The monastic shift

Over the years, I’ve followed with interest, and occasionally dabbled in, the popular shift towards new monasticism.

In this movement, I’ve found much to commend and imitate and some things that are best left alone. Some of the practices related to new monasticism have become increasingly mainstream, for example, Lectio Divina or the Examen. While Centring Prayer has intrigued and concerned me in equal measure.

I am challenged by those who have adopted a rule and by those who have embraced movements like 24/7 Prayer. But at the same time, the disconnect between some new monastic ideas and biblical Christianity is worrying.

Mike Cosper, the narrator of the deeply significant ‘Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’ recently commented that monastic practices provide a “provocative contrast to the hype, entertainment and expressions of power that drive much of evangelical life.” Along with the growing interest in spirituality, this critique of church life is surely a major cause of Christianity’s rekindled interest in monasticism.

Now, I’m not sure I want to join the new monastics but I do want to help reform the church to value every day along with Sundays. And I seek communal life, work, worship, learning, creativity, hospitality and service that encompass the whole week. And I want to learn to embrace Christlike patterns of prayer, retreat, rest and reflection equally matched by a passion for mission, discipleship and action (social or otherwise).

This thinking has combined with another concern: under used church buildings. Surely, predominately empty church buildings risk becoming a sinful indulgence.

So, like many churches, we have worked hard to populate our buildings with groups and activities that share some of our goals. This has culminated in plans to open a cafe at the centre of our building and communal life.

Initially, we spoke in terms of being a community centre. And to an extent we fulfil that function. But more recently, it has become clear that, without accepting the language or label, our vision sounds a lot like a monastery.

This conception of our building and grounds, acknowledges their central role in mission and Kingdom growth. That’s not to imply an attempt to shove our faith down people’s throats. But it indicates that the wider context for using our building is the rolling of heaven and earth into one.

So, two weeks ago we began daily morning prayer. This is the first step towards establishing rhythms and patterns of Christian faith that weave through the life of our community and facilities.

Clouds descending

I accidentally euthanaised my computer.

It’s a long and possibly amusing story which, along with a horrendous story about running out of loo roll in a church office, makes me glad that I will never warrant a biography.

To be clear I am not writing this as a precursor to fundraising.

But what has struck me is the nagging emptiness and the occasional experience of a phantom limb as I gaze at the space where my laptop once sat.

It’s not grief, so much as withdrawal. I have lost the ability to function on full power without my anodised box of delights. I have lost omniscience and omnipotence. Or at least, speedy access to these, because I am now limited to typing with my thumbs.

Once at university we were posed an essay question equating IT with the Tower of Babel. And to a degree this barrier to global communication might well be divine judgement upon self reliance and delusions of digital grandeur.

But in reality, the whole experience has become a welcome, if externally imposed, fast. It has opened my eyes to the utter idolatry and ritualised worship of our icon clad devices. The bell rings or the tone chimes and we prostrate ourselves before them for another scrap of enticement or encouragement from the cloud of all knowing.

Discipleship

Discipleship is central to the New Testament’s understanding of belief in Jesus of Nazareth. NT belief was not passive; Jesus called people to follow him and learn from him.

But what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today? How is following and learning from Jesus now manifested?

Following Jesus still means learning from him but rather than literally sitting at his feet, we have the record of his life and teaching in Scripture. Indeed for Christians, the whole Scriptures of Old and New Testament are best understood and valued through their relationship to Jesus Christ. And while we do not have Jesus physically with us, we have his promised Holy Spirit to guide and shape our hearts and minds.

Through the Scriptures we are instructed in the way of Jesus but, most importantly, we also learn what he has done for us and why that is significant. Disciples imitate and serve their teacher, but firstly Jesus’ disciples benefit directly from his act of self-sacrifice and atonement and the gift of his Spirit.

The original disciples were more than lone learners, they were members of a community of followers. The church remains the community of Jesus’ disciples, receiving his grace, following his manifesto and worshipping him as the only Son of the Father. This communal dynamic to Christian life is a powerful antidote to the present consumerism and individualism that infect both the church and wider society.

Ultimately, our understanding of the Bible and Jesus shapes our understanding of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus the political radical will follow suit, challenging the powers and structures of society. Disciples of the cosmic mystical Christ will join him in contemplation. Disciples of Jesus the itinerant preacher will likely have a pulpit focussed ministry. Consequently, it’s vital that we have a balanced view of Jesus, encompassing all of his priorities and characteristics. This is primarily because we do not give him his full glory if we recognise only those gospel qualities that most resonate with us. But also, our discipleship is affected by a skewed view of the teacher we follow.

Similarly, how we view church will also shape our expectations of discipleship and I would like to suggest this is an aspect of Christianity which is seriously off course.

Our current view and experience of the church is often so anaemic that our perspective on discipleship is sadly lacklustre. Church is supposed to be a mode of existence; it’s the community of God’s people, the embodiment of his presence and the anticipation of his Kingdom. But by reducing church to the weekly praise gathering and sermon, we have lost the context for most of Christian life.

The church gathering is supposed to be an important expression of the life of the church, who gather for strengthening and fellowship and then flow out into the world to engage in witness, mission, service, proclamation and ministry. Instead the Sunday service is for many the entirety of their Christian life, squeezed into an hour on a Sunday morning. In this context, discipleship is essentially limited to making church services happen.

So, here we come to some questions.

How do we remove this reductionist view of church? How to we rediscover a Christian community which embodies and expresses the fullness of the Christian life, everywhere on every occasion? How might a new vision of the Christian community empower and reform our view of discipleship, so that it is not limited to coffee rotas and leading the praise band, as important as those tasks are to our gatherings? What other changes are needed to revive discipleship and restore it to the simple yet glorious way of Jesus?

The parish & management culture

Having ventured onto dangerous ground by commenting on the status of the parish within the CofE, I am pleased to be able to share a blog post from someone who actually knows what he is talking about.

https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/do-we-need-to-save-the-parish/

This blog from Ian Paul identifies the real culprit, behind current clashes over parish vs plant, as the growing management culture in the CofE. He considers this to be a potentially uniting issue for traditional parish churches and new plants.

I wonder whether this comment is relevant for the Kirk too?

Are we also subject to a creeping management culture?

Love & the Parish

Full disclosure, I have spent some time on the fringes of the New Parish movement which was referenced in the aforementioned presentation by Alison Milbank. Also, I once wrote a fairly poor dissertation on the future of the parish. And for what it’s worth, I am currently a parish minister.

Having got that out of the way, and having perused some of the discussion surrounding the ‘Save the Parish’ movement. Is it possible that a key dynamic is being missed?

Where is the love?

Much of the discussion surrounding ‘Save the Parish’ (StP) is about cultural preference and the identity of the CofE? For example, the parish system is what makes the Church of England, the Church of England; who would we be otherwise? The StP website remarks that “this is your church” and “you have a say.”

Is this where the discussion should start about the nature of church? Should we not start with love for God? What does he require of the church? What type of church would honour him best? What structure would fulfil his divine commands?

And should we not, secondly, look to shape the church around love for others? What sort of church would welcome outsiders? What sort of church would best share the Gospel and make disciples of ‘the way’?

Too much of the discussion around church structures demands a church that meets ‘my preferences’ or bases the structure of the church around pragmatic decisions about money and resource.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a church is an old fashioned parish church with all that entails, or a funky new plant in a pub’s upper room. Without love, first for God and second for the other, neither approach is appropriate. The structure of the church is cruciform; we crucify our personal preferences for the love of God and neighbour.

The Empire Strikes Back?

Unsplash – Dan Senior

A movement has emerged within the Church of England, although it appears it may be diametrically opposed to the emerging church. ‘Save the Parish’ (http://savetheparish.com) wants a “concerted campaign to save the parish system, as the Church of England has inherited it.” And it appears to be gaining some traction, including the twittersphere.

The patchy website indicates that the movement is still developing goals but notes that, “‘a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church’… sounds like an ambition worth having.” Thinking Anglicans also link to a presentation from the esteemed Alison Milbank argueing for the preservation of the traditional parish system.

I’m not an Anglican so the finer points may be lost on me, but it appears that the ‘Save the Parish’ movement is ultimately a protest against the perceived, deliberate, demolition of traditional Anglicanism to make way for new church plants detached from the parish system.

The Church of Scotland has taken a broadly similar, if diluted, approach to that depicted of the Anglican hierarchy. We too have chosen to reduce our traditional structures and buildings. We too have set our sights on the reduction of stipendiary ministries. The question is, will we also experience a protest movement?

Celtic Christianity

Having asked so many questions of the humble sermon, I admit to having recently been blessed by sitting under just that style of preaching. Perhaps fittingly, this took place in a church in the Western Isles.

In many parts of the Outer Hebrides Christian faith is still visible, especially where statues, crosses and standing stones remain. Popular caricature speaks of swings tied up on the Sabbath, but vibrant moves of the Holy Spirit are also recorded.

I once heard a Lewisman describing Celtic Christianity as spirituality in work boots. And certainly my experience of the Western Isles is of fiercely resilient, hardworking, humorous and generous people. I would add open, calloused hands to the work boots.

It’s therefore hard to reconcile the sentimental and mystical nature of current resurgent ‘Celtic Spirituality’ with the actual experience of Island life. Many Islanders appear more likely to shoot the goose than recognise it as an embodiment of the Holy Spirit.

Interestingly a number of commentators suggest that today’s Celtic Christianity is a recent development based on scattered elements from a diverse historical reality. These critics highlight that the current Celtic resurgence reveals more of the needs of 21st Century urbanites than of the historic faith of the Islands to which they make pilgrimage (eg Prof. Donald Meek – here and here). Of greater concern is a perceived pagan and New Age creep within the movement.

The missionary zeal of the ancient Celtic saints has much to teach us but does it matter that what today passes as a unified Celtic Spirituality appears to have little historic basis? And despite the tenuous link to history, how do we take seriously the needs of contemporary Christians revealed in this new spirituality?

This matters because there are problems in current mainstream Christianity which the Celtic movement aims to address. There is a need for a whole life spirituality which encompasses work and nature. There is a need for a more earthy language of faith and to value the community and creation as well as the individual.

Perhaps the real issue is the attempt to found this contemporary approach to faith on a questionable historic reconstruction. Forgive the flippancy, but if the same movement was instead to call itself Jedi Christianity it would avoid the historical problem, and might it sometimes be a more accurate title?

Where have we reached with Preaching?

Again, I’ve had great feedback on the questions raised about preaching. Church pastors and ministers appear to be both aware of the potential for varied approaches to Bible teaching and reluctant to lose traditional preaching in church. Many church leaders recognise the value of an integrated programme of learning and biblical reflection that includes personal study, small group work and church sermons.

For me, questions remain over the aim and function of church preaching and these relate to larger questions of the aim and function of church services. Our approach to preaching will often be consistent with our view of church services and the aims of both.

My current thought is that church is primarily a gathering of Christians yet open to all. I’m not sure that the once fashionable ‘seeker service’ is appropriate in a post-Christian and post-Christendom society, where few people feel the need to simply arrive at services. And yet, often church services remain aimed at the unbelieving visitor whether or not they attend. However, I have heard Tim Keller say the opposite, that if you speak as though unbelievers are there eventually they will be. Presumably because their Christian friends will bring them, or visitors will be interested enough to return. But I wonder whether Scottish culture differs from American on this. Also, few preachers have Keller’s ability and speaking gifts.

By focussing primarily on the not yet Christian, the shop-window view of church may encourage many preachers to take a superficial approach which depends upon attendance at further meetings for depth (clearly this is not the case with Redeemer services). It also absolves most of the congregation from the need to engage in evangelism and outreach which in turn limits their growth and development.

However, where possible services ought to be in an accessible language and style appropriate to their context. The reason being, if Christians don’t learn to worship and reflect in contemporary language they will struggle to share their faith in the culture they inhabit outside of church. In a greek class, years ago, it was pointed out that there is theological precedent for this view, namely that the New Testament is written, primarily, in Greek which was the ‘global’ language of the day. And as helpfully pointed out it’s written in Koine Greek which was the language of the hoi polloi.

Questions also remain over the biblical foundations of church preaching. Is a monologue presentation, as opposed to dialogical teaching of the Scriptures, something that the bible anticipates? Announcing and heralding the Gospel are clearly biblical but are they meant primarily for church service or part of engaging with the world at large.

It’s hard to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of preaching. In addition to questions of the biblical foundations of church activities, there is also the question of outcome. How do we evaluate the outcome of different teaching methods or views of ‘preaching’?

Most pastors or ministers would find it very difficult to receive the kind of evaluation and scrutiny that others do in their work. I regularly wonder whether I have the stomach and strength to ask my congregation what they think of church. And this is not due to a lack of potential feedback, I’m sure there’s an old joke about the congregation going home to roast the minister for Sunday lunch!

There is also the issue of expectation. Both pastor-teachers and the congregation may not not waste time considering the practical impact or efficacy of church preaching because they view preaching sermons as a necessary, sacred act. Therefore even canvassing the congregation may simply tell what they want rather than what might serve them best.

Finally, perhaps the best available evaluation of church teaching is the wider situation of the church. Is our teaching or preaching engaging the congregation? Is it leading to growth in terms of faith? Is it leading to growth in numbers involved in the Christian community? Do our congregations feel built up in their faith, and empowered to handle Scripture? Are they increasingly inspired and equipped to share their faith outside of the Christian community? And are our churches increasingly displaying the fruit of the Spirit and obedience to Christ?

Preaching as Event

My earlier posts considered church teaching as a means of learning how to read the Bible. I believe this is a valid form of preaching because the Gospel is the primary key (or hermeneutic) to understanding the Bible. You can’t teach the Bible well without preaching the Gospel.

I’ve received some further great responses to the earlier posts. A common point has been to question the concept of preaching as primarily having an educational function. What if preaching in church is not primarily about teaching the Bible? Instead, preaching can also be seen as a means of encountering God or of engaging the heart and soul.

This takes us back to an interesting point in the discussion and draws out some important questions.

  • What is the aim of preaching? What function does it perform within the Christian community?
  • What is the biblical foundation of this view of preaching to the Christian community? Is the closest idiom that of the OT prophet?
  • How does such preaching then relate to the meetings of the NT church which focused on the Apostles teaching although prophesy appears to have had a role.
  • A high view of preaching is shared by many pastors and scholars. But is it suggesting that when we preach God speaks or God’s presence descends? If so, it may have a bearing on answering the next question.
  • What Ephesian’s category of preacher might we place this perspective within. Is this the utterance of the apostle, prophet, evangelist or pastor-teacher? And what might that say about the best context for such speech?
  • Does this privilege the preacher’s words, or the act of preaching, over the Scripture? Does God speak more clearly in the sermon than in the Bible? Does God inhabit the sermon more than he inhabits the Scriptures. Or are sermons conduits to the Almighty in the same way as Scripture?
  • What is more beneficial to the congregation, the preaching event or learning to hear God for themselves in the a Bible?
  • If the anticipated outcome is a divine encounter or heart warming experience, should such preaching be privileged over singing and prayer?

For want of a better concept, I tend to think of this perspective as ‘preaching as sacrament or sacramental event’. Here, behind the content and act of the preaching is a movement of the Spirit which establishes a transformative encounter with God.

I wonder whether the roots of viewing church preaching as sacrament go back to the Reformation. It might be argued that the reformers simply replaced the mass with the sermon. The sermon then became a means of grace and encounter with God which was mediated by a specially set-apart celebrant.

The view of preaching as a sacrament or sacramental event may be an entirely legitimate perspective but it’s always good to examine the assumptions behind our practice.

Monologues, Communication and Church Teaching.

I’ve had some very helpful responses to my last post and to a subsequent request to my teaching friends to suggest how they might teach the text.

The value of monologue for preaching

Firstly in response to the original post which questioned teaching methods in church and the effectiveness of public announcement of the Gospel, two respondents raised similar questions. Both focused on the role of the church preacher as the person set aside for leadership and teaching. One asked what the impact might be upon Spirit given insight to the preacher if sermons were replaced by dialogue. The second person made a similar point, this time related to training. Preachers have generally followed lengthy training in order to preach, how does that relate to a situation where everyone gets to give their opinion?

These are important questions and emphasise the biblical and historical function of church leaders being set apart and given authority. This should not be lost even if new approaches to teaching in church are adopted. In a Reformed environment there is a fine balance between recognising the priesthood of all believers, the presence of the spirit in all and the need for all to have a voice, with the biblical mandate that some are set apart for particular ministries. A change in approaches to teaching should not be allowed to increase biblical illiteracy or theological error.

This is especially significant for the Church of Scotland which is drastically reducing the number of Parish Ministers. How will teaching be delivered to local churches? Will it become more like a quaker or brethren meeting where many people can stand and speak? Or will teaching become the domain of the non-stipendiary minister or bi-vocational minister, maintaining the ‘theologically educated preacher’ but with significantly reduced costs?

Online Monologue Resurgence?

A second important cultural point was raised. With the rise of podcasts, blogging, vlogging, influencers and youtubers; the online monologue appears to be in the ascendance. This is a significant point and the church must engage effectively in this area. Covid-19 forced online many previously reluctant pastor to great effect.

Online communications of various forms can be excellent means of preaching the Gospel. They are very effective at reaching a wide variety of people over great distances. Also they can be paused and replayed which probably aids comprehension. This would allow such communications to fall into the public proclamation category and also teaching category. Through blogging and vlogging etc., monologues can be used effectively in both preaching to those outside the church and teaching Christians. As an aside, many vloggers and podcaster often engage in dialogue through interviews and co-presenters, and this approach can also be used well in churches.

However, the effectiveness of online monologues does not solve the church service conundrum. The monologue may be an effective means of communication in an online setting. But is it as effective for congregational learning in a church service? For example, many online monologues are used as ways of delivering opinion but are they good for the learning and education of the listeners?

Our ultimate answer to this question may depend on what we expect church teaching to achieve. As mentioned earlier, where the aim of the speaker is to convey prophetic insight from God or insight from theological education, monologue may be required. But if at least part of the teaching in church is to help Christians to learn to handle the Bible, the opportunity to ask questions and reflect in community may be beneficial. Perhaps church services require a range of teaching methods depending on the topic and context.

How would a teacher deal with a Biblical Text?

In terms of suggestions from teachers and an educational psychologist of how they might approach the text, the answers were creative and certainly challenging to someone who is used to simply pronouncing from the platform!

I had asked how teachers would approach a biblical text.

General comments included:

  • Education is increasingly about helping children & young people to be self directed, to set their own learning goals and self-evaluate.
  • Ask the children to be curious about the passage and come up with questions.
  • Encouraging curiosity rather than getting the answer ‘right’.
  • Try to get the children to bounce ideas around the classroom.
  • Reduce the dynamic that sees the teacher as the expert.
  • Resist the urge to simply provide that answers.
  • Use coloured pencils to annotate different features of the text. Indicate links and highlight questions.
  • Cut up the text and put it back together in the right order.
  • “Any Blooms Taxonomy activity that gets people to use the information from the text helps people. internalise it and understand it better.”

One teacher kindly gave me an entire lesson plan. I had asked how teachers might approach John 8.1-11.

I’ll summarise some of the ideas here:

  • Consider key vocabulary and think of examples of using these terms.
  • Read the passage perhaps adapting it to related to issues relevant to the children.
  • Use drama to explore the feelings of different people in the story. The children could work in groups to create their own drama. Use freeze frames, as they perform, to ask questions about the characters feelings.
  • Consider the key message in the text.
  • Work in pairs to consider when we might have judged other people. Consider the feelings of those involved. Consider whether the issue was resolved.
  • Draw a picture or write about their experience to be shared with group.

I’m really grateful to those who replied and gave ideas and practical approaches to teaching. It’s amazing to see how children would be encouraged to approach a text in a classroom environment. They appear to be trusted with far more responsibility for and autonomy in their own learning than most adult congregants!

I suspect many ministers would struggle with this way of teaching, perhaps, especially the diminishment of their role as the ‘expert’. But arguably that diminishing would be biblically defensible and in keeping with reformed theology.

Many congregations would also have problems with being asked to work so hard in a church service. It would be a serious culture shift, but might the end result not be worth it? Would it be better, in the long run, for congregations to be better encouraged and enabled to handle the bible themselves?

Clearly there are times when a church leader may need to monologue. But often it might be better for the learning of the congregation to encourage more dialogue, discussion and personal reflection on the text. Ultimately, our approach to these questions will depend upon our expectations of the Church teacher or ‘preacher’ and what the church service aims to achieve.