Friday, 9 March 2018

Longniddry - Reaching out in faith

How journeying with others on Path of Renewal is affecting Longniddry Parish Church:

Over the years, Longniddry Parish Church has used its building space in a variety of imaginative ways, whether for hosting exhibitions or running special festivals (Christmas trees, wedding dresses, etc.). More generally, when we re-ordered our space in 2006 we did so with the express intention of providing rooms which the wider community might wish to use for a wide variety of their own purposes.
Our engagement with Path of Renewal over the last couple of years has, however, made us think quite deeply about how we should be using our building in terms of outreach to the community. The focus is shifting away from “making our resources available” towards “reaching out in faith”.

 The most recent census results revealed to us the extent to which our community is aging, with our part of East Lothian now featuring a great many “old” and “very old” residents. With this trend comes the issue of dementia, with increasing numbers of people in our parish living with Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurological issues. Realising that this is one crucial area of needs-based pastoral outreach for our congregation to tackle, we have set up two new activities: a Monday singing group for all people of all ages and abilities; and a Thursday “sporting memories” gathering. These have been well appreciated both by participants and their grateful families.
The next step, earmarked for summer 2018, is to knock three spaces together to create an attractive living room area which can be used as a homely and adaptable seven-day-a-week facility, allowing the congregation’s outreach to develop further. (The planning for this has had dementia-friendly factors built into it from the outset to ensure that we get basic design elements right.)

Meanwhile, Path of Renewal ideas have been filtering through to our kirk session and congregation, with people keen to find imaginative ways of sharing faith in our building which lies at the heart of the community. In December 2017 we staged a Festival of Nativity Sets, which told the story of Jesus’ birth through 85 different exhibits from around the world. This will be developed in 2018, with plans for a retelling of the Luke and Matthew birth narratives using three-dimensional tableaux featuring large knitted figures. In addition, we hope to stage an Easter event focusing on crosses and eggs.
While these may be viewed as small steps forward in outreach, they certainly represent big steps in congregational awareness of mission and discipleship, in which we as a church are now working intentionally towards sharing the message of God’s Love with our neighbours.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Changing the metrics

Luke 13:6-9
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

I've always wondered how the fig tree in the vineyard fared once the gardener gave it some special attention. Did his efforts pay off? Did the pressure of a deadline bring a useful focus to his work?
Sometimes, in the church we can be very fuzzy (and sometimes lazy) about how we measure things, perhaps because, often, the metrics of church growth don't allow enough leeway for less quantifiable aspects of ministry.
Faithfulness, a quality revered in church speak, may be ineffective while fruitfulness may only result in poor quality produce.
We need a much more multi faceted way of measuring ministry efforts and the impact, not on the church, but on the kingdom of God.
Some of that will involve numbers, but those numbers must always be tempered by stories of lives changed, of glimpses of God along the way, of accountability for resources assigned and of learning gleaned as risks are taken.
Communication and evaluation are important in ensuring that our focus remains clear. And, difficult decisions and pruning are also a part of good stewardship. The extravagance and abundance of God's gifts means we should be more, not less, careful of squandering them but, rather, seek diligently to discern those tasks to which God calls us and equips us for the mission of God in our world today.
Over the next few months, reporting on the movement that is Path of Renewal will require focus on articulating our discernment of God's purpose and calling in all our different ministry contexts, gathering together stories of lives changed and communities impacted (obeying Christ's commission to "Go and make disciples"), reconciling church growth and kingdom growth and disseminating the many lessons learned that will contribute to our continued ability to be a "sent church" that takes seriously the many and varied ways God invites us to be partners in mission and ministry today.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Missional Cartography

For some time, I've been meaning to update the SatNav in my car. Recently, a trip to the North East of Scotland became more of an adventure than I would have preferred because of the outdated information currently on the device. Fortunately I had a companion on the road who provided amusement and a non anxious presence! Sat Navs are only as good as the latest update.
With the addition of another 25 congregations on the journey that is Path of Renewal, it has been affirming to review what has already been learned in the process. It feels like we are beginning in quite a different place from where we set out with 40 congregations 2 years ago, bearing out our assertion that we would learn with and from those involved and reshape the process as we went. But, while we can point to some markers along the way, charting changes and discoveries, even pinpointing growth, Path of Renewal remains a work in progress. And, I suspect, that as soon as we tried to draw up some kind of blueprint, the contours would prove fairly elusive, being so dependant on context and lived -out experience, on the groundwork being done and the pilgrims we encounter on the way. The tools we are using are simply clues along the road to discernment of the purposes of God and pointers to the change of mindset it takes to recognise God at work in ever new ways.
There are some fascinating facts about cartography in a Wikipedia article, many of which highlight how much the culture of those who produce maps affects how they draw and what information they include or deem important. The article also highlights how ever changing technology affects the drawing of maps, still subject to the bias of the cartographer.
Just as the skills of cartography are always changing and evolving, dependant on context and culture, subject to information being sought or questions being asked, so, when we seek to join with God in mission, a prerequisite is being light on our feet, with the ability to change and adapt at the drop of a hat. And there's a requirement to keep getting the latest updates by staying close to the map maker. That's a tough call for individuals, but there is also something renewing about living on the edge that makes it worthwhile and that lends every experience - even those experiments that don't quite turn out as we'd hoped - with a sense of adventure and learning. Giving thanks for all who are on this particular journey bringing humour and calm when the maps are out of date.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Power of Stories

Hebrews 11:37-40
We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless— the world didn't deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

Two years ago,when Path of Renewal was being launched, I shared with congregations considering embarking on the journey the hope that we would pitch in with our stories, discerning God in those tales and, together with God, look forward to writing the next chapter, as we discerned God's ways of Renewal for today.
Stories are such a powerful way of connecting. Indeed there was, in most Scottish communities a designated story teller - a Seanachaidh - charged with keeping tradition alive by passing on tales from generation to generation.
Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh recently hosted a conference, collaborating with the HeartEdge network. Practitioners came together to share stories. The ethos of Heart Edge is bringing folk together to give and to take. People, no matter who they are or where they come from have something to share and much to learn from one another.
I was asked to share some of the stories of Path of Renewal.
And, while we don't have a set of blueprints to hand to the church, or instructions to be followed that will bring about growth and renewal, we do have stories to share of hearts and minds being changed, of ways of being church transformed and of the rediscovery of God inviting us to mission where we are with the people we encounter everyday.
Like one man in a congregation telling me: I'm still not sure what Path of Renewal is all about but I can see a huge difference in those who are engaged in it.
Or the minister with almost 30 years experience in ministry saying: I've discovered a whole new way of being in ministry that has revolutionised my practice and my preaching.
And the young woman on the fringes of church who has found faith and purpose through being invited to experiment with spiritual practices, finding that habits form character.
Along with the stories, however, there are also a fe principles emerging - including:

  • Being too busy prevents us from discerning God's mission. 
  • Spiritual practices - individual and corporate - take us to a place where we are more likely to hear God and understand what it is God is asking of us today. We become what we practice.
  • Cultivating relationships and being intentional about discipleship works. Whether dog walking or coffee drinking is our thing - doing it with others allows us to have faith conversations as we go.
  • Transition is hard work - acknowledging the loss folk feel when change occurs, journeying with them and helping them see the promised land - even and especially when it seems far off in the distance is sacred work. We are called, not to complete the journey but to begin the journey now.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Discerning the priorities of God

John 15:1-5
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

18 months along the Path of Renewal, stories of transformation are emerging - and we will find ways of sharing those. But much of the work in which we have been engaged is foundational - involving changing mindsets. Those kind of changes are not immediately visible but pave the way for the future.
It is preparing the ground, taking time to discern the will and calling of God. Discerning what God is asking of us as well as identifying those things that it is time to stop doing.
Few of us have difficulty with Jesus words on pruning those things that bear no fruit. 
In practice, it's not easy in the church to stop things, even when they've long since stopped fulfilling their purpose. But, with some effort and sensitivity, managing expectations and acknowledging folks' sense of loss, we can resolve to lay aside some long cherished programmes or activities.
But, perhaps more difficult, is the intentional pruning of those things that are fruitful, either to make them more fruitful or to clear space and energy for something else that God is calling us to instead.
Why tamper with something that is working?
Or give up the things that affirm us?
Why risk the established for the new and unknown?
Just because something is apparently healthy and "achieving results" doesn't mean that it is what God wants us engaged in.
And, if it isn't easy to stop those things that are no longer serving their purpose, how much more difficult is it to give up those thing that are working and that we may even enjoy?
This is the task to discernment to which we are called: to constantly ask: 
 - What are the priorities of God for this time and for these people?
 - Where do we detect the heart beat of God in the communities we serve?
 - Where, today, are we being invited to join God in mission?
 - What must we stop doing to make way for a new season of fruitfulness based on obedience?
Grappling with the thorns of faithfulness, pruning, obedience and fruitfulness are the tasks to which God calls us in the work of renewal. The vine and the branches.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

God's Mission and the church

Ecclesiastes 3:14-15I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

Tom Allan, in his 1954 publication: The Face of My Parish, describes D P Thomson's notion of a "Church within the Church": "Corresponding closely to the people who surrounded Jesus...there are the five thousand - the "fringers"...who remain on the periphery...the seventy - the dependable workers...leaders of organisations...loyal to their church...the twelve - a narrower circle and the intimate friends - those who have truly been with Jesus."(The Face of My Parish, Tom Allan p51)  
He viewed part of his task as bringing people from one circle into another, always moving closer to Christ. And he sought to achieve this by involving them in missionary activities in the parish.
However, although he was seeing a rapid growth in membership of the parish church, he cautions: "It Is the easiest thing in the world to get people to "join" the church; it is supremely difficult to know what to do with them once they are in; and it is virtually impossible to keep the majority of them within the conventional framework of the church's life."  (The Face of My Parish, Tom Allan p33)

Sixty plus years on, as congregations explore what it means to be a Missional Church today, we are rediscovering some of those challenges that Allan faced in his parishes in Glasgow. While we are not experiencing rapid numerical growth, we are grappling with how, or more realistically, whether to assimilate those who are experiencing growth in faith and commitment. As God continues to reshape the church today, it is clear that a fluid, less structured body is required to support disciples whose call is to live incarnationally in their neighbourhoods.
Recognising that God is already at work in our communities we face again the knowledge that, often, the church as an institution is a stumbling block rather than a launch pad that helps people discover the call to discipleship, discern their gifts and then equips and releases folk to live out the good news in their many and varied contexts.

In Mission by the People: Rediscovering the Dynamic Missiology of Tom Allan and his Scottish Contemporaries; (Alexander Forsyth 2017)  Forsyth draws this conclusion:
"...practical and theological highpoints of Allan’s missiology can be identified. These demonstrate that his missiology should not be viewed primarily in terms of practical “failure” viewed from the present vantage point, but in many ways as a success and source of inspiration."

It is to be hoped that, as the institution and individual congregations grasp the need to be tentative, to be places of experimentation where we learn from failure rather than fail to take risks, that we will continue to be grateful for saints who have gone before us leaving clues along the way. And, learning from their endeavours, we will contribute to the picture of God at work in the world, calling the church into mission.

Hebrews 11:39-40 (The Message)
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Generating Capacity

Leadership should generate capacity, not dependency.
Ronald Heifetz

One of the things we seek to do on Path of Renewal is encourage others to listen to what God is asking of them in their current context - and, having discerned that, to step into that role at God's invitation. 
There is no scarcity of God's gifting but sometimes a reluctance or fear or simply blindness on our part to celebrate and release those gifts in others. And that's just part of the adaptive challenge that we are being forced to confront at this stage of our journey in faith.
Often our default mode is, when we see a gap, to seek to plug that gap, a simple, technical fix. Such fixes, however, do not generate capacity in others but help to shore up the myth of our usefulness based on the authority or position of leadership that we hold.

Developing and nurturing spiritual practices that make space to listen to God is an important task to be engaged in both as individuals and as a community. And spending time with the ancient stories of God's people in our sacred texts alert us to signposts that provide way markers for today. There are plenty of stories of the people of God stepping into unlikely leadership roles demanded of them as they journeyed with God learning how to be God's people in each place and time.

One of the things Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Lessons in Leadership, explores is the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, charting the journey Moses made as he grew into leadership:
One illustration he uses is the description of how, early on the journey, the people complain to Moses about the lack of food and Moses provides food - with God, manna is provided. Moses meets a technical challenge at that stage. The people need food, Moses speaks to God and food is provided.
However, a bit further on in the journey, when the people complain about food again, Moses despairs. He asks God to let him die because he cannot carry this burden. Why such a different response?Because Moses recognises this as a deeper test of his leadership. This is no longer simply about food. It's a revelation of some of the hard battles that are before him, not just taking the people out of Egypt but taking Egypt out of the people!
It is at that point that Moses realises that simply plugging the gap, supplying food is not enough. He is now faced with an adaptive challenge, that of changing the hearts and minds of the people he leads, equipping them to be strong and resilient, ready to face what lies ahead on the journey. They too need to develop leadership skills rather than constantly succumbing to authoritarian figures who, albeit cruelly, have supplied their needs as a people in slavery.

Leadership requires grace that can accommodate the anger of people resistant to change. It also brings out, releases and encourages gifts of leadership in others. 
Leadership takes seriously the possibility of learning from all sorts of unexpected sources, being prepared, even expectant for our own growth as well as celebrating growth in others.
Leadership distinguishes between technical and adaptive challenges and recognises that there are often others who are better equipped than we are to take on a task and helps facilitate the recognition and use of different gifts that build up the body of Christ. 
Leadership that embraces humility and vulnerability is more suited to responding to adaptive challenges. That is the kind of leadership we seek to embolden and encourage today.
Ephesians 4:15-16
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.