law courts and the police station that might also be interesting to explore, but I have had to make some choices. So I’ve gone for the places where it looks like there’s scope to grow a community.

After my time in each place I’ll take a quiet day retreat and then have a long chat with Alex about what I’ve found. I’ll record some of my thoughts on here too (as much as confidentiality will allow) so that perhaps this blog too can be part of discerning the vocation.

I’ll be speaking with others too – cluster and deanery colleagues, leaders of other churches, those working in secular organisations – later in the Spring and early Summer. This will all form the basis of my MA dissertation, so I hope I can keep some academic depth and rigour in the discernment process.

I will then look for a more sustained immersion in the Autumn in whichever of the potential mission contexts emerges from the early discernment period as the most likely to correspond to God’s calling for me and others with me in the next few years.

Sound okay to you? Well I’m going to go for it! I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

Getting stuck [in]

23 01 2009

Going to listen to Mike Frost was a bright start. It was inspiring and exciting.

But being a pioneer involves making stuff up. Going out and inventing things to do. Or rather, not things to do, so much as places to be. The wisdom of those further down the road is that you start by just making yourself present, regularly, reliably present and see who’ll you meet and what God will do.

Trouble is, when there are things to be done, as there so definitely are at St Luke’s – the other ‘half’ of my post in the city – it’s very easy to spend your time doing what needs to be done rather than on doing… well not much at all; other than hanging out around the place like a bad smell. Sorry that should be pleasing aroma.

So for the first few weeks, especially as my new colleague at St Luke’s had a new addition to his family, everything fell across my desk. I’d love to say that at least everything got sorted and I’m now free from all that and ready to go. Except it didn’t and I’m not.

Just getting ourselves orientated into a new congregation, new setting, new home and new relationships has taken up most of the time. I’ve also had to think seriously about my effectiveness and a persistent tendency to become distracted… oh look at that a new email about a book that looks interesting, what’s that’s author’s angle, let’s look up his biog on Google, he’s into complementarianism, what’s that? Wikipedia will tell me. Oh yuck! So the opposite view is egalitarianism, hmm, much more attractive, so who’s into that idea? interesting… oh sorry, where was I, oh yes: distracted and disorganised.

I’ve always been wary of self-help management books but reading Getting Things Done by David Allen and implementing some of its suggested strategies is beginning to make a difference. I know other, seemingly chaotic, people who appear to make things happen, but I wonder now whether personal organisation shouldn’t be a major plank of clergy training…

I got a bit stuck in another way too. The task just seemed (and still does) so big. The opportunities, needs and challenges are so multifarious as to make it paralysing. Where do I start? I still don’t know. I do know now that I just have to start somewhere. I have to make some choices before my licence to pioneer either expires or is revoked…

Future Church with Mike Frost

23 01 2009

The first thing I did after being licensed to my new post was to go to that other city down the road to hear an Aussie bloke called Mike Frost talking about missional church. He was an inspiring and engaging speaker. He was obviously on top of his material. He spoke without notes.

Max is missing
The first of three sessions was in the evening of Friday 3rd October. He told the story of how he had a life-changing experience of engaging in mission in a biker’s pub in Elizabeth; a tough area near Adelaide. Mike was working as an evangelist and was invited to accompany somebody he met at a conference to come and see what he was doing at the Rose and Crown Hotel. It didn’t seem very cutting edge at first. A bad gospel song accompanied by some very ripe jeering from the audience, followed by a talk which Mike was asked to give, also accompanied by jeering. Then Mike asked if anyone wanted him to pray for anyone. This huge tattooed biker called Max asked him to pray for the lads (soldiers) in East Timor. Then Mike and the man who’d asked him along sat at the bar. The man than asked everyone sat at the bar what question they’d ask God if they had the chance to ask just one.

When it came to Max’s turn, he said he would ask God: ‘Who am I?’

That story, even though it’s second hand, bore repeating I thought. Mike Frost used it to illustrate how people for whom church is ‘the last cab off the rank’ were nonetheless engaged in a deep and profound spiritual quest. But it’s clear that in most of our churches, Max is missing.

What is church?
According to Mike Frost, there were four aspects of church life that were pretty much common to all protestant churches:

  1. worship
  2. community
  3. discipleship
  4. mission

The problem, according to Mike Frost, is that worship has become the central principle around which the others are organised. All our effort goes into keeping the church machine running. If we identify people with gifts we give them a job to do that’s about the worship gathering. The finances are all spent on sustaining the gathered worship. The machine becomes self-serving. Church planting has been about setting up a worship service and then inviting people to come along. Why are we surprised when they don’t? Or if they do, don’t they usually turn out to be Christians who are just fed up with their usual church and wanting to be part of something new?

What if mission was to be the organising principle?

That’s not just a question of re-ordering our common life because the wheels have come off (which I think they have) but because, as Mike Frost was saying, it’s, theologically speaking, the proper way to reflect the God we love, worship and serve.

Being ‘sent’ is fundamental to the nature of God. God sends God sends God, sends us. The Creator and source of all being ‘sends’ the divine nature in the generation of the One through whom Creation comes to be. That same One is sent as Redeemer. The Creator breathes out the Spirit who sustains and enlivens Creation. The Redeemer sends the enlivening Spirit out to fill the people God has called to participate in the work of Redemption. The Spirit sends those same people out in mission. Sending and ‘sent-ness’ pervades the whole economy of creation and salvation.

So what does it look like if mission is the principle around which everything else is organised?

It looks like Jesus!

Where is Jesus? On the street. With the outsiders, the poor, the irreligious. He breaks down the separation between the holy and the material; the sacred and the stuff of everyday life. He takes the holy water set aside for worship – for ritual washing – and turns it into wine for a party. 17 barrells of it! What would most churches do if that happened now?

This sort of re-ordering will challenge us to decide whether we want to be missionaries or members of the audience. Will we be part of God’s move in the world or consumers of religious goods and services.

If mission bceomes the organising principle then we’ll worship as we go – celebrating as we find grace at work among the people to whom we’re sent and mourning their loss with them. We’ll become disciples in the same way the first disciples of Jesus did: watching him at work among the crowd. And we’ll enjoy the deep fellowship of those who share in an ordeal – the life of ‘communitas’.

Waterskiing church
Mike Frost told several stories to illustrate what this might look like. One that stuck in my mind was of a man who gave up going to a ‘normal’ church on a Sunday and invited his friends to go waterskiing with him.

The first time they went he said that they’d be sharing a really good time together and that as he’d been brought up to say ‘grace’ before enjoying a good meal they ought to say grace before they enjoyed what they were about to receive. His friends looked a bit taken aback but they went along with it. Then he said that as they were praying, they might as well see if there was anything else any of them wanted to pray about. After an awkward silence, one of them hesitantly said he was worried about his job. Another mentioned his sick grandma. So the bloke prays for his friend’s work situation and for the other fella’s grandma. And they get on the water and have a fantastic time skiing.

Next week, the same thing, except this time the man who was worried about his job, says how much better things are for him at work and the other fella says his grandma has improved. Now here’s the bit in the story as I’m hearing it when I want to get clever. I’ve never believed or experienced that prayer is as simple or straightforward as that. I don’t think God is into delivering the shopping! But I decide to give Mike Frost a break and go with the story.

Anyway the story goes that more and more people come along, so that now there’s a couple of hundred each week. They’re baptising people in the river where they ski and sharing bread and wine at the picnic tables at the riverside.

My question about the understanding of prayer that story implies hasn’t gone away, but I think it would be fun to try it out, no? And the thing that really excites is that this story is about church happening where people are. It’s about worship and fellowship and discipleship flowing out of being part of God’s mission.

Fishing for people
One of the things that also really struck me was what Mike Frost said about Jesus calling those Galilean fishermen to become ‘fishers of people’. We tend to instantly imagine the individual on the riverbank with his rod and line. The questions then are about how do we bait our hook and how do we reel them in. He reminded us of what was right in front of our noses: Peter and Andrew, James and John didn’t fish like that. They used nets. And how did they spend their days? Not fishing at all. They spent very little time actually hawling in a catch. They spent the days cleaning and mending their nets.

Mike Frost suggested this as a very powerful image for the networks of relationships that Jesus was inviting his first disciples to invest their time in. Now I’m wary of any suggestion that we view our relationships in any instrumental way. We don’t make friends with people because we want to snare them in our net! But if we can see that as God working through us, as we are, who we are, where we are, I think it can be a powerful image.

It also reminds us that we don’t ever go alone. Fishing for these men was a collective activity. They shared the task and helped each other. None of them on their own would be strong enough to bring in the catch, they needed each other.

So we’re called to be missionaries but not solo missionaries.
We’re called to be missional communities.

Ringing the Bells
Mike Frost’s own missional community expresses its common identity through adopting a rule of life. It’s a much more monastic model that it is an ecclesial one. That’s something you pick up on again and again as you think about missional communities and the emerging church.

For Small Boat, Big Sea, the simple rhythm they adopt is captured in the acronym ‘B-E-L-L-S’ which stands for:


There are more details here.

It looks to me to be very much a reflection of the first Christian community’s life as recorded by the writer of Acts in 2.42-47. I think this could be a really fruitful way forward for the congregation of St Luke’s and for any other missional community that emerges as I work in the city centre.

I haven’t here being particularly critical of Mike Frost’s thesis. That’s mainly because I find it so convincing and it chimes so readily with my own emerging thinking on mission in the heart of Portsmouth. There are some questions to be answered though about what mission might be for. What’s the purpose of our being ‘sent’? What are we uniquely bringing to those to whom we are sent? What about the affirmation that you’ll find in every part of the church, whether high catholic or new church, that our ultimate human vocation is to worship God? Doesn’t that conflict with the primacy of mission that Frost’s/my approach calls for? Answers on a postcard, please…