Manipulating people for the sake of church? (Andrew Wooding)

Andrew Wooding asks if we're manipulating people for the sake of church.

I've been revisiting a number of pages on the Share site recently, and was especially struck by Does the fresh expressions journey risk manipulation?

No entry to churchThe 'fresh expressions journey' is a framework offered on a number of pages on Share, but the page on 'manipulation' rightly points out the danger of treating this – and other frameworks – as formulas for success. That people will be seen as means to an end rather than having value in and of themselves.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it, but be honest: How many times have you been part of a group, a team, a community, an institution, where you have felt used or dispensible? Valued for what you can do to keep the machine going, rather than for who you are? And if you rock the boat you won't be missed, because the 'task' is far more important than the group being with you in your doubts and questions.

I am not talking in the abstract here. I have seen this far too many times, and continue to see it. To my shame, I have also in the past colluded with this sort of thing, justifying my collusion with that old 'ends justifying the means' argument.

How can leaders of fresh expressions prevent this happening? How can they retain the goal of forming church while at the same time making sure each step of the journey has its own integrity? See what you think about the suggestions on Does the fresh expressions journey risk manipulation?

The real meaning of radical? (Andrew Wooding)

Andrew Wooding asks what it really means to be radical.

I don't know about you, but when I hear a word too many times in quick succession, it starts to lose its meaning for me. It becomes just a sound or a noise. Try it yourself! Pick any word ('hospital', say) and repeat it to yourself over and over. At some point you will stop thinking of a medical building where sick people go for treatment, and you will hear just a succession of sounds and syllables that don't mean a thing.

Olde FriarsThis very nearly happened to me at a meeting of fresh expressions practitioners a few weeks ago. One of the buzz words was 'radical' and I heard it so often, from so many people, that I started to wonder what it meant.

I once heard a church leader say that one of his church's core values was to be 'radical'. When a number of other churches followed his church's example, he felt deeply uncomfortable at no longer being the most radical church in his network and decided to make his church even more 'radical' – out-radicalling those new upstart radicals!

But what did 'radical' actually look like in his church? Was it the fact that their music was louder and more 'out there'? Was it the fact that they showed controversial film clips, booked provocative speakers or tried to be headline-grabbing? Was their clothing slightly different – more cutting edge? Be honest: is that sort of thing really radical?

A page on Share, God seeks to transforms society, stresses the importance of being radical, and poses the questions: 'Are fresh expressions radical enough?' and 'Will fresh expressions as a whole develop in a socially conservative or radical direction?' The page name-drops JustChurch in Bradford where, as part of their worship, members write letters on behalf of pressure groups such as Amnesty International.

Is JustChurch's music loud and different? I don't know. Are they radical in their dress, language or choice of visual aids? I haven't visited, so I'm really not sure. What I do know is that they believe God can truly make a difference on all levels in this society and make time to express this in a practical way.

Maybe in a society where so many individuals struggle with self-worth and acceptance, a community that simply seeks to be nice to people is radical … that values people for who they are, rather than what they can contribute to 'our fresh expressions project'.

One fresh expressions practitioner in London describes himself as counter-cultural. He expresses this by humbly opening up his house to people to hang out and relax, in a city where not many homes are open or welcoming. Not very controversial or out there, is it – but radical? I think so.

What does it mean to be radical for Jesus? What does it look like in our fresh expressions to be socially radical, trying to bring about change for the better in society? How far do we go with being theologically radical? In short: what, in God's kingdom, is the real meaning of radical?

Evangelism – no more going-it-alone (Andrew Wooding)

Andrew Wooding discusses evangelism.

Mention the word 'evangelism' to the average person and it will likely conjure up images of the lone evangelist on the street corner handing out tracts, a besuited man on a soapbox spouting forth at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, or the international speaker striding energetically across a stage at an evangelistic rally.

Group of legsBut just as God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone', it might also be true to say that 'It is not good for evangelists to be alone'. Indeed, there is a page on Share about this very subject: God works through communities, which urges that 'Communities should be at the heart of mission'.

I am a trained evangelist and I confess that I have done my share of lone evangelism. Talks at school assemblies. Parachuting into mission situations to 'do my thing' then parachuting out again. Hospital or door-to-door visiting. That sort of thing.

So I am attracted to this idea that the life of a community shows God to the world, rather than any individual. As the hymn goes: 'They shall know we are Christians by our love'. In a society where there is so much distrust for words, our relationships could speak volumes.

But how does this work in practice? How exactly can a community be evangelistic? Does this mean you now have lots of people on that street corner handing out tracts? Does your Christian community try and stand on that soapbox at Speakers' Corner – bit of a tight fit. And do you appear together on that stage at the evangelistic rally, all talking at once?

I'm exaggerating, but the gist of my question is: if our community is to be evangelistic, how can it be lived out in public in full sight of people outside the community? How can we stop our community becoming closed and cliquey, happening behind locked doors purely for our own benefit?

The Bridge - pint in a pubI know of a group of Christians in Sheffield who meet each week in a pub for Bible study and prayer. They could have booked a function room, but instead they meet round a table in the main drinking area in full view of everyone. Over the months and years, this has led to trust and respect from the regulars, and lots of conversations.

Also, what implication does this way of thinking have on our churches? Traditionally, they have equipped individuals to do evangelism. If they sent out communities to do evangelism, would these communities form the core of new congregations? As it says in God works through communities: 'Instead of "Sunday" church being about sending individuals into the world from Monday to Saturday, fresh expressions can be understood as the sending of tiny communities into the world.'

Maybe you disagree, or have some practical advice from your own experience that you would like to Share with myself and others. If so, a comment left at the end of this blog would be much appreciated!

A time for thinking ahead (Andrew Wooding)

BaubleAndrew Wooding thinks ahead.

As I write these words, we are nearing the end of Advent, a time of waiting and preparation and looking ahead. Most of my preparation the last few weeks has involved editing, laying out and adding pages to the Starting and growing section. If you've been eagle-eyed recently, you might have seen pages appearing and changing (and sometimes disappearing) each time you visited the site.

I am happy to say that, just days before Advent is over, Starting and growing is now uploaded. But that doesn't mean that preparation and looking ahead is now over. Much of this section is about thinking ahead, something it is always good to do. Yes, it is a major achievement to start a fresh expression, but have you thought ahead to where it might be going? Do you have a plan, with values, actions and goals? As Mike Moynagh writes:

Why not pause and ask yourselves, "What do we hope this venture will look like in six months, a year, two years or five years' time, or perhaps longer?" "What are our hopes and dreams for this vision as it unfolds?" Dreaming dreams for your vision could be one of the most exciting parts of preparing for a fresh expression.

My own thinking ahead involves developing learning networks on Share (more on this in the New Year). If you want to read my current thoughts, as well as further short articles by my colleagues in The Sheffield Centre, have a look at the very first issue of The Sheffield Centre's twice-yearly Research Bulletin.

If it is still Advent when you are reading this, I hope you have a very happy and blessed Christmas. If Christmas is over, and the leftover turkey has long disappeared, may your thinking ahead to 2008 bring you all that you wish and hope for.