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The questions we ask expose our priorities.

Are you the king of the Jews?

That’s Pilate’s question to Jesus in John 18:28-40.  That’s the only question that matters to a political governor.  Are you a problem for me?  But Pilate is asking the wrong questions… so Jesus asks some of his own.

The exchange ends with Pilate asking the right question… ‘what is truth?’

I wonder…

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It’s amazing how quickly time passes. I’ve been so busy studying and working that I’ve neglected this blog.  I’m hoping to have much more time soon.  I finish my course in a few weeks!  In the meantime, have a dig about the archive.  You never know what you might find!!!

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Who am I?  Who am I for?  Why am I for them?

There are questions that go to the very core of who we are.  As we have already discussed the various generations might choose to answer these questions in quite different terms.

  • Builders are for the country, the establishment.
  • Boomers are for the kids, and they’re still paying for them.
  • Xers are for themselves, and the world.
  • Yers are for whatever cause captures their interest.

Of course those are generalisations but even those four glib stereotyping statements give us an indication of the problem of a ‘one size fits all’ church.  It is almost impossible to be a place that meets everyone’s needs… almost.

To discover if the church is a place where people can belong the church needs to grapple with its answers those same questions.

Who are we for?  What are we for? Why are we for them?

These are questions that are central to our very reason for being and yet I’m not sure we, the church, could answer those questions well.

We could say that we are for God, we are for the poor and we are for them because we believe in Jesus, God’s son, and he told us that we should be for the poor.

But that does that really answer the questions?

Yes.  And no.  And maybe.

And that’s a problem. The answer works ok for Builder’s and for some Boomers.  It appeals to Builder’s sense of ‘doing the right thing’ and building a better world.  It appeals to Boomer’s need for a bit of certainty in an ever-changing world.

It is particularly problematic for Xers and Yers.  They want to know the detail.  Which poor?  Define poor?  For God?  What does that mean?  Why should we do what Jesus says?

I’ve had a look around at some church websites to see how people answer these kinds of questions.  Most don’t.  At least not in an up front way.  Some have a go in a ‘mission statement’ or like my own Synod who have a list of aspirations.

I like Mars Hill in Grand Rapids approach.  If you visit their website you find a ‘who we are’ sections that has a sections headed ‘What we believe’.  In there you find paragraphs on theology, values, mission, serving and membership.

The Values section has the arrows you might have seen in one of the previous post:

For Xers and Yers the answers to each of these directions; backwards, forwards, inward, withward (got to love those made up words!), outward and upward, are vital and I think we need to answer each of these questions for each of our churches:

Backwards – where have we come from?  What is our ‘big story’?  How do we fit in the story of faith?

Forwards – where are we heading? Who are we travelling with?

Inwards (one we almost always avoid) – Why are we here?  Do we value the wholeness of people?  Do we value their mind, body, soul, emotion and experience?

Withward (community) – How do we as a group of people live together?  What are the rules and expectations of our community?

Outward – Who are we serving?  Who are we fighting for?  Who’s lives do we make better?

Upward (celebration) – What does God mean to us?  How do we show that?  How do we share that in our community?

Once we answer those questions we need to be honest about who might share our answers.

I used the phrase ‘mixed economy’ in part 2 and this is where it becomes important.  Even if the generations can agree on the answers the next step is ‘How?’ and I don’t have a problem with that and I don’t think the church should either.  In fact I think we should embrace it.

We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think we already have ‘niche church’.  We all serve a group or a type.  Why not be honest about it and serve a varied menu?

And that brings us back to ministers…

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In part one I thought about some of the sociological stuff around about generational characteristics and how they affect church.

Part of the issue these generational characteristics presents is different answers to the question ‘Who are we?’.  Even if each generation shares the same answer to that question the way they might express that is different.  That’s a tension, especially if those versions of how we do church don’t fit well together.

Identity is important.

How we express who we are sets the conditions for our community.

How we express the various parts of our story defines who we are.  That story points in all directions.

It points backwards to where we have come from, to the story so far.  It points forward to where we are heading, the journey will go on.  It points inward to us, and what we value about each individual.  It points together to who we will journey with.  It points outward to who we are for, who we serve.  It points upward, to God.

Every church has its story.  Even if that story has never been written down or spoken out loud.  We tell our story in our buildings, our welcome, our music, our worship, our conversation, our focus, our activities and every other single little thing we do as church.

People see and hear our stories and they decide whether or not to be involved with that story.

They make a choice and for the most part it’s hard to blame people for the choice they make.

Many churches choose to tell a story of decline, of slow decay.  I’ve heard ministers say that their job is like palliative care to help a church die in as pain-free way as possible.

Some churches try not to engage with anyone so their story won’t be heard.  That way they might not have to change.

What about the churches who do want to engage?  Part of their story is the manner in which people will find out about them.

Attractional Church

For years we have tried to attract people to church by doing special things. That’s called ‘attractional’.  If it’s big and shiny people will come.  To some extent that’s true.  But attractional models can’t offer the same level of big and shiny you can get elsewhere and, more importantly, they can’t offer depth.

I think people are looking for depth.  They expect church to be a place where they can find people who will talk to them and share their hopes and fears, doubts and concerns and talk about God in a way which values their questions and opinions.

Attractional Church results in things like ‘Back to Church Sunday’.

I have no real problem with Back to Church Sunday if the aim is to get people who have just got out of the habit of coming to get back into the habit again.  But I suspect that’s not what most churches are thinking.

One of my tests for anything I do is ‘Would I bring my friends to this?’.  The answer is often ‘No’.  And before you jump to criticise… would you take your friends to church?  Would you ask your colleagues?  The guys you play football with?  The people at the gym or running group?

People leave for a reason.  If the only thing that was keeping people in Church was habit then Back to Church Sunday is pointless unless things have changed…

Relational Church

The one thing Back to Church Sunday has going for it is that it is born in relationships.  It’s about asking people you know to join you.

Relationships matter in church.  I asked someone who responded to Part 1 on Facebook why they left church.  Her answer was that when she had problems the people in the church didn’t know what to do, so they left her alone.  That’s not uncommon.

Being in a relationship is hard work, especially when things are tough.  Churches need to be places that decide to be there for the long haul, to commit to each other.

In many ways church has become a place that provides services (pun intended), most of which are delivered by the minister.  That can de-skill members and lead to an expectation and reliance on the minister doing it.

I’ll come back to ministers later…

Incarnational Church

Years ago Pete Ward wrote a book about youth work.  In it he talks about being ‘incarnational’.  That means being Christ’s representative in a community, being Christ-like.  I think I understand what he means but I’ve never been completely convinced that we can pull it off.

I think we try to love our neighbour.  I think we can help people who need our help but I also think that being God is God’s job.  We need to be something else.

A Mixed Economy?

Perhaps all churches will tend to be a mixture of all three approaches.  One of the characteristics of the generation gap in church is a frustration with a seemingly unchanging church.  Being aware of how people see us, how they encounter us and what they think of us might help the church to at least begin to see ourselves as others see us.

But we do see ourselves as others see us.

I could count the people I’ve met who think the church is as good as it can be on one finger.  People look around and they see a gap of generations.

Churches are innovating, people are creating new kinds of church community.  My concern is that these communities are ones created by the church as things that people might join in.  That’s not who sustainable communities are created.  Sustainable community is a slow, often painful process where people come together and explore who they are as a group.  That leads to an expression of church and that expression of church might look very different from the traditional model.  It won’t be the same with newer hymns and a bigger sound system.

It’s that kind of deep community we need to help to create.

That poses questions about the role of ministers, their training and how those new communities might be sustained and supported…


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This isn’t working! There, I’ve said it. I feel better already. I’ve been meaning to say it for a long time – in fact I can’t remember a time in the last 30 years when I haven’t thought it. Oh – it’s the Church I’m talking about, by the way.

‘The Emporer’s New Church’ by Stewart Cutler in Inside Verdict, 2003

It’s ten years since I wrote those words. Inside Verdict was a book that was supposed to tell a hopeful story about the state of the Church of Scotland as a response to Outside Verdict by Harry Reid. I remember being asked to write about the good things happening in adult education at the time. The problem was that there wasn’t much happening.

Instead of making something up I wrote about my concerns. I haven’t read that chapter for years so I picked it up this morning to see what I was worried about then. I wasn’t surprised to see that the issues I was concerned about then are the same issues we were still talking about last night. A disconnection with 3 or 4 generations, the lack of spiritual practices, a reticence to say what we stand for and the inability of people to escape structures that inhibit and just to get on and make change.

It’s funny how self interest sharpens focus.

The generation gap in churches has been evident for years. I remember my sister and I being the youngest people in our church at 15 and 18 years of age. The next youngest was my mother and father and then there was another 10 year gap. That wasn’t in any way unusual. At a succession of Youth Assemblies young people would consistently say that they were the only people of their age in their church.

This has become a big issue for churches now because people aren’t going forward for training for ministry. Peter Johnston has blogged about this and about the various characteristics of the generations; the builders, boomers, Xers and Yers.

It would seem that Builders (65-80) were committed to rebuilding the post-war world and the church was at the heart of their institutional world.

Boomers (48-65) grew up in that post-war landscape with huge prosperity and opportunity. They have also known massive change in almost every area of life.

Gen X (30-45) is also known as the lost generation. They see the commitment their Builder and Boomer parents had to work and how their parents’ relationships suffered because of that. They are less likely to commit to leadership roles and value their own relationships much more highly. X-ers expect support structures and like team working.

Generation Y (Under 30s) are the children of Boomers so have experienced support and security. They look for meaningful interaction and fulfilment and expect to be able to question.

The wake up call around a lack of ministers makes me want to scream! Sociological analysis of the changing generations has been around for years and yet the church only gets interested because those changes threaten the organisational structure of an institution which caters primarily for Builders and Boomers.

One of the traits of Builders and Boomers was a need to work hard and provide a better life for their children. The impact of that was for Builders and Boomers to keep hold of responsibility and create institutions based on their perceptions of what their children would need, security, structure and consistency. However, those are the very things that Gen X and Gen Y kick against.

I’ve written about Bored Adults before. My theory is that we are still reasonably good at working with children and young people but that church is almost completely opposite to the active and engaging world of children’s and youth work.

This chart is based on Honey & Mumford’s work on learning styles.

It illustrates my belief that there is a significant difference between the things we do with children and young people which lean heavily towards the activist and the things we do in church where we lean the other way towards the theorist.

If learning styles are an indication of the kinds of activities people are likely to prefer to engage with then it doesn’t seem at all surprising that so few young people make the jump from youth work to church?

Activists learn best when:

  • involved in new experiences, problems and opportunities
  • working with others in team tasks or role-playing
  • being thrown in the deep end with a difficult task
  • chairing meetings, leading discussions

Activists learn less when:

  • listening to lectures or long explanations
  • reading, writing or thinking on their own
  • absorbing and understanding data
  • following precise instruction to the letter

Theorists learn best when:

  • put in complex situations where they have to use their skills and knowledge
  • they are in structured situations with clear purpose
  • they are offered interesting ideas or concepts even though they are not immediately relevant
  • they have the chance to question and probe ideas

Theorists learn less when:

  • they have to participate in situations which emphasise emotion and feelings
  • the activity is unstructured or briefing is poor
  • they have to do things without knowing the principles or concepts involved
  • they feel they’re out of tune with the other participants, for example people with different learning styles

Chalk and Cheese.

Of course these are preferences and people can work in both preferences as well as Pragmatist and Reflector. We each have elements of all four preferences but the leanings towards opposite ends concerns me.

But I think this confronts us with a fundamental question: what is the church for?

The different generations might answer this question differently and that’s the source of the problem. The Builders and Boomers got there first, so we have a church built in their image.

Gen X and Gen Y are not interested in hanging about until things change. They are much more likely to go off in search of something that fits better, start something else or just walk away completely.

So, I’m left with some big core questions:

  • about the balance of what we do as church and the real possibility of change while Builders and Boomers hold the reigns
  • about how the things we do and how we do them says so much about who we are, and who we are not, who we are for and who we are not for
  • why would people engage with something so far from their needs, wants, preferences and comfort zone

So, that’s the context as I see it.

Does it ring true in your experience? Am I asking the right questions or are there other more important ones?

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… and the big story of God.  For example, when we celebrate communion I’m fairly sure that most people don’t know the wider context of that.  Can this week’s gospel (John talking more about blood and flesh) be understood without knowing about Passover and the Levitical laws and kosher practice?  But we are not Jews and because the canon closed 2,000 years ago do we see ourselves as separate from that story.  I wonder if most people really believe that God has said anything since John’s revelation?  How does that isolation from the story affect us?

Broken Rhythms

If the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with people then does our focus on the ancient part of the story help or hinder our sense of connection?

Once, when I was feeling brave, I scrapped the sermon and we talked about what we are doing when we celebrate communion instead.  Of course there are many answers to that question but what was evident was that there were no thoughts of the connection to anything further back than the last supper.

That’s not a surprise.  After all, in our liturgy we tell the story of the Last Supper from Paul’s point of view.  If that’s what you hear every time you gather for communion then why would you make connections beyond that?

Does that matter?

Well, the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with a group of people.  Jesus speaks about that relationship all the time so if we don’t know that story then we miss lots of the story.  The example at the beginning of this post about Jesus talking about how we should eat his flesh and drink his blood sounds strange.  That’s cannibalism.  That was one of the accusations made against the early Christians but it wasn’t what the Pharisees had a problem with.

Drinking blood wasn’t allowed and not just for health reasons.  They believed that blood contained the life-force of an animal.  That’s why kosher butchers drain the blood from animals.  But we don’t do that.

Lamb’s blood is also central to the Passover story.

Making these kind of links in the big story of God is really important but I often wonder how easy it is to see ourselves as part of that story?  We are viewing the events of the Bible from 2,000 years distance.  We are not Jews.  We don’t live in the Middle East.  We don’t follow Livitical laws or Jewish custom.

The Old Testament can seem so distant and difficult and messy and disconnected from us.  The New Testament isn’t much closer to us.  In some ways it might be easier to see ourselves in the story because Jesus because some of the Gospel writers and the authors of the Epistles focus on ‘outsiders’, people other than the Jews, but much of that focus on the external is through comparison with Jewish society so we still need to know what’s going on.

But that story doesn’t ends at Revelation, does it?

Well, I’m sure that for lots of people it did.

I sometimes wonder if by ‘preaching the Gospel’ every week we actually add to the sense that God is in the past?  The basis of our worship is always ‘this is what God did 2,000 years ago’ and then we apply that to today.

That’s fine, but what has God been saying since then?  And how do we reflect that ongoing relationship in our worship and in our communities?

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What if over the past 50 years an organisation had lost the majority of its members?

What should it do?  What should it change?

The decline in membership of the church in the UK has been well documented and plenty of words have been used on diagnosing the problem but I wonder how much time the major denominations have spent actually thinking about how they need to adapt and change to meet the challenge of being the church in a new way for a different kind of world?

There are two areas in which the church spends the vast majority of its ever dwindling resources: buildings and ministers.

It seems less than controversial to suggest that ancient church buildings are at best a mixed blessing and at worst a millstone around the necks of congregations.  They are expensive to maintain and inflexible.

It would also seem less than controversial to suggest that as the world has changed that the job of minister has also evolved.  It would seem strange perhaps that there is a continued emphasis on theological training, almost to the exclusion of anything else, when the role of minister requires so much more.

The Church of England has gone some way towards addressing the new world with its new category of ‘pioneer minister’ which frees people from the bureaucracy of the parish and allows them to build communities in new places and in new forms.

That was a bold step, and it seems to be working.

Something else has been quietly happening… some churches are growing.  I know, surprising isn’t it.

We’ve known for a while that charismatic and pentecostal churches have been growing but it also seems that churches which have positioned themselves as ‘open and afirming’ are adding members.  It would be great to see what it is that these churches are doing that is attractive but I’d hazard a guess that engaging with the wider community and providing spaces for people to build community and actually get to know each other beyond formal times of worship would be common to most of them.

My concern is that this kind of development is hugely dependant on the minister’s personality and interests.  Sometimes it is strategic, but not often.

That’s not good enough.

When will denominations recognise that more of the same will lead to more of the same?

As funds become scarce we retreat into sustaining what is and what has been.  We merge, link and unite so that we can continue to provide ‘ministry’.  No-one seems to be asking if that kind of ministry is what is needed.

Some denominations have community workers.  These people have training in both theology and community work.  These are recognised ministries and the people who perform them have the primary task of engaging with communities, organising projects and enabling people to meet the needs of their communities.

There are a growing number of youth workers and children and family workers who study both theology and community work.  These are not recognised ministries but they engage with people outside traditional church structures and work to enable people to meet the needs of their communities.

These community ministries are often viewed as extra, peripheral, something to be done if there is time and money to spare.  You could add chaplaincy into the same category.

Which brings me back to my initial question… what if?

What if we flipped our view of essential ministry?

What if rather than spending almost all of our money on crumbling buildings and ministry of word and sacrament we spent 90% of our funding on community workers with some theological training who had a strategic mission to engage with communities, build capacity and resource worship in those communities?

What if, rather than investing everything in maintaining a building for people to come and sit for an hour once a week we sold the buildings and we invested that money in places for homeless people to sleep, for hungry people to eat, for lonely people to meet others, and people’s homes became places where people gathered to worship, to plan and scheme random acts of kindness and deliberate acts of grace?

What would that kind of church look like?

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