We are convinced that the church can never be what God has called the church to be unless and until the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, and teaching voices are all empowered to speak up, are heard, and work together in order that we become a mature community (Ephesians 4:1-16). These are the five functions of human society, being formed by God, who sends us into all the earth to bless others (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 12:1-3), who emphasises the importance of hearing and being heard (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Psalm 18), who declares good news (Isaiah 61:1-4; Mark 1:1), who is compassionate in nature (Exodus 34:6-7; Matthew 9:36), and who calls us to seek wisdom (Proverbs 1:2-7, 2:6, 3:5-6, 4:13).
But this is far from the self-understanding of the local church. If we are to see genuine, lasting culture change, better education alone will have little impact. Education does not change how we live (if it did, expository preaching—which does matter—would have a far greater impact than it does). More than that, we need equipping. But most of all, actual change in how we live needs immersive experience. When I was at school, I learnt about the Impressionists, not only their paintings but their lives. The Impressionists interest me. I like their paintings. I’ve even taken oils and brushes and a canvas and easel outdoors and dabbled in painting; and I’ve even gone along to art classes. But I have never immersed myself in a community of artists, in the sharing of ideas and experimental techniques and the joyful monotony of everyday life. I’ve never painted day after day after day. I may have some artistic potential, but I have invested my energies elsewhere.
Lasting culture change calls for a mix of education and equipping and experience, and not in equal measure. Culture change comes about by a 10% focus on education, 20% on equipping, and 70% on experience. (This is why fundamental changes in our practices towards the environment are so hard, despite knowing more about the impact of, say, plastic waste or energy production and despite having a growing range of tactics available to equip us to live more lightly on the earth; because we, in the west, have yet to experience the impact first-hand.)
So, where we have a congregation who are deeply settled in the unconscious biases of what church ought to look like, reinforced by their experience having far greater weight than any re-educational impact we can bring, what is to be done?
Here is what I think we are trying to do.
I am a Bible story-teller, and when I do this in the context of the gathered church I do it through the lens of move-listen-share-care-learn, asking such questions as:
How does this passage move the story on?
Who speaks? What do they say?
Is there any good news to share?
How is the community built up?
How does this passage connect with what we already know?
There are, of course, other areas of education—which will more often than not take the form of unpacking and making sense of experience, but will sometimes precede experience.
We cannot easily take an aging congregation to other contexts where they might experience different ways of being church; but we can and do seek to help them to parse their own lives (in which they are immersed) and our neighbourhood (parish, city, nation, global) through the same lens:
Where have you been this week? What did you see? Who did you meet?
What have you heard—from God? from others?
Do you have any good news stories to share?
Who is in especial need of care? (And how might we respond?)
What are we learning to do as we follow Jesus together?
In many ways, this is the hardest sphere for me, and one that calls for putting tools into people’s hands. But it is good that it is hard for me, as this only emphasises the importance of teamwork, of bringing to bear all the voices, all the talents. For example, Jo is far better than I am at inter-personal skills, at (almost every form of) communication, at finding and arranging resources, and at the practicalities required to make things happen.
Move: equipping the congregation to be sent out will need to engage with the Church of England’s national initiative Setting God’s People Free, and involve working more closely with other local congregations as part of a Deanery Plan. But I am also in this two-year transition role to help a congregation re-imagine how to be and do church without a full-time vicar, and so far this has included a (modest) change in the Sunday services to include a monthly service that is not dependent on being clergy-led, has opened up some new opportunities for new people to bring their gifts to bear in music and in Bible study, and includes hearing stories from the lives of the congregation through the week.
Listen: establishing a pattern of corporate prayer. So far this has included having the building open for prayer through the day in Holy Week, and Morning Prayer in the week leading up to Pentecost. My intention is to introduce Evening Prayer, perhaps twice a week, and to run The Prayer Course (Jo: resource-finder) on Tuesday evenings in September-October.
Share: I recently posed the challenging question, how many people do we expect to see come to faith in the next six months? and this calls for attention to equipping people to share their faith, although I am already hearing reports of positive conversations being had (here, the evangelists—those wired for sharing good news stories—will take a lead). We’re also working on social media presence (again, Jo is great here).
Care: the charism (the grace given by God for a particular purpose) of this church, named for St Nicholas, is surely to be a community that holds out safe have for those who find themselves ‘all at sea’. The story of sailors caught in a storm who cry out to God to be saved and to whom God sends a vision of Nicholas to guide them to harbour is depicted in stone over the main entrance and in stained glass window, and another window depicts Jesus’ disciples caught in a storm on the lake. Many in our community find themselves ‘all at sea’ due to the enormity of the global environmental crisis, or the national ‘Brexit’ omnishambles, or the impact of Austerity, or due to cancer or marriage breakdown. We are called to such people, and will tell the story of our charism, in a variety of ways, on a regular basis.
Learn: this one is less clear. I think there is a historic love of singing, and I would love to see a regular (termly?) opportunity to come together to learn some new songs; but ongoing listening might result in the development of other areas as well or instead.
That’s the plan, right now, in as much as there is a plan. It isn’t secret, but neither is it owned, yet—and it might not be. It isn’t the culture round here, but the best means of necessary culture change. It is a beginning, and a slow one, involving bringing to light our unconscious biases (starting with my own!) that will create resistance. Yet it holds true that God declares,
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)