Bounce – a way of working creatively

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My friend Clare and I are sitting at her kitchen table with a blank sheet of paper in front of us.

We have met to plan the school’s R.E. day in June. Last September we decided that the theme would be Pentecost but neither of us have given it a thought since, even though the day is now only three weeks away.

Neither of us is worried; we both know that by the time I leave in an hour’s time the day will have been planned and we will both be happy with the result.

Clare and I work together by bouncing ideas off each other.  She jots notes as they occur to her, I prefer spider diagrams.  We both throw ideas into the mix – to be greeted with “ooh, that would be brilliant”, “I don’t think that would be possible because…” or “not sure, have you thought about…”

It has taken time for us to develop working together in this way.  We work as equals and we both know that any criticism of the other’s ideas is not personal.   As we have the freedom to be critical, we work together towards a synthesis that is better than anything that we would have come up with apart.

Clare isn’t the only person I have worked with in this way.  My friend Su and I used to plan All Age Worship together like this.  I have friends I bounce ideas with over the phone – though that is usually to do with projects each of us is working on individually rather than something that we are doing together.  I’ve even known it happen on Facebook!

But surely we should be working in a team?

The current focus in children’s ministry, churches and pioneering is about working in teams.  While some emphasise “setting up your team” as a starting point, many simply assume that you already have a team and offer articles and chapters on “How to support your team” or “Keeping your team involved.”

I am not convinced by this team approach in all situations.  I think it depends what you are aiming at.

Teams are a good way forward if you are implementing something where the thinking has been done for you.  With things like Messy Church, certain kinds of Fresh Expression or various church programmes the principles have been established; all the team needs to do is put them into practice. (Interestingly Godly Play needs a “team” of two, a storyteller and a doorkeeper, though a larger team might be helpful for rotas, resources etc)

But if you want to be more creative, I am not sure that the team approach works best.  I have found it harder to be critical when there are more than two people.  In that context, criticism feels like conflict, especially if it is about fundamentals.  If two people disagree, the others find themselves drawn in.  Instead of working through the issue to find synthesis it is likely to turn into a battle between two sides.  The most dominant, most powerful person often wins. Or the leader may work towards consensus, which favours the lowest common denominator.  The visionary edge can become blunted.

This does not mean that the R.E. day that Clare and I have planned is delivered just by us. On the contrary, several people come along to story tell, provide the music or help with crafts.  They do, I think, feel part of the “team” even though they have not been part of the planning.

Some of this is about integrity.  There needs to be integrity for the whole event and in this case that is held jointly by Clare and me. But there also needs to be individual integrity.  If one of the storytellers told us they could not possibly tell the story in the way we have asked, then we would need to adapt or find someone else to do it.  We shouldn’t ask people to work against their own personal integrity.  Their reservations are usually valid.

Where is God in this context?  This is always a tricky question because it is so easy to twist what he wants into what you think. But often in these kind of planning sessions I am aware of him inspiring us, taking us down different paths from the way I expected.  It seems to be about awareness. And also about trust, our trust for God and for each other. (Just as an aside it is interesting that Jesus sent out the 72 disciples in pairs rather than teams!)

With 5 minutes to go before I need to leave, we have planned all the school Pentecost event except for the epilogue.

“We need something with a real wow factor,” I say.

“I know,” says Clare, “what about passing on the light?  We sit them in circles in the hall and give each one a candle. We light a few candles and then they pass the light to each other.”

“Hmmm,” I say trying to envisage 150 children aged 4-11 passing lighted flames around in the hall.

“It will be fine,” says Clare.

She is right. It is.

From dream to reality

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I was really excited by my first church awayday to discuss the church’s mission. After years of being part of churches that seemed to be drifting aimlessly, I thought this would be a way for the church to sharpen its vision and gain some direction.

The day itself (now over 20 years ago) went well. We talked about how we saw the church, what we felt it ought to be doing and put together ideas for an underlying vision for the future.  We even had suggestions about what might change.

But in reality nothing changed.  It was as if the day was complete in itself.  I can’t remember ever revisiting the things we talked about, not after the first few months anyway.

I’ve been part of several awaydays/working groups/vision meetings since then and the same problem is always there.  The discussion is great… but things don’t change.   The energy dissipates into the sand.

I remember one occasion in particular where we seemed to go about this backwards.  We had several meetings and ended by writing a vision statement together. We decided to revisit it at every PCC meeting, one strand at a time.  In practice this meant that we picked a strand and then considered how what we were doing already fitted into it.

“We want to be a church that serves our community,” said the vicar at one PCC meeting, reading from our vision statement.

There was a pause while we all thought about this.

“What about our monthly Coffee and Chat sessions?” suggested someone.

“Yes, absolutely,” we all agreed.

We ticked the box and moved on to discussing the new cupboard for the hymnbooks.

How do you turn vision into a practical reality?

For a long time I saw this as an impossibility.

It wasn’t just the church, but all sorts of companies and organisations were having awaydays and writing vision statements that seemed to have no connection with what was actually happening.  “Vision” and “Mission” became buzzwords, soon to be followed by the slogans and strap lines: “Walking together” “Being the best” “Waiting and seeing”.

It seemed a long way from my own “one step at a time across the marshes” way of doing things.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.

Perhaps if we are wholehearted about our vision God will give us opportunities to turn it into reality.

This might seem obvious but in practice it isn’t easy to recognise the opportunities.  They may be unexpected, for God does not think in the same ways that we do.

The classic opportunity missing is the church that decides to have a ministry of welcome (and may even mention this in the intercessions) but then totally ignores the visitor at coffee time. (I have been that visitor!)

Although I’ve been aware of several missed opportunities recently, this scenario is imaginary.

Tom, the vicar, has just led an awayday for his leadership team – NSM, Readers, churchwardens, various lay leaders.  There is a strong feeling that prayer needs to be central to all that the church is doing.  Everyone is going to go away and think and pray about how this might happen.

The following Sunday, Tom is approached by Lucy who has two small children.  Lucy explains that she and her friend Jan are really concerned about the local primary school.  Ofsted is due, SATs are approaching, everyone’s stress levels are high. She and Jan would like to start a prayer group to pray for the school.

Tom hesitates.  He doesn’t really know Lucy who is not on the leadership team or even on the junior church rota.  He doesn’t know Jan at all as she goes to a different church.  There might be issues of confidentiality.  He has been told about one school prayer group where they spend an hour praying for the conversion of each staff member by name.  None of the leadership team have children at the school. It isn’t how he envisaged a greater commitment to prayer – he was thinking more on the lines of prayer triplets each led by a member of the team. He’s not sure that this is the right way forward…

On the other hand, this might be God offering the church an opportunity to turn the vision into reality…

I don’t know the answer to the above scenario for it needs prayer and discernment in that specific context.

But I wonder if the reason so little changed as a result of our vision days is that we just weren’t expecting God to be part of it…

It seems to me that God is often presented (almost unconsciously) as passive rather than active.  We are told what God is like and how we should respond to him.  At times it appears as if we are looking for God’s approval rather than his involvement.  This may not be what we think, but it can be how we act.

I am starting to recognise that it isn’t like this; that we have an active God, totally involved in creation, constantly offering us opportunities to turn the dream into reality.

I’d like to think I was getting better at recognising them but there is so much other stuff that gets in the way…

How do we count?

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How do we count? Do people count or do they need to be counted?

The Diocese of Ely has a strategic plan for market towns. In many ways this is good; many (but not all) places in the north of this diocese are places of rural deprivation and poverty and the market towns are not exempt from this. The parish of St Augustine’s, Wisbech has 30% of its children living in poverty.

But in order to receive money from the Church of England’s Strategic Development Fund the application has had to list anticipated outcomes.  These include:

  • 25% of the population across market towns committed to involvement in the life of the church by 2025, involving both inherited-mode church and Fresh Expressions of church as part of a blended economy
  • 5% increase in attendance at inherited-mode churches across the towns
  • 780 new church attenders across the towns involved over the three-year period from 2018-2021. (310 in inherited mode church, including church plants, and 470 across a range of Fresh Expressions, representing 73% growth from current levels of church involvement)

(Strategic Development Funding Application Process – Second stage Diocese of Ely – Changing Market Towns, Diocese of Ely website)

This concept of measuring success by counting numbers makes me uneasy on many levels.

It seems to buy into the idea that once a church grows it will stabilise and even continue to grow.  But Jesus’ own ministry was not like this.  Five thousand men, plus women and children, sat on a hillside listening to him talk while picnicking off bread and fish.  Only a short time later he was left with the remnant, his friend John and some of the women, the only ones prepared to stand at the foot of the cross.  Which of these points would church leaders choose in order to measure the success of the Jesus Project?

The same is true for the early church.  Do you count the numbers baptised at Pentecost or the small group of people praying together in hiding?  Paul’s letters to the churches are focused on theology, Christian community and spiritual well-being. Nowhere does he ask them about the number of new church attenders in the last three years as a percentage of their population.

In some churches it can become difficult to shake off this numbers’ neurosis.  Last month’s All Age Worship had 15 children and 20 adults, and the leaders left feeling they had arrived. This month it’s down to three children and 10 adults.  It doesn’t matter that they know everyone else is throwing up/visiting Grandad/going to the circus and may well be back next time. Because of this fixation with numbers, the leaders are despondent and wonder where they are going wrong.  This is particularly true for smaller churches and can put leaders on an emotional roller coaster as the numbers fluctuate wildly.

What happens if these anticipated outcomes aren’t achieved?  Despite the evidence of changed lives, deepening faith and visionary excitement will the project be considered a failure?

But suppose the Project achieves its anticipated outcomes and 780 new people start attending these churches.  What then?  Each of these people is real.  Like the rest of us, they will have messy, often fragmented, lives.  What they need from the church is love, care, time and attention.  Giving this is essential but costly.  Most churches will try. Without it, people may be leaving as quickly as they arrived.

Is it really impossible to be given money for strategic development without delineating in figures the anticipated outcomes?  How do we get away from a mindset that reduces people to numbers? Who requires the diocese to jump through these hoops?

And finally:

“780 new church attenders?  I hope someone’s told the Holy Spirit,” says my friend Su, going straight to the point as usual.

No magic formula

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“Hazel’s been doing children’s work for 30 years.  We’ll never get change while she’s in charge.”

Mel, whom I’ve met at a training day, sounds despondent and I’m not surprised. After all the church down the road is doing Messy Church/Godly Play/Fresh Expressions.  Mel hopes that one day her church will be able to start something new.  Meanwhile they seem stuck in a backwater while everyone else is taking part in a great visionary movement…

Or are they?

Both Godly Play and Messy Church arose out of the vision of one individual (Jerome Berryman and Lucy Moore respectively).  Fresh Expressions seems more blurred at the edges as it is an umbrella term covering a variety of different expressions of church.  But it is probably true to say that a lot of fresh expressions arose in particular contexts as the vision of particular people.

But what happens next?

Looking at the pattern it seems that over time (often many years) the original vision is caught by other people.  They too want to do Cafe Church/cell church/forest church.  The idea spreads – and becomes set.  Training courses are offered, resources prepared and the institutional church backs it.

There is almost a sense that we have found a magic formula and if we put all our efforts into this, we too will get caught up in the vision and see the fantastic results of the original.

Or will we?

It seems to me that once a visionary idea has reached this stage it can go in one of three directions.

Firstly, there are those who stick to the original template, without alteration.    While the original visionaries never stopped experimenting (and still do!) these second generation people can have an almost literalist approach.  They may understand the thinking and theology but they don’t want to play with it.  Sometimes it seems to me that there is a danger of stifling the vision, but as this isn’t my own approach I don’t know.

The second direction is that of the corner cutters.  Often it seems that they haven’t quite understood the underlying principles of the original.  I have known someone tell a Godly Play story at the start of an event and then tell everyone exactly what it meant at the end, completely contrary to the idea that we all make our own meaning from the story.  I have also watched a Messy Church where the children sat and ate while the adults gathered together at a distance, effectively creating two separate communities instead of one comprising all ages.

The third way is the way of the visionary.  These people may use the original vision as a springboard for new ideas.  They understand the principles but take them in different directions. These people have let the genie out of the bottle and are not afraid to see where it might go.   They have an excitement about what they are doing, for vision is creative.  Often they receive criticism from all sides – from those who dislike any change, those who are happy with the original and see no need to do anything other than follow it implicitly and those who think they are putting in far too much work when they don’t actually need to…

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  I am sure there is a lot of excellent work going on that fits in with the original vision, and occupies the middle ground between these positions.  But I am not sure that it is visionary and without vision the people perish.  We need to encourage the creative spark that takes thing in new directions.  Vision needs the visionary to continuously reflect, inspire, create and turn things into a practical reality.

There is no magic formula…

Where there is no vision the people perish

The latest Church  of England statistics are out, with interesting analysis and comments from David Keen at Opinionated Vicar (http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/), Jeremy Marshall (https://tinyurl.com/yckp9o2j) and others.  They continue to show a decline in attendance, and a wide range of reasons are suggested for why this should be so.

Is there anything the Church of England can do about its current decline?  If so, how does it identify what can be done and start doing it?

It seems to me that there is an underlying yearning to be part of a visionary church, one that is moving forward in the will of God.   We know that where there is no vision the people perish; what we don’t know is how to be visionary.

This is partly because there are a whole range of myths surrounding vision.  One myth is that it is possible for vision to happen top down.  Over the last 20 years I have attended several church away days dedicated to vision and mission.  We have come back and written Vision Statements and Mission Action Plans.  I was really excited by the first one – after years of drifting along fairly aimlessly, it seemed to me that the church was actually getting to grips with who it was and where it should be going.

But nothing actually changed – or if it did it was not as a result of the MAP or the Vision Statement.  I think this is because people find it almost impossible to turn the vague generalised principles of the Vision Statement into a practical reality.  There is a tendency to look at what we are already doing and see how it fits in so that we can tick the box that says for example “Respect everyone”.  Mission Action Plans can all too easily degenerate into Coming up with Ideas to Keep the Bishop Happy.  But good ideas are not vision…

Another myth is that we need unity in order to be visionary.  Given the current range of views in the Church of England, this is an impossibility.  There is not going to be a magic moment in which everyone suddenly converts to our way of thinking – and even if they did it might end up as a sterile situation.

So perhaps we are never going to be part of a visionary church?

I think we need to let go of the idea of a visionary institutional church that encompasses the whole of the Church of England.

But vision still happens…  In my experience (which is obviously limited) it takes place in a very specific context.  Often something sparks and an idea is taken up and developed by an individual or a small group of people.

Vision is time limited.  That initial excitement does not last; after a while the vision becomes the usual, even the routine.  I’m not sure that matters… for then the wind blows again and there is a fresh vision or a transforming of the old one as it moves in an unexpected direction…

So perhaps instead of one overarching vision for the Church of England, what we need is a piecemeal approach.  A mosaic of vision.

In that case what is the place of the institutional church, particularly at national level? Is there one?

I was starting to think the answer to this was no. But on reflection I thought that what unites all Christians is prayer.  So perhaps:

  • The diocese removes the pressure on churches to produce Mission Action Plans, Vision Statements and the like. Churches can still do them if they want to, but it isn’t compulsory.
  • Instead the diocese conducts a prayer audit of all churches. Who is praying, how often, how long for etc
  • Each church is encouraged (or possibly even mandated) to start a prayer group. As a minimum, one person who is not ordained or part of a clergy household once a week for half an hour. (It is probable that clergy and their families are already praying; this is something that needs to be taken up more widely.)
  • In addition each church has a monthly prayer group which includes clergy, some of those in church leadership positions and some of those the church leadership regard as the bums on the seats.
  • These prayer groups are free to pray as they feel led, but in addition they need to pray specifically, every time, for any projects or initiatives that their church is engaged in. Even the ones that they personally disapprove of or think are pretty rubbish anyway. Also for any local Christian projects and initiatives, regardless of denomination.  They ask specifically for God’s guidance and attempt to listen to what He might actually be saying to them in their context.
  • They also pray for protection.
  • Meanwhile the diocese sets up its own prayer groups. They carry on (for the moment) with all the courses and support that they are currently providing, but they then look to see what is bubbling up from the churches and how they can support it.
  • They also collect and share stories of people who prayed for years before seeing their prayers answered.  This isn’t a quick fix. We are all in this for the long haul.