Reflecting on the life of small ‘missional’ groups…

The Christian group that I am part of, Aoradh, is now about 7 years old.

We are due to speak at Greenbelt Festival this year about our experience in a session entitled ‘Don’t do it like us; making community in uncool places’. Despite the faux-humble tone of our title, it still feels very bombastic to be speaking about Aoradh in such declarative fashion.

Planning what we will say does start to focus the mind on what we hold precious however, and also brings to light those rather tender areas of our small group where there are wounds and vulnerabilities. We have had a little reminder of this recently- issues that flare and fester for a while, which can be very painful. They can also be the end of small groups based essentially on friendship and shared passion; there have been several points over the years at which Aoradh could have ended.

Despite the pain of this, I have come to see these tensions as above all- normal, inevitable.

The deep friendships that we value so highly within our community will always mean a suspension of defences, and perhaps a tendency to reveal some of our less attractive personality traits which pop out under pressure.

Then there are all the group processes that you have to work out; leadership, facilitation, communication, agreeing principles, organising your business, looking after those who are on the edge. I confess to avoiding some of the theory of how all of this works- there is of course a whole industry looking at group dynamics. The idiosyncrat in me wants to flee from the regimented check list nature of this kind of thing.

But we can always learn from the experience of others- that is why we are doing the Greenbelt talk/discussion session after all.

A few years ago I read a couple of M Scott Peck’s books, including the surprisingly wonderful ‘A different Drum; community making and peace’.  Surprisingly because I read it reluctantly- I had pegged it as new-age-psychobabble-pop psychology-nonsense. What Peck does though is to give a passionate analysis of the group as the highest form of what we humans are. He describes community building like this;

  • Pseudocommunity: In the first stage, well-intentioned people try to demonstrate their ability to be friendly and sociable, but they do not really delve beneath the surface of each other’s ideas or emotions. They use obvious generalities and mutually-established stereotypes in speech. Instead of conflict resolution, pseudocommunity involves conflict avoidance, which maintains the appearance or facade of true community. It also serves only to maintain positive emotions, instead of creating safe space for honesty and love through bad emotions as well. While they still remain in this phase, members will never really obtain evolution or change, as individuals or as a bunch.
  • Chaos: The first step towards real positivity is, paradoxically, a period of negativity. Once the mutually-sustained facade is shed, negative emotions flood through: Members start to vent their mutual frustrations, annoyances, and differences. It is a chaotic stage but Peck describes it as a “beautiful chaos” because it is a sign of healthy growth. I would add that many groups do not survive this stage, and at least, many people will leave.
  • Emptiness: In order to transcend the stage of “Chaos”, people are forced to communicate. Things that get in the way of communication are forced aside, or at least forced out into the open-  need for power and control, self-superiority, and other similar motives which are only mechanisms of self-validation and/or ego-protection, must yield to empathy, openness to vulnerability, attention, and trust. Hence this stage does not mean people should be “empty” of thoughts, desires, ideas or opinions. Rather, it refers to emptiness of all mental and emotional distortions which reduce one’s ability to really share, listen to, and build on those thoughts, ideas, etc. It is often the hardest step in the four-level process, as it necessitates the release of patterns which people develop over time in a subconscious attempt to maintain self-worth and positive emotion. For Peck, it should be viewed not merely as a “death” but as a rebirth — of one’s true self at the individual level, and at the social level of the genuine and true Community.
  • True community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in the community enter a place of complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding. People are able to relate to each other’s feelings. Discussions, even when heated, never get sour, and motives are not questioned. A deeper and more sustainable level of happiness obtains between the members, which does not have to be forced. Even and perhaps especially when conflicts arise, it is understood that they are part of positive change.

Any of you who are frustrated in organised church (as I have been) will recognise immediately the fact that most churches are pseudocommunities. All that politeness and veneer of respectability. Any conflict is immediately suppressed by the paid leaders, and it is possible to be entirely anonymous and disengaged in these places. To be fair there are many that like it this way, but to me it was a kind of death.

Has Aoradh achieved Pecks kind of true community? Sometimes I would say yes, other times emphatically no. Because I am not sure that the formation of community is actually a LINEAR process like this. Circumstances change, different people join the group then leave. Rather community is something that ebbs and flows, sometimes becoming constrictive and even boring, at other times full of creative energy and passion.

Peck also wrote of list of what he saw as characteristics of true community. These I like more, as they are less mechanistic and more inspirational;

  • Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
  • Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are more well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
  • Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
  • A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
  • A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
  • A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each others’ gifts, accept each others’ limitations, celebrate their differences, bind each others’ wounds, and commit to a struggle together rather than against each other.
  • A group of all leaders: Members harness the “flow of leadership” to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.
  • A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will.

Is this Aoradh? My heart says YES.

My experience says it is the best of what we are, but it is not all that we are.

However, this too is normal. If we are moving towards the light through many dappled shades of darkness, then why would we not expect the same from ourselves in the collective? What Peck remind me of however, is that our groups have the capacity not to be just the sum of the parts within them– they are far more than just a gathering of individuals in one place. Rather they are the place of becoming.

They are not places where conflict is tolerated and excused as somehow ‘developmental’, rather places where conflict is understood and wounds are healed. It is a major distinction.

The writer of the Psalm 133 understood this.

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Teaching, preaching- in small missional groups…

In the middle of all the laughter around the campfire on my recent wilderness trip, conversation took a much more serious turn. I found myself in the middle of a rather intense and difficult discussion with one of my friends and Aoradh chums. Some of this was about leadership in Aoradh- which I will return to when I have had a chance to process and discuss it again, but another issue flickered briefly in a way that surprised me- ‘Teaching’.

‘Teaching’ that is, in the traditional Christian/Evangelical sense of the word. Apologies to those not from a background like this, but those that are will know exactly what I mean. All our services revolved around one thing- the climactic 45 minute to an hour long sermon. Through this a skilled preacher would expound on a passage from ‘The Word’, inspiring us, shaping us, challenging us and bring us to repentant response.

This kind of spirituality grew out of Victorian spirituality- a combination of the elevation of the written words of the Bible  as the primary (even the only) revelation of God, and the syncretism of faith with modern rationalistic culture. So it was natural to engage with spirituality in the same way that we would engage with the study of medicine or chemistry- in a lecture hall, with the celebrity scientist at the centre, sharing his accumulation of knowledge- even his life long labour- with those eager for understanding.

Along with this of course, scientific rigour was required, along with reliable, testable source material. So faith became something it was possible to organise, define and defend. And we did this above all things by knowledge of the Bible- carefully cross referenced verses, once produced, ended all argument.

Perceptive readers may sense a certain scepticism in the tone of this piece. It is easy to have a go at all this from a post modern cynical perspective.  We can point to all sorts of problems that we inherited with this kind of spirituality-

  • The top down nature of it, casting us in the role of passive receivers, not active questioners
  • The potential it gives for the misuse of power and control
  • The one dimensional quality of a lot of preaching- the giving of one man’s (and it usually is a man’s) perspective on ‘truth’
  • The elevation of the words of the Bible to what I would describe as idolatry- a tendency to treat the words as some kind of unassailable blue print that arrived down on earth on the wings of an angel as the transcription of the very word of God (in case you are wincing at my heresy, there is a fuller discussion of this issue here.)
  • The changing communication style of the age- the shortening of attention spans, the endless competition of other media has now entered into the human condition.

There is also this question in me about my own experience of listening to preaching. I have had the privilege of hearing some really great preachers- people who hold the attention by their great oration and carefully constructed sentences. Preaching like this is an art form, all the more to be celebrated in this age of the 30 second sound bite. Some of my friends still are responsible for delivering sermons each weekend- and I celebrate their honest creativity- their genuine efforts in the long direction, to bring light into the lives of a congregation through words.

I also love to go and listen to speakers at festivals like Greenbelt- people who bring a totally new and sometimes controversial perspective.

But having said all this, when I consider the shape of my own journey, and try to remember how this was affected by teaching or preaching I have heard, I struggle to remember more than one or two actual sermons/teaching sessions (and even those, not necessarily for the right reasons.) Perhaps I was shaped by the experience more than I can remember the actual events, but considering the countless hours of preaching I have sat through, we might expect there to be much more connection between hearing a message, responding to the challenge, and life changes that flow from this.

I think that we have been caught up in the idea that refining our knowledge of a certain kind of moral interpretation of the Bible equates to something we called ‘spiritual maturity’. It was like a uniform we put on- a way of identifying with the church culture we belong to. But as I look back now, this is not the kind of spirituality that has deep value to me.

It is not that knowledge is unimportant, or that we do not need someone to give us some basic knowledge for the road, but despite all this, spirituality (in my experience) is only discovered in real places, encountering real people and asking questions of the experiences along the way.

I also think that the reductionism of faith down to basic facts is dangerous. It suggests that there is ONE understanding that we should all be conforming to- and increasingly I have found faith to be a glorious question mark, within which there are routes for many lines of enquiry.

Those of you that preach will right now want to tell me that there are other ways to skin the cat- and I would agree with you. Preaching can open up issues, not close them down. Preaching can soar like poetry in the ears of the listener. This kind of preaching I want to hear.

Perhaps preaching is reshaping too- think of all those wonderful TED talks that go viral on t’internet. Like this one;

So, what of our short discussion about teaching in small missional groups? How do we ‘teach’ one another in this kind of context?

The very idea initially took me by surprise. Why would I want to ‘teach’ my fellow community members anything? Does this not assume that I am some kind of God-expert who needs to sprinkle my knowledge on my disciples? Are we not learning together constantly just by living deliberately shared lives of faith? Ideas enter constantly into conversation through books we have read, things we have encountered through the internet etc.

Then I thought of our young people- who perhaps do need to learn some things in order to go through their own process of deconstruction/construction. Is it enough for them to learn in this kind of community chaotic way? Perhaps it is time to think again, if not about teaching, then certainly how we facilitate discussions around particular questions.

It is a work in progress- like most of my theological positions, but some principles seem important to me;

  • Open spaces. Learning requires safe spaces in which to adventure. We have to be free to get it wrong.
  • The honest question is worth a million cheap answers.
  • Community is teaching. Teaching is community.
  • We learn in different ways- listening, watching, reading, experiencing, discussing.
  • Everyone has something to teach.


‘Making missional communities’ podcasts…

Graham sent us a copy of the recording of our talk about making small missional communities at Calvary Christian Fellowship near Preston.

We were invited to take a road trip to describe something of our experiences with Aoradh, and we structured the discussion into three main sections ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘up’ with me talking about some of the background and theory (such as it is!) behind what we do, and Michaela describing our activities in a bit more detail. We tried to be really honest about the difficult bits as well as all the great stuff.

I have uploaded it as a series of podcasts, partly because other folk in Aoradh might be interested to know what we said about them, and also because the issue of how we make and sustain community in these fluid postmodern times seems to be pretty important, so others might like to hear something of our story.

You should be able to download the different sections on these links, but I am told that ‘ourmedia’ sometimes takes a little while to make uploads ‘live’, so you may need to come back a little later…

Making missional communities 1

Making missional communities 2

Making missional communities 3

Making missional communities 4

Making missional communities 5

Making missional communities 6

Making missional communities 7

Making missional communities 8

Leadership in small missional communities…

It is an old theme- I was just re reading this old post here about Todd Bentley and all the madness around his leadership. There appears to be a similar storm gathering around Mark Discoll’s leadership of Mars Hill. Leadership, power, control- these are things that seem to be perpetual struggles for we humans as we seek to work out collective faith.

Last weekend we were speaking to a group of people about developing small missional communities, and of course we had to say something about leadership. Our small community (Aoradh) still has no ‘leader’. This is in part because we have simply deferred resolution of the issue, and also because we have sort of fallen into a different kind of process of decision making.

I read something the other day that seemed to describe what we do (or what we try to do) really well. Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘ was describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’, that he described as follows;

individuals see a need for something, and say so.  As these voices start to harmonize, the leadership team– whose main purpose is to be attentive to the church and to protect its heart– will take notice and begin to clarify the need.  They will work to define it; to understand its parameters.  There might be a need for a different format for organizing the Sunday workflow, or a new way of doing service projects, or a financial concern, or an entirely new program of ministry.  But instead of leading some kind of charge, the leadership team will pull back a bit and simply organize the conversation that is brewing about the new thing or the reform that is needed…

It is a lot of work, and a lot of mess.  But it also generates a lot of creativity and ownership.  Supplying solutions in this way organically integrates the best people in the right places.  The people who step up are almost invariably the right ones for the jobs, and the solutions they find are amazingly exciting and durable. The hardest lesson for those of us with worrying tendencies or those who feel some sense of responsibility for all organizational systems to work flawlessly is that we need to sit with our discomfort and simply wait.  We’re learning that in church, sometimes the best thing to do when faced with an important need is to do nothing.

This is not necessarily about the absence of leadership, but is certainly about the laying down of power and control. There seems to me to be something of Jesus about this.

New Monasticism podcast…

It is snowing here!

So my plans to go and work in the garden have been thwarted, and I am drinking tea and listening to podcasts. It’s a hard life.

But I came across something that I think is really important- a discussion at the London Centre of Spirituality about New Monasticism and Fresh Expressions of Church.

Bishop Graham Cray goes as far to describe New Monsasticism as a ‘New Wave of the Spirit.’ If he is right, then these small experimental groupings have a deeper relevance for the whole of church.

The discussion has a clear resonance for me, and my small community- Aoradh. Like most small groups, we ebb and flow, then ebb again. The energy we find as a group is easily drained by external and internal forces, and the need to seek renewal within practice becomes very real and urgent.

Strong themes that emerged from this podcast are perhaps those which most reflect our own situation-

  • Rule, order, seriousness
  • Spirituality allied with action
  • Courage, challenge
  • The pain/joy of community
  • Incarnation- being deliberately present, not removed.
  • Spiritual direction
  • Mission- rediscovering what this is about for us
  • Thanks to Moot for making this available, as I feel the need to rediscover a passion for what I do- to set my face in the Wind of the Spirit again…

    New monasticism comes of age…

    The concept of a new kind of monastic community has fascinated me.

    Perhaps because I lack discipline in life, and so practising a deliberate spiritual rhythm has seemed both extremely attractive but rather out of reach.

    New monasticism has gathered interest as a rather trendy form of church community- growing on the edge of ’emerging’ stuff. It has links with the 24-7 prayer movement, as well (of course) as much older traditions. It has a radical edge that is also attractive to me.

    Today- driving back from Lochgilphead in the darkness after a long meeting- I tuned to radio 4, and caught the end of ‘beyond belief’, which included interviews with a member of Moot, and a general discussion about- new monastic communities. It was a searching discussion, which asked some important questions about the nature of monastic life, and whether this new monastic stuff really involved the same amount of ‘giving up’ and setting out on a real path of self sacrifice. Commitment is not for life- but for a season. Perhaps until the inevitable small group conflict begin! You can listen again on the i player- here.

    It is also clear that some of the new communities do not seem to regard themselves as standing in the same tradition as the old monastic way of being- but rather seeking a deeper life (not necessarily overtly Christian.)

    It is worth checking out the interview on the Moot site with Shane Claiborne.

    I see there is a new Ning site- New Monasticism Network.

    My own small community is in the process of chewing over what we mean by ‘community’.  We are going through what I can only describe as a 4 year barrier- when we are having to look to re-examine ourselves. It has been painful and challenging, if necessary. New labels and concepts are not for us at the moment- rather we just need to remember to practice the disciplines of friendship and love.

    Because the formation of any small community, as previously discussed, can be a process of such incredible highs, and such terrible lows. Jonny Baker pointed out these posts by Ian Adams. I really liked what he had to say, which seemed loaded with wisdom- and I suspect, hard experience!

    In any community there will be always be a lot of focus on what we do. That’s fine – the actions of the community, its surface life – are important. But behind the activity is something less obvious, more subtle, and perhaps even more important. This is what I think of as the spirit of the community.

    Almost every family, project, team, society or business has a spirit or value system, often unrecognised, and sometimes less than positive. Gracious or greedy, caring or care-less, transparent or manipulative [or a mix of those] – the spirit of a community is how it feels to encounter it – and the spirit of thing has the power to create something beautiful – or to trash it.

    Because these small groups of ours- they are very fragile. They need loving and nurturing. Sometimes we just want to walk away- and perhaps there is a time to do just that. But they also offer such hope and life.

    So, whatever your label, may you find friends and fellow pilgrims to travel with. It is the Jesus way…