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So often, I think this. And I’m thinking it again today. There were some great keynotes during my time at BbWorld and there were some less great ones. The great ones are still relevant to me today. Specifically I come back to two when I look with sadness round the traditional parish church and our lack of younger people. One is Seth Godin, on Tribes, and one is Malcolm Gladwell, and Tipping Point.

Some of the detail probably isn’t at all relevant, but the essence of what I remember is enough for me. Because every time I look around at our congregation and see only over 50s, or every (rare) time I see a young person/family risk coming in and then doing a double take because there’s the most enormous age and perhaps culture gap between them and the people who are already there.

I *totally* believe that the church is one of the few places left in society where you *should* be able to see a huge range of people sharing together in worship and fellowship. But I also believe that it’s a lot easier to join a group which is a group of people like you. Because then you look around and think, oh, people that look like me, it must be a place for people like me. And not oh, gosh, I am totally not like anyone here, am I even supposed/allowed to be here.

In my own experience, I have to be honest and say that the churches I’ve seen&been that are numerically (not to split hairs over other definitions) ‘successful’, have been of similar [looking] people. I would hazard a guess that this is why grafts work. The saddest thing is that I also know from experience that it doesn’t take many people for others to catch a sense of potential. That just a couple of families mean that when a wedding couple come in, they see others like them.

Sadly, it takes lots of things to create a real tipping point of a tribe of all, or a fellowship of tribes together. It takes each one who tries, to stay. It takes each one who’s already ‘in’ to be *serious* about generous welcome and hospitality. It takes each place to be intentional about offering and building networks within the greater fellowship. Often we fail at at least one of those. Sometimes we all fail at all of them. And what I think is most worrying, is that we have to succeed at all three, clergy, congregations and Christians. Only then shall we genuinely grow.

We have failed.

Always worth watching again. Seth Godin, Tribes:

The social epidemic – Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas. [from http://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/]
audio book version:

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Today I was back in the country, but not back at work until tomorrow. So today I worshipped elsewhere. I really do think every curacy, or even, dammit, just everyone, should go elsewhere once  in a while. It makes you look at yourselves in a whole new light. Perhaps a good light, seeing things that you do that work, and what it feels like where that doesn’t happen, but perhaps mostly, in a revealing light of ah, yes, hmm…

This isn’t a mystery worship report, it’s thoughts I have when I go elsewhere and compare our practice to other places. It’s more liturgical than by priority, but then again…

  1. Open The Doors. No really, you’d think that was a no-brainer, no? Not everyone has sparkly groovy glass doors into a worship space, or glass doors at beginning and endof a lobby, or even (much rarer) glassed outer doors. So somewhere on the way in, there are doors. And usually, as they’re proper doors, they come in twos. Not two sets, but two halves. *A door* is both halves, otherwise it’s only half a door that people have to peep round, squeeze in/past/through. Open The Doors.

    Ours especially are massive and painted black, but our inner doors get kept shut, or if open, closed as soon as the procession is in and ready and I really really hate that. If you come in late, then you’re embarrassed enough without havine the noise of the door and the attitude of the doorkeeper to deal with. But the first doors you come to should be open. Even in Winter I believe that – if you’re chilly, go and sit further up front, and if you’re doorkeeper, put on a scarf or an extra sweater. But in August, no excuses. Open The Doors.

  2. Welcome nicely. Welcome is a big topic currently – how greeting isn’t necessarily (and perhaps preferably not) the same as sidespersoning. We’re trying to work towards getting our welcomers (greeters) outside the church (see above for gloves – easily removable to shake hands – or an extra sweater).

    However, inside or outside, welcome/greet is not to stand in the half open door and demand, however politely, credentials before stepping back. *insert any number of other articles about welcome here…* Whyever people have turned up, they should be welcome. ‘Yes, I’m on holiday’  doesn’t mean ‘and subtext: don’t hold your breath to see me again’ and so also certainly doesn’t the mean ‘fine, do come in, make yourself at home, but we won’t put any extra effort in since there won’t be a next time’.

    I have tried three fairly major churches in my life near where I lived that I tried and due to the over/under/plain scary welcome I never went back. Massive Risk. This morning, I was quite charmingly welcomed by a gentleman who made a little small talk about where I was from and bid me warmly welcome even as a one-off. Then when I’d chosen a seat and minded my own business for a prayerful moment, another gentleman passing the pew leant across and offered his hand. ‘Welcome. Lovely to have you here. I hope that you’re blessed with us today’ and with a warm smile carried on.

  3. What you are given. Not rocket science, these, are they?! But every time I go somewhere new and see our own practice under relative light, I’m reminded how important these small things are. Today: hymn book, service booklet and single folded news sheet, easily read and navigated. Our place: hymn book, service booklet and minimum two folded and stapled news sheet, rather less readable and navigable, if I’m honest, than the one I saw today and far less so than the ones I am rather guiltily coveting of St Mary the Virgin, Fawdon.

    My home village church has the welcome and friendly text printed inside the service booklet as well as on the news sheet, just in case you abandon the latter part-way.

    The last time I wandered into a different church on a day off I was given nothing. Nothing to play with while I waited, nothing to tell me anything about the community I was joining, nothing to make black and white that I was welcome to communion or to coffee (on that occasion I never found the coffee, and noone came to talk to me, so I left…), nothing to tell me what the day’s readings were, had I wanted to ponder them/look them up in that time before the service began, nothing to tell me of people or situations needing or seeking intercession, nothing to give me any clue as to what this community is or does beyond that hour that day.

    It is totally true that there is no need for a hymn book if the words are on screen, as might be the service itself, and I am an environmental imp, but I can’t get beyond that there is a lot of other stuff missed out on if you don’t do it all or do it badly.

  4. Music. Hymns. We have an organ and an organist. He’s not An Organist, and he plays as well as he can, and that’s pretty good. But very often these rare amazing Not Organists – and, in my experience elsewhere, occasionally some Organists too – do play a massive hulking great beast of a thing which was not at all not made for quick playing (I give you Widor or any Bach toccata), but sometimes I wonder if it has got into first gear by lunchtime.

    There are more great hymns massacred by singing too slowly than there are great hymns ignored due to incumbents’ theology/taste. As a musician, when I’m in practise my lung capacity is higher than many, but if I’m fading fast and having to pace back within a line to wait for the organist to catch up, then it’s just not a good feel.

    This does not mean chucking out the organ in favour of a worship band is the obvious solution. But it’s easy to forget when you’re up front nearest the choir and your colleagues who unselfconsciously sing out, that the experience half way down the nave is often something very different…

    Sung settings. I photocopied some small versions of the mass setting we use, so that they could be available if people wished. Yes, I know not everyone reads music. Yes, I know that’s another thing to pick up. Yes, I know that if you come often enough you’ll learn it (apparently; unconvinced, myself). Yes, I still think they should be available. The ones I did have been disappeared in a very latin american manner :(

    If you have visitors who can read music, then they’ll help the congregation round them be more confident at it. If you have visitors who don’t really read they’ll at least be able to see if it goes up or down a bit/a lot. And hey, even some of the regulars might  get the idea.

    Music during communion. One of the things I really miss about leading worship is how little I get to sing now. Often I could hardly tell you what our two communion hymns are. Sadly I can’t recall any church I’ve been to where the singing of (how apt, I managed sinning there, first attempt…) communion hymns has been done successfully, reverently, well, pickaword by a congregation on the move.

    Perhaps gentle organning would be better? Perhaps. There’s a whole potential raft of feelings about the emotionality of the Lord’s Table, but perhaps just reflective, maybe even uplifting, ideally not depressing or heavy. Perhaps a perfect time for a bit of cd of something that wouldn’t otherwise be able to be done/sung/played? Time for people to sit by faith, with thanksgiving with.

  5. Readings. One of the [many] wonderful moments about the Methodist Connexion service in Birmingham last month was the lively  ( alive – if lively sounds too flippant for you ) style of the readings. The long oral tradition of  the scriptures before they were scribed is often lost by  formal reading. Reading is performance. It’s great when it is; when it’s not, people may as well just read it from the notice sheet, I reckon…

  6. Intercessions. Brief, powerful, to the point. Eminently prayable. Excellent when they are. Good voice also really key here. More so even than in the readings?

  7. Offerings. I had two really powerful conversations with a young mum when I was in Salford, who told me that if the children (3) were aggravating and uncooperative and she was going to be late, then she abandoned coming, knowing the growling looks she would receive, not the gracious gratitude that she bothered to get a handful of under 10s up, dressed, across town and into church at all. (That belongs further up, see ‘Welcome Nicely’.)

    The other conversation I had with her was listening to her saying that she didn’t come when she had literally nothing left that week to put in the collection because people noticed if she waved away the plate/took it and passed it straight on etc. She was so ashamed that it was obvious that she just didn’t bother.

    Yes, I know, giving is a cheerful part of our faith, but in an essay I wrote about that church community I did a lot of learning about shame, a couple of years before it became a much bigger issue with foodbanks. It’s raw and it’s real and it’s powerful. And Jesus took it away, not piled it on.

    We have plates too, but I really do prefer – and long for, for exactly this reason – the old velvet bag which really doesn’t show how much if at all you let out of your hand in it. I suppose that plates are in and bags are out because some people put empty hands in and took full hands out? Less likely to happen if we all sit together , or, radical, grow, hm?

  8. Leaving. Liturgical ergonomics. We have this thing about ‘those who turn left’ – and leave, whilst coffee and fellowship is in the hall to the right. We vary where we stand to greet the congregation as they leave, but I can’t honestly say there’s a good place which successfully encourages people to the hall. However, the president is located in a way that one then chooses to stay or not to stay.

    Today, noone told me at the beginning that there was coffee afterwards, but someone as we left our pews said do stay for coffee. Thank you, I’d like that, I replied (thinking I probably won’t, but it’s important to test these things).

    And I did go for coffee, mulling over whether the people who went for coffee just didn’t bother greeting the vicar, because I couldn’t find a way back to coffee which was straight on right at the back of the church, whereas the natural progression of greeting with clergy/reader gently led to the left, and out of the door. Somewhat peculiarly, I found myself practically outside with no idea how to get back, and not a cycle of people showing how this manoeuvre was to be done.

    Given that I was, naturally, a couple of decades more limber than most, I eventually solved this by clambering carefully over the back of the font steps behind the reader. Most odd. Flow should definitely lead to an encouragement to partake of fellowship, no? And only half at best of the congregation had perfected the alternative manouevre, because there seemed to be a lot that had just sailed out of the door.

  9. Coffee. (you knew this was where it was going to end, didn’t you?) You know me, I prefer it to be recognisably so. It is true that on occasion I used to attempt milk and several sugars in the ‘coffee‘ served at mum’s church in order to hope it got to a passable point. Sometimes it was grinandbearable, sometimes not. Yes, it’s possible I (and others) didn’t really do any favours to the little bush trying to grow just outside the door…

    But if it’s just ‘coffee’ I drink it black. I’d prefer to have the choice, to be honest. I know there’s a whole etteaquette about milk in the cup before or after the tea, but not before the ‘coffee’ in ‘coffee’?? A wise seven year-old later would remind me that there’s ‘squirty’ and there’s ‘cream’. And there’s ‘instant’ and there’s coffee *sigh*

    #savingthechurchofenglandonecoffeemachineatatime #enoughsaid

    And while I’m on it, something in me wants to say cheap biscuits are totally fine, because lots of people are going home to a cooked lunch (never me, usually the after service biscuits are my lunch). And that if I have masses of cake, I’d like or rather prefer to take it and hand it out to the friends at homeless outreach. But there’s something gloriously more abundant about cake or homemade stuff eg chocolate-covered flapjack.

    Gloriously more well, Christ-like. Especially on a day like today, where the preacher reminded us that being loved and fed sends us out reeling from that glad abundance to carry it through and into the world. So maybe, much as I like a Nice biscuit myself, a decent cake rota to go with decent coffee, and you might just see some miracles…..

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Rather, the celebration was anything but random, but the thoughts are (as usual)

It’s been a hectic couple of weekends. These lovely guys:

cell group
are my cell group. Who I don’t get to see anywhere near enough, nor their partners.

This last two weekends I’ve done mad dashes around the country to be at Robin’s Church of England priesting, and at the national Methodist Conference to see Tom be received into full connexion and ordained presbyter (we’re ecumenical, we are). It’s been a whirl. Some things to remember before I lose them…mostly from yesterday, since it was further from my own experience/usual worship.

Priestings are solemn and pomp-ous, full of you cannot do this in your own strength (which well we know). I was priested among 10, in a cathedral full of gold and red and finery (not a problem, my own sending church, so it was special for me), whilst Robin was amongst his congregation with guests, in his curacy church. This was special to be present, as a curiosity to observe a different church (which we don’t get to do nearly enough/at all) and the way it approaches our common liturgy; as a priest joining in with the laying on of hands in the making of a new priest, close enough to actually do so, rather than the superman move; as the only one of our cell who could actually make it, and thus carrying all our prayers into that space for Robin.

But yesterday, yesterday was different. Yesterday Andy and I met up in Birmingham, to be there for Tom (feeling vaguely guilty about not being at Robin’s first celebration of mass). It is true to say I never fully understood until yesterday – or this weekend, delighting in seeing the updates and photos of all those beginning new ministries who I know or trained with, delighting in the hope that there is for the church with so many new priests and deacons – but especially yesterday, what it means to recognise the anniversary of your own priesting. Given that Tom was at mine and I was there yesterday, I like that we will always share that.

I suppose over the day there were moments it was hard to separate the two. I had finished writing a piece for our parish mag on the experience of being at St Paul’s, which I suspect will long if not always mark my ministry, so I went with heart full. I am more sorry than ever that my vicar said ‘It’s not about you’ and my first mass was absolutely ordinary, save Tom preaching and having some say in the hymns. I didn’t argue because, technically, that’s true. But actually, I grieved for it not being about me, just a little bit. I was reminded of that over these last weeks as those to be priested this year have agonised over service sheets and readings and special music. I was reminded when I brought away copies of Robin’s service booklet to send to the others, that I have nothing to keep other than the memories to remind me of that incredible privilege. I was reminded as Andy made mental note of all the things he might like to ask about for his.

I’m in a place of low confidence and low energy right now, so what a joy to spend yesterday in celebration. It was the best way perhaps I will ever spend an anniversary of my priesting, and I was hugely conscious of both the commonalities (two years at Westcott in the Federation gave me that) and the differences (though I imagine your average tiny congregation in chapels up and down the country would be similarly envious). So in no particular order, some of the awesomeness of yesterday:

worshiping in a conference venue (no cross, noted Andy) slightly strange, but comfortable, well-lit, good sound system, good screens, access to facilities. It was, in fact, especially at this BbWorld time of year exceedingly peculiar for me in a bit of a blurred-lives moment – entirely at home in massive conference venues but not usually worshiping in them, or, not in quite the same way!

singing in a mass congregation – singing modern hymns and traditional hymns to a band with a beat, no Jesus is my boyfriend, proving there is a happy medium – mass enough that well known songs can lose the band for a verse and ring out a capella but a capella on speed

liturgical dance. yes, really. i was so captivated by the mass dirty dancing shoulder lift moment I couldn’t take a photo fast enough, but the troupe of young people who accompanied music during the offering was really moving and beautifully choreographed.

the Lord’s Prayer – to an easily sung tune, though not one I’m too familar with, and in harmony. again, pretty much unaccompanied and ringing out around a hall for 1000. stunning.

the photos of each ordinand coming up on screen with their name and location, so everyone could feel they were being introduced.

the incredible moment at the distribution of communion, where each new presbyter, rather than assisting, as the CofE do, gathered in a small semi-circle of their family and we all received together. really, really powerful.

catching up even briefly with some old friends and faces from the Cambridge Federation

the choice of hymns tied us together in an odd way for me – Tom’s service included both Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, traditional in Anglican ordinations, and I, the Lord of Sea and Sky, which Exeter Cathedral put in Andy’s deaconing service. It was the latter that reduced me finally to tears singing it on the exit from St Paul’s, and I kind of figured it might do the same yesterday. I had to listen to the first verse rather than sing, but it was a fitting end to an awesome day.

I love my tradition and I love my church. But, boy, it is glorious to worship in a big, enthusiastic, joyful crowd. I already know how it’s more attractive to many than turning up to a cold, formal Anglican church. But I had forgotten how great it is to have the opportunity to worship like that. Worth every single second of the travelling. (Frighteningly, I know US friends take that kind of round trip just to attend church each week…)

 

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Multi- media & mental streams filling my Bank Holiday today. Live video from the HTB leadership conference, which is on “Equipping leaders for the evangelisation of the nations and transformation of society.”

when I tuned in, Nicky Gumbel was saying how people say you shouldn’t be friends with your church/parishioners (as a leader) and how that didn’t leave many people to be friends with. We are all trying, he said, to be ‘friendly churches’, whilst actually we need to be churches of friends, where people can make friends.

Friendship, he said, is the key to evangelisation, the key to the transformation of society. Reminded us how deep the wounds of loneliness in our society are right now.

Reminded me how the twofold activity of Making Winter Warmer shows the equal importance of meeting material need AND befriending. Reminded me of a couple of things I read a while ago and wanted to blog: loneliness and a response to it by Janet Henderson (with a link to an earlier post). Reminded me how important U3As are today. Reminded me of an article I read about Euan Ferguson struggling having a stroke while living alone.

Reminded me also to look up some research – presumbly of some socio-anthro ilk – on friendship, that Judy Hirst mentioned to me when we were talking about welcome training last month. Research about the difference in ‘friendship’ in different demographics. We talked about the kind of friendship you might meet attending church in Durham City versus that you might in the close-knit familial communities outside; about how these present quite different challenges and opportunities, and how that might really make a difference in how you approach welcome, discipling, fellowship, church-building in different places. It’s a lens that you don’t often find suggested, never mind applied, in growth and mission resources.

Listenting to stories about how someone was invited to alpha and encountered cheezus on it and so came back to the next class with four friends, one of whom then invited the person sitting next to them on a plane to another course… Round here, people just don’t do that kind of thing. But it does gratify me that some of the things I’m trying to build round here is about friendship. Let’s hope it works. I certainly don’t have enough friends… :-)

Friendship may well be the key to evangelisation, but I’m happy that I’m sure it is the key to the transformation of society, evangelisation or not.

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I may be cutting down my words. But I may not. I may be cutting down the time I spend near a computer, but I may not.

It’s been quite an armful of years now since with Matt Lingard and others we considered whether twitter (and its friends, many now fallen by the wayside) had won out over blogs and whether one should/might as well abandon one’s blog.

For the last year or so, I’ve been contemplating whether some of this has reversed, and whether blogging is back in. Sometimes, it’s entertaining to try and say what you might want to in 140 xrs, tweaking to maintain sense *and* grammar. Sometimes you know you really want to say more than four tweets which hopefully remain vaguely connected in people’s timelines. But you can’t actually be bothered to head over to a blog and collect those same thoughts into proper sentences. (sometimes you think that twitlongr really had legs)

My tabs have been creeping up again. So one of my lenten disciplines is to blog the things I’ve got marked ‘to blog’. And one to limit my tweeting (thank goodness I think will say some, but when I’ve planned to opt out before or have gone awol a while, people don’t like it – for which I thankyou, you’re too kind) – specifically limit, partly because it would be too easy just give it up. I don’t miss my facebook activity – not that I have ever been particularly addicted to facebook, so walking away altogether is I suspect less of a discipline than not switching it off, but just only retweeting.

Now, here’s the curiosities. If you only allow yourself to post links/retweet (cos it is often faster to get the news via timelines than wait for BBC news to load) then you can’t engage in conversation. If you say I’ll only engage in conversation that someone else started, ie, reply, then suddenly the balance of the conversation partners changes, and if you only ever reply and don’t say anything to reply to in the first place to begin a conversation, then people who regularly make an effort are likely to dry up and no longer bother. Which may be fine if you treat it as gradual withdrawal…

I’ve been really impressed recently by the quality of customer services – various, but particularly including couriers and lately the uk branch of ebay cs. Once upon ago there was uncertainty about companies getting into websites which were replicating dullnesses, so the advent of social media was a whole extra ballgame. I remember articles pointing out that some people were ‘with’ social media, but basically using twitter as an rss feed (which reminds me, twitter when it *had* an rss feed was a much nicer beast) pushing out stuff was a bad idea. It was, but people didn’t really know what else to do at the time. Now they’ve cracked it. Whatever else you do with your ‘corporate’ feed, you have plenty of customer service people permanently online, and with a high response rate. And it’s brilliant. You have no real idea if emails get directly sent on a rule to recycle, and if you phone you can guarantee it’s going to cost you money and time with the phone stuck to you till it’s your turn. But the companies who keep their customer services on the dot have utterly cracked it. And you tell people what a good job they’ve been doing – no auto generate email request to follow a link to fill in a feedback form. There it is, right away. You doing their marketing for them.

But if the place was just them, it wouldn’t work. There have to be the kind of conversations that go on around them. So the curious thing about conversations is how many of them should be not public – in the ‘other people don’t need to read this’ rather than ‘other people don’t need to read this’ way. Except that conversations grow and ripple out sometimes from almost nothing/something that didn’t need to be said, and that can create really creative ideas.

But what about blonde rubbish? Well, sweet though it is for people who know you to know you’re ok and still being you when you maintain the flow of blonde rubbish, or, conversely, know when you’re not being you and therefore can check up on you, to want you not to give up, this free source of entertainment for people is presumably the place to curb words. The problem with that is that the blonde rubbish also serves to build relationships with the people who don’t know you very well and perhaps mistakenly think you often know what you’re talking about – it is I’m sure more healthy to realise they are actually choosing to converse with someone who truly doesn’t always switch the light on in a morning.

You may not have noticed – seriously, I’d be worried if you did – that I’ve made a conscious* choice over the last couple of weeks to be removing old posts which are not retweets, links for my and others’ use, conversational tweets that were replied to, replies or things that were favourited and I adjuge for reason of showing agreement rather than keeping for reference. *well, I say conscious – partly prompted by the fact that twitter had an aberrational afternoon on me and posted duplicates, or so it looked like to me, but when I tried to delete the duplicate, I deleted others instead. But it got me deleting.

I’m doing this to remind me how much rubbish I post, and to be conscious of that. I don’t intend to post rubbish (although I can’t rule it out) for a while, say, you know, six weeks or so, but as much as not posting stuff without links I am also curious to see what effect it has on to what extent I reply. I’m already aware that because for a good couple of weeks I’ve not had chance to skim the timeline, I just glance a little, and hope madly that I’ve been copied in to something I missed in the original, or a reply caught into the bit of timeline that I managed. I do know I’ve missed loads of stuff. That was kind of stage one withdrawal, and deleting stuff stage two.

Some of me would love to go back to blogging more often, because I often see thoughts going past I want to capture, but that means being in one place, which I’m not, for any length of time, being at my computer, which is too cold to be for any length of time. But that will be my discipline for a while. I’ll still be here, but my words will be here too. Mostly. Or not mostly, since I noticed that I do go for long periods without really posting rubbish, more than I thought, certainly more recently. But then I suspect, though I most certainly haven’t stopped to analyse, they have been replaced by responses either directly or in conversations with multiple recipients, fluid enough for others to drop in/out, which most other social media don’t facilitate so well.

Anyway, if you notice me missing, I’m probably not, I’m just trying to think in longer sentences, and apply the discipline to refining words from thoughts already in head rather than collecting any more. But I’m not ignoring you :-)

[obviously, this was a habit that is unlikely to stick - I have written this in advance of Lent by over a week, it's sitting quietly scheduled for release when you notice I've gone quiet...if I've gone quiet. I bet I haven't, so you'll all be most confused...]

[[and you facebookers, no, I've not done a replace in that direction. you're still pretty much wasting your time using it to message me, I never go to check]]

[[[almost as soon as I prepared this post, I realised how dull my feed is without the randomness, I bored even myself. So you might as well ignore all the above, I think the experiment is over before it began... :-) ]]]

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For months I’ve agonised over going to the Church Growth conference. I was delighted when the research programme, based partly at Durham University, was launched, then disappointed because it looked like it might be mainly focussing on Fresh Expressions. I feared that would be the only focus of the research, the report and the conference. [Skip all my ramblings and read the report]

Don’t get me wrong, I love that unchurched, dechurched (God, I hate terms like that. I prefer ‘people’ – a bit like ‘bishops’ instead of women bishops, or ‘Christians’ instead of gay Christians…) people are begin brought to faith and meet in growing discipleship and service in the name and love of Christ.

But I really dislike bandying around the idea that fresh expressions is the only way to grow, the only way to be church in the future, the cool way to be church, the way that will grow. The rest of us can just get on with declining, whilst doing all the funerals. And we’re not even really needed for that, with civil celebrants. Or that fresh expressions have all the answers, all the ideas, all the motivation. The rest of us can just mire in our boringness and fade away, internally arguing about pews and organs. Our woolly liberal via media doesn’t cut it, it’s not passionate enough or articulated enough or conservative enough or anything enough. We are to be consigned to history and we might just as well give up and either join the ships not holed beneath the water line, or go and do something else.

I don’t say this in critique of many – indeed I think many engaged in these growing areas do not even bother themselves to be indifferent of the boring trads who don’t get it. It is a caricature and, one might say, a defensive position taken by such an institution without a grip on reality. It is my taken-to-heart critique of a general malaise.

People drawn to lead fresh expressions are spirit-filled and often blessed with success, and for that glory and thanks be to God. But as I hate boxes and being boxed, so I dislike my church being dismissed as outmoded. I dislike being part of an undeniable narrative of decline. I dislike being part of a part of church which is not pioneering, or why would we train pioneers? If the rest of us are also supposed to be proclaiming the Gospel afresh to a new generation, why are we not all pioneers? And what are we supposed to understand by not being trained to be or being considered pioneers? What is the negative of the unspoken narrative, and what damage does it do?

There are continuities in The Church which are really important. If Church Proper (dull, stagnant, distasteful as she is to some) did die, is the new expression of church, church as people loving of and living for God not as inhospitable incomprehensible & exclusive, is it mature enough to be church for everyone yet? Have those of us buried in caring for buildings forgotten that the church is the people, not the building? Have we? Have the people? What are we doing about it if we have?jesus box

In the old days, I used to get very frustrated with funded projects whose outputs and dissemination were all about what they had acheived and nothing about hand-on-ables. Everything is contextual, but always lessons can be learned and resources can be shared. Every time a success is had, celebration should be had. And shared – not as non-unpackable language, but as resources to work with, ideas to adapt, practices to be modelled.

I despair of working in silos. I long for the next phase of our deanery plan to kick in, the ‘working creatively to optimise our skills and resources’. I am, perhaps, the wrong type to be in this job.


I may think a place/community, a church, a priest (seen plenty dysfunctional teams & benefices) but I firmly believe in collaboration and support. Not competition or my toys play.

So I approached the release of the church growth report with trepidation. I want to celebrate fresh expression success. I want them to succeed, I don’t mind the mixed economy (though I would love that we were all sufficiently filled with the active Spirit that church shopping were not so necessary (read necessary in whatever tone you like)). But I don’t want their success to be at the expense of parish churches who are also trying. And if I put a book down on growth or mission because its introduction makes it clear that it is for and about different ways of being church and assumes itself to be not relevant to me, then I know plenty hearts and places where a wedge is driven and may be the only thing that grows.

Believe me, that is not at all to think that ‘traditional’ churches are doing fine thankyou and are growing or doing our job, and that there must be some mistake about fresh expressions being necessary because everything will be alright soon, just you wait and see. I see very many needs for The Church to get with the programme. So many I could write you a list.

Which brings me to the report. Following the tweets as it was presented, easy for bile to rise. All the pointed out highlights are the bits where fresh expresssions are doing really well. Note to self: have you counted recently just how many fresh expressions types you follow in comparison to trads….(these kind of things are the blogs and newsletters I read most too). Note to others: don’t pigeonhole me for railing against fresh expressions when I’m a pioneer at heart, trying to pioneer on/from the inside of the church I love despite its failings.

First I read the Church Army’s report. How fascinating to see their definitions of what could be included as a Fresh Expression of Church, and how very many were discarded. Positively taken, many things are really extensions of existing church, which shows that others are doing mission and outreach. Negatively taken, that was a much smaller % than people might have wanted to see of fxC being genuinely church and genuinely successful. But interesting.

Second, the main report. I’m ok with lists, I quite like them. Especially lists which are helpfully usable – detailed enough to be self-explanatory, brief enough to all for a broad range of interpretation or development. So I enjoyed the sets of lists. I’m pondering putting the lists I took out of the report into a table to compare. Maybe I’ll get around to that. I’m carrying a few lists in my head/many bits of paper as it is, the sections and questions of the diocesan Preparing the Ground for Growth programme, the training session outline of Bob Jackson’s Everybody Welcome, a great long list of priorities from Open for You.

So in the report, I see lists. Many lists. I see less bias than I expect. I see lots of things I know are common sense, and I wonder why we don’t do (the answer is often there isn’t the time, or the resource, but often the killer line that is highlighted in the report: that people do not want to change, they like their Christianity in the way they have it thankyou very much. What is this gospel of which you speak?). I see lots of things that correspond to the PGG sections, Everybody Welcome, Developing a Healthy Church and many more. So some of this really isn’t new, we just need to engage with it.

Here’s an example of what I suspect will only be so helpful – a piece about a church plant growing from 12 to 50+ in 2 years. How? Growth factors: “learning about the demographics, making organisational systems fit for purpose, identifying values, developing leadership, community outreach and opportunities to explore faith” (p20). If you’re sitting somewhere desperately praying for the inspiration and support to get your little 12 person church up to 50 people, then I fear those factors need more unpacking than the case study gives you, as no examples are included.

Here’s another: more youth work. Tell us another one. Thanks, the church times, for the headline ‘Growth possible if the young can be wooed into staying’. Seriously, how many clergy spend half their Sundays thinking ‘our youth work is fine’? But how do we attract the youth with what we have, without throwing out the faithful discipleship of the people who do like it as it is. Ah yes, we have a fresh expression bringing faith to the youth, and we just work out the terminality of habit. More people. The fields are white for harvesting, but where are the labourers? See below.

More people. “Churches are more likely to grow when there is one leader for one community” (p27). I’m very glad this was highlighted in the report, despite the slight irony of our diocesan email forums releasing news of two great priests about to leave the diocese, and three more taking on a further church to their already plural bow within 24 hours of the report’s release. I know there are resource issues, present and future (pensions), but I really cannot see how reducing and spreading thinner will work, however creative we are at working together, and however much people scream ‘lay people’ at me. Oftentimes, mission happens because there is a collar present in the places of the parish(community/network/pub/estate). More often, it happens because that collar is making an effort. More often still, because that collar is making an effort, backed up by enthusiastic lay people/disciples/Christians.

church growth

click to expand

Here are the factors which charaterise church growth. Or rather, church health – which should/will lead to church growth. And what is really really interesting and needful to hear/read, is that it applies to all churches, all expressions of church, all traditions of church. It’s a commonality we can all share, share ideas and share resources. And share joy and celebration when health and growth develops. And in this week of Christian unity, it would be great to go forward working together on it, rather than see headlines about fresh expression success, or decline of traditional church, or really scary interviews with archbishops about churches growing if there’s a good clergyperson there – cue despondency among many great clergy who fight the list of factors the report says inhibit growth as best they can and still have churches which are precarious.

The infographic is good, but the expansion in the document is subtly different, so here’s the list (p8) with comments.

church growth 1

  • Good leadership
  • church growth 2Having a clear mission and purpose

“Vitality comes with reflection and choice; the particular style is less important than the fact that it has been considered and embraced” (p11)

  • Being ready to self-reflect and learn continually
  • Being willing to change and to adapt
  • church growth 3Assigning roles to lay people as well as ordained clergy
The researchers asked: Do the same people tend to serve in volunteer leadership roles year after year or does your church rotate volunteer service among a larger number of people?
Of those who answered that the same people tend to serve, 8% reported growth
Of those who said there was some rotation (tending to be among a limited number of people), 19% reported growth
Of those who said there was a lot of rotation among people in volunteer leadership roles, 47% reported growth
  • Actively engaging children and teenagers
“Growth is found where there is a high ratio of children to adults. Churches which offer programmes for children and teenagers are more likely to grow.” (p12)
Er, yeah. Unless we actually fill the church with all the bereaved spouses we do funerals for, we can only decrease in number. Easier said than done.
  • Actively engaging with those who might not go to church/are actively outside the existing community
  • Good welcoming and follow up for visitors

Both of these two have the little coffee cup picture by them in the report. ‘Nuff said.

  • Committed to nurturing new and existing Christians

“In those which reported none [discipleship or teaching] or “some emphasis through preaching”, less than half were growing” (p13). Ouch. Yes.

  • Vision

Yes. Next?

[feel free to go for a cup of tea and a walk, I'll still be here when you get back]

That was all in the executive summary. Now sometimes, even often, that’s all you need to read. But then you’d only have one list. And there are more embedded in the document. So on I read, but for now will skip beyond the case study and info on traditional church, fresh expression and most of church plant. Here’s the next list, p 20 on the common values in church planting. Shouldn’t that read ‘common values in church/being church’?

  • being relational and incarnational
  • the importance of welcome and hospitality
  • the importance of lay people
  • inclusion of local people
  • volunteerism
  • importance of groups
  • involvement with young families
  • attempting to be a healing presence

So, we need to plant in ourselves? Or wake up and smell coffee. Or be grateful that we’ve pretty much got all those on a list from our PGG discussions. And/or be concerned that it’s only 2/3 of the folk that have engaged with those discussions. Entrepreneurial and innovative approaches shouldn’t need to be brought in. We should be generating them ourselves. We can do this.

Next up: Cathedrals. Here (p21-22) the report said the responses clustered into several themes. They kind of map to the list, and they’re kind of long, so feel free to head over and read them in the report. Safe to say though, they’re all themes that all churches should be able to aspire to. Perhaps more so than the subsequent list of factors which are why cathedrals are growing. Now your average parish church might not be able to replicate these, and should we even be trying, but still I think there is relevance. ‘Culture and the arts’ may be the school concert, ‘civic profile’ may be churches together or Remembrance services…

  • initiating new services and congregations
  • enriching the quality of worship
  • improving welcome and hospitality
  • engaging culture and the arts
  • promoting spiritual openness, inclusivity
  • and diversity in membership and outreach
  • increasing the civic profile
  • developing educational programmes
  • prioritising discipleship and Christian nurture (p22)

They are, I think, all areas to reflect upon in individual contexts and situations.

Onwards. The research reports two major factors contributing to decline – youth presence, and amalgamations. I’ve mentioned both already.

Decline. The most depressing quote (?) in the Church of England:

church growth 4I worry that it might even be the most common quote in the Church of England. However, whichever list I looked at, whichever way I read the report, I still think it’s not rocket science. I also still think that it isn’t as simple as ” where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches“. But I do think that [support of] churches and clergy who do have vision, who are intentional about growing in discipleship, in worship, in service, who are hospitable and inclusive, who do want to welcome young people and their views, who do look outwards not inwards (or at least, inwards not meaning spiritually inwards), CAN grow.

Now, don’t we need to work on how to resource such vision and intentionality? Together. All those lists of growth factors are as relevant to parish churches as to fresh expressions of church – or even in some ways should be ‘easier’ to achieve. So what are we waiting for?

how-god-sees-church-550x550Let’s get out there.

Finally, the executive summary for me – my headline takeaways from this really helpful set of research findings.

  • tradition is unimportant, if done well, with integrity and intentionality. I knew this, I’m glad to see it in the report. I simply refuse to accept that growth comes by chucking out the organ, pews, pewsheet and via media values. This does not mean no change:

The church does want to grow but only if the new people keep everything the same” (p31) Indeed. Nothing else to be said.

  • health and growth are promoted in places where rotation of roles happens regularly. I suspect this will be hard for many to take. Fast on the heels of ‘this is the way we normally do it’ is ‘that’s X’s job’.
  • factors which do not appear in research terms to make a significant difference to growth or decline, include theological tradition and gender, ethnicity or marital status [I would probably also want to add orientation] of the leader (p31). This pleased me. I suppose, along with many, I would have hoped it to say that, but it’s reassuring that it did.

Did someone say motivate, envision, innovate…

 

 

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08
Jan

The most [over?]used phrase in the world? Why does…why doesn’t…why does…why…why from a toddler. Why does [your] God allow suffering? (why does our God allow suffering?) Why does there have to be a bedtime/curfew/speed limit? Why does tragedy strike young mums, small children, longed-for babies, stars of the community, everyone’s favourite policeman, devoted dads-of-4? Why did she contract cancer after all she’s gone through already? Why does a seemingly happy and well-rounded young man throw himself off a bridge? Why is war – why can we not live together in peace? Why? Just Why?

Often when we ask why, there is a real and direct question there, which can be answered by a factual answer. Often there is a real question, but it is one to which an answer at all, never mind a complex one rather than a patronisingly simplistic one, is neither required, desired, nor actually sought by the questioner.

Often the question is really only opening a space for empathy or accompaniment, compassion and embrace.

Often in faith terms, Why? offers us an entry into the language of lament. It allows us to rail at God and the world, not so much for a solution, the identified or the unidentified – correctly or incorrectly – ‘reason’ or ‘answer’ but simply in order to articulate the situation and a response (or responses) to it.

This asking why may not only be cathartic, but therapeutic. Necessary, even when no answer is to be found.

Why becomes the most important question there is. It leads to understanding, to seeking further, to, perhaps, reconciliation. However annoying the 3 year old, asking why needs always to be heard.

I’ve been told I ask too many questions. In a positive spin, this was I can see possibilities and think of consequences so I naturally follow the situations through, but other people can’t and get confused by questions. Or can’t allow themselves or trust themselves to enter into the spirit of asking questions, of themselves and others.

I’m not sure. I think I think people should be so empowered. Should be asked questions without being told answers, and encouraged to own the question and live with the opportunities it presents. It’s not just 3 year olds who should be asking why.

It’s a much better citizen turned out of our education systems with a capacity to interrogate and not just accept, or parrot swallowed info. It’s surely also a much better Christian turned out of our churches asking themselves why we say one thing and practise another, why beaurocracy mires people unnecessarily in poverty, why people suffer in silence and isolation while we worry about pews and hymnbooks, why a footballer comes out as gay and it’s still newsworthy.

Do we not ask questions because we think we know the answers? Do we not ask questions because we fear hearing an answer? Do we not ask questions because we can’t even bring ourselves to allow the time to listen for an answer?

Sometimes – and especially for at least one family not too far from here tonight – there are never going to be answers. The question why may rack through howls of grief and reduced-to-silent sobbing, last night, tonight and for many nights to come.

Why in curiosity leads to learning more and more about the fascinating and sometimes implausibly creative world we live in. Why in lament leads to the words you threw out in the blackness being held there around you, so that the emptiness is not empty, the darkness does not overcome.

Whyever you need to ask why, it’s important.

Asking, not telling. Story engagement with children (and others?).
The need to ask why 5 times.

 

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We don’t always seem to refer to this All Saints to Advent-tide as Kingdom season, yet it seems prophetically so for me. I seem to be conscious on every side of initiatives we could or should be working with or involved in, things which build the kingdom and allow us to play our part. It strikes me as a good time to think about these and what and how we are called to be and do in our communities.

On Saturday I was at the full day kick-off for the next module in the diocesan Faith & Life programme. It’s on Spirituality and the Psalms, and some of the day involved doing a test of spirituality types and then gathering with others of that type for discussions. As ever with these, people hazarded more-or-less correct guesses about themselves and others before the tests were taken.

Tests are a little of damned lies and statistics and should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Interestingly, taking a couple online (here or here or here) I came out differently. Also different were the definitions and the descriptions, so they perhaps don’t map exactly. But as with many things, worth doing just to do the thinking around them and reading of the results, especially with the offering of various types of prayer patterns.

Kingdom season went past awfully fast, and I wasn’t preaching. But it made a mark on me this year. Perhaps that mark will deepen over the coming months to be unleashed next year. It was good to meditate a little on kingdom, kingdom season, kingdom spirituality, kingdom prayer. Let’s face it, it’s not as though it’s an insignificant part of faith…

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this ought to be a thought through post, but it’s not, it”s a getitoutofmyhead post that maybe I’ll come back to one day. It’s far from the first time I’ve contemplated mission and football – I even did a spell with the Cambridge Utd chaplain as part of my training – not least because when you live up here (unlike at Cambridge Utd) it’s pretty impossible not to know that the biggest religion is football.

Last year in the all-age training day, one of the speakers talked about rugby (she was from Worcester, so it’s understandable, we could all translate it in our heads) and about how people look forward to the game each week, talk about it during the week, share expectations, ask others if they’re going, make it an all day affair sharing and (hopefully) celebrating with friends and family and wider people who were once strangers but who, through a shared devotion, became more than acquaintances. If someone is missing, it’s noted and asked about. There is joy, sadness, fellowship and experience shared. People sing, chant, weep, laugh and adore. When it’s time to go home, noone really wants to, they linger and when they do leave, they discuss over and over what they have experienced together, sharing different views and moving moments. Warm goodbyes are said, with the prospect of doing it all over again next week, already looking forward to that, and talking about it during the week…

Oh how we wish that might be about church…! What do we do to bring ourselves even into the playoffs for the same league?

Graham Tomlin (I think it was) at the Church Growth Conference last month said something really interesting. He asked ‘have people stopped going to church because they have stopped believing? … or, have they stopped believing because they’ve stopped going to church?’ I tossed this around a fair bit at the time, and have kept coming back to it since. Partly because it is striking in itself, but partly because I found myself thinking it again when someone invited me to the football.

To a certain extent, there is an unwritten understanding round here that you do not need to ask if someone follows football, though you might query (carefully, and tbh some places you wouldn’t even need to ask that – I am only half joking when I suggest that the only percentage of ‘inter-faith’ we have is the few Sunderland supporters) who someone supports. I have been a football fan since I could walk. In fact by the time I went to school I spent every Saturday afternoon at district league football matches and occasionally in the directors’ box at leeds road, courtesy of Dad’s involvement in football. Football has always been a part of my life. I even owned a Hull City shirt when the university sponsored them – I’ll watch football at any level. I like hearing the kids’ teams playing out the back of my house at the weekend, sadly just out of sight from my study window.

But being asked if I’d like to go and watch made me think again about Graham Tomlin’s comments. I just wrote ‘a football fan’ and I think that is no longer true. I’m still a football follower, but I had to give up my season ticket while in Cambridge as I simply couldn’t afford it any more, and the unpredictability of the television schedule on fixtures and the unpredictability of clergy schedules means I’d hesitate now to reclaim it even if I could afford it. I no longer feel like a fanatic in the way I used to be. And I reflect on two things.

Firstly, I used to be in an environment where people around me also followed football. Even if we supported different teams (massive inter-faith experience working in Middlesbrough…) we still shared the same love, and it was often a discussion through the week. Even most of my friends who didn’t actually attend had a shared vocabulary and shared understanding and usually knew what was happening in that world. It was easy to stay involved – even in Cambridge. But now? Now I don’t have so many friends close by to spend time with anyway, and those I do are not so football-oriented. It’s not an obvious topic of conversation. It’s no longer a guaranteed shared interest, experience or vocabulary.

And I no longer go. I can’t afford my season ticket and work means I can’t physically be there every game. I don’t have time to check up on the gossip during the week and I don’t always remember to find the radio to listen if I happen to be at home. Gradually, I’m sliding further away from it being something people used to know very clearly was one of my ‘things’. I confess I probably struggle to name you more than half of the first eleven this season. My Dad will be turning in his grave in confusion at that. It used to be our first chat every time I spoke to him.

And then someone invites me to a game, and that’s great. I shall look forward to going. But it’s not an every week invitation and I’m ok, if not glad about that. And suddenly I realise that I’m only a fair-weather follower now, and I don’t really know how that happened. And I wonder if it is a declinee that began when I stopped going to every game, and didn’t spend my time with a majority of people who felt the same fanaticism. And I wonder, if I no longer go because I no longer believe, or if I no longer believe in the same way because I no longer go. The vocabulary is still in my head, and I’m there following the special events, but it isn’t what I plan my diary around now.

Again, Graham Tomlin’s words echo round my head. I accept the invitation to a game. I wonder if it will turn into a regular invitation, or if I will be drawn back into the fellowship and excitement and shared joy and sorrow and experience and family and become a fan again [and I realise how apt this would have been for Back to Church Sunday] or if it will be a nice trip out but somehow the recapturing of my heart will not quite happen. And I wonder… do people stop going because they no longer believe, or do people drop off believing because they have dropped off going? And I wonder… what are we to do about this?

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I’m just back from holiday. First proper holiday in quite a long while. As usual, I read. That’s what I do on holiday – read (and sleep, and visit churches, and eat). This week I *almost* ran out of books. Serves me right, because after raised eyebrows from Rachel as to whether I needed *all* the ones I had laid out by my suitcase, I let her reject one, and I ended up going to the church shop on holiday to acquire more…

From very different ends of the spectrum, two of the books I chose to take were more…

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