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New blessing for exhausted churches

by
11 March 2016

In small-group conversations, Christians can find a more reciprocal culture, says Robin Greenwood

Fresh hope: a conversation on blessing at a church in Newcastle

Fresh hope: a conversation on blessing at a church in Newcastle

I HAVE walked alongside a wide variety of Christian communities over the past two years: Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic in the north-east of England; and Lutherans in Europe and New York. The idea was to explore ways for churches to find renewed faith, purpose, and energy in a world in which Christianity is often regarded as a spent force. I have used the opportunity of a research grant to seek an antidote to the muted panic and exhaustion found in so many church communities and leaders today.

My interest lay in exploring with congregations how, as a body, they could enter more fully into a sense of sharing God’s blessing. My sense was that society needed churches to move beyond talking about God to knowing God’s presence — in order to know themselves as called to become a blessing to others.

Recurring themes in scripture reveal how the gift of blessing — in the sense of being delighted in, and being given a vocation — draws together praise, joy, abundance, repentance, reconciliation, laughter, and mutual regard. In facilitated conversations, groups were invited to recognise blessing as not just a feeling, but a real enactment of God’s love, which is always an interactive movement, an ecology.

 

THE “Conversations of Hope” that I began to devise were rooted in the themes of hospitality, thoughtful listening and talking, mutual appreciation, and a move from self-pity to the generation of new confidence, renewing churches to be agents of well-being in their locality.

In small groups and workshops, I shaped, and acted as companion to, conversations on the transformative power of living in God’s blessing. What soon emerged was how often the notion of blessing occurs in everyday speech, such as “Bless!” or “A blessing in disguise”, even though, in Christian terms, it may need to be unhooked from mere sentimentality.

So, for example, a congregation in the outer estates of Newbiggin Hall, Newcastle, gathered for conversations on how all ages together might encounter God and one another. This process focused on revisiting the biblical notion of abundance, combined with approaches to community empowerment by educators and writers such as Margaret Wheatley (see below). It included sharing food and Lectio Divina on how God’s holiness creates Christian community (2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2).

As a companion, I set a tone of honesty about how things are, and how people are responding to the state of the Church. These conversations released genuine surprise in people who had been churchgoers for years, but had never spoken openly with one another about God at work in their lives. No one said the “wrong” thing.

 

KEEPING centred on the reality that each of us is God’s beloved, we learned to listen and appreciate what really matters to another friend and disciple. Allowing ourselves to be consciously present to one another and to God among us, we were often surprised at how easily we could move beyond what had seemed impossible.

We learnt not to be anxious about growing or succeeding as the centre of our concern. We caught what the author of Psalm 103 had absorbed: that when we bless God for his steadfast love, and talk together within the ecology of being blessed, we are renewed, forgiven, and willing to follow God’s Word.

Older participants were encouraged to voice anxieties about how children might “spoil” the peace of their services, so that they could move on to imagine the happiness and energy that all-age worship could engender. From this conversation, they found confidence to renew contact with a school whose head was willing to contribute. On Easter Day, the church’s first all-age eucharist drew the whole congregation together in joy and renewed hope, opening the way to regular worship designed and led by people of all ages.

In Shilbottle, Northumberland, a spirit of joy and confidence emerged when members of the congregation took part in face-to-face conversations. They now report “a new spirit of hope, understanding and commitment”.

Consequently they have started Messy Church. Also, three groups started with the Lent course and are continuing as “Pilgrim Course” groups. They describe how they are discerning God’s blessing in their stories, hopes, and uncertainties, so that they might turn with renewed confidence to their neighbourhood.

 

MANY now lament the loss of Christendom, and the reality of shrinking resources. Congregations lose energy through feeling hurt that their best efforts are ignored, or, when focusing on a sense of deficit, they slip into self-pity.

If we accept that many leaders are becoming exhausted, it becomes urgent that Christian institutions abandon old maps that no longer work. Although no catch-all solutions exist for addressing reluctance to change, churches that step into a conversational culture have encouraging stories to tell.

In Chesterfield, exploring the benefits of simple but purposefully designed conversations has encouraged tentative Christians to become faithful, and faithful Christians to become witnesses. As the Vicar writes: “It has started us on a new way of working together, where honesty is constructive, and all have a gifting and a place.”

Transformational conversation is not a new strategy to add to the many already espoused by dioceses as they concentrate on growth or mission-action planning. Rather, in whatever circumstances, purposeful conversation, rooted in celebrating God’s blessing, mercy, and friendship, offers to create a reciprocal culture, and the conditions that can undergird practical projects of all kinds.

 

AT A time when churches are tempted to feel defeated and marginalised within society, the time has come to risk embracing Jesus’s insistence that only through dying do people, communities, and churches come alive. It is God who initiates and sustains the event that we call church. In so many disciplines — scriptural, spiritual, organisational, and ecological — there now flows a rich vein of wisdom, inviting us to reach beyond human endeavour and adversarial success.

My experience, and the evidence of movements with churches, indicates how complex problems and energy-blocks might not be resolved by discussions that prove others to be “wrong”, so much as by open and evolving conversations between ourselves and God.

This is the God who is most clearly shown in cradle, grave, and the restless motion of resurrection community — in a vulnerability that, against all odds, bursts out in excess and unexpected newness. I have witnessed how this approach can help wean churches, regionally and locally, from dependency on heroic leadership, promoting instead the embedding of a more reciprocal culture.

It requires commitment and resources to foster the values and practices of being church out of this deeper place. A key element is to encourage those who can be initiators of such a culture, and companions who can help to embed these values and practices.

The risky move now is for leaders to recognise how the wind of the Spirit is leading us to be church in the same intimacy with God that Jesus reveals. Leaders have the opportunity to encourage the embedding of this culture of mutuality and helpless power.

The resources are simple: a rich cross-disciplinary mixture of conversation, listening, participatory learning, mutual trust, and the sense that we believe our own words when we declare: “The Lord is here.”

 

Canon Robin Greenwood held a William Leech Research Fellowship in practical theology at St John’s College, Durham University, 2013-2015. His new book is Sharing God’s Blessing: How to renew the local church (SPCK, 2016) (Books, 12 February).

 

 

LET me open the door into a conversation. Sitting around a space are seven or eight people at different stages on the Christian journey. They might be in a home, a pub, a shop, a church, a prison, or a school. At the centre of the circle, on a coloured cloth, lies an informal arrangement of a lighted candle, a cross, a picture, and an open book of the Gospels.

As music fades away, someone offers a prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit’s active presence. The group sings, or listens, perhaps, to one of Bernadette Farrell’s interpretations of a psalm.

Everyone has a printed copy of a short scripture passage; someone reads it aloud slowly. In a period of silence, participants choose a word or phrase that stands out for them. In twos or threes, they share the word they have chosen, perhaps with a brief explanation. Now another voice reads the same passage.

After a silence, those who want to share with the whole group their chosen word and its resonance. This is often the trigger for further conversation.

 

• Here is a place to talk with rather than be talked at.

• Here is a time to be present to one another in the light of God’s abundant ways with the world.

• Here is an opportunity to slow down, and ask again how to respond to God’s call.

• Here it is normal to be vulnerable, doubting, struggling, and discovering. Mary, now in her eighties, laments cheerfully: “I thought that when I got to my age, all would become clear. But it hasn’t.”

• Here, untidily, are acceptance, laughter, tears, excitement, and hope.

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