Friday, 18 April 2014

The City as Tree: Operational and Relational Approaches to Urban Mission

Christena Clevelandʼs excellent post on surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas got me thinking about Avatar. (Sorry to lower the tone. But this could have been a half-decent film had it ended with the destruction of Hometree – the giant tree home to the indigenous Naʼvi.) Humanity, who are outsiders to the Naʼvi community, destroy the tree because they reduce it to a resource.

The parallels with surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas may be stretched but they are there. The city is often treated as a resource rather than as a home. It is to be mined for “capacity” (for which read “money” or “people”, although I suspect that people are harder to come by – too busy surviving to be put to use to some other end). Or the city is to be used to reach the nations or as a blueprint to reach other cities.

Yes, the city can be a means to all of this. But what about the city as an end-in-itself?

Too often we jump too quickly from the city as an end-in-itself to the city as a means. We forget about the city itself. And even when we do think about the city as an end-in-itself, we can make it sound more like a project than a home. We can make it sound solely like something “to be reached”. Jumping too quickly over the city-as-home is the same premature jump from the operational to the relational that I highlighted in point 9 here. I wrote,

There is a tendency in the church to jump too quickly from community to organisation, from private relationship to public event (such as an evangelistic meeting). This is because, first, relationships are hard work, whereas events are easy; and, second, because the former is like watching paint dry, whereas the latter are like fireworks. However, fireworks fizzle, and without the community roots that sustain life, events become drift-wood.

So whether the city is treated as an operational end (a project) or as an operational means (to some resource), we sometimes forget about the city as home – as something relational.

What difference does it make?

When I am inside someoneʼs home I am outside of mine. I am subject to their hospitality or, rather, their “hospital-ity”. The hyphen hopefully helps us to see the connotations of healing here. Good relationships heal. So the city as home can be a place of healing, even if only glimpsing the new heaven and the new earth.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.*

So as we engage with the city, several questions come to mind? In our discourse about the city, do we allow for the city to be home (as well as resource and project)? If so, is it something that we allow to change us (epitomised by healing)** or is it something solely to be changed by us (through our projects)?

If the latter, then I suspect that we have only superficially engaged. We have not fully engaged with those who call the city home. (Have we even listened to them?) For that would bring about change in us. And since our relationship with others is irreducibly bound up with our relationship with God, it could, by extension, bring about change in how we see him too.

So if the former – is engagement with the city something that we allow to change us? – then perhaps the key question concerns our vision of God. How has the city changed that vision as we engage with those who call the city home? For example, Kester Brewin talks about seeing God in organic bottom-up growth, rather than in industrial top-down strategising.***

Again, if we cannot answer that, or merely resort to Monty-Python spirituality – “O Lord you are SO big, because the city is SO big” – then have we really moved beyond some conceptual theology of the city to doing life with its inhabitants?

* Revelation 22:1-2.
** For example, Bryant Myers notes that engaging with the poor has less to do with our agenda concerning poverty, and more about recognising that our own poverty needs transforming too [Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999)]. Similarly, engaging the city has less to do with our agenda concerning the city, and more about our transformation with the city. For that, we at least need to be there, to live there, to listen.
*** See Kester Brewin, The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church (London: SPCK, 2004). A précis of the book can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Whence “Organisational Movements”?

Elsewhere, I have noted the incoherence of equating “organisation” with “movement”. So whence the penchant to equate them in my neck of the woods?

Two observations.

The first is not so much a reason as a correlation. There has been a shift away from the old mission statement to a new vision statement. The old mission statement talks about helping to build spiritual movements in order to realise the vision; whereas the new vision statement simply talks about dreaming the vision.

Although this is not necessarily a reason for the equation of organisation with movement, a safeguard to help prevent the equation of the two has been lost. If the organisation is helping to build spiritual movements, then those movements are presumably bigger than the organisation itself. Organisation cannot simply be equated with movement.

So the shift away from the old mission statement correlates to the equation of organisation with movement in its organisational rhetoric.

The second observation perhaps reflects the organisationʼs psyche. Whereas movements that it helps to build are bigger than the (organisational) identity of those helping, equating the organisation with a movement becomes its identity. It comes to understand itself as a movement.

So the shift from old mission statement to new vision statement reflects a shift from identities-being-relative-to-movement to identity-being-movement. Movement was the main thing for which several identities helping one another were necessary. Now identity as a movement has become the main thing.

Q: What explains this shift from movement to identity? A: Perhaps a crisis of identity caused by a change in relation to another whom it was helping (and being helped). If it is not now in relation to this other then who is it? If it is no longer has its identity in helping (and being helped) toward some common goal (a movement), then perhaps its has turned inward to reflect upon its own identity, and so subsequently reinterpreted “movement” as the answer to its search. Movement is now determined by identity, rather than identity (as “helping helper”) being determined by the common goal of movement.

That would explain the shift from movement to identity. And, again, it correlates to the shift from old mission statement to new vision statement, from helping-towards-movement to being movement.

It would also explain the shift from a relational understanding of multiplication to an operational one, from one whereby we sacrifice ourselves so that others flourish – in order for them to sacrifice themselves for other others – to an understanding of multiplication whereby we simply extend our own brand.

It all begins to make sense.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Protestant Capitalist Marriage

While looking for resources on the impact of capitalism upon mission, I came across this post on Urbanaʼs blog. It concludes:


The invitation for western Protestants in the 21st century is to re-imagine mission without the capitalist paradigm we have been handed. We will need to look to our majority world brothers and sisters, to the alternative Protestant mission operations of the Moravians, Quakers, Mennonites and even to our Catholic and Orthodox cousins to begin to stretch our imaginations.

Monday, 7 April 2014

How Friendship Saves the World

Another example of relationships over programmes, and people before operations can be found here. The post sums itself up in the following sentence: Maybe what saves the world is relationships, rich webs of social connections.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Two Illustrations

These two links (below) perhaps further illustrate the difference between relational and operational ministry. The first from Christena Clevelandʼs blog shows (in my words) what happens when a local community approach (presumably the more relational) collides with a city-wide approach (presumably the more operational). (Thanks to my wife for drawing this to my attention.)

Then, although intended to illustrate the travails of an engineer in a business meeting, the second could also illustrate the oddness of sitting in a strategy meeting where people mean different things by multiplication”. I have posted previously on this here.

So imagine sitting in a meeting where you understand multiplication to mean “self-sacrifice for community” (the relational understanding) but others present mean “expansion of the brand” (the operational understanding). There is plenty of scope for weirdness, which, like in the video, seems to go over the head of most.

Indeed, when someone casually says that multiplication is both, is this not like the person (in the video) who casually wants red lines drawn with blue ink?

Friday, 28 March 2014

More on the Difference between Multiplying Products and Persons


In a recent paper, Jim Trammell notes the ʻdominant themes of Christian media marketing … [These are]: consumers are insufficiently Christian, unlike the humble, ministry-minded Christian media artists, but the media products can make these consumers more sufficiently empowered and inspired.ʼ* But even when all these themes are not fully present, other themes are rarely ever present.

Therapeutic and transformational themes in Christian media marketing are certainly present within the broader spectrum of Christianity: the Gospels note, for instance, that Jesus tells His followers “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). But it is too simplistic to summarize the whole of the faith as a means by which the believer can feel better about him or herself. To be sure, Jesus also called His followers to feed the sick, take care of orphans, and love our neighbours as ourselves. These themes of using the faith to serve others, though, are less apparent in Christian media marketing than in emphasizing on how the faith can directly benefit the consumer.*

Thus, ʻultimately, Christian media marketing negotiates between marketing products and marketing faith by framing Christianity as a belief system that benefits the user, but not necessarily benefits the lives of others.ʼ* In other words, the multiplication of products can proceed without the other-centredness so central to the multiplication of persons.

Jesus puts that other-centredness like this: “when a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains above; but if it dies, it bears more fruit.”** This is the multiplication of persons, not products. Indeed, confusing the former with the latter not only distorts our understanding of the multiplication of persons, it can also distort the Christian faith itself. 

So how have books like Bonhoefferʼs The Cost of Discipleship been marketed? Or have they been? For surely marketing them via those themes identified by Trammell risks great irony, on the one hand, and un-marketability, on the other.***

(Yeah, I know I said that all this operational/relational stuff was on the back-burner ... I lied!)


* Jim Y. Trammell, ʻ“The Grandest, Most Compelling Story of All Time”: Dominant Themes of Christian Media Marketingʼ, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 26:1, Spring 2014, 32.
** John 12:24 [ESV].
*** Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R.H. Fuller, London: SCM, 1959).

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Christenings and Testimonies

Last month, two proposed posts on operational and relational strategy turned into twelve (all the posts in February and thus far in March). So hopefully we can now put that on the back burner, and change topic entirely.

A couple of weeks ago we asked our church if they could christen Daniel on his first birthday. (That makes things easier for family. This way they donʼt have to come to London once each for his birthday and his christening. They can kill two birds with one stone.)

In return, we were asked why we wanted him to be christened. So I said something along the following lines:

Most, if not all, of our testimony training is about “me”. Itʼs about how “I” was before I came to faith, and about how “I” find myself afterwards.

Me, me, me.

Yet my story is bound up with my parents. Other peopleʼs stories are bound up with their friends (or, on occasion, with a stranger).

And God is at work in these stories too. (Thatʼs where “me”-centred testimony-training falls short, important though it is.)

God was at work in my life, and in Kathy (my-wife)ʼs life, long before he was at work in Danielʼs life (at least from our vantage on time).

Christening celebrates that this is the case. It reminds us that Danielʼs story is bound up with stories over which he has no say or control. It reminds us of grace.

So that was my answer on the day. But I have a little more to add.

Yes, christening reminds us of grace. But christening is no mere reminder. It also promises grace. It promises divine presence: first through the work of God in us parents (and god parents), then through the church, and then through whatever mysteries divine providence sees fit.

And, dear God, I pray that my little boy will be blessed.