Thursday, 25 April 2013

Unpacking the M-word:

Unpacking the "M-word":  a select Missional-English glossary
(with appreciation to Don Watson's books:  Death Sentence, Weasel Words, and Bendable Learnings)

Missional is a language spoken by many people in some churches, particularly by synod staff, Presbytery Ministers, and ministers of “regional” or “strategic” congregations.   The following selected glossary is provided as a service to enable non-Missional speakers to understand some key words and concepts in Missional.


Bandy:                                                Revered, semi-mythical source of wisdom, as in the phrase “Bandy says …”.  During much of the 1980s and 90s, the equivalent phrase was “Callahan says…”.  (See “Callahan’.)

Café-Style Worship:             (1) Having morning tea during the worship service.  (2) Having the worship service during morning tea.  Café-style worship is the “Fresh Expression” you have when you don’t have any fresh ideas of what to do.  (See “Fresh Expressions”.)

Callahan:                                           (See “Bandy”.)

Contextual:                                        (See “Maintenance Ministry”.)

Data Projector:                                  In English, a data projector is an expensive electronic toy with a high likelihood of malfunctioning whenever used in a worship service.  In Missional, a data projector is a necessary fashion accessory for any congregation engaging in “Fresh Expressions”.  (See “Fresh Expressions”.) 

Emerging Church, The:                   (See “Fresh Expressions”.)

Fresh Expressions:                For some Missional speakers, the preferred phrase is “Fresh Expressions of Worship”, while others prefer “Fresh Expressions of Church”.  “Fresh Expressions” refers to anything done in church that is likely to annoy the majority of worshippers.  “Fresh Expressions” frequently involve a data projector.  (See “Data Projector.)  If you want to start doing “Fresh Expressions” but are at a loss as to what to do, there’s always “Café-style worship”.  (See “Café–Style Worship.)  Congregations that do a lot of “Fresh Expressions” every week without anyone throwing things at the worship leaders are part of “The Emerging Church”.

Maintenance Ministry:                     A style of ministry to a congregation that tries not to annoy the majority of the people already in the congregation.  In Missional, “maintenance ministry” is a seriously bad thing.  If you want to speak about “maintenance ministry” in a positive way, you should always refer to the ministry as “contextual”.

Mega-Church:                                   A regional congregation on steroids.  (SeeRegional Congregation.)

Missional:                                           A term used by churchy-bureaucratic types to identify themselves to each other in mixed company, somewhat like the handshakes used by various fraternal organisations or the use of “justwanna” by some evangelicals. 
(Please note:  just as it is acceptable to count “justwannas” in a prayer, it is also acceptable to count “missionals” in a report at a presbytery or synod meeting.  However, there's a far lower annoyance threshold with “missional” than with “justwanna”:  ten “missionals” in five minutes allow the listener to throw their report papers in the general direction of the speaker, while normal liturgical etiquette requires waiting for at least sixteen “justwannas” in two minutes before throwing things.)  

“M-Word”, The:                               “Missional”, as in the sentence: “I liked your report, particularly the way you managed to use the ‘M-word’ eight times in five minutes.”

Regional Congregation:                    In English, this is any congregation where the worshippers include people who live outside the congregation’s immediate neighbourhood (in other words, most churches).  In Missional however, a “regional congregation” is a big church with multiple worship services, generally one that’s pretty conservative in its theology (although not big enough or conservative enoughto be a mega-church.  See “Mega-church”.)  Other than a token traditional service at an inconvenient time, a “regional congregation” does a lot of “Fresh Expressions” in its worship.  A “regional congregation” is what a “strategic congregation” wants to be when it grows up.  (See “Strategic Congregation.)

Strategic Congregation:        As the word “strategic” in English is based on the word “strategy”, you may think that a “strategic congregation” is a congregation that thinks about what it does before it does it.  However, in Missional, a “strategic congregation” is merely a congregation that’s trying to become a “regional congregation”.  (See “Regional Congregation.)  Not only is the minister of a “strategic congregation” normally a fluent Missional speaker, “strategic congregations” usually have a few Missional speakers among their key lay people, which helps explains the success of “strategic congregations” in writing successful applications for BOMAR funding. 

Obviously, this is not enough training in Missional to get you a call as a Presbytery Minister or a minister of a “strategic congregation”.  It may be enough, though, to assist you if you need to read a congregational profile or to write an application for a BOMAR grant.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Do we have a future?: a hymn parody

This is more of a hymn parody than a hymn.  It’s based on Elizabeth Smith’s hymn “God gives us a future …” (TiS 687) and, if it’s ever sung, was written for the tune "Camberwell", which is used for Dr. Smith’s hymn. 

The first verse is about all the “experts” and “gurus” within the churches who have made lucrative careers for themselves in declaring the self-fulfilling prophecy that mainstream Christian churches have a short life expectancy. 

The second verse is about the “fresh expressions” and “missional” gimmicks that churches try as a response to the gloom of the “gurus”.

The third verse is about the way that some local church leaders (ordained and lay) try to achieve an artificial consensus for their “fresh expressions” by trivialising those within the church who have different views.

In the fourth verse, this parody becomes a hymn and affirms that, by being the people of God in the present, we have a future.

“We don’t have a future!”
all the “experts” say.
All the mainstream churches
will soon fade away.
Solemn commentators
hurl sarcastic jeers
that we won’t survive
another twenty years.

Find a “fresh expression”
(feels like change, yet bland)
like a café service
or a loud praise band.
Move the Sunday service
over to the hall.
Everything’s projected
on a screen or wall.

And, if some raise questions,
say their faith is weak.
Question their commitment
to the goals we seek.
Alternate suggestions?
Always shrug them off
like a case of hiccups
or a ticklish cough.

Still we have a future!
Even now we see
Bread, and wine, and water,
Scripture, liturgy,
serving God and neighbour
(heart, and strength, and mind).
Living in God’s present,
we’ll God’s future find.

Friday, 19 April 2013

“… Just think of the lifetime achievements ….”: a sermon by Bob Faser (John 10: 22-30)

Today, as we celebrate Christ the Good Shepherd, we hear Jesus saying:

 … My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. …

The veteran actor Kirk Douglas once visited Berlin to receive a “lifetime achievement award” from the Berlin Film Festival. After the award ceremony, Douglas and his wife were having dinner with some friends along with an older woman his friends wanted them to meet. Douglas described this woman as “such a happy person, smiling and laughing”. Like Kirk Douglas, the woman was Jewish.

 ... [W]hen ... [Douglas] was told that … [the woman’s]parents and grandparents had all been killed in the concentration camps, ... [he] blurted out, ‘So why do you stay in Berlin?’

Smiling, she gave ... this answer: ‘I owe that to the little heroes.’

 ‘I don't understand,’ ... [he] said. With a sigh, she came over and sat closer.

 ‘When the Gestapo came to get them, my parents sent me to a small hotel to save my life. The owner was the first little hero. She kept me safe for a couple of nights. When it became dangerous, I met my second little hero. Or should I say heroine? She was our former housekeeper. She hid me for a while and endangered her own life. Then I lived in a cloister. My little heroes were the nuns who took care of me when I was very sick. They never asked questions. When the situation became dangerous, my next little hero was a policeman who didn't agree with the Nazis. All through the war, I was lucky to find little heroes who helped me ...’

 ‘So, why do you stay here?’ ... [Douglas] asked again. She looked at ... [his] perplexed face and said, ‘I thought about it, but I feel I owe it to the little heroes who helped me. Not everyone here was wicked.’

Kirk Douglas concluded:

Her story had a great impact on me. Of course, we are always looking for a big hero to emulate, and very often we see them topple from clay feet. How much better to reach for the little heroes in life — and to try to be one. It's not always as hard as it was for the people in wartime Berlin … you only need to try to help other people. And if everyone tried — well, just think of the lifetime achievements.

We contrast this with the cruelty we often see on the evening news. There are many people who seek to hurt, destroy, brutalise, and even kill those around them. We know that this is often for the flimsiest of reasons: because of the other’s race, culture, religion, lifestyle; even just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In contrast to the cruelty we see on the evening news, we have the example of Christ the Good Shepherd.

And, today, Christ the Good Shepherd acts mostly through fallible human agents ... through people like you and I. Sometimes, when we least expect it, we are all given the opportunity to express the profound mercy of God.

... My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. …

I heard another story, a very striking one, during an ANZAC Day broadcast a few years ago on ABC Radio. An Australian veteran of the Second World War, a prisoner of war in Thailand, told of his encounter with a Japanese guard.

This guard was somehow different from his colleagues. He didn’t participate willingly in the brutality of his fellow guards. He knew a bit of English, and developed a particular rapport with the Australian prisoners, who gave him the nickname “AIF Joe”. This was the only name that the man telling the story knew for this guard.

AIF Joe was bringing a small group of prisoners (six or so, including the man telling the story) from one camp to another. AIF Joe was the only guard for the group. They were walking along a track through the jungle. On one side of the track, there was a steep drop, with thick jungle below.

Suddenly, AIF Joe stopped. He raised his rifle in the air and fired a shot into the air. He shouted, “I hate bloody war!” and threw his rifle down into the thick jungle.

After the Australian prisoners spent a few minutes agreeing with AIF Joe’s sentiments, they all realised they were faced with a dilemma. If AIF Joe was to show up at the next camp without his weapon, he would be executed. So the few hour or so saw a rare comic moment in that tragic war, with six Australian prisoners and their Japanese guard all searching the jungle for the guard’s rifle.

The rifle was eventually found. The rest of the march to the camp was spent by the prisoners and their guard in fabricating a convincing story as to why they were late, so that AIF Joe wouldn’t get into trouble with the officers. The story must have been convincing. Not only did AIF Joe not get into trouble (at least that time), but the prisoners were given the next day as a rare rest day.

Of course, we are always looking for a big hero to emulate, and very often we see them topple from clay feet. How much better to reach for the little heroes in life — and to try to be one. ... You … only need to try to help other people. And if everyone tried — well, just think of the lifetime achievements.

And, today, Christ the Good Shepherd acts mostly through fallible human agents ... through people like you and I. Sometimes, when we least expect it, we are all given the opportunity to express the profound mercy of God.

To be honest, the story of AIF Joe did not end happily. A later time came when he was caught assisting a prisoner – against orders – and he was executed.

There are risks, real risks, in seeking to live within the spirit of the Good Shepherd. The risks for many of us may not be as physical as the risks that confronted AIF Joe or the risks that confronted the nuns, the policeman, and the other Germans who sheltered Kirk Douglas’s friend.

By living in the spirit of Christ the Good Shepherd, we may face risks of a more social or emotional nature.
  • You may be labeled a “bleeding heart”.
  • You may be called a “do-gooder”.
We may face risks of a more social or emotional nature, risks similar to the peer pressure to conform faced by most young people today. They are still real risks, nevertheless.
The good news is that the risks are worth it. Through the risks, we are enabled to follow in the path of Christ the Good Shepherd.
… My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. …
And the story continues. For all of us, whatever the circumstances, whatever the risks, we are enabled to follow in the path of Christ the Good Shepherd.
And if everyone tried — well, just think of the lifetime achievements.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

A "Post-Protestant" future for the Church

Do historical movements have a "use-by" or "best before" date.
  • Did Communism, for example, have a note on their barcode sticker that read "Use by 1989"? 
  • Did Market Capitalism have a "Best before 2008" (or was that "Best before 1929"?) stamp on its pricetag?
I believe the Protestant Reformation has a "use-by" date on its label.  And I believe the label reads something like "Best before 1970" or something like that.

In less than five years' time (31 October 2017), we will observe the 500th anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation.  I think that those of use in the classical "Protestant" churches need to recognise that "Protestantism" as a movement has reached its use-by date, and that the classically "Protestant" churches need to move rapidly into a "post-Protestant" mentality. 

By "classically 'Protestant'", I refer to those churches whose heritage dates back to the ministries of
  • the 16th century Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, etc.),
  • the 17th century British Puritans, or
  • the Wesley brothers and their renewal movement in 18th century Britain.
These churches have a serious need to re-examine the Reformation’s impact (both positive and negative) on our church life today.

The Reformation’s enduring positive legacy (both for churches which affirm the Reformation as part of their tradition and those which do not) includes:
  • the recognition of the bedrock importance of God’s radical grace as the foundation of our relationship with God,
  • the awareness that all Christian reflection needs to be informed by scripture,
  • a respect for solid, critical scholarship in the search for an informed faith, and
  • an understanding that lay Christians are not merely passive recipients of ministry, but rather have legitimate ministries in the church and (particularly) in the wider world.
In our day, these concerns are as strong in the minds of Christians of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican traditions as they are among "Protestants", at times stronger.

However, there is also a “downside” to the Reformation and its heritage, frequently expressed in:
  • a “minimalist” approach to worship, in which the “teaching” aspect of worship (whether in a traditional sermon or in other modes of teaching) frequently dwarfs anything else we do in worship, so that the place of worship becomes more of a classroom (or, worse, a theatre) than a place where the relationship with the Sacred is cultivated.
  • a corresponding de-emphasis upon the importance of sacramental worship, and
  • an understanding of "faith" that regards “getting your beliefs right” as a precondition of a positive relationship with God.
I believe that we need to recognise that the almost 500-year-old Protestant movement is rapidly reaching its “use-by date”, at least in its current form.  As a result, churches within this tradition urgently need to begin exploring our post-Protestant future.

(Note:  I wish to express my appreciation for Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence as I developed some of the ideas for this post, but my thoughts have gone in different directions than those of McLaren and Tickle.)

(Another note:  This article is closely related to two articles on my blog, Why I normally put the word "Protestant" in quotes, and A Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind .  The three articles, taken together, reflect what I see as the necessity for churches that find much of our heritage in the Reformation to re-evaluate much of this heritage.)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do you remember "normal" politics?

I was planning to write this post for a number of weeks before I learned of the recent death of Baroness Thatcher.  This post should not then be viewed as a direct comment on her death, but it may be somewhat more timely following her death.


Do you remember when politics was normal?

Here's what I remember normal politics to be like.

In most democratic nations, there were two major parties:  one was centre-left, the other was centre-right.  Both were essentially centrist. The politicians in each parties treated each other with a reasonable level of respect, both in private and in public.

The two parties alternated in government on a reasonably regular basis.

When the centre-left party was in government, governments acted to promote greater levels of social reform, economic equality, social inclusion, and "nation-building", sometimes boldly, sometimes gradually.

While centre-right parties were far less bold in promoting social reform while in government, neither did they try to "turn the clock back" in terms of social reform. Essentially, they sought to put the reforms of their centre-left colleagues on a more solid administrative and economic foundation (very occasionally euthanasing policies and programmes which were poorly thought-out), while providing a social breathing-space for public opinion to catch up with public policy.

In all this, whether the government was centre-left or centre-right, the public experienced good government from both sides of politics.  It was a bit like a dance, with one partner in the dance taking a leading role at any one time, but with the partners changing roles in a regular basis.

It worked.

From the late 1970s / early 1980s, a different model of politics emerged. 

Both centre-right and centre-left parties began drifting to the right. 
  • For centre-left parties, this was largely because of a desire within these parties for greater economic literacy in their own policy development.  
  • For centre-right parties, it was largely because of the increased influence within these parties of the "greed is good" / "selfishness is a virtue" philosophy of the author Ayn Rand.
Parties of the right saw their policy in turning back the clock on social change, returning to an era of less social and economic equality than our current era.  Cynically, and in an Orwellian abuse of the English language, these changes were labelled "reform".

Parties of the centre (formerly of the centre-left) saw their role in terms of damage control.  Rather than promoting greater and wider social equality, they saw themselves as merely easing the pain (at least to the most vulnerable) caused by the policies of the right-wing parties.

All parties began to see the other side of the political debate as "the enemy" rather than as "the competition".  Respect between the political sides diminished.  It became more like an all-in pub brawl than like a dance.

It sounds pretty dysfunctional.  In fact, it sounds like an absolute mess. 

It is a mess. 

And that mess is the political situation we've inherited, at least since the early 1980s.  The result can often be seen in mediocre government by parties of the centre (formerly centre left), and in some frightening cruel government by parties of the right (formerly centre-right).

There have been some signs in some countries of politicians - of a variety of perspectives - seeking to break out of this dysfunctional mess,
  • with the occasional centre-right politician trying to rediscover a more inclusive social vision, worthy of a Sir Winston Churchill, a Sir Robert Menzies, a Malcolm Fraser, or a Dwight Eisenhower,
  • and with the occasional centre-left politician rediscovering a bit of the old boldness that motivated a Franklin Roosevelt, a Clement Attlee, a Pierre Trudeau, or a Gough Whitlam.
But it will be a long haul.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Toward more meaningful worship

This post originally appeared (in a slightly different form) as a letter to the editor in the April 2013 edition of the Uniting Church's Victoria-Tasmania newspaper Crosslight.  I believe this is relevant not only to worship in the Uniting Church, but to worship in middle-of-the-road "Protestant" churches around the world.


I believe the malaise in worship that affects the Uniting Church in Australia also affects related churches overseas,  

Of the people today who choose to attend public worship, most do so out of a desire to experience the Sacred, not to receive information about religion. As a result, a style of worship in which the "teaching" aspect of worship dominates all other aspects of worship (as is the case with most worship services in our congregations) will not really satisfy many worshippers today, let alone many current non-worshippers. This applies equally to the 1950s-style "preaching service", to the 1970s-style "all-age worship", or to the various forms of "blended worship" which combine aspects of the "preaching service" with aspects of  "all-age worship".

If we want to enable our congregations (and our wider communities) to worship well, some different (yet familiar) models may emerge.

Some congregations may develop a worship style that resembles the eucharistic celebrations of the classically "liturgical" Christian traditions, albeit with the UCA's typical "open table" and with the UCA's far more inclusive understanding of whom may be called and ordained to preside at the table.

Other congregations may develop a worship style similar to the "praise services" of some of the newer fellowships, albeit with a more balanced theology and without the faustian alignment with extreme right-wing political movements characteristic of some of these groups.

Other patterns of worship will also emerge. Some congregations may even tackle the daunting challenge of re-energising the 1950s "preaching service" and the 1970s "all-age worship" and making each style more worshipful and less of a strictly "teaching" exercise (and less of an exercise in nostalgia, the liturgical equivalent of an Elvis impersonator or an ABBA tribute band).

I believe the malaise in our worship is real.  I believe the starting-point for dealing with this malaise is to ensure that the focus of our worship is more than mere teaching.

A Benediction for Australia

I wrote this benediction a few years ago.  I find it useful for worship services on (or on the weekends near) major national holidays in Australia.  Please feel free to use it.

May the Creator of this vast continent, its islands and its reefs, strengthen our commitment to care for this land and for all the life it supports.    
May Jesus the Christ, whose love embraces people of all races and cultures, enable us to promote the well-being of all who call Australia home - and the well-being of all who seek to do so.                                      
May the Holy Spirit, who brooded over this Great South Land, inspire Australians of all faiths to continually engage in acts of audacious hope and extravagant love.  
May the Trinity of Love: Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life bless us and keep us, now and forever.         

Monday, 1 April 2013

“The importance of just showing up”: a sermon (2 Easter, John 20:19-31)

Woody Allen was once asked what he thought was the secret of his success as an actor and as a film director.

He replied that, in his opinion, “eighty per cent of success is just showing up.”

It makes sense.  In any field of human activity, initially “showing up” to participate is the bedrock minimum requirement for achieving any measure of success.

For example, I am the first person to admit that I have not been a success as a professional footballer.  But then again, I never showed up at the try-outs for any team.  Those players who are stars in any team sport all showed up a team’s try-outs at some point in their lives, or else they would have never made the grade to play for  Glenorchy, Geelong, the Socceroos, the Opals, the New York Mets, Glasgow Celtic, or whoever.

Similarly, my own failures as an operatic tenor, as a politician, and as a brain surgeon can at least partially be put down to the fact that I never auditioned for a professional opera company, that I never sought any party’s pre-selection for a parliamentary seat, and that I never applied for a place in a medical course.

So, “just showing up”, putting in that first bit of effort to demonstrate some initial interest, is an important part of success in any field of human activity.

An important aspect of our gospel lesson, the story of poor old “doubting Thomas”, was the fact that, at a key moment, Thomas didn’t show up.

John tells us that, when the risen Jesus first appeared to the disciples, Thomas wasn’t there.  He didn’t show up.  And, as a result, he didn’t believe.

It was a dramatic appearance that John described.  It was the evening of the day of the resurrection.  The risen Jesus appeared among the disciples.  He “showed them his hands and his side”.  (This is important when we come later on to Thomas.)  Jesus then commissioned the disciples for their new roles as witnesses to the resurrection and as agents of God’s reconciliation.  In language that has been echoed in many ordination services in the centuries since, Jesus said: 

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you. … Receive the Holy Spirit.   If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas, for whatever reasons, wasn’t there.  He didn’t show up.  

The other disciples saw him later and told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But Thomas told them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 

Now, this was not an unreasonable request.  Thomas did not ask for some flashy religious special effects.  John told us that Jesus had already shown the other disciples his hands and side. Thomas did not ask to see anything the others had not seen.  He just didn’t show up when the others had seen Jesus.  So Thomas found faith difficult.  The other disciples had moved from the gloom of Good Friday to the joy of Easter.  Thomas was still stuck in Good Friday.  Thomas had not yet known an Easter faith.   (But then, Thomas hadn’t shown up when he needed to.)

A week later, the disciples were together again.  This time, Thomas showed up.  The risen Christ again appeared to them.  This time, disbelief didn’t seem to be an option for Thomas.  (But then, this time Thomas showed up.)  Perhaps we can also say that a big percentage of faith can also be found (or, at least can begin) in “just showing up”.

Today, the second Sunday of the Easter season, used to be called “Low Sunday” in many churches.  The term isn’t used much any more, but there is often a sense of flatness in the worship on the Sunday immediately after the great celebration of Easter Day. 

Last Sunday, church services all over the world were well-supported.  There were people present in church who were not weekly worshippers.  And it’s great that they were there.  It wouldn’t be Easter without them.  It’s good that they continue to show up in church on special occasions.  It’s good that most churches encourage their less frequent worshippers to feel that they are an important part of the faith, whether this is at Easter, or at Christmas, or whenever we celebrate the baptism of a child.  A big percentage of faith can be found (or, at least can begin) in “just showing up”.

Today, on this second Sunday of Easter, once called “Low Sunday”, we’ve got the core.  We’ve probably got the core of the core.  And it’s good that there are those who continue to show up week after week, … even on those Sundays when you may want to do something else, … or on those Sundays when you have a houseful of relatives, … or on those Sundays when you were out on Saturday evening.  It’s good that there are those of you who continue to show up week after week.  A big percentage of faith can be found (or, at least begin) in “just showing up”.

There are many who say, “I can be a Christian by myself without going to church.”  Yes, it’s possible.  Yes, there are people who do this.  But, for most of us, it’s like playing football without being part of a team.  I suppose you can do it, but who would want to if they had any other options?  For all the imperfections of any congregation, and of any denomination, it is far harder for any of us to follow in the steps of Christ on our own.  Given the choice, who would want to?

Like Thomas, perhaps we can also find that a big percentage of faith can be found (or, at least can begin) in “just showing up".