Thursday, 7 March 2013

Making sense of 'mission', Hodge Hill style

On a recent training day for a colleague I'm currently supervising, we were presented with the following model for the 'journey of discipleship'...

And it set me thinking. Actually, first it set me seething, and then I started thinking. Now, I could spend paragraphs detailing every detail of what's wrong with it, but that would be pretty unedifying stuff. Much more interesting, I think, is to begin to articulate constructive alternatives. But to do so, a little bit of critique is probably a prior necessity...

Firstly, there's the implied - actually, fairly explicit - hierarchy. The goal of discipleship, apparently, is to become part of an 'army' of 'leaders'. Now, my reading of the gospels can sometimes be a bit eccentric, but I'm really not sure where the descriptions of Jesus' calls to his disciples might suggest such a thing. Peter on the beach, post-crucifixion-resurrection, might be invited to 'feed my sheep' - but he's still called to 'follow me', and there ain't much evidence of him joining an 'army'.

Secondly, there's what it assumes about church. That somehow it's a body of concentric circles, the 'leaders' being in the middle. In real life, of course, church is a collection of overlapping groups and contexts, and where we might find ourselves 'leading' in one context, we would do well to realise in a different context that we come as 'visitor'.

Which leads me on to a more critical flaw. The suggestion that when you're 'outside' it's all about 'receiving', and when you're 'inside' you make a shift to 'giving'. What assumptions is this making?

For a start, pretty obviously it's working with a 'deficit' model of faith: people 'outside' the faith community (the 'dry bones', no less!) are 'lacking' something, which they then 'receive', and are then equipped to 'give' to others. Biblical scholars might point us to the 'handing over' of which Paul talks (with reference to the beginnings of the practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus) - but it should also be noted in that context that the same word for 'handing over' is used of Judas' betrayal of Jesus. We would do well to remember that what we imagine we are 'passing on' in faithfulness, we may well also be 'betraying' in the process. The implication also that those of us 'inside' somehow stop 'receiving' seems to suggest that, in actual fact, 'discipleship', the art of following Jesus, really stops once you're 'in'.

What it says about human beings, then, I find more than a little scary. Prayer, conversation, social action, even parties, are merely the 'preparatory' stuff for Christian faith. Once you've 'got it', it's all about the hard work of 'training', 'giving', 'specialising' and 'leading'. 'The glory of God,' to misquote Irenaeus, is not 'humanity fully alive,' but 'individuals trained up to lead.'

So much for the critique (and don't even get me started on 'slipping God in' covertly somewhere between the first benign 'social event' and the full-on 'enquirers' course'...). What about the reconstruction for our context here in Hodge Hill?

Well, I'm not sure whether to begin at the 'beginning' or the 'end'. And that's perhaps the first constructive point. I don't think discipleship is a neat, linear journey. As a journey into a mystery - the Mystery - there's a hell of a lot of 'one step forwards, two steps back', of circling around, and of going off on tangents that turn out to be heading straight into the open arms of God.

Which means, secondly, that those we might class as apparently 'outside' the furthest fringes of 'church' (and even the boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside' are so much more fuzzy than we're sometimes led to believe) might well often be closer to God than we are ourselves. So let's ditch the deficit model. It stinks. Especially in neighbourhoods like ours here in Hodge Hill, where people are all-too-used to being told, and treated as if, they are 'lacking', 'needy', 'deprived' and 'dependent'. Let's start working on the 'asset' - or 'giftedness' - model of human beings - that each woman, man or child we encounter has within them passions, gifts and skills, knowledge and wisdom, faith, that are integral to them bearing God's image and impress, and which they breathe with the breath of the Spirit.

So thirdly, our idea of mission here is to discover the places of common ground that turn out to be holy ground. Looking, as we do here, for evidence of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope, as signs of God's kingdom springing up around us, we find ourselves as much guests as hosts, as much invited as inviters. The holy ground is by no means within our control, our familiarity, or even our understanding - we discover it as seekers, visitors, disciples - and in it, on it, we discover our neighbours and their giftedness.

Of course, we may have a role, sometimes, in co-creating spaces where the gifts and skills and faith of others are drawn out and enabled to flourish - what I've labelled 'over-accepting' in other blog posts here - but funnily enough, those co-created spaces are also the places where our own gifts and skills and faith are drawn out and enabled to flourish. And those spaces, where trust has been built sufficiently, might be spaces where we can share our 'whys?' and the stories of our roots and our longings - but we have found here that we have got to know our own stories better, more fully, through working, being, waiting, talking, listening alongside others very different to us.

Oh, and in case it's not obvious, prayer and conversation, parties and social action (let's rephrase that as 'action in solidarity', or 'making change happen together') happen in those first encounters, but also just happen to be hallmarks of what we sometimes call 'the kingdom of God'. They're what being a disciple, being human, being fully alive, are all about.

Want an example? I'll post a blog in just a moment on the amazing, evolving, Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play. As examples go, it's about as good as it gets.


  1. And hopefully you will communicate this critique to those who decide what training is offered in different contexts! The receiving to giving element is the one that most grieves me - too many in church hierarchies find it hard to receive from others - it doesn't seem to be reflective of a mutually interdependent self giving Trinitarian God... Missio dei seems so much richer as a model - God is so clearly at work in places way beyond the church!

  2. I was trying to explain to my Mum how the church I go to now differs from some I've been to in the past: that sort make friends with people and help them just to try and make them into Christians; the one I go to now believes in making friends and helping people because they want to be friends and help people, or even, because they think that's how Jesus wants them to be.