Ben Norton reflects on the importance of language and storytelling.
Earlier this year I spent 10 days in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. The Episcopal Church there had invited me to go and spend some time talking, listening and teaching about fresh expressions and pioneer ministry. As a result, I met people in very different contexts doing some amazingly creative missional enterprises.
Here are some of my reflections on what was a very busy trip:
I saw God at work in people and situations that, although the context was very different, the work of the Spirit was very recognisable. People were very naturally getting on with the job of listening to their own communities, making connections, building relationships and allowing new Christ-centred communities to be born and begin to flourish. Right from the start it was obvious that the pioneers involved were not 'copying' what we have seen in the UK but rather it was an organic response to what God is already doing in their own context.
It reaffirmed my understanding that this movement of fresh expressions is not something that has been dreamt up by a committee in order to grow the church. It is a movement of God to renew his church and allow those seeking faith to do so from within heritage we have been given. Fresh expressions of church are a movement of God being translated into new cultures, sub-cultures and contexts right around the world.
I began to again realise the importance of language in this type of work. The right words allow us to translate what is already going on, both for the practitioner and the observer. This is important for two very different reasons:
(a) for the practitioner to understand that what they are doing is something that God has a hand in. Although, at the time, it might not look like anything that has been done before, there are still elements of common factors we can identify as issues of discipleship and markers of the church.
On occasions when it comes to understanding what is happening as a new community is coming into life, questions can be far more important than answers. The wisdom is knowing what questions to ask. Who are the people and what are their stories? What makes this community Christ-centred? What are we doing? Why are we doing it and where are we going? These are just a few of the questions that I believe all forms of churches need to be constantly asking. At times, it is only by exploring the questions – rather than seeking the right answers – that we can really begin to understand what God is doing.
(b) for those who have an investment in one way or another. They might be the Church that is paying the stipend of the Pioneer, or it might be the parish of the inherited church where the fresh expression is developing. It is important that the language allows an open and honest conversation to flow between the fresh expression and the Inherited churches.
There is at times a great amount of risk and vulnerability involved in this type of ministry and it would be easy to for both sides to become defensive. To pioneer means to break new ground, something which – at times – is going to call for new tools to do the job and a new language. I believe that this is something that everybody who has an investment is going to have to commit to working hard at if we are going to continue to listen and connect with the new things God is doing in the world and the church.
I am now working with Jane Gerdsen, the Missioner for fresh expressions in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, to produce some short video-logs of practitioners – both in the UK and USA. The sharing of story is such an important way of learning the lessons that we so need to know as we continue to go forward in mission.