More fluid…

To be honest, I haven’t wanted to as much as look at the papers and the dissertation I produced for my MA in Mission (Celtic Mission and Spirituality) in these last months! It’s a bit like that with any major piece of study – you spend so much time with it that you get tired looking at it! I am, however, just abour ready to revisit it!

Today I was thinking about a piece of work I did in response to Pete Ward’s writing in ‘Liquid Church’ – a book which suggests a transition to a more fluid way of meeting and being church, founded much more on relationships, networks, and churches as resource hubs for spiritual life. He advocates utilising the best aspects of ‘consumerism’ to achieve this – this is probably the most controversial part the work, but he rightly affirms that we can’t reach a culture by just purely dismissing it. It’s a bit more indepth than that, and don’t want to dumb down Pete’s work, but the book stands so much in contrast for our fixed and boundaried church systems. We are often more occupied with the ‘Sunday Show’ and the institutional expression of the church than we are with facilitating the life of Jesus’ community.

There are a whole range of smaller groups experimenting with more radical* approaches to Christian community. It isn’t so easy to point to larger, more established church communities who have successfully transitioned into new ways of being that more effectively facilitate the flow of the Spirit and the life of Christ among his people. The journey is usually much, much slower, but not impossible. Admittedly, many established settings are reasonably stuck in their ways and take time to shift – but patience really is a virtue! If time isn’t taken over significant and lasting change, you run the risk of losing momentum with smaller and inconsequential shifts which get you nowhere.

Early Celtic monasteries were both static and fluid…or at least squidgy round the edges. They were centres of art, learning, community, instruction, prayer and evangelisation. Their presence meant that they were a hub of local mission, service and worship…and ultimately of significant influence. What was less static was the encouragement of the brothers and sisters to get out into the community, walking the lanes and paths of their ancient world, carrying the gospel to the nations (up until the 7th century Synod of Hertford, which effectively banned the roving Celts!!!). Much of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and parts of England were converted through this wandering for Jesus. But sadly, the full weight of Rome came against the fluid with some rigid parish and diocesan systems. Just a huge clash of mindset, method and mission.

Thing is – in the 21st century, our communities are much less static, and so the ‘local’ everythin struggles. Everything is more fluid. Whilst been rooted in the local is a great aspiration, I wonder if we expend too much effort fortifying our geographical mision in a transient world. I’m all for local expressions of church, I believe that where it’s at, but even in a geography like the town I live in, there is such a huge varience in time, availablility and lifestyle that it makes what many know as ‘traditional congregational life’ quite a challenge to sustain. We need to think creatively about how to navigate this.

Strikes me that it’s possible to invest your life in bolstering up, or placing scaffolding around, traditional formats, whilst never making any real steps forward. Strikes me more that we need a pattern of life and mission in the church that will help maximise our reach and connection, and which takes more seriously the context we are in.

*by radical, I mean ‘close to the roots’ rather than ‘fanatical’ or ‘fundamental’. Such a shame that the word radical has been hijacked.

Seeking Eugene, finding Dave

After a 2.5hr crawl around the M25 and a desperate search for a parking space in Guildford that didn’t demand a 5 mile hike to the venue, I wandered into the ‘Contemplative Pastor’ day conference somewhat more ruffled than normal, and late! I hate being late! After trying to ignore the signalling from the guy at the front that I should come forward to the empty seats on the front row in the middle of some other guy’s talk, he didn’t give up and walked over to accompany me on the ‘walk of shame’ to sit down where I felt a good two foot bigger than my normal 5’10”.

As I settled and began to tune in to the guy speaking, I immediately started to question the weird ‘Holy Spirit’ impulse that I’d responded to when I felt the nudge that I should book on and travel to this event just a few weeks earlier. It became apparent that the guy had lost his notes on the plane along with his luggage, and that he was either jet lagged or not feeling 100%. I just couldn’t get on his wavelength at all, and, feeling a little defeated, put on my very best ‘I’m engaged and interested’ face. The speaker was, afterall, now less than 3 feet in front of me. Nowhere to escape! It was a hostage situation!

The conference proceeded and was a great day – it was a day reflecting on the ministry and legacy of Eugene Peterson (of ‘The Message’ fame), and the speakers were all personal acquaintances of Eugene’s and had much insight to share. It was only very recently that I’d ventured into reading some of Eugene’s amazing writing on pastoral ministry – this stuff was radically transforming my understanding of my own ministry and it was really helping me feel ‘at home’ in the ‘pastor’ label.

But you know what? I’d gone to that day seeking to hear more about Eugene’s work, but was confronted with Dave. In spite of my first impressions of Dave Hansen as he stumbled through his presentation, there was something about him that captivated me. I’ve no idea what it was. But, of all the things I decided to do that day, I bought his book entitled ‘The Art of Pastoring‘. I’d seen it in shops before – it’s been in publication for over 30 years, but I’d never been tempted.

All I can really say today is ‘where has Dave Hansen been all my life?’ As the book unfolds, he seems to speak to every knot, pain, conundrum, agony, joy and privilege of what I’ve experience in these 18 years or so of full time ministry. More than that, I have his less-than-three-feet-in-front-of-me personage looking into the eyes of my soul as I read his words on the page. It has been a long time since I’ve silently wept through a book like this.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing particularly unusual about the church I lead, or it’s people, but it does the job of inviting me into the joys, pains, and escapades of being a pastor every day, fairly non-stop! It continually brings before me my own short-comings, personal sense of inadequacy, and plays the tune of ‘impostor syndrome’ from very loud speakers at every opportunity. It continues, like every church does, to break my wee pastoral heart. Life is hard for people, and I get a fair chance to hear most of it. There are many days when I feel like giving up, and that my heart can’t take any more, but all it really takes is trust for just ‘one more day.’

As Dave H says, life as a pastor is a deep parable of Jesus that plays out in people’s lives through our presence, example and teaching. Somehow we represent the rumour and give the reminder of God’s presence in day to day life. I mean, most of the time, the job is about tentatively turning up in people’s lives in the slight chance I can be useful (or something). And if I can’t be useful, at least be there to laugh or cry alongside folks if they’ll let me. And, if not invited at all, seeking still to ‘visit and chat’ if only via the channels of intecessory prayer. But regardless of what level of engagement I’ve given opportunity for, I’m there as God’s bloke.

And yet, on the other hand, there’s a deeper work of God on the heart of the pastor which, after 18 years, is dawning on me more and more. I am increasingly aware that I carry an invisible shepherd’s crook around in my spirit as I try to save, correct, fend off, guide, protect and ‘tend’ what God has given me to tend. Whether the people are gathered or scattered, I’m on guard, looking for wolves, and seeking to lead folks into fresh pasture. I’ve never really liked the pastoral imagery, but it feels so vivid right now that it’s really helping me see what I’ve been doing all these years in a different way.

In a world where churches want CEOs, entrepreneurs, strategists, directors, brand marketeers and all that, I sense ever more that all of what God really wants is the ministry of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers living out way of Jesus in the world and enabling his people to do the same. Most of us leader types are desperately seeking to find the soul of our vocation in the midst of the battle, and it takes a great deal of courage to stick close to the heart of what God has chosen for us to do amongst the myriad of demands placed upon our time.

Dave H challenges my rather protestant, non-conformist view of ‘ministry’ and invites me to see it for the profound mystery it really can be. I’m still unpacking all the golden wisdom of this book. He’s helping me read the parable of my own life as it unfolds in this particular season of life.

Whether you’re a pastor or not, read this book. It will give the pastor and congregation such a valuable insight into what God may just be doing among his people.