Jan 142011

Probation conference number 2 finished today and it was one of the best so far – I’m including candidates’ conferences in that too. All the sessions reinforced one another and the whole was challenging and encouraging. The theme was ‘Mission’ and the overarching idea was that the church is not called to ‘do mission’ but to ‘be missional’. Mission, in whatever shape or form it takes in any particular context should suffuse and shape the life of a congregation.

We heard some amazing stories of what can happen when people are empowered to follow through their vision of God’s purpose for them and for their community. Lives turned around through the witness of others, the simple expressions of love shown to the outcast and stranger.

There was so much to process that I’ll need to take time just to sort it through in my own head, but there was one particular, personal ‘urge’ I can identify, albeit in a fragile and immature form. The single biggest message was that mission takes time – years – to grow from the initial seeds through to even just the first tentative shoots. As I look ahead and begin thinking about where I might sense a calling to, I am beginning to sense that I want to be somewhere for the long haul. I want to be somewhere I can commit to. The first charge has a minimum time limit of 5 years and I know people do move on after that point. I sense that I don’t want to do that. There’s something that is telling me that wherever I go I want to be there for the  duration, so to speak.

In some respects that’s been the pattern of my previous employment. I was there 21 years all told, albeit working under different owners at different times, but any urge to move on was overcome by new challenges from within the company. Maybe a pattern for ministry? Who knows? And, of course, who knows what might happen when I get to that point. Sowing and reaping are not necessarily done by the same people. Either way, I feel it’s a step closer to knowing what shape my ministry might be.

Aug 252010

Last night, BBC Scotland aired a short documentary, A Church in Crisis?, about the Church of Scotland and its current circumstances. The broadcast date marks the anniversary of the Kirk’s creation following the Scottish Reformation. Peter has already blogged about the programme and notes that it offered a balanced view of the Kirk’s present state.

There was the “What’s the Kirk ever done for us?” bit; a reminder of the legacy of that early push for education and literacy which established Scotland as a leader in educational achievement. The Kirk’s social conscience was highlighted and its impact on today’s social care noted. Although that place is now filled more and more by local authority groups, the Kirk still has a significant presence in this area. It begs the question though, as a friend recently discussed with me, that perhaps the Kirk has achieved what it set out to do in this area –  show how social care ought to be done – and now it is time to invest the resources in other work of social inclusion and justice.

However, the outlining of the current state of the Kirk jangled a few nerves. It rightly highlighted falling membership, financial pressures and ministerial resources as areas causing concern. But it phrased them in a slightly disingenuous way I thought. Falling mambership cannot be disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Loose affiliations and fluid loyalties are the characteristics of our present society. Any sort of ‘commitment’ has people running a mile. I’m not suggesting that the numbers attending church are in any way much rosier than they are, but membership numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

The financial situation was also misrepresented. A running deficit of just over £5m is not the same as being “nearly £6m in the red” as was reported. Again, I’m not suggesting this is an acceptable situation, but it ought tohave been reported accurately. Furthermore, little was made of the proposals to address that deficit.

Associated with that was the throwaway comment of “only four trainees have entered Scotland’s leading divinity school.” Now, while I would happily agree with that assessment of New College’s place in the ordering of things, to ignore the intake at the other institutions is irresponsible and misleading. New College has fallen foul of entrance quota restrictions in its associated University College. Those who have been unable to gain a place have deferred or have gone to one of the other institutions. A fairer report would have been to cite overall numbers in training.

But I want to highlight one final thing in the programme which went entirely unchallenged and has an insidious effect on how we, the Church, approach things. Peter fell into the same trap in his assessment as well. It is stated, without any qualification or justification, that we live in a secular society. I’m not convinced that this is true. I would, perhaps, have agreed ten or twenty years ago, but not today. Secularism is also fighting a losing battle as many more people begin to see the society of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as heading towards moral bankruptcy. In a similar way to post-war theologians, there is a reaction against the ‘me-centred’ doctrines of, in today’s case, the consumerist state. More people are now looking for ‘something else’ to help order their life. There has been, in recent years, an increase in ‘spirituality’ in our cultural mindset. The unfortunate thing is that the years of secularism have left many without the vocabulary or grounding of a Christian spirituality. Pic’n’mix religion has become the order of the day. This, I would suggest, is a very different challenge to the church. It’s one thing dealing with a society which is entirely indifferent to religion, quite another to deal with people who see all religions as their personal spiritual supermarket to pick and choose from as it suits them.

Without a doubt the Kirk has some hard times ahead but I would tend to agree with Ron Ferguson’s thoughts towards the end of the programme that a beleaguered church is not necessarily a bad thing.

Mar 032010

No surprise there then.

Having spent some of this afternoon discussing Emerging Church, I got the names of a few projects to follow up on as possible research subjects for my dissertation. I’ve just spent some time looking at their websites and I’m left with the feeling that either I’ve completely missed the point of Emerging Church or someone else has (or I’m missing something very obvious).

The projects I’ve looked at are what I would refer to as ‘detached youth work’. Or, in one case, ‘semi-detached youth work’. One project doesn’t restrict its outreach to any particular age-group, but its focus seems mainly to be pastoral care, in the very broadest sense. None of this means that the projects aren’t worthwhile. In fact, they are all doing a great work in their community and all praise to them for it.

But I’m left wondering what makes this ‘Emerging Church’. Yes, I understand that EC is characterised by its very missional outlook, but missional outlook alone does make a project EC. It must go hand-in-hand with a number of other factors, otherwise, surely, it is ‘just’ mission?

Or maybe these are simply the first tentative steps towards finding an expression of EC for their particular communities. Get alongside people first, earn their trust and respect, then begin to think about spiritual guidance. But isn’t this just ‘church’ and the sensible (only?) way of outreach into a community – itself an imperative of the gospel?

But that still leaves me confused because it doesn’t, in my mind, adequately deal with what EC is. In fact, these projects, arguably, are not ‘church’ – merely the work of the church.

Or am I simply too impatient? Is it unrealistic to expect to see ‘church’ in these projects at these early stages? But is anything else not being a bit ‘dishonest’? Shouldn’t an EC project be characterised by aiming to be ‘church’ – that is, a worshipping community’ – as part of its project work?

Ah well, plenty of food for thought there for an essay or two and a dissertation.

May 292008

On my blog feeds yesterday, my attention was caught by a couple of video clips. They’re of Reggie McNeal, from Fuller Theological Seminary, addressing a Reformed church conference. I do encourage you to listen to all of it, but if you don’t have the time, at least catch the first 10 to 15 minutes of the first one. They obviously have a US bias, but they’re a message, I think, for all of us.