This is a plenary talk given by Beth Fellinger at the Vital Church Planting Conference 2011.
Session 2:Length: 0h:47m
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Lectures presented by speakers affiliated with the Institute of Evangelism.
Harold Percy spoke at an annual Institute of Evangelism dinner at Wycliffe College. This is the text of the talk he gave that evening.
It is no secret that our churches across this country are generally having a difficult time connecting with people and attracting them into the lives of their worshipping communities. It seems to be mystifying and bewildering to many that forms of worship, church life, and governance that worked effectively for generations no longer do so.
George Hunter, in one of his books on church life and North American culture, offers the picture of a corn farmer whose family has been successfully raising and marketing corn for generations. He ask us to imagine that one morning, as this farmer and his crew wake up to go into the fields to harvest the corn, they discover to their amazement that overnight the cornfields have turned to vineyards. Instead of acres and acres of rich, ripe corn waiting to be harvested, instead there are vines dropping with juicy grapes waiting to be picked. A preposterous picture to be sure, but go with it for a minute. Hunter says that in this situation there are a number of options open to the farmer. Of all these options, surely the most disastrous would be to think, “There can’t be that much of a difference between corn and grapes, so let’s just start up these corn pickers and drive into the fields and harvest the grapes.” This could not possibly end well! In fact, the harder they worked at this, the more damage they would be likely to cause.
Hunter says this is the situation facing churches (for our purposes, particularly mainline churches and especially the Anglican Church) in North America. For generations we had a way of “doing and being” church that fit perfectly into the surrounding culture and so was very effective. But in recent years the changes in the culture have been rapid and significant. The result is that the churches are much like the corn farmer, surrounded no longer by corn but by grapes. The harvest has changed, and changed dramatically. And, if we as the church are going to be effective in what we are called to do, we must change as well. To insist that we can continue to do just exactly what we have always done, and hope that our results will eventually change, is folly. Corn pickers can’t harvest grapes. We need to rethink what we are doing and how we are doing it.
Dallas Willard wrote, concerning church life in America, that “your church is perfectly designed to get the results you are presently getting.” If we want to get different results we need to do some serious thinking about what needs to be changed, and what we need to be paying attention to. The following acrostic on the word VITAL provides a convenient framework for me to make a few observations about some of the things I think we need to be paying attention to if we are going to revitalize our congregations and carry on effective ministries.
The “V” stands for visionary leadership. We need visionary leadership at every level because the nature and scope of the changes required go far beyond simply tinkering a little bit with what we already have. It is clear that the traditional parish model which is organized around liturgy and pastoral care simply doesn’t work anymore. No matter how good we get at these, it won’t help. What we need is new DNA, and leaders who get this, and can model and communicate it.
The number one job of leadership is to explain why the organization exists and to communicate this clearly and effectively. We have congregations all across this country who don’t know why they exist, with leaders who are unable to tell them.
I read somewhere that the two most radical questions any organization can ever ask itself are these: Why are we doing what we are doing? And why are we doing it the way we are doing it? These are questions that have to be asked on a regular basis in every congregation, parish, and diocese across the country. It is hard to know just what to do if you aren’t clear on precisely what it is that you are trying to do. What should be the result of all this work and effort we are putting into church life?
For my money the answer to the first of these questions would be something like, “The church exists (or this parish exists) to let the whole world (or this particular community) know that Jesus is Lord; to explain what this means, to live what it looks like, and to invite everyone within our sphere of influence to become an intentional follower of Jesus and learn to live the new life of his Kingdom.
Again, for my money, the worst possible answer to the second question (why are we doing it this way?) is “Because we have always done it this way.” A better answer is “because we have tried and experimented in all kinds of ways and currently this is what seems to be most effective, but we are always looking for ways to get better at this.”
The leadership in a vital congregation needs to be able to inspire the people of that congregation with a vision of who they can become as they work this out, to dream of what such a community of people might look like in their particular context, and to nurture such a community into being. That is always an exciting journey for everyone involved.
The challenge is that our systems of formation and oversight do not produce and nurture such leaders. In fact, they probably weed them out more often than not in the early stages. We send clergy out into the field, full of passion and dreams and hope, but without the necessary training and ongoing coaching in the transformational leadership skills required to take hold of a parish and lead it through a process of transformation to vitality. So, as they try or suggest various things, they get beaten up, discouraged, tamed, even skittish, and often end up simply trying to hang on and survive. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The key here is simply to remember that people mostly prefer parties to funerals. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that we put far too much emphasis on the set texts and forms of our liturgical worship and expect far too much of the liturgy in return. We need to get over our obsession with “doing liturgy properly”—not that we should strive to do it badly, but because there are more important things to be thinking about. We simply overplay this in terms of its importance and what it can do.
One of the problems with the way we think about liturgy is that it is rationally driven. It is explained by means of logic and reason: “this piece goes here, because we have just done so and so, and this is what should follow.”
I don’t have a problem with this, except to say that of much greater importance is the tone and pace and feeling of what is happening, no matter how the pieces are linked together. It simply is a fact that the majority of our churches bore the pants off people with the tone and pace of the service. It is just quiet, somber, and weary. I have often marveled at how Anglicans can be such jolly, life loving, vibrant people on the parking lot or in the coffee hour, but so totally dull and dreary at worship. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that worship needs to be a funeral march. So much of what we do and how we do it is just lacking in imagination and energy.
When the people we are hoping to connect with do eventually come to church to check things out, most of them aren’t asking whether the pieces of the service fit together theologically, nor even, “What did I learn?” The first and most important question for them is usually, “How did I feel?” Did I feel that I was in a community that is life-filled and loving? Did I feel welcome? Did I sense that in some way I was actually in God’s presence, and that God and I were connecting? Did God speak a word into my life in that service? Was I touched? Was I challenged? Did I get excited? Did I leave with a new or renewed sense of purpose or hope; a new or renewed perspective on my life and its possibilities? Was I convicted of things in my life that need changing? Do I feel that I have been forgiven?
They aren’t asking if the priest adopted the proper postures or stood in the right places or if the hymns were proper hymns, or if their grandmother would have been pleased with the way the service was conducted.
Training In Discipleship
This has to do with the teaching and coaching that enables people to make an intentional commitment to be followers of Jesus and to learn to live the new life of his kingdom. I believe that this is at the very heart of the life of a vital congregation, but for various reasons we have let this slip badly. In fact, in many of the churches I have visited across this country most of the members have never even heard that this shot is on the board.
This work has been badly neglected. We have life long parishioners who don’t know how to pray with their families or in their churches, and life long parishioners who are functionally biblically illiterate. And these are just the basics.
I think this might be the result of thinking that this work is done by the liturgy, or that it is done as we breathe in the air of a Christian culture, or that people have just learned these things somewhere else.
But most parishes make the mistake of starting in the middle: simply assuming the people in the pews are already mature, well formed, holistic followers of Jesus, and know how to make the connections between faith and life on a daily basis. This is not a good assumption. We need to get back to the absolute basics of the faith, and take it from there, helping people to grow through a deliberate process of personal transformation.
Again, for my money, my hunch is that we put far too much effort into what we call pastoral care and not nearly enough into discipleship training. I believe that our clergy need to be delegating most of the pastoral care to gifted and trained care givers in the congregation who are longing for ways to make a difference, and to spend their own time working at developing the processes by which disciples are formed and nurtured in their congregation. “Pastoral care” should be changed to “congregational care”, and in the seminaries I believe that the departments of Pastoral Care should be changed to Departments of Congregational Leadership.
I am not talking here about churches that seem more like comfortable Christian clubs, but about communities of growing disciples who are meeting together to encourage each other in their journeys of discipleship, caring for each other deeply and tenderly, and learning what it means to “love one another, to weep with those who weep, and to rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Loving Outreach and Evangelism.
All of this brings us to point where we are prepared to begin seriously thinking about how we will reach out in the name of Jesus to serve our communities and to invite others to join us in the adventure of learning to follow Jesus. The means and ways to this are limited only by our imaginations. I believe that Jesus would still say today, in our parish neighbourhoods, “the harvest is plentiful”.
But in order to be effective in this, we require visionary leadership, inspirational worship, training in discipleship, and authentic community. When we have these, we will be able to do this, as an authentic expression of who we are; ministering out of vibrant, life filled, dynamic congregations in which the message of Jesus is modeled and shared: “Come and see, join us in Christ’s mission, learn to follow Jesus with us.” Such congregations, and only such congregations, are ready for sustainable evangelism, whether “attractional” or “fresh expressions” or whatever. Without these, all our efforts will be hit and miss—like playing pin the tail on the donkey, with the tail ending up all over the place.
I love the thought of communities of Christ followers meeting together for prayer, bible reading, holy communion, and then going out to walk through their neighbourhoods asking “how can we help”—and thinking seriously about what it would mean to share Jesus in that place.
My friend Tom Bandy said it well, I think: “Love your church, of course: but love Jesus more.”
This lecture was delivered at the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto Feb 2008 : Session TWO
Listen to the Podcast:
The 2nd session takes DNA in another sense and teases out how it happens – what are the processes or mechanisms of creating or planting churches.
In England we have nearly stopped using the noun a church plant for at least two reasons. One we have found there are many kinds of churches that can be planted so the language of church plant is too restrictive. 2nd our experience has been that too many so called church plants have been unhelpfully similar to the parent body that sent them and not well enough adapted to their mission context. If effect they were transplanted. So we prefer to call what is being created “fresh expressions of church”. However we still think that the verb church planting is valuable, it describes a process, and the first session partly explored why. Church Planting is the discipline and Fresh Expressions are the fruit of that discipline. So we would talk of planting fresh expressions of church. [FXC]
This connects with the first point to make about DNA understood as how planting FXC happens.
1 Seeds are key
Going our from existing church in apostolic mission we take with us seeds – of both the gospel and church – as we saw in session one. The seeds only get taken out and planted as the missionary journey unfolds. These seeds then must die to take root in the context to which we are sent. The essential principle is, SEEDS MUST BE ALLOWED TO DIE. The report
Mission-shaped Church talks about this both in its 3rd chapter on church planting and its chapter 5 on theology.
This instinct is rooted in Jesus words in John 12; they suggest that dying to live is inherent in the Christian way. This is not some weird game only those in planting FXC play. Baptism should have reminded us of that, it is symbolic enactment of, and identification with, the Death and Resurrection of Christ. He makes it clear that his patterns are to be ours. John 12 contains the text “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” It is curious and worrying that while we have taken the notion of death and resurrection into some liturgical rites, we link it to the church’s year, we embrace it in some patterns of spirituality, but we have broadly omitted taking it into mission. Yet the very person who taught mission to us said it was the pattern of his mission. Jesus made it quite clear that his followers are committed to his pattern. Turn on in the same Gospel, to John 20, and the same Jesus is bringing peace among the startled disciplines. He shows them his hands and his side – the cost is not glossed over. Then these missionary headline words follow, or if you prefer ecclesiological language – at this point apostolic identity, is conferred on the church.”As the Father sent me so I send you.” What a word as is: As – in the same manner as I was sent as God’s apostle – so I send youAs – on the same journey from incarnational identification with culture, to disclosure of the Lordship endorsing counter cultural engagement – so I send you.As – in the same way as I the seed died in the ground and have now emerged both similar and different – so I send you.As I – [in the way Paul described in Philippians 2] the eternal Son was willing to die to the glories of heaven, to be transformed into the form of a dying slave – so I send you.As – in the same way of becoming very different to become like those to whom I was sent, – so I send you. Have no doubt that the patterns of Jesus are for us all. They are for the whole church, most especially when it gets clear that Church is extension of the mission of Jesus. The patterns apply to the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. They apply in all cross cultural work. Dying to live is normal., because it was the norm set by Christ.
Jesus teaching on dying to live , is normative for the church. In John 12 he shows that he saw his own life and ministry, as a seed that would die, only by this could new life come as he was raised by the Father, and would this lead to the creating of much fruit.
Lets move from theology to practical experience. We know that to grow a plant you must sow a seed. Seeds left in an unopened packet cannot be described as planted. They must be moved out of the packet. What then happens is that they are buried in the soil. That means an intentional end of their existence. You don’t see them again. But then something related to the seed, but different from it, starts to grow up, out of the ground. Paul knows this factor of similarity and difference and he teaches it in 1 Cor 15 in relation to death and eternal life.
Let’s translate that dynamic into the church planting process in any mission context. The seed stands for the incoming church planting team, bearing in their bones the essence of the gospel and of the church. This seed dies to its previous identity in this sense. These people were part of a particular sending church; which had its own particular manifestations and culture. They have to be willing to set aside those preferences and likes, to find how to be church and how to communicate gospel in the context to which God sends them. This is not new. It is like Paul saying in 1 Cor 9 “to the Greeks I became as a Greek”. For some today it might mean, to the Pagans, I became as a Pagan. So this seed will become a body, a plant, that it was not before. The Plant and the seed are related, but also different, as 1 Cor 15 teaches. Dying to Live is inherent in the church planting discipline and process. The planting team [or seed], by mixing with its mission context, becomes rooted there. It draws nourishment and resources from that environment as it sends out roots and then a shoot emerges. By this process, it dies as a seed, changing from what it was. In church planting, the seed community becomes a new body of believers, as well as a body of new believers. As such the planting analogy has real strengths. It conveys by analogy, what should occur theologically, in all mission and is especially obvious when it is cross cultural.
There are however a dangers in the planting way of thinking. One comes from a view of what is being planted. Seed is just a helpful analogy. The reality is that a Jesus centred community-in-mission are entering another area or culture in order to be gospel and create church that relates to that area of culture. This is certainly not a mechanical process that can be totally controlled like a production line. Some teaching about church planting feels rather like that – do the following 17 precise steps and you will have church. Sorry its more organic and uncertain than that. Nor is it even only biological, and if a few dozen seeds die it doesn’t matter because you’ll get enough vegetables in the end from ones that make it. That won’t do either – this is a human and spiritual process. It needs the kind of love, intention, care, thought and skill that we apply to human reproduction from pregnancy to birth.
Willingness to die to my preferences about how to do church, so that others in the receiving culture may be found by Jesus and a fresh expression of church suited to them comes to life is honourable and essential. Being mechanistic about the process or cavalier about the costs is quite another matter.
Here’s another skill we learning about in the process – of how you decide, in the dying to live process what kept and what can change.
2 Double Listening
The next principle in methodology, for all cases, is what the Church of England report Mission-shaped
Church calls DOUBLE LISTENING. It is related to the seeds dying principle. To reach other people different from them, those sent have to die to their own preferences about how to do church – then what is the essence of what must be kept ? This is very like asking what is the DNA of gospel and church within the dying seed, that grows into the roots put down and emerges to shape the newly planted church? We looked at that content in session one.
This process of finding that out involves two things. Both are forms of attending to what God is saying. Double listening means entering and understanding the culture in which a church might be established, truly listening to the mission context – like Paul did in Athens in Acts 17. It also means sifting the inherited tradition of both gospel and church and finding its essence, not its forms. This is what Paul is doing when he rejects circumcision as necessary for new Greek Christian believers. Double listening is complex, but it enables hearing a richer more accurate sound and better for determining what expression a new church might take.
Some people misunderstand about the sources to listen to. Here is an example from the Church of England Board of Readers website
Double Listening is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us.
This builds on the John Stott view that we listen to God’s Word and God’s world. I agree that both belong to God. I agree that the Word has a higher authority for us in determining what we believe and do.
However this view is narrow in two ways. It separates out listening to the Word, from the listening that comes from knowing the living tradition, which has grown from the word, and helps us be more humble and flexible in returning to the Word, but which never has a higher authority than the word. It also separates listening to the Word, from listening to the Holy Spirit, who will be active in the world and the particular culture to which any apostolic person is sent. There will also be the factor that God, as Creator, has left some finger prints of himself within that culture. The classic NT examples of this process of listening to God through the world would be Peter learning from the Cornelius story and Paul learning from his
Athens visit. So double listening, as I meant it inMission-shapedChurch, is seriously saying that the voice of God is being sought with both ears – the ear that listens to the living church tradition and the ear that listens to the culture to which a person is sent.
In mission we do not come with empty hands, hearts or brains, but it is key to have open ears. In this sense there is an order to this double listening process. We do bring what we have inherited, but we suspend that to pay attention and listen to the mission context, to culture and the world,. This comes before discerning how the inherited Christian tradition works within that culture.
Mission precedes the shaping of the resultant church, when the seed of the gospel and church roots in the mission culture.
Some might think listening to context is all about evangelism, and listening to tradition is all about church. I’d say that was disastrous. Using a farming metaphor, that’s the way fruit of evangelism might be gained, but then it gets left to rot in the fields – because the barn of the church is no good to store it. Changing the metaphor, though still staying biological, – Jesus talked about the need for new skins for new wine. We work at double listening over Church and Gospel. Creating Fresh Expressions of church is two listenings – over those two tasks.
Lets go back to the order in the double listening and the different dynamics as the discernment within the process unfolds. Listening to the cultural context shapes the gospel bearing church that emerges.
Mission shapes church. Then the second ear of double listening – hearing our inheritance of the faith uniquely revealed in the Scriptures – validates and assesses what the expression of gospel and of church that is emerging. Even then it is sometimes possible that those in the context will rightly challenge how we, the incoming outsiders, have understood the Word and they may be right. Examples of this are found in the classic mission book, Christianity Rediscovered. At points Donovan found that the Masai understood better than he did, as a highly trained Spiritan missionary.
So Double Listening is a process which enables something to evolve as its context changes. It holds in tension both a creative engagement with context and a faithfulness to the good news in Jesus. It is not easy, not simple, but essential and creative. Remember too that the order of double listening is very like the theological principle of following the Jesus pattern; firstly incarnation into culture, then counter cultural engagement with it.
Let’s apply that briefly to the dominant culture we shall encounter – consumerism. Following paul we might start be saying “To the consumers I became as a consumer” but in the case of consumerism, the gospel-shaped community that grows up will have to address questions at the core of the human self, which does make choices. Living the gospel is only partly about what and why I choose, as well as it is about who chose me. This informs whom I serve and whom I will be prepared to die for and what I will gladly die to. Jesus will bring new choices about my supposed right of choice.[3D thinking ]
Listening to context, then validating it by our inheritance connects to the next insight about process. Mission-shaped
Church chapter 6 spells that out very clearly, insisting we must ask the right questions, and in the right order. If Mission shapes Church, it follows we must begin by asking who is a fresh expression of church for, before going on to ask who will staff it and how it will relate to the wider church.
Mission Shaped Church put it like this. p 116
start with the church and the mission will probably get lost.
start with the mission and it is likely that the Church will be found.
In the language that Mission Shaped Church has adopted, To make fresh starts that are thought through, the expression of church should be formed by three considerations, 3 dimensions, taken in this order, for the theological reason that
Mission should shape the Church, not vice versa. And for the methodological reason that listening to context comes first.
1 Who it is for – what is the Mission goal – who are we sent to ?
2 Who is it by – who are the Mission Resources – or the sent team ?
3 Who is it with – who are the Mission partners -or sending churches?
You could read Mission-shaped Church Ch 6 to see how these questions develop.
The Church of the Saviour Washington DC has created a diverse range of congregations each around a specific mission context. These are the 3 questions they always ask in the process – good questions and in my view in the right order.
I now want to give you a field observation that goes beyond what Mission-shaped Church dared to say in full, though there are hints on p 117 about worship.
4 Don’t assume starting with worship
If we begin to realise that mission shapes church – and this creates a go shape not a come shape, this profoundly questions whether provision of worship is the obvious theological starting point in mission.
Go back to some 1990’s theory about the functions of Church – from Robert Warren. What does Church do – it worships, offers community and acts in mission. Spirituality beats at the heart of these three activities.
Then contrast that ideal picture with much western practice.
Then you notice a dominant circle about worship. That can be measured by investment of money time, money and personnel in buildings, programmes and clergy to run them all.
All too often the Community who meet in this building are somewhat dysfunctional and unattractive. As some wag said – “the main reason others aren’t in church, is because we are.” Third, in practiceMission is a weird thing that either happens overseas or is done by enthusiasts, who thank God, are not people like us.
Try to make such a beast mission minded, let alone mission centred is difficult. So attempts to change it often turn out only to be a temporary foray out of the fold, in order to invite a few weak minded others to come and worship with us in our way.
Contrast that to the varied mission field we now face. How do elements of the mission field and of being church connect ?
This matrix shows what we have found, on the ground in England. We have learnt to recognize there are different groups in our society. Our members who are our people, the fringe who are willing to explore being our people, the dechurched to used to be our people and they divide into those who would come back and those determined not to come back. Then there are the non churched who have never been our people. In the Western world the proportions of these groups are different, but what is common to all places are two features. The percentage of the non churched is growing and it is larger, the younger the section of society you take. In short, it is the main mission field of the future. Here then are those groups in a table with the question how do we connect with the different groups?
Its also helpful to look at these groups by context. Some fringe people still live as though Christendom is alive and well. But there are increasingly those who are post Christian, Anti-Christian and among young people who are children of the latter groups PreChristian.
The arrows show the overlaps between the two rows. So you will see that I don’t suggest the Open dechurched and the Pre Christians are the same group – its just that they do share one similarity I’ll explore later.
Where then do you start with each group?
Those fringe people still in Christendom mode may well be helped by more accessible worship, that is attractive to them, with a quality welcome that is not over the top. They may well even come to traditional worship if it has quality.
The open dechurched and the prechristians – because they don’t have baggage may well be open to forms of process evangelism – Alpha is the best known example, but not the only way to do it. They may welcome the chance to explore, to put their questions and observe what Christians actually do to relate to God.
However if you offer worship to the non churched they will yawn and make excuses. If you dive in with evangelism they are likely to run away. In England the second worst social sin after intolerance is evangelism – because it is seen as imposing your views on others. So you can’t do worship or evangelism. What’s left in the Christian locker?
It turns out to be living out community. That will probably mean helping other build their community and also living out a quality of attractive community among them. This had been one of our principal discoveries in the last decade. Unless our lives pose questions, the answers we might want to give cannot be heard.
What about the dechurched who are hurt and angry. I only know saying sorry. It’s a painful and slow start.
Please notice the colour coding in the table. But remember these are not necessarily attitudes to God, they are attitudes to the church.
Do notice the difference in style. We actually like to stay in control and that’s partly what pushes us to offer worship. As soon as real evangelism begins actually it’s a dialogue – more double listening going on. With community building it can mean partnerships with those who don’t share our faith, but entering them shows if we are secure in who we are. Listening speaks for itself and requires vulnerability to be done well.
There’s one more vital thing about the table. It only works in one direction. Good community will appeal to virtually everyone. Worship actually reaches the fewest and can’t do much for the other groups. Evangelism does work wider but for many it starts too far on. Community will lead to good questions; conversations can eventually lead to commitment, worship then nurtures it.
So it seems from Mission Shaped Church thinking and from field study there is an inherent order in the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. It is very unlike what we are used to.
It is essential to start with the apostolic or missional community. This group go bearing seeds of the gospel and the church. They live in such a way that others are drawn to them; strangers become friends, prompted by what they see to ask questions.
As the planting team connect with the culture, learn its language and find its priorities, the shape of mission to that culture or area grows clearer. Only by being there does the specific shape to the mission emerges. It is part of connecting with discernment of what God is doing there.
Only then as local people respond to Christ and are discipled in the Christian community does indigenous worship slowly begin to emerge. It grows out of the stories of finding faith, stories of answered prayers, it meshes with the local musical culture and local people’s creative gifts.
What must be characteristic of the worship – is that it feeds the life, gifting, calling and aspirations of the growing community. Monastic groups would describe this process as worship nurturing the charism of the community.
But note the order: Public Worship does not come first. Indeed it cannot – it must be grown as the community in mission co-operates with God in evolving a mission shaped church.
I want to end with an image/ an analogy – quite different from DNA. One danger of DNA thinking is that we might be tempted into ecclesial genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be like that. and frankly when done well usually isn’t. We need to get back to surprise and not being really in control and working as junior partners to God.[Springboard to Surfboard]
An image I offer you is that to think the Church in its mission is being moved on, from bouncing off a springboards to something both similar and different. The analogy of a Springboard “says” take a humanly controlled risk; the diver decides how vigorously to jump off the board and what difficulty of dive to attempt. Note too the dive is in a very often in the controlled environment of the indoor heated swimming pool. The picture “says” – lets tap into resources that enable us the church to do better, what we have already been doing and that will be quite sufficient for what we need and risky enough thank you. Riding a Surfboard “speaks” of a higher risk, in an environment the surfer cannot control. The analogy suggests a way of working which is also inherently far more reactive; it necessarily involves the surfer waiting for, spotting and then getting up on the wave. The wave itself is created by two factors. It crests because of the immediate context of the shelving sea floor beneath it and the fetch of the wind blowing across it. To me that in turn says read the cultural context beneath you and discern what God the Spirit is doing in mission beyond you. When you are up then it really gets fun. Are you in control ? Well yes and no. Of course the wave may well carry you somewhere you have not chosen. Another big difference is this, by definition all surfboarders operate in an outside, perhaps even hostile, environment. There is similarity: both diver and surfer harness power beyond themselves. Both diver and boarder possess great technical skills. But the diver is more in control, by deciding the forces to be unleashed by the springboard, and when and how to dive. Whereas the boarder is not in control of what occurs – only of how she/he reacts. Yet it is immediately clear that it is the picture of the surfer that conjures the greater sense of adventure, freedom and wildness. I suggest the paradigm of a springboard; of better ways back to existing church is being overtaken. In surfing, a far more uncertain but creative apostolic journey is calling, as the way onwards to hitherto unknown fresh expressions of church. Yet this route in the wild is not new.
It is the path of Donovan and Allen, of Venn and Anderson, of Ricci and Xavier, of Aidan and Cuthbert, of Martin and Anthony, of Paul in 1 Cor 9 and Peter in Acts 10. This way has never been very welcome. For it demands trust in the Spirit beyond obvious prudence, it makes the church bound up with mission, and forces her to surrender control of outcomes. It breaks the barriers of who may belong, it flows messily over the boundaries of how we are organized and even disturbs how we understand what we believe – again that’s not new – ask Peter on the roof top at Joppa.
Yet it is our Lord who underpins risky surfing. His patterns are fascinating: · John highlights Jesus living reactive attentiveness to waves of the Father. · Luke portrays his surprising outrageous acceptance of the outsider. · Mark shows us immediacy of response not measured tread. · Matthew stresses his cultural particularity, · Paul in Philippians 2 tells the cost of it. · Gethsemane and Golgotha show us Jesus carried to where he did not wish to go. Surfing in Mission sounds glorious. But Death and Resurrection of the Church as we have known it might be its consequence. I pray the Church of our day can tolerate its own Holy Saturday – or period of Exile – long enough, to sow the seeds of Jesus-centred gospel communities, so that it may be raised, different for tomorrow in the ongoing Mission of God. I guess nothing less will actually do. What would be dreadful would be if the church only got half the point. It is very capable of saying something like. “Yes I see that waves are rather good and could be fun. Why don’t we install a wave machine in our swimming pools. We could also start courses on responsible safe indoor surfing.” “Let’s stay in control, let’s change the game but we’ll use the new language to try and show that we’ve got it.” To which I say no – please not. Let’s do the real thing. Let’s go with the Spirit of God already blowing across the face of our culture. Let’s listen, wait watch and catch the waves of what God is already doing. Let’s risk that sometime we will fall off and sometimes we will also get the ride of our lives. That’s what some of us meant we meant when we wrote Mission-shaped Church. Funnily enough we actually thought that only by being caught up in a particular mission could you find out what church would result. We didn’t mean Church shaped mission and don’t think it will do because that is back to the springboard. Let’s do it knowing that even if we may look like artists actually we are totally junior partners. We didn’t make either the wind, the sea bed or the resultant wave. We just co-operated with what we spotted.
Let’s do the surfing even if as yet we aren’t very good at it, even if we can’t see where it might take us and what waves might come along, and who they might carry us to be among.