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custodians of the word: kaitiaki and kupu – viv coleman

(This first appeared on Viv’s blog in early March 2017)

The summer holidays are a chance to worship away from home and experience a different congregational culture and worship style. This year the services we attended offered a smorgasbord of worship and preaching, and the chance to meet some genuine and friendly people. But the variety also caused some concern. I found myself reflecting on the messages I heard – and others I have encountered in recent times. I wondered, who is responsible for ensuring the Word that is preached is authentically Christian and aligned with the gospel it represents?

Let me describe a few situations, with an attempt to anonymise where possible. The first was a service led by a lay person with considerable experience in churches and ministry. It was a busy family time, so admittedly they had not put a lot of preparation into the message, a well-known gospel story. But the caveat was offered: “We are all adults. We can read the Word for ourselves. So what I have to say is offered in humility, and if you hear God saying something different to you, that’s fine”. I actually resonated with that. It fits with my theology of preaching, and my practice of bringing in other voices from time to time so the congregation gets a varied diet.  I had often preached on that passage, so I was interested to hear another perspective. In fact, it was very acceptable sermon. It covered not only the main bases biblically and historically, but also some contemporary themes like gender. It had a clear point of application which had relevance for me personally. And it was presented in short chunks with songs in between, which lightened the cognitive load for summer holiday listeners. It’s good to listen with an openness that puts one’s own hermeneutic discoveries aside, and I have often been blessed by volunteer preachers like that. But not always.

Later in the service, we heard from another speaker. They were a visitor, but known to the leaders. Asked to bring a ‘Word from the Lord’, they shared their conviction that Donald Trump and Brexit are a sign of the imminent return of Christ, and that Jesus is on the side of the Zionists in Israel. There was no careful exegesis, just stream of consciousness prophetic announcement. Those listening seemed to embrace these ‘certain signs’ of the inbreaking kingdom, and I was thankful that no unchurched seekers were present. Sad to say this is not the only time I have inwardly cringed when visiting churches in holiday. Another lay preacher I heard scattered their sermon with gender-exclusive expressions like “God and man” and “my better half.” This irks me because I know our denomination has encouraged gender-inclusive language (for people) since 1993. Other leaders use sermon content off the internet, verbatim, without attribution or indigenisation. One preacher spoke about women in such a patronising manner that a listener said to me, I’m a mother but I’m also doing a PhD, and I don’t like being put in a motherhood box. The pulpit is not the place for political and theological partisanship, and the kind of theological naiveté that can misrepresent our faith and our heritage. However, these services are often in country parishes led by a Local Ministry Team, and there isn’t the regional leadership to assess every service. But I couldn’t help wondering how better oversight could be offered. Does the denomination know what is being said in its public services? Does it matter?

Well, it does to me. Ministers of the Word are trained to be aware of the context, to take account what groups and cultures are present, and what their sensitivities might be, and what the denomination has already stated about theological or political issues. They are also attuned to the communication needs of visitors who may be unchurched, or have poor English. That’s why I appreciate Gil Rendle’s claim that clergy, or other ministers who have undertaken theological training, are ‘custodians’ of the gospel. He was writing in 2002 about the rapidly changing context of ministry, a profession whose ‘jurisdiction’ has been taken over by new health and educational consultants; he didn’t mention the impact of social media and TED talks because they weren’t around in 2002! But the trajectory of ferment and creativity he described then continues, and the vocation of ministry today is even more of a challenge to both church and individual.

Postmodern society places authority and responsibility with the individual, and the task of hermeneutic is now seen as accessible by the ordinary Bible reader, as in the sermon introduction described above. In a world where everyone’s opinion counts, congregational leaders must be quite cautious in seeking consensus, and authoritative teaching evokes charges of clericalism. But Rendle says postmodernity fails to offer answers to recurring questions about meaning and purpose, and in this changing landscape, the work of the ministry is still to speak ‘the truth of faith’ across a broad range of human experience cite. Ministers are still the custodians of meaningful tradition, and curators of good tools for finding those answers. The spiritual disciplines of the faith – prayer, forgiveness, hospitality, Sabbath, discernment – are rich resources of ultimate meaning. Ministers, he says, need to locate themselves deep in the texts and traditions of faith, and bring the alternative paradigms of the Scriptures to everyday human experience (Rendle, 2002).

So how to deal with the bourgeoning numbers of small parishes who – due to size or remoteness – do not have a professional minister to lead and teach them? I found an intriguing answer in a little book I’ve been reading about women’s roles in church. Historian John Dickson works in the context of the Sydney (Australia) Anglican church where female ordination to leadership is still questioned, and even the issue of whether a woman can preach on an occasional basis is debated. His 2014 book “Hearing her Voice” is a careful examination by a theologically-trained historian who unpacks the specific meaning of the word teach (Gr didasko) in the epistles. Dickson concludes that the word translated ‘teaching’ (as in “I do not allow women to teach” 1 Tim 2: 12)  is distinct from preaching, exhorting, or prophesying, and refers to the authoritative passing on of the oral tradition in the early church, before the New Testament was available. He parallels that teaching role – reserved at that time to male apostles – with that of the rabbis preserving the oral tradition in Judaism.

It remains to be seen what impact this work will have on evangelical Anglicans; there has been quite a backlash. But the intriguing sidebar to his (for me) compelling thesis is the question of what constitutes that authoritative role today, when we have the New Testament canon and most of us assign leadership roles to both men and women? He suggests the task of preparing the preaching roster is a good parallel to the authority given to the apostles. It’s a curator role that doesn’t require all preachers to be ordained males, and for me it offers a model for training and oversight in lay-led churches. Someone from within or beyond the local church is designated custodian – kaitiaki – of meaning (biblical and denominational), and charged with overseeing the service roster to ensure an appropriate range of Scripture is covered, that precious texts and ecumenical traditions are understood, and that the voices heard reflect a range of genders, generations and cultures.

Such a custodian role is both biblical and practical – and could safeguard both churches and individuals.

“And God chose me to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of this Good News….. I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.

Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you.” 

(1 Tim 1: 11 – 14)

 

the imaginative preacher – viv coleman

Imagination-and-logic-Einstein-1024x768

Imagination is a valuable commodity for kiwimade preachers; in fact, in my recent thesis about Ministry Review for AUT Business School, I identified “Imagination” as one of four key issues relevant to accountability and support for pastoral leaders. My inductive research project had found “collaborative planning” and “shaping missional concern” to be important areas to discuss when churches and their leaders have realistic and hopeful review conversations. Vital preaching feeds into this, and helps bridge the chasm between vision and reality.

Conventional business terms, like Vision, Strategy and Change Management, are all relevant to church ministry and clergy reviews. However in this study, the 15 pastor participants – all regular preachers – were acutely aware that vision is a process in which the Holy Spirit is intimately involved, so I searched for a word that embraced that mystical dimension. I decided on Imagination, often used in contemporary Christian literature to describe transformational leadership in a post-modern culture. My academic supervisors expressed consternation; what could Imagination possibly have to do with organisational leadership? I had to convince them that notions of innovation, inspiration, vision and creativity are often found in the business literature, and to point out that succession planning at Shell Oil includes ‘Imagination’ in its list of four desirable competencies for executive positions.

I discovered that clergy reviews today often address the effectiveness of the minister in stimulating the parish’s ‘missional imagination.’ This quality is a twist on Brueggeman’s 1978 notion of “prophetic imagination”, where the task of Christian ministry was described as nurturing an alternative consciousness that challenges the dominant culture. Brueggemann called on ministers to critique society, energise creativity, and construct an alternative community. Today that same imagination is needed for contemporary expressions of the gospel, in forms that connect authentically with postmodern society. Old assumptions that mission is located in buildings and programmes are being recalibrated by our growing awareness that God is already at work, in the neighbourhood. Care of our existing members must be balanced with reaching people outside the faith community, as leaders find a rhythm between transactional and transformational leadership. Canon Phil Potter likens today’s ‘fresh expressions’ to moving from an orchestra and conductor, to a jazz band improvising a new tune.

An energised pastoral imagination requires leaders and churches to challenge ecclesiastical norms and relinquish old roles, and those tasks bring emotional and ethical challenges.  When society is liquid, no longer fixed and dependable, church folk may want to “sandbag it” with custodial responses. The ministers in this study spoke of asking visionary questions, of leading collaborative discernment, and of carefully judging the pace of change; Jill Hudson calls this “dancing through minefields.” They told of facilitating strategic action in a mix of formal planning and emergent strategy, and acknowledged the power of mental models, both to free and to constrain. As leaders and preachers they aimed to clarify, articulate and implement vision, realising they have privileged access to congregational hearts and minds. Using the richness of literature, poetry and prayer in the Christian treasury, they spoke of re-presenting the future in symbols, stories and images that can powerfully shape the congregation’s culture. One minister successfully embedded a vision for indigenous change by writing a congregational narrative; another described his leadership role as one of “dreaming and steering” the congregation’s vision.

The Presbyterian and Baptist participants in this study testified that invention, imagination, innovation and hunches all have a place in Biblical preaching, as pastoral leaders seek to lead deep change marked by the Spirit’s signature.

The thesis “Realistic and Hopeful” will be posted online at AUT Library around the end of April.

preacher glasses in bali – vivian coleman

Bali

My spiritual director once told me to be alert for the “nudge of the Spirit’ when I was on holiday. Ever since, on trips away, I pay attention to heart leaps that tell me God is nudging. Sometimes there’s a pointed message for a situation at home, and sometimes it’s an idea for a sermon. This month in Bali I felt his nudge over and over, as I saw hundreds of little floral arrangements on the road, in shops or in front of statues. You see, every day in Bali, people make colourful little flower baskets to offer to their gods. 90% Balinese are Hindu, so it’s for the bigtime gods like Ganesh, but also to appease evil spirits thought to be hanging around.

Clearly I have a different world view, but every day I “wondered with God” about hand-made offerings I saw in shops and markets. Ones from the day before were trodden into the rubbish of the Indonesian streets. And every day, I felt the Spirit say, “Look at that”. It is my practice, when I feel that nudge, to prayerfully ask myself, ‘What is there about that God wants me to notice?” It became my prayer pattern as various shades of meaning came to mind. And of course I had on my preacher glasses, and noticed a heap of stuff to file away in my conceptual kete.

The rub is, I don’t know when I will use these ideas. I am no longer preaching every week, and in fact the urgency of thesis-writing means I won’t do so for months. It will take a particular context for the idea to come back into the foreground. So for this post, I crafted a list of possible contexts:

  • Balinese floral offerings are a thing of beauty. When we see and appreciate God’s work in creation, and the human capacity to also create a thing of beauty, we are called to worship. That could fit in a preaching context of praise, spiritual pathways, or our role as co-creators with God.
  • Hindus, my Indian friend tells me, make these offerings out of a motive of fear. They believe if they don’t make offerings to placate the spirits, their day, their life, won’t go right. Some of us Christians can feel that way about daily devotions, but is it fear that drives us, or love? Wondering about that could work in a sermon about grace, about motivations, even about the Exodus (where God first delivered the Hebrews, then taught them how to live his way).
  • A third tack could come from the mess the street offerings make as they get trodden underfoot by passers-by. Each time I saw one, I was reminded of my own ‘depravity’, and the emotional rubbish I pick up daily. And I was heartened by the good news of restoration Christ brings to a broken life.
  • A more obvious illustration is our own offerings to God – money, gifts or time. The Balinese include in their offerings pieces of their daily life – fruit, cookies, even cigarettes. How do we as Christians offer our daily human experiences to God? That’s a theme for many preaching occasions.
  • Fifthly, hospitality came to mind as I made one of these baskets myself, as part of a special dinner. I was ambivalent about participating, but I felt led to a spirit of grace; I wasn’t expected to offer it to any statue. And it made me wonder what it feels like when visitors to church are invited to participate in communion or some other ritual of our worship. Missional questions abound.

So in a far country, away from my normal spiritual disciplines, I had conversations with God every day. And I just know I’ll get to use that evocative image some time!

a different way of seeing – viv coleman

Google

My daughter-in-law works for Google (see photo); she’s currently on the team that is testing Google Glass. I tried out this innovative technology – basically a head-mounted computer – when I was in California last year. It’s weird. You can ask a question, make a call, set an appointment, navigate a trip or take a photo, with a smart device on your head. The weird thing is that you have to learn to look in a different way. Sort of up and in. You can see your contacts list, your calendar or the google search engine. Weird!

Being a Christian preacher is like google glass. You look at things differently. You are aware of another whole world, one you can choose to attend to, and you learn to look at both at the same time. It’s a kind of double vision. Remember Barth’s oft-quoted epithet, about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other? He may not have ever said that, but he did juxtapose Bible and newspaper many times, including in his commentary on Romans: “Reading of all forms of outspokenly secular literature – the newspaper above all – is urgently recommended for understanding the Epistle to the Romans.”

Today’s preachers will notice theological and worldview issues in many more media than the newspapers of Barth’s day. Just since I decided to post on this theme, I have discerned several topics worthy of note to a preacher:

  • A TED talk about curiosity and wonder that I came across researching Performance Review for my postgraduate project.
  • An article in the Listener about neuroplasticity showing that thinking about something can change the neural pathways
  • A biography of David Livingstone portraying his struggle with rigid LMS rules about polygamy that prevented his baptising a chief who had come to faith
  • A study group member asking where Jews make sacrifices today
  • Another wondering why Christians in China talk more about hell than Jesus-followers in Auckland
  • A Newstalk ZB host who declared there is no proof Jesus ever lived…

I’ll leave it to you to work out into which corner of the Paul Windsor swimming pool those themes fit (i.e. world, text, preacher, listener)! The point is you have to be constantly mining your experiences, and those of others, to find meaningful ways to communicate matters of faith. The Word of God can inform the wisdom of science, the insights of psychology and the realities of economics that surface in myriad facts and opinions that bombard my daily life, and conversely those cultural lenses can inform my grasp of God’s truth.

Settings where I have found useful topics for recent sermon preparation include my grandchildren (with whom I watched the Lego movie and noticed a Messianic trajectory), Facebook (about Christian university groups battling to have a presence on campus), my latest nonfiction reading (a book about WWII prisoners that I connected with today’s human trafficking) and a family discussion about Netflix that one informed my judgments about the eighth commandment. I even got a sermon illustration out of my addiction to an app on the iPad! It’s my Christian worldview google glasses that identify these connections, and help me as a preacher to embed the meaning of Scripture into people’s daily lives. The skills of noticing, listening and wondering help me make the best use of those glasses, which may well be what Paul was talking about when he said “we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 2: 16)

What have you seen lately with that preacher’s ‘double vision’?