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Imagination & Fun? A New Kind of Theology

By Mark Tanner.

As I write this we have just finished one academic year at Cranmer Hall in Durham and are starting the next. This summer we welcomed new candidates for ministry and have sent out twenty five or so newly trained clergy to serve the Lord and his church around the world… and if I am honest, alongside the joy and excitement, I fear for them a little. The leavers are a fantastic bunch of people who have blessed us in ways too many and varied to describe, and I have no hesitation in commending them individually and en-masse. The new students are bright and engaging and fantastically able. However, I worry for them, and my concern comes from the fact that they are being sent out into ministry which is still too often done alone.

I have experienced something of alone-ness, and it can be dangerous. Long term alone-ness, particularly when combined with continual urgency, overwhelming need, and constant under-resourcing, is potentially catastrophic.

Just consider the statistics in modern Britain. I used to be a Vicar in Ripon, which is a beautiful city in Yorkshire, with a high regard for church and tradition and lively churches of all traditions. The population is only about 17,000, and possibly up to 1000 of them attend church each week. That leaves 16,000 people who need to hear about Christ, today if possible. Ripon is well resourced in ecclesial terms and I was not working alone, but the pressure of the challenge was almost palpable at times. How was I to lead the church into reaching that number of people? The need that faces today’s church leaders is overwhelming, and if that is true in leafy Ripon, how much more intense is the experience in some of the tougher places where the church is called to be?

In Doncaster, where I was Vicar of the red-light district, the need (literally) knocked on the door every day. There I was as a young clergyman, keen to prove myself and lead a ‘growing church’. I had a challenging budget, an ageing congregation, and a parish more concerned about crime than Christ, safety than sanctity, and how they would pay for daily bread rather than whether they should pray for it. I stress that the churchgoers themselves were fantastic, supportive, and kind, but if anything that increased the pressure that I felt, as I did not want to let them down.

Our missional context is very urgent and our resources are slim. Is this made all the more intense by people like me trying to encourage us as I write things like the following?

“It is tragically rare that a church is accused of having a vision that is too big! Leadership gurus talk of the necessity of BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals).[1] If these matter in business, how much more do they matter for a finite people trying to speak of an infinite God? People, Christian or not, are excited by things that are exciting. We buy into something that inspires us, and it is a work of obscene genius that has enabled anyone to take the most inspiring, the most outrageous, the most astonishing and remarkable message of all history and wrap it in a culture and practice that can be described as boring. We do not need to hype up the message: we just need to live it. We don’t need … imaginative ideas: we just need to offer our imagination in response to living discipleship. When we truly inhabit this, we are inspired and become inspiring almost by accident.

I would genuinely prefer to be part of a church that regularly made nine mistakes and got one thing right in responding boldly to Christ’s initiative than to be part of the insipid timidity that so often appears to typify the modern church and leaves us getting nothing right...

My conviction is that we will always be known for something. Even if we do nothing, we will be talked of as ‘that dead church on the corner.’ When we fear what people will say, and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the demands of the present, people stop noticing what we are doing because it becomes predictable and 'boring'. All that remains visible are the failures that arise from fallen nature engaging with fallen character. This is the church which is ‘full of paedophiles’, ‘hates gays’, is ‘unwelcoming’, ‘refused to marry my friend because she was divorced’, or ‘only wants your money’.

How much better is it to be known as the church which is always trying to give things away? A place where you are always welcome? A community which is trying to visit every old person in the town? People who want to know the names of all those who sleep rough, or cook breakfast for every local prostitute once a week? People will still mock us, but mocking good things often highlights them for those who need to hear.

There is little as attractive as faith in Christ fully and freely inhabited and given away without care for cost or consequence. When we Christians live in bounded fear, and aspire merely to respectability, we find ourselves judged vomit-worthy (Revelation 3.16) and known more for the failure of our piety than our devotion and service. I would far rather be known for failing to achieve something that was clearly attempted for the very best motives — particularly in Britain, with our love of the heroic failure!” [2]

I do deeply believe this: the siren call to imaginative, creative, and bold discipleship should be echoing across the modern church. This is not the domain of the few ‘bright sparks’ among us; this is what we are all called to be and to do. The question is how we do it, especially if we are starting from the low base that is the reality of much church life today.

Let’s take a step back and ask where we do we find imagination and productive creativity at work, for I think we see it in surprising places. I think of a newly converted middle-aged disabled woman who was as timid as the proverbial mouse, who came to me as her Vicar and asked if she and a new Christian friend could start a knitting circle. We discussed her idea and my main concern, if I am honest, was to try to keep the weary scepticism out of my voice. I don’t know all that much about knitting, but I did think of it as a predictable activity of the elderly and not necessarily the best way to attract people. However, she mentioned that she had a number of friends who liked to knit and it might be a good way to get them into church. She set up the circle; they came, they nattered and they knitted, and the church grew a little.

Was this more exciting than the motorbike club that I set up with another bloke in the same church? No, frankly it wasn’t! When I talk about the high points of my experience of leadership in mission, I am far more drawn to Holy Harleys and Divine Ducatis than evangelism through holy yarns and divine drop-stitch. However, I would never (now) play down the effect of that group. They were a missional presence because Mrs Knitter loved Jesus and was passionate about knitting. Both groups were effective at drawing people into conversations about faith: mission does not have to be leather-clad or popular.

These examples had two things in common: they arose out of a passion for something and they were done in partnership. My fear for so many of those who are called to serve the church in ministry is that we find both passion and partnership squeezed out of us through sheer busy-ness.

I have no desire to add to ministerial guilt with the burden of some great new idea. The vast majority of Christian leaders I know are doing a tough job for all the right reasons. However, I do yearn to see the church more effective in engaging our communities and more radical in reaching out… and that leads me often to say, I hope with genuine warmth, that we clergy really need to get a life!

I tell my students often that if they are boring out of the pulpit, they will be boring in it. My great plea in the missional arena is for provocative imagination and deep passion. These do, of course, need to be held alongside orthodoxy and good practice, but without imagination, few are going to be arrested by the message we have to bring, and without passion, few are going to notice it. Jesus sent his disciples to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news (cf. Matthew 28.19). We have gone to the physical ends of the earth, so the challenge for us now is to meet those who are proximal physically, but utterly alienated culturally or socially. The crossing of this ocean will not be achieved by technology or transport, but rather by the release of imagination and a people so released into “the glorious liberty of the children of God2 (Romans 8.21) that our enthusiasm is infectious and our grace irresistible.

If we can discover and release something of this authentic identity which must be at the heart of new creation (2 Corinthians 5.21), then everything becomes different, even in the darkest of situations. The question, of course, is how?

Let me begin by stating the obvious. New life is the gift of God. Jesus is the author of our salvation and our identity as children, and still more as ministers, is rooted in him. Nothing I say from this point has any relevance if we are not walking with him, practising the spiritual disciplines of prayerfulness, scriptural study, confession, integrity, and generous fellowship. However, this is a vicious cycle, because at the hard times the disciplines are even harder, which makes the hard times even tougher...

So how, if this is true, do we stay faithful, engage imagination, summon up a passion for life and the Lord, and generally go about ‘getting a life’?

Notice that Jesus sent out the seventy-two in pairs (cf. Luke 10). This was partly practical concern for the well-being of people travelling long distances through unpredictable territory, but there is more: people were not created to be alone.

Think about it: what great missional endeavour happens alone? You could argue that Jackie Pullinger or Vincent Donovan were sent out alone and achieved great things, but they are the exception. I think of the Eden Project, or the work of YFC. I think of New Wine, Keswick, Cursillo, Spring Harvest. I think of Hope 2008, the decade of evangelism or the Northern Bishops’ focus on mission. All of these things happen because there is great fellowship within which imagination can thrive. The specific idea might strike one person, but that person is working in company… wherever there is a good idea you can be fairly sure it was birthed in healthy fellowship.

Fellowship – good, honest, laughter-filled, trust-inspiring, consistent, kind, encouraging Christian friendship – is a fertile breeding ground for effective, life-giving, imagination and a filling station where the discouraged are transformed.

Conversely, persistent alone-ness is a place where fears and bitterness multiply as pressure mounts and effectiveness drops. It is a valley where we feel abandoned, left to brood and fester. Alone, failure takes on far too high a significance in our self-critical evaluation of reality. It is a toxic place for fresh thought and a desert when it comes to risk-taking. It is life-sapping, dreary, parched, and empty… and yet this is where many of us often spend most of our time.

I suspect, though, that I don’t need to press the point. We know the missional challenge we face is urgent, and the value of imaginative and life-giving engagement in the leadership of the church is clear. What practical steps can we take?

Here are five suggestions:

1. Develop a team. Sue Hope talks of the necessity of a cockpit-crew in the leadership of any church. She argues that, just as a plane needs a team to fly it, so a church needs shared leadership. It is always important to ask: who are the people who stand with a leader and bring inspiration? Not just because they inspire, but because this is where God is found… when two or three are gathered (cf. Matthew 18.20). Teams share gifts and provide places to train, release, and supervise new leaders. They keep us faithful, encourage us, and provide resources.

2. Be part of a wider fellowship of leaders. This might be the local ministers’ meeting or something provided by your denomination, or movement. The exact context doesn’t matter, but it does matter that we get together with others with a similar heart and the same focus, for whom we are not directly responsible. We need places where we can dream some dreams, and where those dreams can be encouraged in a healthy way. This takes work, but learn to pray together and listen to God together. Learn to move easily between banter and business and to recognise the Spirit of God in either and both. Flee from the competitive compulsion that grips too many (male?) ministers and learn the joy of seeing another succeed. Learn to cry together. Do all of this with a fixed focus on Jesus, even if you use different language to speak of him. And when you find a fellowship like this, commit yourself to it every time it meets: you cannot predict the fruit, but it will surely come.

3. Invest in family. Your family are part of this, not an adjunct to it, and certainly not a distraction from it. This is true whether you have a traditional ‘nuclear’ family (one that occasionally explodes and leaves a cloud hanging!) or whether your family is more dispersed and made up of non-blood-relatives. You belong in community, so invest in the people with whom you belong.

4. Have a social life. I believe that Jesus had a high theology of fun. I find it hard to read the gospels without hearing the laughter behind many of Jesus’ words (Did you hear the one about the stupid shepherd who had 100 sheep?). Ministers need hobbies and friends, just like anyone else. In fact, maybe we need it more because we are with people who treat us strangely all the rest of the time. Space to be off-duty and share a joke is profoundly necessary if we are to be healthy.

5. And finally… take time alone. This might seem to be the exact opposite of what I have been saying, but the truth is that when we face loneliness and take action to counter it with others before the throne of grace, we discover the freedom and the desire to be alone with the Lord again. We find that we are hungry to search the Word and engage in the work of intercession. We long to take a day to retreat and reflect. We relish the riches we can share out of the fruit of this deep engagement with the One we love.

This might seem simplistic, but I believe that there is good theological backing for all of these. We have a God who is Trinity in Unity. Both company and solitude matter and we see that throughout the Scriptures and throughout Christian history. It is marked in our understanding of the Christ, our thinking about the Church, and our doctrines concerning human identity. In the in the very call to salvation we find that we are called in a context, to respond individually, in order that we might be part of a body. Christ’s is a body which is repeatedly called to joy and rejoicing, and is designed to grow. It is a ‘real’ thing, engaging with ‘tough stuff’, but also called to have fun and celebrate salvation. And the call to this new life? It is the call to repent, μετάνοια, ‘be of new mind’: every time I read the word I cannot help myself translating it ‘reimagine’ or ‘re-perceive’. This might be simple, but its roots are deep and its effects profound.

The truth in our desperate context is that we need to step out in boldness. All of us can imagine – and none should allow the childish mockery of our love of knitting (or whatever our passion might be) to rob others of our gift of life. Set your passions, root your imagination, trust yourself to other trustworthy Christians in the context of fruitful fellowship and dare to ask ‘what if’?

You will be amazed what can happen as the church begins to live… this mission stuff can actually be rather a lot of fun (and we have a high theology of fun).

[1] Collins, J & Porras, J (1994) Built To Last, p113.

[2] Grove Booklets, Evangelism series, Tanner and David

Mark Tanner

Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham

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You are reading Imagination and Fun? A New Kind of Theology by Mark Tanner, part of Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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