Close to the college in Sheffield where I've spent the last couple of days is a curiosity shop with this painting over the door. It well captures what Sheffield is like, having transformed from Steel City into Study City with the shift from industry to university education. I was pleasantly surprised by this when I arrived, only knowing that the steel industry had collapsed after the recession and union busting of the 80s. The city has risen into new life with the city core an interesting mix of Victorian buildings from its heyday and modern university blocks, shops and galleries.
The studious gentleman also describes what I've been these last two days. Staying at the Wilson Carlile College of Evangelization, I spent most of my time reading about fresh expressions of church, studying the theories, learning about the successes, pondering the critiques. One word I encountered repeatedly was "context" - fresh expressions are about engaging in service, building relationships, proclaiming the gospel and forming worshipping communities in their particular contexts. It's been equally described as inculturation. This description was an "aha" moment for me, explaining why I've been drawn to this new direction of church growth and development. When I worked with Cree and Oji-Cree people, I was a strong advocate for church being expressed in authentic ways, not just an Indigenization of worship but of governance, ministry and theology as well. Fresh Expressions are just that, a vehicle for another generation to find authentic voice for being church, a way for church to discover a fresh energy. It has been critiqued as too fragmented, too consumerist, too niche-focused into skateboard-church, dogwalking-church, goth-church, etc. It can be. But it is also being with people where they are and walking with them rather than telling them where to go.
The image of walking appeals to me, and not just because I'll be doing a lot of walking over the next 5 weeks. One of the articles I read spoke about the initial description of Christianity as "The Way". We created a church but Jesus came offering a way of being in the world, a way of looking at society through the lens of G-d's rule, a way of not just yearning for a more just world but being actively engaged in its creation, a way of walking with him in G-d's transformative love. We don't walk "The Way" if we try and replicate a 500 year old institutional model. We walk it by going out into the community, discovering what needs to be done, meeting those who are already doing something about it, and working together. We walk it by meeting people and in the process meeting the Christ already present. We walk it by being open to where he is leading us.
Given that this sabbatical is all about discovering different ways of being church, I chose to attend a Quaker meeting this morning. It was a moving experience as we sat in silence occasionally punctuated by someone getting up to offer a word. Toward the end a toddler came in to rejoin his family. After some running around he asked his daddy, and I think all of us, "Where are we going?" Where indeed? In that moment Christ was present inviting us onto a journey into new life and purpose. May we go with trust in the Spirit's leading.