Futurechurch conference - musings for Citysiders

The Futurechurch conference was a gathering in Auckland of people from throughout NZ who were concerned to explore what the church might look like, and what it might concern itself with, in the coming years. The demographic of those who attended was interesting – significant numbers of ‘clergy’ or people in staff roles in institutional churches, probably at least half of the participants were Presbyterian, and I was the youngest person there (!) This demographic had to do with the timing of the conference…during the week...which was a deliberate but difficult decision on behalf of the planning team, and also the particular networks of those involved in planning and publicity.
A great deal of the value of the conference for me was the opportunity to prepare and offer material in the form of workshops, facilitated conversations and brief key-note input. Also, it was great being part of the planning of something like this…seeing what goes into organising a conference, and also working to generate an occasion where all participants would be fully involved, rather than passive listeners to a series of academic addresses. And, as usual with these kinds of things, the ongoing value will be in the form of contacts, conversations, relationships with people with some shared values and interests.
Most significantly for me, the conference has created a bond between Cityside and St Lukes that should result in some collaborative worship and other activities down the track. Including finding out how a formerly declining Presbyterian parish now supports two flourishing youth groups and Sunday school.
We gathered on the first day to meet and hear where we were all from, to weave fabric into our ‘loom’ to invite the Spirit into our midst, and to consider where/who we were voyaging from, with, and to. The following days began with coffee supplied by the Cityside Coffee Project (a greatly appreciated dimension of the conference!), some worship and some storytelling – brief snapshots of things people were doing or producing in their own corner of the world. Then there were workshops and facilitated conversations on topics ranging from ‘the role of the institutional church in futurechurch’ to ‘believing and belonging nowhere’ for those who travel outside the church… and a whole lot of ideas in between. After lunch, there was ‘hub exchange’ – a chance for the whole group to get together and nut out issues around the concept of the future of the church, and then more workshops and conversations. The evening sessions, open to the public and well attended, began with short addresses by the ‘animators’, and then became an ongoing conversation into which anyone could offer input. The topics covered were: ‘disconnected? our relationship to the tradition’, ‘nz metaphors in theology’, and ‘strange bedfellows…evangelicals and progressive Christians.’ On the Friday night, Antony from St Lukes and I (together with new friend Cheryl, who works down the road from Mark in Melbourne) offered some stations-based worship with Cam and Andrew creating a great soundscape. This was a highlight for many.
So, those were the nuts and bolts. What did I get out of it? What do I have to pass on to Citysiders? In one respect, the conference as it panned out didn’t really feel like it was ‘for us’ in the sense that the issues and the questions being raised didn’t always seem to fit Cityside’s identity, ethos, or phase of life. Like I said, I was the youngest person there. Also, there seemed to be a specific group of people missing from the discussion…that is, the ‘emerging church’ element…small independent groups, intentional community practitioners, people who are into reforming or emerging from the non-traditional wing of the church, or whose interests are in ‘incarnational mission’. I have felt that this group have been better represented in the events that Servants have organised with visiting speakers such as Dave Andrews and Charles Ringma.
Having said that, the discussions and conversations have yielded the following reflections:
 - The institutional, traditional church is in decline. But, I don’t think it’s going to lay down and die. I think the seeds of reform are well and truly planted, and many of these churches are beginning to see how their content and structure and assumptions need to adapt to the present climate. At the same time, many people have left the church and formed communities, small groups, clusters, gatherings. My feeling is that the future of the church lies in there being a more positive interface between these smaller groups and the institutional church. I think there is a role for the church in being visible within society, offering opportunities for gathering and worship, pooling resources to fund a variety of initiatives, and being a voice and agent for social transformation. It can hold the tradition, drawing on hundreds of years of insight and learning and practice, and offering people engagement with something that is not fragile and transitory, but has a history (albeit mixed), and some sense of transcendence. However, I see the role of this church to be to free people up to engage fully in the world around them, and to resource and encourage people to form smaller, creative, experimental groups who explore, connect with the world, and who are able to inform, critique and change both the church and the society of which they’re a part.
I don’t think it’s for the institutional church to seek to be ‘relevant’ so that more people will come in. I think that it should be authentic, and engaged and releasing of people to follow their gifts. If people connect with God by means of it, great. If people engage with God in the context of a small group and never hook into the institution, fine. But I think that the church continues to have a role in enabling and resourcing (financially, educationally, and with buildings etc.) the initiatives of those who are already a part of it, in collaboration with all sorts of groups and people in the wider community. I’m not really sure where Cityside fits in here…are we the institutional church, or one of those creative smaller groups? Sometimes I feel like we’re a mixture of both…there are many small groups and initiatives that Citysiders are involved in that I’d like to see us supporting and releasing to ‘do their thing’ under the Cityside umbrella…so in that sense maybe we’re more like ‘trad church’. But if you compare us to any of the mainline churches, and their infrastructure and hierarchy, we’re much more like an experimental group on the edge. It’s a good tension to hold.
- There are two shifts that I see taking place in relation to the Church, and some groups are making one shift without the other, while some are doing both. These are ecclesiology (the form, structure, identity, and activities of the church) and theology (understandings of who/what God is, and the related issues of salvation and what it means to be ‘Christian.’) Many within the emerging church movement have embraced creative ideas to do with reforming ecclesiology, but haven’t really begun to address the theological questions. And at the same time the progressive wing of the traditional church has done a lot of work on wrestling with the theology, but the ecclesiology hasn’t shifted. There are some conversations still to be had around these questions. An interesting experiment for Citysiders: go to www.tcpc.org, click on ‘the 8 points’ under the ‘about us’ tab and see the extent to which these points represent your own theological views. I’d be interested to hear your responses.
- In a consumer world that tends towards niche markets, it is easy to choose one dimension of Christianity and make it the thing against which all utterances are measured. It was an eye-opener for me to come from within the (largely conservative) Baptist stable, into an environment of marked ‘theological correctness’ with respect to certain specific issues (race/treaty, social justice, gender and sexual identity, for example). As it happens, I agree with the perspectives upheld by most at the conference. It was nice going from being a theological alien within the Baptist environment to a sense of like mindedness with this other church grouping. However, I did come away with the nagging feeling that some social trends had replaced the gospel, or Jesus Christ, as the measure of what it’s important to agree on, or conform to. For myself, one of the important things about the diversity of the church is that we don’t all ‘think with one mind’ on issues, but that we learn to differ graciously and respectfully with one another.
- There’s an energy that comes from being a ‘sect’ that’s different from the energy in being a ‘church.’ This was the distinction made by Kevin Ward from his research on the future of mainline Protestantism in the West. He calls churches like the Presys, the Anglicans, and the Catholics ‘Church’ because they are sustained by birth…you’re affiliated to them by birth and infant baptism, and in theory, you stay there till you die. Independent churches, including Baptists, are ‘sects’…that is, they are sustained by conversion, people choose to be part of them, and enter membership as adults. I have resisted being Baptist for a long time. But in the context of the conference, I found myself feeling strangely warm towards the particular kind of energy, a kind of ‘outward energy’, and an autonomy, a creative freedom, that is part of the Baptist tradition. What a pity it seems to revert so often as conformity, and ghetto mentality. But the potential is there for something good…
- Cityside has a great deal to offer, and as we enter into another phase in our life - that of being more suburban than urban, and increasing numbers of children - if we can work out ways of making this shift and still embracing the questions, the explorations, and still come up with creative ways of connecting to our world, the culture of which we’re a part, then we will have a story to inspire others. Most emerging church initiatives have been ‘single generation’ – they last for a while, and then fizzle when the energy of their founder/s fades, or there’s a change to the social dynamics, or burn out hits as a result of the attempt to reinvent the wheel every week/month in an attempt to avoid institutionalising. This isn’t the end of the world…many have made valuable contributions while they lasted. But on Sunday, after being at the Futurechurch conference, and then coming to be part of our congregation, with all its beautiful children, I felt strongly that it is our task to keep building something authentic, positive, courageous, creative and truthful – for ourselves, and to pass on to these young people, so that they might meet God in their own ways, in an environment that nurtures them as whole persons – body, mind, spirit.