Updated: Nov 4, 2019
Christian Communities in Conversation
Reflections on the learning emerging through CCiC.
Since the beginning of the CCiC project we have been talking about culture change. We recognised that with the best will in the world, all the training programmes, publications and new initiatives will make precious little difference unless we can change the culture we operate in. A widely used definition of culture in organisations is “how we do things round here” and speaks to us of the habits and customs that shape us because that is just the way we have always done things. Like trying to plant a crop without ploughing the field, we will only make gradual progress with opening up new and vibrant conversations about faith when we refresh our confidence in the way we do things round here.
We have heard so many stories through our conversation groups of people within our churches who feel unable to engage in faith conversations. For some it has been a fear of “getting it wrong” or not having the right information, or feeling that it is too risky to talk with others. For others it is a reticence to admit to doubts as others would feel they were weak or did not have enough faith. Others felt vulnerable in themselves, either for what they were thinking, or what they had experienced or what they had done, or who they really were, and that vulnerability was hard to admit in a culture where certainty and concrete statements of belief are the expected norm.
When such certainty shapes the predominant culture within our churches, trying to explore something different can be difficult and at times costly. Culture is not something that changes easily and with the best of intentions, mission statements come and go and statements of inclusion gather dust in the face of a culture of certainty that is the result literally of centuries of practice. Our culture valued the values of pushing boldly forward despite hostility, and the narrative of evidence was the testimony stories of those who had been given hope by overcoming the pull of “the other”, that which is not of “us”. This does not decry the importance and value of the offer of hope to others but it reminds us that to find a narrative of evangelism for the twenty first century, our vocabulary and way of being cannot just rely on the constructs and methodology of empire and dogged certainty. If we find it hard shifting ourselves from those constructs we need to be gentle on ourselves and remember that they come from a long history of a way of being embedded in the expectations that echo round our institutions. It has been said that we need to reinterpret the old adage “practice makes perfect” into the reality that “practice makes permanent”. So if our culture has spent centuries making permanent the values of proclamation and certainty, we need to find a new way of being and doing that equally is prepared to practice and live out a model of whole life empathic discipleship in the knowledge that it will only become permanent if we are intentional and prepared to practice it until it becomes our permanent way of being.
So CCiC is an initiative that seeks to create places and spaces where people can come together to practice a way of being and doing together that is intentionally different from the culture we have become used to. It seeks not to deny the place of proclamation, but to create a different space for those who need something different. The core conversation groups are the place where we practice learning to be different with each other until our way of being gives us the confidence to live out the values we have learned. Eventually our day to day interactions start to make permanent the grounded humanity and spirituality of empathic evangelism that explores with enthusiasm our shared experience of life, living and encountering God.
The CCiC approach to culture shaping owes much to the “On Being” initiative in the USA who have pioneered an exploration of the spirit of human experience of that which is beyond us. The CCiC project seeks encounters of conversation that are grounded in intentional virtues as we explore;
· Words that matter – “Words are one of the primary ways to reach across the mystery of each other”.
· Learning to listen - Listening with the purpose of understanding rather than listening with the purpose of replying.
· Exploring beautiful questions - Questions that open new understanding rather than creating circular argument.
· Modelling spiritual humility – not about making us small but encouraging others to be big!
· Adventurous civility – creating new possibilities for living forward while being different and holding disagreement.
· Hospitality – which creates inviting trustworthy space. When in doubt, practice hospitality.
There are two areas in particular, where we are identifying the need to explore together through the CCiC project as the conversation groups begin to gather stories and experiences.
The first is the idea that we need to be able to learn to embrace the things that make us vulnerable rather than feel they are the things that make us weak. The writer and researcher Brene Brown talks of the need for us to learn not to be ashamed of the things that we think make us vulnerable but to learn to “lean in” to them as a source not of weakness but of courage because of how they have shaped the journey that we have travelled. Growing the sense of having courage that comes out of leaning into vulnerability (our own and other peoples) helps create a space for conversation where we have a space to be courageous in our curiosity alongside others to explore life, living and our encounters with God. That might be painful, but it is real. If we chose to affirm courage rather than let others impose shame because of our experience then we start to allow the vocabulary of living and of our experience to be a language of spiritual experience and not one of regret, because it is in that space that we can find a mutuality and allow the incarnate spirit of the divine to move and flow.
Question for CCiC to explore:
In the groups that have run so far we have experienced some profound moments where people feel safe enough to engage in conversations about doubt and experiences they are struggling with. We need to develop or discover an effective pastoral response for some of those situations outside the conversation group where individuals can seek further support but that does not retreat into being “taught” what the answers are.
The second area is the notion of “civility” as a virtue that we need to explore and pursue the idea of “civil conversations” as way of being together that creates new space into which we can grow and develop as spiritual beings. We have come to know the term civility as being about politeness and formality but it can be about exploring new ground. It takes little looking around to see in our world experience that polarity and division is a common, even defining experience whether on issues of belief or politics or values and the “I’m right, you’re wrong” rhetoric is emblematic of a culture that, as Stephen Fry has said “where most people prefer to be right rather than effective”. Surely such a culture can only be a toxic environment for real spiritual conversation, so how do we promote and immerse ourselves in a different way of being? One working definition of civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs, without degrading someone else’s in the process” which offers a challenging template to think about evangelism based on empathy rather than correctness. It asks us to think about what is going on in the transaction of the conversation that we are having. It asks us to have the ability to self-reflect enough to look at what the influences are on our self-assured proclamations of truth and where the space for seeing growth and understanding exists. It asks us to understand how our gender, experience, race and power needs to be enough of our self-awareness to understand that which we call “otherness and alien” is a relative concept which limits our ability to see and engage with others whose experience is not the same as our own. Perhaps more profoundly, it asks us to not to ground ourselves in our assumed correctness but in our feelings and experience of life, living and encountering God. So, if we start in this place rather than in an entrenched polarisation we begin to see a “space in between us” which is less about rightness and wrongness, and more about the potential for creating new space. In this space, the potential for change is not in the expression of the dominance of what I know over that lack of understanding that you have, but in in the shared experience of life that leaves room for the movement of the divine and asks us to put our agendas to one side to just “allow God to be God”.
Question for CCiC to explore:
The notion that the promotion of “civil conversations” as a route towards “empathic evangelism” has become an exciting piece of emergent learning within the CCiC journey. Critical to that is the notion that growth in self-knowledge and self-awareness is a critical factor in that process. Are there ways in which we can more intentionally enable self-reflection and the assimilation of new learning into the experience of conversation groups?
The continued reflection on these and other issues are a fertile source of learning for us as we head towards the next phase of the CCiC project. We are starting to develop ways of drawing feedback from group participant without being intrusive. We are also continuing to look at recording both in writing and on film of the impact of the groups but there are significant issues of confidentiality for us to think through before we can progress this to another level. We are also currently looking at how the next stage of CCiC can take into account geographical spread and how we can ensure a core presence in each area where CCiC is operating. We hope this will be a feature of the recruitment of the second cohort for the CCiC Community of Practice.