On Living for Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead

Ross Langmead once suggested that to be human is to ‘find ourselves in the middle of a cosmic story’. He was, it seems, on a perpetual journey to discern and to celebrate the spirit of life in all things. And he discerned that spirit in communities, in movements of justice, in solidarity with the poor, in creation’s hope-filled and determined persistence and wonder, and in the life and teaching of Jesus, God’s ever-new Word among us.

Much of Ross’s life and work recalls commitments expressed also in the life and work of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone whom Ross liked to read and to cite. In particular, it was their shared conviction that ‘God’ – ever irreducible to a single name or principle, and never impounded by any particular religion – is never present in general; never simply ‘out there’. Rather, God is always present for and in God’s creatures, every one, in concrete ways – as grace, as care, as kindness, as light, as troubling and healing water, as ‘mystery of servant love’. ‘We are not alone’. This is to recall that Ross’s life was grounded in the twin-conviction that God is not a Christian, and that the western-centric nature of Christian theology that dominates ecclesial life and that of theological academies in Australia has both hidden and distorted divine revelation that is at work in every human culture, and, indeed, in all creation. 

Inspired by the courageous work of Latin American liberation theologians and those theologies emerging from the ‘womb’ of Asia, Ross came to the conviction that a church preoccupied with its own welfare, security, and self-perpetuation is something quite other than that community that is a sign of God’s self-emptying life in the world. And, like Bonhoeffer, he came to the unshakeable conviction that the church is the church only when it exists for others.

There are, in fact, only two questions worth asking in theology – ‘Who (or what) is God?’ and ‘So what?’. Ross’s work bears the marks of these two questions, and finds their commonality in the language and praxis of mission, which is ‘the mother of theology’ (Martin Kähler). As Ross once put it: theological education should be ‘missiological to the core’. Missiology is, therefore, neither a theological hobby horse nor an addendum to theological work. It is theology at its crux – concerned with the life of God as God, with the life of the world as world, and with the vocation of a community made to celebrate, interrogate, and participate in the encounter which is the God–world partnership. Moreover, it is theology that can be sung, and embodied. Indeed, it must be, lest it perpetuate a lie. So Ross did a lot of both, and this deep conviction emboldened him to develop what he called ‘a mission heart in … curriculum praxis’.

I reckon Alison Langmead summed it all up very well when she wrote in the book’s Foreword:

This book’s account of Ross’s life reveals an authentic journey into how learning to trust and to participate in [God’s] great love, can play out in a single lifetime: how his early childhood in Hong Kong prepared him for an expanded world view; how he looked at and worked with the questions of life through study, practical exploration, writing, friendship, teaching, singing, and research; how he encouraged others to grapple together with the many challenges of life, taking time out to consider, to learn, to pray, and to act with courage; how working with unemployed youth and exploring the multicultural needs of a municipality could shape his theology of being the church in the world and ground his future work as a missiologist; how he consulted professionals as he tried to face the truths of his own issues; how songwriting could open the windows of the soul when other things could not; and how others have felt the benefit of having known him.

It is, however, really important for readers to remember that this is not Ross’s book. In fact, I’m not sure how Ross would have felt about the whole project; possibly quite embarrassed. It is, rather, Jeanette’s book, Jeanette’s story. Each of us will have our own memories about Ross. Some of those memories will be stirred by those recollections captured here in this story, beautifully told. Good stories do that.

Living for Shalom is a biography that walks carefully somewhere between Ross’s private and public worlds, and between the recollections of both the researcher herself and those with whom she has had exchange during the course of her research; not an easy task, but one that Jeannete pulls off admirably. Of course, Jeanette’s work on this book was assisted greatly by the generosity of those she interviewed – who responded to her survey, who kindly shared with Jeanette their own reflections and pictures of Ross, who answered her many questions, and who, along the way, widened the research pool. Moreover, Jeanette had the enviable and remarkable twin-benefit and burden that her subject appears to have never done anything much that he didn’t write down. His detailed diaries, journals, letters, notebooks, articles, academic writings, and songs mark the research gathered here in this volume. 

What began with a tentative question to herself and with a hesitant email to a sister-in-law resulted in a well-researched story written with a clarity, order, and precision befitting Ross’s own work. Of course, like any good biography, Living for Shalom teaches us about much more than only its main subject, and here readers are given rich and lively insights and snapshots: about growing up as a missionary kid in a Salvationist family; about the challenges, costs, and risks associated with sustaining Christian activism; about the shape of love in private and public life; about the insanity, character, costliness, and desired ends of theological education, not least in places like Nagaland; about how to carefully tread a path through the fears and expectations of others while maintaining your own integrity as a researcher, biographer, and person with a living faith; about the face of poverty and the possibilities of its concrete overcoming; about leaving home, and about just how complicated leaving home can be; about the difficult and painful questions of Aboriginal and migrant identities that sit like cancer on the heart for the quest for a just Australia living with the invitation for ‘a fuller expression of [its] nationhood’; about the radical (and Salvationist) roots of the Westgate Baptist Community, roots evident only in Ross but also in many other Westgaters; about the life of Christian communities in Melbourne from the first Prime-ministership of Robert Menzies through to Julia Gillard’s (another Westie!) last days in the same unenviable job, set against the backdrop of music played by the likes of The Seekers and Bob Dylan, and against the terrifying screams of the Vietnam War and of the jungles of the Thai–Burma border, violent howls that show no signs of petering out and where even here hope manages to find a way against all the odds.

We all responded to and coped with Melbourne’s long and multiple lockdowns in different ways. Jeanette Woods used that time to write a beautiful book about her brother and then gifted it to us all. For that, we are much in her debt.


This reflection is part of something that I had prepared to share at the launch of Jeanette’s book. Unfortunately, the launch needed to be cancelled.

Living for Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead

LangmeadI was honoured and delighted to be invited to pen a wee endorsement for Jeanette Woods’ recently-published biography of my teacher and friend – Ross Langmead. The book is called Living for Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead, and here’s what I wrote about it:

This is an affectionate, inspiring, and fluently written account of the life of Ross Langmead, a dedicated and infectious teacher and leader who turned many things upside down. It’s also a striking witness to the redemptive power of the love song that moves the earth toward healing, reconciliation, and wholeness. Very few people could have written this book. That Jeanette Woods has done so has helped us to see—see more and more—what we have loved in and learned from this good mate of a carpenter’s son

The book is available via the publisher, or you can also contact the author directly.

Some more perspectives on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God

The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Omar Mosque, Old Town, Bethlehem, Palestine.

The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Omar Mosque, Old Town, Bethlehem, Palestine.

Two very constructive contributions to the discussion birthed from recent events at Wheaton College:

  1. Robert Priest, Professor of International Studies and Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is concerned ‘over the way Wheaton [College] has framed the issues, over the repercussions of this for Christian witness, and over the failure to include missiologists and missionaries as interlocutors’. By way of response, he invited a number of evangelical and other respected missiologists and missionaries – those, in other words, whose insights have been mostly tragically absent in this discussion – ‘to write short essays addressing the following question: “What are the missiological implications of affirming, or denying, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”’ The result is a very helpful and much-welcomed resource, this Occasional Bulletin’ from The Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS).
  2. The Australian theologian Geoff Thompson, of Pilgrim Theological College, has posted ‘an observation, some other questions, a concern, and a personal reflection’ here.

I also really appreciated this brief and timely reflection from Matthew Milliner (of Wheaton College), delivered at the Islamic Center of Wheaton.

I commend these resources to you. And if you, dear readers, come across any other such resources on this subject, you are encouraged to draw attention to them in the comments box below.

[Image: Palden Jenkins]

Whitley College welcomes Dr Ian Dicks

Whitley College is pleased to announce the appointment of Rev Dr Ian Dicks, BA, Dip Theol, PhD as Lecturer in InterCultural Studies.

Ian Dicks is an Australian who has lived and served in Malawi for the last 20 years. Ian was ordained within the Baptist Union of South Australia and, together with his wife Wendy, has served with Global Interaction amongst the Yawo people. His current role is as ‘Cross-Cultural Worker, Anthropological and Missiological Consultant’ with Global Interaction.

Ian Dicks is an expert in the field of intercultural communications: people relating to people who are different in language, customs and beliefs. For him, this is the essence of Christian mission:  in the New Testament, in other countries, but also in our own streets and neighbourhood.

Ian has undertaken ground-breaking research in the language of the Yawo people and is currently working on a dictionary of that language. He has a passion for enabling people to learn how to relate to those whose language, traditions and experience are different from our own. He has been helping the staff of Global Interaction to engage with these challenges, and upon his return to Australia will be sharing these skills with people studying at Whitley. He has been an adjunct teacher at the University of Malawi. He has also worked in local community development projects and leadership training.

This is a shared appointment with Global Interaction: Ian will continue assisting the work in Malawi for some months each year, for the next two years at least. The balance of the year will be spent teaching at Whitley College. Ian will teach from his expertise in understanding and relating to Muslim people, Contextual Mission, and in InterCultural Communication. He would love also to lead a study trip to Malawi!

The Council and Faculty of Whitley College are delighted to be working with Global Interaction in our common commitment to training in intercultural competence and mission. We look forward with real excitement to Ian Dicks’ contribution to our life as a College and all he has to offer the Christian community.

Together with his family, Ian will be returning to Australia to take up this new position in January 2016. Please pray for him, for Wendy, Simeon and Benjamin as they prepare for this very significant change in their lives.

[This announcement originally appeared here]

mission: a statement

Pablo Picasso, 'The dove and its little ones' (Lithograph, 1947)

Pablo Picasso, ‘The dove and its little ones’ (Lithograph, 1947)

As a people claimed by the Spirit of the gospel, we believe that God desires to gather all creation under the reign of Jesus Christ, to bring all creation into unbridled communion with and in God, and with itself. To this end, God – the very One who, in the movement of missionary love, continually broods over creation and initiates a friendship with Abraham pregnant with promise – elects a people called Israel, makes them into a priestly nation to offer worship on behalf of all the world’s nations and peoples with a view to their reconciliation to God; and, in the fulness of time, God, in Jesus of Nazareth, moves anew into the world in order to reconcile all things to God; and God also calls forth a new community who, with Israel and with Jesus, participates in and bears witness (martyria) to God’s own loving and reconciling activities in the world. Born of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new community is called ‘the Christian community’ (or ‘the church’).

We believe that the Christian community, a creation of God’s Word in election, is a people called by God to participate and share in God’s mission in this world – to be a humble, prophetic and celebratory sign, embodiment and hope-filled foretaste of life in the coming reign of God. It is a people sent by God in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to, and to represent, the liberating, empowering, healing, and reconciling love of God wherever such is identified. It is a people empowered by God to embody in its own life the mystery of salvation and the transfiguration of creation.

Mission, therefore, is not an ‘optional extra’ for the Christian community but is of its essence, finding both its genesis and its telos in the trinitarian relations and in God’s own movement into the world, the object of God’s love. The Christian community cannot be true to itself apart from this action of bearing servant witness (martyria) (i) to God’s will for the salvation and transformation of the world; (ii) to God’s command to maturing discipleship; (iii) to God’s compassion, mercy and advocacy for the poor, the needy and the marginalised; (iv) to God’s vision for the flourishing of societies that reflect the justice of love and seek the end to unjust structures; and (v) to God’s desire for the integrity of a creation liberated from abusive, irresponsible and destructive actions.

Position: Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies

laidlawLaidlaw College in Auckland is seeking a Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies for its School of Theology, Mission & Ministry:

The Lecturer will be responsible for teaching in mission and contextual studies, ensuring that courses are developed and delivered in ways that are faithful to the Gospel of Christ, culturally incisive, and grounded in a biblical understanding of God’s missional purposes for Aotearoa New Zealand, the nations of the Pacific region, Asia and the world. They will also be actively involved in the College’s community and will lead the College’s Centre for Cross Cultural Mission (C3M).

The desired candidate will have the following skills and qualifications:

      • A PhD or equivalent in a relevant area of research
      • Significant missional experience
      • Active involvement in a local Christian community of faith and in Christian initiatives in the wider global community
      • Ability to publish papers and present research at academic conferences
      • Experience in teaching within a tertiary education provider
      • Experience mentoring students and providing pastoral care
      • Understanding of recent developments in the theological and general tertiary education sectors nationally and internationally
      • Experience and/or willingness to utilise e-Learning pedagogies and technologies

This position is a permanent full-time (1.0 FTE) position.

Please email your CV and cover letter to Natalie Tims, Human Resources Manager, at ntims@laidlaw.ac.nz to register your interest and request an application pack. Application packs include an application form related to your previous experience and theological principles, a Statement of Faith and a five-year Professional Development Research plan. Application packs must be submitted by Friday 2 May, 2014.

You can read the Job Description here.

‘The Conversion of the Māori’: a review

Timothy Yates, The Conversion of the Māori: Years of Religious and Social Change, 1814–1842 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013). ISBN 978-0-8028-6945-6. 150pp.

A guest post by Graeme Ferguson

When James Hamlin, my great, great grandfather, joined the CMS mission at Paihia in 1826, he came as an artisan lay missionary. His trade was flax dressing. He quickly found that not only was the New Zealand flax a distinctively different species, but also that the Māori knew a great deal more about flax weaving than he did. As a result, his life changed direction. He became a fluent idiomatic Māori linguist able to contribute to the translation of the Scriptures into Māori; he was a trusted mediator and negotiator between warring tribes; he was a faithful catechist and church planter in places where Pākehā rarely penetrated; he was a dogged explorer and a good farmer. In the last years of his long service, Selwyn was finally persuaded against his better judgement to ordain him. (Hamlin, after all, was not a ‘gentleman’.) With his wife, Elizabeth, they had twelve children. Two sons intermarried with local tribes-people so that their descendants reflect the unity in diversity of the meeting of the races in the development of this country. At Captain Symonds request, he called the hui of the Manukau tribes, in the area of Awhitu to witness the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Whero Whero who was present, ensured that few Manukau chiefs signed, since his authority as Māori king and Paramount Chief of Tainui was not to be compromised.

Hamlin’s life of undistinguished, faithful service encapsulates many of the questions that any writer on the formative years of the New Zealand mission needs to confront. It is with these questions that I approached Timothy Yates’ book in Eerdmans’ series Studies in the History of Christian Missions (SHCM).

Yates’ overview of the development of the Christian mission in New Zealand is a competent survey. It recognises the role of Māori in transmitting the Gospel so that missionaries in newly planted stations already found worshipping communities who had been told the Christian story. This could have been further developed. He deals with the relations between Anglican, Methodist and Catholic missions but may not have adequately considered the fraught nature of the different expectations in each group. He deals judiciously with difficulties relating to inappropriate moral lapses by Kendall, Yates and others and alludes to the tensions people coped with in establishing communities in the bush.

The strength of his work lies in his assiduous reading of the correspondence and reports between missionaries and their sending agencies – the CMS, the MMS and the Marist order in Paris. But the writer gives me less confidence that he has an adequate grasp of the socio-cultural context in New Zealand, within which the missions operated. He also shows both linguistic and geographic insecurity that does not enhance his work. (My favourites are the mis-spelling of Te Whero Whero, and various odd adjectival forms of Māori  places.) My evaluation is that the work is ‘worthy’ rather than ‘insightful.’

My first question relates to the way he interprets his primary source documents. The question is: who were these reports written for and what did they expect to hear? How far were they written to accommodate European attitudes and expectations which may or may not reflect the situation on the ground? To what extent could the recipients grasp what was happening in the encounter between the missionaries and the people of the land? I suspect that a healthy suspicion of what was being written is called for.

Secondly, I am interested to know what the effective points of contact were within which the Gospel was able to be shared. What was being offered and what was really being heard? Yates draws attention to the insights into local society and practices that the more insightful missionaries observed which were essential to good understanding and communication. I am interested in the differences the Gospel made in how people lived.

Thirdly, I would like to know the tenets of the Gospel that were in the forefront of missionary proclamation, what was heard and the degree to which it was appropriated and internalised. These people had very limited access to resources. Each mission had its catechism and tradition of teaching in books, like Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons or Pearson on the Creed, but few resources beyond these basic texts. All taught through methods of catechesis but in each case the content would be culturally alien to their hearers. There is the further question of the pedagogical value of catechesis as an educational tool.

Coupled with this is the role of worship in expanding the mission. Large groups are reported as gathering to worship. What were they doing? How far was worship another expression of traditional spirituality and how far an imposed foreign structure? What was going on?

The way in which missionary families lived within the host communities is crucial. The fact that many lived with mutual respect and good will and were trusted is a mark of the practical wisdom many brought to their service. I suspect that their impact was primarily experiential as they lived out the Gospel in community in the tradition of nineteenth century romantic sensibility.

A further question relates to extending the missions. One would like to know where the concentrations of population were that led to establishing stations in what are now oddly inaccessible places. Yates did this in discussing siting the initial station at Rangihoua because of the protection Ruatara was able to offer. I would like it more widely considered.

The overarching question is: what did the local people hear and what did they make their own? To what extent was the Gospel indigenised and internalised? This question is crucial and finds its high point in the reception of the Treaty of Waitangi itself. The dominant narrative on that occasion utilised the thought forms and cultural images of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity on issues of covenant and promise, rule and governance, responsibility and citizenship, the rule of law and the place of land. The Treaty could be ratified in many places because those interpreting the terms of the Treaty were trusted in their communities. Like the wider transmission of the Gospel, the Treaty was reinterpreted in local cultural terms in order to be received and accepted.

While there is much of interest in Mr Yates’ book, it is written from the perspective of a disengaged observer. Years ago, Archbishop Appleton commented that if he were to have his time as a missionary in Burma over again, he would don a saffron robe and sit and listen for seven years before he began to share the good news of the Gospel. I suspect that more engaged listening would have improved this present study.

‘Missional God, Missional Church’: a review

Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8308-3955-1; 321pp.

A guest post by Kevin Ward.

The words ‘missional’ in general and ‘missional church’ in particular are real buzz words in the church at the moment, and nowhere more so than within the PCANZ. Put ‘missional’ in front of anything and it legitimates it. The missional movement has much to offer in thinking about our current situation and its challenges going forward, and is something I have engaged with ever since the book Missional Church (edited by Darrell Guder) was published in 1998 – yes that’s how long it has been around for. My great concern is that it has rapidly become a fad, and like so many of those that have come and gone in the forty-plus years I have been involved in church leadership, it too will go. Ross Hastings’ book is, I believe, one of the most important and helpful of all the books that have been published with the word ‘missional’ in the title. This is largely because it is called ‘Missional God, Missional Church’. The order is important. A missional church flows out of a missional God, and so the first task we face as a church is not developing new forms of ‘missional’ churches or new programmes that will make our existing churches missional, but actually coming anew to a proper understanding of who the God whom we know and experience through the Father’s sending of Jesus and the Father and Son’s sending of the Spirit truly is.

Hastings takes us back to these key foundational understandings, before moving us on to envision what this means for our understanding of the church and how we engage with the world in God’s mission in it. In the missional movement the key text is John 20:21, ‘As the Father has sent me so I am sending you’, which is followed by Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples. Sadly, in the life of the church this has played second fiddle to Matthew 28:19–20. Hastings frames the whole book around a wonderful exposition of John 20:19–23, which he calls ‘the greatest commission’, arguing that in this picture of the frightened disciples huddled in the upper room with Jesus in their midst, all of the elements needed for the church to fulfil its calling as the community of the God of mission are present.

Based on a sound Trinitarian theology, the book moves on to develop a solid ecclesiology and missiology, both of which reflect the character of the God whose life they flow from. One of the great values of the book is that it corrects many of the false dichotomies that can be found in so much other work. The missional God is both a sending God and a gathering God, and so the church needs to both send and gather. Flowing from this, therefore, the church needs to be both deep and wide, grounded in the traditions of the faith as an alternative community but taking God’s shalom far and wide into the world. Both worship and mission are intrinsic to the life of the church. To do the latter it needs to inculturate the gospel without becoming enculturated itself. In other words, incarnate the gospel into the culture of the context it finds itself in without accommodating itself to it. Indeed, the theology of culture and personhood in the book is one of its great treasures. When it comes to the practice of mission, Hastings has a broad and holistic understanding of mission – what Renee Padilla calls integrated mission, which is much more true to a biblical understanding than the rather limited concept found in much of the missional church material. There are two final things I am pleased to find in this book. Missing in much of the other literature is a great love of and passion for the church, which while not being the goal of God’s mission, is certainly critical in it. Much of the missional church material takes a critical and almost dismissive stance toward the church. ‘The essential sociality of salvation, implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution is it’ (p. 133). Finally, Hastings gives adequate attention to the role of the Spirit in both the life of the church and God’s mission, something that is missing in much of the other material.

Ross Hastings parents were missionaries for 60 years in Africa, he has PhDs in both science and theology, has served as minister in two urban churches, and now teaches theology at Regent College in Vancouver. All of these factors help to make this a book which combines solid biblical and theological understanding, clear social and cultural analysis, pastoral empathy for people and the church, and a deep concern for mission in western societies – a wonderful holistic treatment. I cannot recommend it enough for those who are concerned to work in the deep and integrated way that is necessary if our churches are to truly live out the life that our missional God is calling us to.

What is Fresh Expressions and what might we learn from it?

A guest post by Mark Johnston.

For some time now, Fresh Expressions UK has been getting people’s attention as snippets of what the Church of England and other mainline denominations are doing in the UK reaches these shores. This year in July, Bishop Graham Cray, the leader of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK was in New Zealand at the invitation of a couple of Anglican Diocese and several of us Presbyterians jumped on board to hear Bishop Cray, along with several Methodists and Baptists.

What is Fresh Expressions?

Fresh Expressions is best summed up as a movement in church planting that has taken off since the publication of a Church of England report in 2004 called “Mission Shaped Church[1]. It’s not often that a CofE report releases energy and momentum in the church but this one did. It initially was written to sum up the state of the Church of England in its mission context and clarify its thinking about church planting as a strategy of parish mission. It however became a document that captured something of the challenge to re-think the parish principle and put forward theological and missiological reasons for endorsing and resourcing a whole host of experiments in church life and forming of new communities of faith. These experiments might have previously fallen outside the inherited ecclesial and economic unit definitions of a “church”. Mission Shaped Church reclaimed them as real expressions of church, genuine attempts to embody the life of Christ in new and changing cultural circumstances.

Fresh Expressions emerged out of the coalescing of various interest and energies identified both by the research and writing that went into the report and a desire to work the report’s practical suggestions to the CofE into something tangible on the ground. When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury made the report a centrepiece of his episcopal leadership, official energies, resources and permission-giving became available to sustain a movement of common interest. It is noteworthy however those leaders in the movement found themselves less propelled by the official endorsement than a sense of the Spirit of God doing something serendipitously and they were caught up in it. Fresh Expressions seemed to emerge and evolve from a collaborative intent and joining of hands rather than driven by top down policy or a strategic plan of any kind. The subsequent addition of Methodist, URC, Congregational and Baptist partners indicated there was more to this movement than a one church’s re-thinking local mission.

What makes Fresh Expressions interesting and more durable than a single church growth strategy or method is its umbrella like nature. Rather than prescribing a particular approach it has welcomed diversity in approach, form and to a certain extent theological colour. For instance there are tales of church planting an Anglo-Catholic expression in a city supermarket, the formation of new social justice communities, new rural faith communities, “goth” church, a church that makes bread, as well as more conventional congregational plants. But this is not without being held together by a central idea and some key theological reference points. The big idea that defines Fresh Expressions is “establishing a form of church for our changing cultures, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church”.

It is church planting in a broad sense. Fresh Expressions defines Church Planting as “the process by which the seed of the life and message of Jesus embodied by a community of Christians is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographic context”[2]. It includes the efforts of inherited congregations to plant a new expression alongside the old, intended to engage different cultures, generations and sub-cultures, in other words people “not like them”. It affirms pioneer individual or teams who feel called to start from scratch and establish a new form of witness in marginalised areas of cities often left behind by middle class churches. It provides support for new cultural expressions of church amongst 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who are seeking to find culturally appropriate ways of engaging “third culture” peers and friends, who shun both traditional immigrant churches and the “white” churches. It also encourages the emerging attempts at new monastic and lifestyle communities to embody Christ in the midst of culture.

Missiologically “Fresh Expressions” arises out of the recognition that the attractional mode the church operates in is flawed and contributes now to a major disconnection between churches and huge sections of society. Society has changed and the church is finding itself stranded. This is exacerbated by operational theologies which make mission a tack on church activity or duty rather than a gift of participating in the mission of God in Christ towards the world. “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world” [3]. If the church belongs to the mission of God then the church is no longer the centre of mission and has no reason to draw energy towards itself and its own preservation. This frees the church for a more light-footed and responsive form of existence, to become sent, to cross boundaries into new spaces, to be expressed in new shapes and forms suited to the context.

Church planting with a theological underpinning

However “Fresh Expressions” is not interested in reducing church planting to strategy. It is a theological intention after the pattern of Christ. Authentic church planting is shaped by the incarnation. The incarnational principle calls the church to identify with and enter the world as it is, to give up its own power, preferences and likes in order that Christ might be embodied in contexts where people no longer relate to our expressions of church. The issue is not relevance, it is incarnation. Irrelevance is a symptom of churches that have become non-incarnational. The incarnational principle expresses itself as church dies to self (John 12:24) and gives up its preferences and privileges for the sake of being Christ to the other (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). It is not church or worship or community as we would like it. It is not cloning. It is discovering what church could be for and with others who may not be like us. This is difficult DNA for us Presbyterians, since our origins as a colonial settler church were seldom sourced in this way. Fresh Expressions is recalling the church to one of its core DNA.

Fresh Expressions are not immune to the criticism that this call to contextualised mission can lead to a loss of distinctiveness, the message and form of the gospel so accommodated to the language and forms of the hearers that it loses its content and edge. It recognises that planting in the pattern of Christ is also the pattern of the cross, there is a world to counter. There is always a tension between adapting and identifying with context and becoming colonised by that culture. That is the tightrope walked both by inherited forms of church and fresh expressions. Church planting from the incarnational principle begins in a journey of cross shaped sacrifice and planting with this DNA will determine how a fresh expression wrestles with syncretistic temptations in the future.

Lastly the pattern of Christ shapes church planting by the resurrection. There is a world to anticipate and whatever a fresh expression becomes – it is called to become a pointer to God’s future. Fresh Expressions reminds the church that too much attention can be given to the passing on of the inheritance of the past and too little as an anticipation and foretaste of God’s future. What Fresh Expression’s celebrate is the possibility of church as hopeful and expressive of what salvation means in the ordinary and everyday realities of many different kinds of context. For dispirited and disbelieving people in those contexts, Fresh Expressions are attempts to offer another kind of lense to see God and God’s purposes by, a foretaste sufficient for people to say, “whatever eternal life means, if it means life like what I see here then …”.

This does not come about by good intentions or churches with creative ideas. Fresh Expressions is a movement that regards mission as a Spirit event. It requires discerning the Spirit of God and allowing God to bring forth the future in fresh and “ready to be surprised” ways. This does not mean the entire abandonment of inherited church, but rather the intention to take incarnationally motivated risks, to corporately practice deep listening to God, context and one another and to connect this to shapes of common life, activity and obedience. Fresh Expressions challenges the church to begin with “divine listening” in mission and relativise our dominant default practices of strategic analysis and planning. The biblical narrative reminds us that God creates new futures in the most inauspicious of places.

Six years down the track, “Fresh Expressions” has become a large network of support, story sharing and research, intentional collaboration and training that is spread across the major mainline denominations in England. Individual ventures to form and plant a new expression of church can register with the Fresh Expressions network and currently about 2000 Church of England and 1000 Methodist Fresh Expressions are on the books. Figures for other denominations are not available yet. Telling and publicising stories of what ordinary people and churches are doing on the ground is an important vehicle for spreading encouragement and vision. Professionally produced DVD’s of these stories have been released to spread the word. The website acts as a hub. Individual denominations make their own decisions about what funding they will make available to their own fresh expression projects. Ecumenical cooperation takes place at the training, equipping and support level through regional “FEASTS”. Several denominations have now developed ordained pioneer ministry tracks in their theological colleges and selection criteria processes have been modified to take account of and discern “church planting” or pioneer gifting and callings. Resources for church leader and planting teams and short-term course have been developed. Critiques[4] and research of Fresh Expressions has continued to be published and this is regarded as healthy addition to a movement which is evolving as a practice based and learning organisation. Its structures are lightweight, based on high levels of trust and collaborative working.

Benefits of Fresh Expressions in our own situation

So what does Fresh Expressions bring into a local situation where church members or a leader is keen to develop a new way of engaging the community or un-churched people? Fresh Expressions firstly helps to give some language and framework to this desire. It recasts it as matter of embodiment. How is the life of God to be expressed amongst these people in such a way that they might encounter Christ for themselves? Fresh Expressions affirms that one way forward may be to intentionally plant a communal expression of the gospel that is more responsive to their realities and context. Many of our churches planted and grown in one kind of soil find themselves amidst increased cultural and lifestyle diversity, in much changed soil conditions, and limited in their ability to grow an engagement with people unlike themselves. The reality is while some churches adapt, planting the seeds of church into the changed conditions allows for more people in more conditions and cultures to find a welcome and a home.

Secondly Fresh Expressions is positive about the role that inherited and present modes of church have to play. This is not a prescription for ditching the old and embracing only what is new and different. There is an affirmation of the catholicity of the church and the need for new alongside and in relationship with the inherited modes of the church. Churches are encouraged to plant new expressions within “parishes” and to creatively maintain the apostolic link to tradition to fund their imaginations and faithfulness to the Gospel. However at the same time inherited churches are urged to practice cultural hospitality by allowing space and permission for experimentation and radical developments to emerge.

Thirdly Fresh Expressions has developed a sense of “best practice” to aid in the church planting task. Tellingly it urges church planting normally not to begin with corporate worship. Beginning with worship events has tended to perpetuate attractional models of church, often growing by transfer growth from other churches, failing to evolve as contextual rooted expressions and resembling cloning of church than genuine fresh expressions. A process of intense listening to context and God is urged accompanied by loving and serving people in the desired locations or social contexts. This becomes a formative journey for community to emerge, the exploration of what discipleship means and finally the public shaping of church.

Fourthly Fresh Expressions as a movement is developing resources that build capacity in churches concerned for church planting. Their development of “Mission shaped Intro” and “Mission shaped ministry” training materials are designed to introduce people to church planting and equip motivated members of churches who may go on to form a team for church planting. Much of the story-telling material, available in DVD form, offer a catalogue of what God is doing through ordinary people taking risks to innovate and grow new expressions of God’s life in their communities. It is hoped that the production of a New Zealand equivalent will provide a diverse range of stories which can inspire and illuminate the art of the possible.

Fifthly, Fresh Expressions is building up a considerable body of research and reflection upon church planting from a mainline denominational base. It does not claim to have all the answers and is intent on learning from the grass-roots activity of experimentation, theological reflection and a praxis based learning cycle. For instance Graham Cray drew attention to possible sources of failure in church planting due to attempts at cloning, being too event centred and burning people out in resource hungry “attractive” events, lacking long term investment of people and funding, lone ranger, personality centred and CEO type leadership models, and the failure to start with key DNA (expressive of the Trinitarian God, incarnational, transformative, disciple-making and relational).

That is a good place to finish. Fresh Expressions is not a new word for contemporary worship services or community projects. Fresh Expressions in the end is not a focus on “forms” or “expressions” but the kind of intentionality that accompanies church becoming the embodiment of Christ in the world. A church can only grow from the DNA present in the seed. “Unless and until the Kingdom and mission are in the DNA of the seed of the church what is planted will prove to be sterile. If mission is not located in the identity of the church, planting is very unlikely to recover it.”[5]

‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’

christianity-rediscoveredDear Bishop,

… Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy, and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible … (Vincent J. Donovan)

I will always be grateful for my being introduced to Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai by Vincent J. Donovan, who I’ve posted on before. I can’t recall how many copies that I’ve given away over the years but it runs well into double figures (a wee plea: this is not a gloat but an indication of how highly I view this book). The book continues to have a profound influence on the way I think about Church, mission and the Gospel. Yet like many readers of this wonderful story, I was always left with a set of frustrating questions: ‘What happened next?’ ‘Did the Masai Donovan encountered go on to do the self-theologising and self-ecclesiologicalising that he (in the spirit of Roland Allen) had hoped that they would?’ ‘What happened to Donovan himself?’ etc. So I was absolutely thrilled yesterday to pick up the latest copy of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (33/2 April 2009) and read John P. Bowen’s article entitled ‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’. The story is significantly sadder than I had hoped, but Bowen’s piece is no less important for that. Bowen also draws attention to his forthcoming edited book The Letters of Vincent Donovan, to be published by Orbis Books.

And while I’m drawing attention to newies, here’s two more to look out for:

Bruce Hamill: ‘Response to Kevin Ward’s Inaugural Lecture’

hamill-1Rev Dr Kevin Ward’s recent lecture – ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ – has sparked a good deal of constructive conversation, a conversation that was kicked off by a brief public response to the lecture by one who had enquired after one of Kevin’s earlier lectures – ‘So where’s the theology in all this? – the Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Here’s Bruce’s gracious and insightful response to Kevin’s paper:


Thanks for the privilege of responding to today very briefly, in just 10 minutes… Kevin, those who know you expect nothing less than a broad-visioned, scholarly, insightful, pastoral, provocative but conciliatory lecture, grounded in your passion for the church and the gospel. You have not disappointed us…

Since I am expected to ask theological questions I will try not to disappoint.

Right Question?

I particularly liked the provocative title… however, as I have thought about the relation between the title and the concluding answer, I reached the conclusion that, for all its provocation this question is not quite right. Not that I want to avoid your question, but perhaps to narrow down the scope of my response…a better question might be: Does this movement within the church (or among the churches) point the way forward for reform of the body of Christ? Does this movement with its 3 foci of (1) alignment with postmodernism (2) relevance (3) incarnationalism have the theological resources for a missional church in our time? Now my suspicion is that your answer to this question would be a nuanced one, but probably, like mine, a ‘no’. Indeed the last half of your paper demonstrates how the emergent church consistently shows a conflict with the classical marks of the church – a strong indicator that its theological principles and direction is fundamentally flawed. In this respect my response is, I suspect in basic agreement with your view (particularly in the latter half of your paper)

Incarnation and Mission

However, if this is the case, then I fear that the framework you inherit from Niebuhr and others in the missiology movement is too close to that used by the emergent church itself, to really expose its flaws. In what remains of my few minutes response I want to indicate some of the tensions within your argument.

To begin with I would note that your adoption of the term incarnation, as an adjective (‘incarnational’) to represent a stance which is neither isolationist nor accomodationist, raises my theological antennae. This appears to me to be a sociologising of the language of theology – of incarnation – which trades on its theological background.

So to a more directly theological question: What is the incarnation? (in just 5 minutes!) And how does it relate to the church’s cultural existence and mission?

David Congdon, a Princeton theologian who has influenced my response to this, says:

‘the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not an idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated.’

What I believe lies behind this is the whole doctrine of divine grace emerging from the church’s experience of salvation in the raising of the crucified Jesus. Namely, that the life of Jesus originated unnecessarily (contingently) and freely from God’s transcendent act and being. In the incarnation God’s freedom from us is the basis for God’s freedom for us in the life of Jesus.

hamill-2In this sense Jesus life represents a break in the fabric of culture and tradition and original sin. It introduces a radical newness from the Word of God. In this sense the church came to talk of him as being born of a virgin and also suggest that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ even the maternal contribution to Jesus existence. God enters into the physical conditions of human life, adopting, as it were, the human condition, however this is not an accommodation to or adaption to culture, but rather human culture is here accommodated to the Word of God.

So as Congdon argues, the incarnation cannot be a model for us. However, it does transform and con-form our life. As already enfleshed and enculturated, fallen human beings, we are, because of the incarnation and the form and history it took, reculturated (that’s my word) by God.

In Christ we are not made ‘incarnational’, but a given a history that conforms to his history culminating in death and resurrection. It is here that we see the weakness of the link so often made between ‘incarnation’ and ‘adaptation to human culture’. ‘As the Father sent me…’ refers not to his incarnation but to the form of his life culminating in crucifixion and resurrection – a transformative, salvific encounter with culture.

Other Missional Language in Tension

Let me mention some further places where I think the language of the earlier half of your paper leads you closer to the framework of the ’emerging church’ than the latter half of your paper should allow. You suggest that the aim of missional thinking is a ‘culturally indigenous church’. According to my dictionary “indigenous” means: “born in or originating from where it is found”. If however, the church is created by the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word it may look like its surrounding culture (like Paul sought to in 1 Cor 9 in order to serve those cultures) but it will not originate from where it is found. The cultural processes that we rely on in the creation of the church are not indigenous processes of human meaning-making. They are the processes whereby God “crunches” from the old order, in all its indigenous and alienated diversity  and constant change, a new social order. Jesus very definitely did take the human context in all its particularity seriously, seriously enough to get crucified by it (as you point out). Seriously enough to spend most of his time with those who functioned as essentially non-representative of the culture – the culturally marginalised. I contend that to take culture seriously as Jesus did, is not to conform to its agenda.

As you say ‘there are limits to how far the culture can set the agenda and determine the shape’. My contention is that the issue is not the presence of a limit, but how that limit is set (and who determines it). I believe it is not by the balancing of principles, especially if one of those principles is Andrew Walls’ rather cosy ‘the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home in the gospel’. Such a principle, even if balanced by the pilgrim principle which says that ‘the gospel is never fully at home’, makes the cross the exception rather than the culmination of Christ’s life. One cannot serve two masters, Christ and Culture (as Walls’s balancing act suggests). Cultural processes must have their limits set for them by Christ in the formation of his body, or our enlightenment culture becomes the default determiner of this process.

Church is not people who ‘have the gospel’ (like some ideal) and then apply it, enlightenment style, to the world’s forms. They are worldly people being re-formed by Spirit and Word and re-culturated into a new creation and an anticipation of the kingdom.

Barth, Form and Content

Which brings me to Karl Barth’s problem. He says that there is no ‘sacred sociology’, however I feel he needs to be challenged, by those like John Milbank, to understand the need of a theological sociology – a fuller ecclesiology.

Quoting Barth you say, “If then the church has been, and indeed should (the should is your addition) have its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are, does that mean that anything goes?” [loaded question!] Barth has no “should”. I suspect he does not see such accomodation as an ecclesiological virtue – just an inevitability. However, I want to go beyond Barth and challenge the easy separation between form and content. Not only is it not true that anything goes (as you also clearly argue), but it is true that the form as well as the content should be subject to Christ and the Spirit (as you hinted at in places in your paper). This claim does not, as many seem to fear, imply that it will be a fixed form, or that to believe this requires identifying the form that Christ gives the church with a human form from the post. On the contrary it simply requires a formative process, by which enculturated people attend to Word and Sacrament, not just in their private spiritualities but also in their social habits and structures. This is in my view what it means to be a Reformed Church – constantly being re-formed socially.

Thanks again for the chance to respond to your stimulating lecture.

On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

Joe R. Jones, ON BEING THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2005). Pp. xxx + 239. $27.00, ISBN: 9781597522762. A review.

Joe R. Jones, author of the massive The Grammar of Christian Faith and Doctrine, and who Stanley Hauerwas names ‘the best unknown theologian in America’ (how would Hauerwas know?), is well aware of at least two important realities that inform good theology. First, that theology is a discipline not of the academy but of the believing community which is ever to be that ‘sort of community that sustains a vigorous and continuing conversation within itself as to who has called it into being, to whom it is responsible, and what it is called to be and to do’ (p. xiii). Second, that Christian theology has its ground and end in the redeeming economy of the Triune God. These two convictions inform this collection of essays, sermons, and prayers composed over four decades.

The volume is made up of three sections. In the first, he addresses what it means to be the Church, that ‘broken body [which] must strive, in the midst of its brokenness in tumultuous times, to remember its calling and mission as an alternative community living an alternative way of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ‘ (p. xiv). He repeatedly posits (pp. xvi, 6, 21, 35-6, 51, passim) his working definition of the Church:

The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God.

Jones, a confessing pacifist ‘with many questions about how to be a pacifist’ (p. xxiv), contends that wherever Jesus’ body lives in the world, there the Church is properly a political entity with a distinct theology and ethic, and whose political witness is never for itself but is for the benefit of the world. Thus with definition above before him, Jones, in the tradition of that prisoner on Patmos, pens ‘A letter to the Churches After 9/11′ in which he reminds the church that it is ‘not called into existence by the American way of life, not called into existence in order to punish evildoers, not called into existence to endorse any given political regime, and not called into existence to protect Christians and wreak vengeance on nonchristians. But it does exist for the “benefit of the world,” though not on the world’s own terms regarding what it finds beneficial as an endorsement of the way it prefers to live’. When the Church, either ecumenically or as a particular congregation, is unclear about how to answer the key questions of its own identity ‘then its life will be a miasma of disarray and confusion’ (p. 6). Jones consistently names nationalism for the destructive and deceitful idol that it is, calling the Church to allegiance to its Lord alone, rather than serve two masters.

Jones turns in the second, third and fourth essays to a reflection on the Church’s illiteracy wherein he argues that the Christian community whose ‘language of faith has too often become hallow and empty’ has become ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ (p. 11). The Church needs to recover its ‘distinctive language’ (p. xv), its own voice – or that of her Lord’s – lest it be repeatedly ‘overwhelmed and held hostage by the nation-state and its political discourses and practices’ (p. xxiv), and whose discourse and practice form a necessary purlieus for doing theology. The witnessing Church requires a literacy in the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads’ (p. 14). He calls for a recovery of the Church’s educational processes that accentuate learning the Gospel’s content and giving it intelligent expression for the world. This doing of theology is not a luxury (or responsibility) for a few but for all the people of God. That said, the Church also needs to recover, he argues, a sense of the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community, to equip the community of theologians for ek-static movement towards and in the world as witness to God’s loving life (see pp. 21-34).

In the second of the three sections, ‘Theological Baselines for Doing Church Theology’, Jones explores, among other themes, notions of faith, soteriology, trinity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. The essay on salvation (chapter 7) outlines the basis upon which believers have good reason to hope in an apokastasis panton. He argues that ‘the logic of a radical incarnation/atonement view centred in Jesus Christ moves resolutely to the final conclusion that all we be ultimately saved by God’s sovereign grace’ (p. 119). It is of little surprise, therefore, to read that Jones lists among his most significant influences and conversation partners, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Also, not a few of the essays betray Jones’ indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard and to that Dane’s insistence that ‘to be a Christian is to learn how to be a Christian’ (p. 51). This American nonconformist does not, however, share Kierkegaard’s despairing thoughts on the Church more generally, or the latter’s over-subjectivism. Instead, Jones persuasively posits that learning how to be a Christian ‘involves being a member of a community that has characteristic discourses and practices about the narrative of God’s grace’ (p. 67). Little doubt, if Kierkegaard had a different model of Church in mind when he made his bold criticisms, he would agree with Jones here. Jones’ collection includes two fine chapters on Kierkegaard: one on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on authority and revelation; the other on Kierkegaard as ‘Spy, Judge, and Friend’ in which he outlines the basic life, contributions and contours of Kierkegaard’s thought. He laments that while Kierkegaard ‘was one of the most influential intellectuals for the twentieth century’ today ‘I find few entering divinity students that can spell his name, fewer still who have read anything of his, fewer yet that have benefited from his friendship’. He describes Kierkegaard as ‘a Spy who will push you into inward places of hiddenness you are reluctant to explore, a Judge who will indict your vagaries of life with inescapable and relentless precision and vivacity, but finally a Friend who might spiritually edify you on the multifaceted journey of becoming a Christian‘ (p. 154). He proceeds:

‘With uncanny prescience, Kierkegaard knew he would someday be famous but feared and loathed the prospect that he would fall into the hands of the professors, who would analyze and reduce his life and writings to a thumbnail sketch or footnote, or even to a voluminous narrative, but would never realize that the whole of his literature was directed even to the professor as an existing person who still had to exist somehow. He criticized professors, philosophers, and theologians unmercifully for building grand mansions of theory and thought only to live their actual, existing lives in the barnyard, feeding daily out of the pig trough. The point here is this: intellectuals are given to the pursuit and development of thought, concepts, and ideas, and they can easily fool themselves into supposing that if they have thought the thought they have also lived the thought. No, says Kierkegaard; to live the thought means to have one’s living passions and decisions shaped by the thought. Intellectuals are inclined to forget the actual passions and concrete decisions that shape their daily living, and therefore are forgetful of their actual existing. Their theories cannot – of themselves – encompass and shape the theorist’s existential reality without decision and persistence in passions’ (p. 155).

The final section is made up largely of pastoral prayers and some moving sermons, including those preached by Jones at ordination and funeral services.

While few will be convinced of all Jones’ claims, this an engaging and at times provocative miscellany properly written with one eye on the Church (and not least his own Disciples of Christ denomination the focus on which, at times, gives the reader a sense that she is reading an in-house review) and one on God as both God and Church direct their engaging gaze to the world. The reader would have been better served with the inclusion of an index and a little more editing out of repetitious material. That said, this book will assist the Church to better understand, celebrate and practice the good and missional news of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times.

David Livingstone on video

The Royal Society has made available online an informative documentary of David Livingstone FRS, missionary, explorer, doctor and natural historian. A team of experts is now publishing Livingstone’s letters online, including those in the Royal Society’s archives. While it is not the most exciting documentary I’ve ever seen, it is a wonderfully informative introduction nevertheless to an important figure in Victorian church, and missiological, history, describing Livingstone’s adventures and introducing us to an exciting new project. The video can be downloaded here.

The website that the documentary refers to is Livingstone Online.

Missiologists meet to Brainstorm on Asia Mission

Today, some prominent western missiologists have met in Bangkok with some of their Asian counterparts for the first international conference of the Asian Society of Missiology. Meetings will take place over the next few days on the theme ‘Asian Mission: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’. It would be good to remember these meetings in our prayers.

Dr. Timothy K. Park, ASM president and associate professor of Asian Mission at Fuller Theological School of Intercultural Studies has commented: ‘Asian churches are emerging as new forces of world mission, but have not been fully developed to play their unique roles in the missionary movement of the Church’.

More information here.