Inspiration and brick walls

I was a conference yesterday about Emerging Church within the context of the Church of Scotland. It was both inspirational and frustrating. Some of the projects are doing fantastic work and really growing as ‘church’ – and not just in the outreach work sense that I’ve been having a go at in recent posts. We’re seeing embryonic communities which are growing into worshipping communities and then hitting brick walls. Many of these projects are reaching unchurched people and making Christian faith relevant and meaningful. And yet there is a sense of ‘so far and no further’.

And, unfortunately, it’s the Church of Scotland’s law and structures that are often the problem. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t people who are trying, often creatively, to provide solutions, but there was still an underlying sense of not taking Emerging Church seriously. If I may parody it somewhat, it seemed that there was a willingness to set up a working party to look at the questions that would need to be addressed by a committee who could produce a report to create a task force who would consult widely to produce a report that could go to a council and be presented to GA for consideration by presbyteries to ascertain whether there was support for changes to develop a new style of ministry.

Meanwhile community projects are being slapped on the wrist for overstepping parish boundaries or are unable to share the sacraments because their eminently qualified leader doesn’t have the ‘right sort’ of theology degree and isn’t ordained. There was much talk about training and the need for a new focus on missional skills for ordained ministries. But I can’t help but feel that a more open approach to development of lay leaders or the already qualified members needs a better look at. Why do we allow someone to ‘preach and teach’ at a youth club yet become very cagey when they might do it from the pulpit, as it were? There was also talk of a more modular approach to training, building on existing skills. So how about an approved ‘sacramental theology’ bolt-on to make sure it’s all done above board and with theological rigour and that makes sure the appropriate box is ticked for church law? And maybe it’s time to get over the suspicion and angst about it that has persisted for several hundred years since the Reformation.

So, what’s the solution? A presbyterian church with flexible structures, “boundary blindness” (thanks to Peter Neilson for that one) when it comes to parishes and a real commitment to training its people to become the body of Christ in the community. And maybe a church that relaxes its ecclesiology and grasps more of the kingdom instead. Shouldn’t be too tall an order. Maybe a report to GA is called for.

11 responses to “Inspiration and brick walls”

  1. ‘Boundary blindness’…… My experience is that this already happens in a negative way. Weddings/funerals happen in this grey area that is really black and white ! I don’t mind making some grey, providing that I actually know about it and am consulted. It’s where activities simply happen (and this is maybe where the aggro lies with thes EC situations) that friction does happen.
    If projects are set up so that established clergy know about them, have an opportunity to become involved if they have the time and inclination, and there is an understanding that parish boundaries might be crossed occasionally, then you just might have some creativity. It’s all about professional respect and integrity.
    Like the parody…it’s probably too near the truth !!!

  2. David,

    I think that that is why I would agree with one speaker who made the point that such projects need to be handled at presbytery level. But it also means that for some it needs a move away from the ‘precious’ mindset that asks the question of how many extra people (translate that as more income) will there be in ‘my church’? I sensed a little bit of that at the conference (and through what others were saying about their experience) and I think it is indicative of a ‘maintenance’ mindset rather than a missional one. We look at the CofS, see it declining in places, want to ‘manage’ that decline and the first stop is to ‘preserve’ our own territory. It’s a very natural reaction of course.

    But the whole point about emerging church is that it isn’t territorially-based; it’s contextually-based. That means that if someone is running, say, a youth project, then it will, in all likelyhood, attract from a cross-boundary area. And that’s often seen as ‘poaching’. But the point is that this is a gorup who wouldn’t be coming to any church in the first place. Their ‘church’ (if it truly an emerging church) is wherever and whenever they meet as a community. The spin-off, if there is one, for more ‘traditional’ church models (i.e. Sunday morning in the big stone building) comes much later down the line when that generation grows up and is looking for an entirely different context in which to worship. In a sense the ‘grow into’ traditional church, but it must be emphasised that that does not mean that their emerging church is lesser or ‘less mature’ in any sense. The relationships have to be ‘adult-to-adult’ (another point made at the conference). That’s why I say that the apparent present understanding of what ‘church’ is (and let’s be honest, for all the talk of a church is ‘the people’, we still have a huge attachment to the building) really needs to challenged and broadened. Church needs to be understood in its broadest context of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’. An independent group that meets on a Wednesday night, prays together, studies the Bible together and, ideally shares communion together, is no less a ‘church’. How it fits with a reformed presbyterian system is not an issue of theology as much as it is about bureaucracy.

    As for the parody – let’s just say that I didn’t have to stretch what was being said too far.

  3. Not sure I like to be classified as bordering on ‘precious’… You could run things from a presbytery level, but that hits the blockage of the ‘Big Brother telling us what to do’ issue. It would probably be better to operate within a parish grouping, for example Grangemouth (I’m not volunteering just now, only using an example!). Cross boundary activities could work where churches can see themselves working together and you then avoid the ‘poaching’ problem. My firat church struggled to understand this notion. The church that seemed to ‘do well’ was seen as empire building, and that needs to be avoided through educating congregations to think in terms of working together instead of competing.

  4. Didn’t intend classifying you as precious. I’d hoped the words were chosen not to imply that.

    Parish groupings may well be a good vehicle for such work. One thing that occurred to me was the issue of oversight (a problem also raised at the conference). The church, currently, has no effective mechanism for dealing with oversight of emerging church projects. It can’t really leave them to run themselves, but, by their very nature, it’s not necessarily the minister or an elder in charge. It may not even be a presbytery worker. Even if it was they still have no seat on presbytery. Presbytery does have the discretion to appoint additional elders though and I wondered if it would be possible to have such a project overseen by, say, a group of elders drawn from the participating churches and then have one of them allocated a presbytery seat. A parish grouping could operate in a similar way and I think it would even be beneficial to have the project directly represented at presbytery level.

    You’re correct though that it does require a lot of cooperation and that has to start with everyone having the same vision – an outward looking one rather than a ‘protectionist’ one.

  5. I agree that a change of vision is required. The elder group model could work well, but it would see to me that as long as the clergy are aware of what is happening then cooperation may be more likely. It isn’t a case of protectionism but one of integrity as I mentioned earlier.

  6. john–

    any parish or church group, or for that matter a public library, or school board, is an intentional community.  they gather with a mission statement, or a creed, or a collection of beliefs, and function together as a community in some fashion.

    what are some of the guidelines you use for yourself in choosing to join, or participate in, an intentional community?  especially a christian-oriented one.


  7. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for commenting. I must be a bit brain-dead though as I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking or implying. Would appreciate some clarification.

    As for your observation on ‘intentional communities’; that’s pretty much the point for emerging church. You can’t expect those ‘outside’ [traditional church] to want to come ‘inside’. Therefore, the response must be to go out to meet them. Traditional ‘mission’ though has always had its focus as ‘bringing them back to the fold’. EC is about establishing a new ‘expression’ of church (in whatever way, shape or form works best) within that community. But, of course, there will be a natural suspicion of anything which appears ‘imposed’ from outside which is why, I think, it’s important to be transparent from the beginning. It’s no good starting off with, say, a youth project that keeps kids off the streets and then, over time, introduces the ‘God stuff’. It has to be there from the start, although that’s not to say it won’t develop and change over time. But there’s also got to be stuff round about it – and it’s got to be ‘meaningful’, not just a way of attracting people to get them to listen to the gospel. The surrounding work needs to be contextually meaningful and genuinely missional.

    Not sure it that goes anyway to addressing the question, but you can clarify if necessary.

  8. john—
    you are soon, if you haven’t already, choosing to engage in intentional communities as a part of your calling and your career.  i on the other hand, am free to choose intentional communities as i please; i pick and choose my intentional communities according to a set of known, (or sometimes felt but unknown,) criteria.  i can change intentional communities often, if i like, or jump ship if they don’t suit me, as i like.  you, on the other hand, are making commitments to particular intentional communities, or particular kinds of intentional communities, as a potential pastor.  and the dogmas of your denomination matter in your choosing intentional communities you wish to be involved in.  especially if you look to them as an authenticating or sanctioning body for your pastor opportunities.
    the ‘mission’ you articulate for emerging church is to go off to meet those ‘outside.’  the mission you articulate for traditional church is to bring those ‘not in the fold’ back into the fold.  do i understand you correctly on this?  which type of mission resonates with you more? (i have lots of thoughts about ec; i’ll share them with you if you ask, and i think some of the ‘universal’ motivations for joining ec or not are the same criteria i use for deciding which intentional communities i choose to join.)
    i guess what i’m saying is, when you approach an intentional community you are thinking about joining, how do you assess that the intentional community is worth joining?  how do you pick the ones you join, and reject the ones you don’t join?
    (i have criteria i’ve been thinking about when i choose to join an intentional community, but i’m afraid if i tell you what i’m thinking, i’m afraid it will influence your response too soon in your thinking.  i have no secret agenda here; i’m just afraid i’ll influence your response before you’ve had a chance to do your own thinking.)

  9. Hi again Scott.

    Thanks for clarifying and expanding your question. I think I see what you are getting at and I suspect I’m opening up a huge can of worms by going there. Partly because it’s theology that I’m still working out in my own head and partly because I think it is at risk of dropping over the edge a bit.

    For example, you asked which mission resonates more with me? Definitely the ‘going out’, but with some challenging nuances to that. Should the purpose of ‘going out’ be to make new converts? Or should it simply be a way of bringing about ‘the Kingdom’? If it’s not about making converts, then what does that say about my soteriology? Bordering on universalism perhaps?

    As for ‘joining’ an intentional community, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment. Seems more in the line of sociology than theology. That said, I can see how it’s important, and again comes back to my comment about needing to be open and up front. If you attempt to sneak God in by the back door, there is a risk that people will feel duped and betrayed.

    Anyway, I’ll attempt to post something as soon as I can. It is, in fact, beginning to encroach on your original request to enunciate more of my theology.

  10. john–

    what makes you think faith communities aren’t sociologically influenced?  what makes you think theology and sociology aren’t joined at the hip in faith communities?


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