Colours to the Mast

I'm regularly asked, so what is your doctoral dissertation thesis, title. As I have nearly finished it I thought I ought to be able to answer that question succinctly by now. So here is my abstract for the dissertation. Give it a read and let me know if you think it makes sense. -----------------


ABSTRACT The modern church in the UK is experiencing continued major decline, so much so that church attendance is set to reach 1% across the UK by 2016 if current trends continue. There has been over recent years a surge of responses in how to counter this decline, including the recent growth of the ‘Emerging Church’

I believe there is a problem inherent to many of these responses in that most have been sociological in nature. The responses are a re-packaging of church beliefs and practices, under new sociological ‘wrappers’ of cultural relevancy that are not producing genuine renewal. With genuine renewal churches grow with new Christians from the post-modern emerging context. My thesis is that genuine renewal of the church will only come from a deeper theological reflection from which the churches address the decline, rather than simply repacking how church is done. Without this theological reflection and in-forming, many responses will continue to be spaces for disaffected Christians to gather, and will not engage in genuine mission and connection to our culture. I will address this problem and advance my thesis by showing why theological reflection is necessary. Then I will offer a suggestion of an appropriate theological reflection for our problem. From that reflection I will identify and show application to three key areas of church life that this theology can be used to renew. Finally, I will demonstrate how this has produced genuine renewal within a church.

Chapter I: The Message of the Emerging Church. In this chapter I explore the interplay between message, medium and marketplace, to demonstrate that most responses are sociologically and not theologically informed. By message I mean the content of what we communicate, by mediums the means with which we communicate and marketplace as the ontological spaces in which those messages are communicated with others. In doing so we discover that without theological reflection we end up communicating the same message in new mediums, and in spaces that people are still unable to connect to. A new message, from theological reflection through relevant mediums in multiple meeting spaces provides the key to genuine renewal.

Chapter II: Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience. In this chapter I suggest and explore a theological issue at the heart of our problem that has caused the modern church to be unable to connect to emerging post-modern people. Here I advance the thesis that the western church has held an overly platonic doctrine of creation. With that doctrine the church is unable to affirm life, the world and the nature of humanity. which are valued by postmodern culture and people. In other words our theology does not naturally lead to growth in existing and new Christians who are whole life disciples, able to live and grow in our post-modern habitat. I then offer an alternative theology that might enable a way out of this problem.

Chapter III: Spiritual Formation in the Emerging Church. In this chapter I apply the theology from the previous chapter to the issue of how people become Christians and what it means to grow as a Christian. I demonstrate how this theology more naturally leads people to becoming and growing as Christians. I show how the faith stage development theory of James Fowler, is congruent with the theological framework I have outlined, and suggest what factors and methods would produce this growth naturally.

Chapter IV: Preaching in the Emerging Church I apply the theology and understanding of spiritual formation to the place of preaching and teaching in the church. Preaching is a major aspect of church life and is integral to sharing the church’s theology. I explore the history of preaching, recent developments in preaching and the insufficiency of two major responses; the call to move back to conservative preaching, and the move to abandon preaching as sociological responses, predicated on modernist philosophy, showing that they are not genuine acts of theological reflection and renewal. Lastly, I outline what this might look like in nature, form and practice.

Chapter VI: Leadership in the Emerging Context. In this final chapter, the topic is the nature of leadership as it relates to the theology introduced previously. Leadership is a given. All church groups have leadership of some kind, and leadership is responsible for the message, mediums and marketplaces that the church inhabits. Leadership is vital to the renewal of church in our emerging context. Whilst there has been a reaction against the leadership of the modern church, which is seen as authoritarian, controlling and mechanistic, with more in common with the CEO business leader, the sociological responses identified in early chapters, has led to a paralysis in leadership. To lead has become synonymous with abuse, and manipulation. But the theology I have articulated necessitates leadership, incarnational leadership. This theology enables leadership that is missional, incarnational, and is a catalyst for the spiritual formation we are seeking. I explore that there is much in current leadership thinking outside the church that embodies and enables our theology and spiritual formation to take place. I will explore the nature of leadership and the key practices and behaviours that naturally facilitate the theology and spiritual formation identified.

Recapitulation: Habitatio. In all these chapters, I will show application to my emerging church context, a church plant, that has seen significant growth with new Christians and existing Christians, that embodies and lives out this theology and application. These stories from the habitat have been the incarnational embodiment and environ to my research.

Narrative: In agreement with my supervisor there is to be no third person narrative to my dissertation, but I will offer my own story as introduction.

Shortcomings + Confessions+ Audience + Autobiography Unashamedly I must confess that the main person I had in mind for my dissertation was myself. The problem I have sought to address has been very personal. How can I maintain my own faith in the face of the emerging culture and context? Then, how can I as a pastor and leader enable our church to grow, with genuine renewal? As I look back on this research process, and illustrate it with stories from the life of our church community, I have had in mind three questions. What does it mean to be a Christian, what does it mean to be Church and what does it mean to be a leader/pastor, in the face of the seismic emergence of post-modernity? Three impossibly large questions! When I set out on my research, even before this doctoral programme, I imagined finding so many answers to those questions, but now realise they are a questions for a lifetime of research, reflection, application, and most likely the task at least, of this generation of Christians. I doubt my dissertation will offer much in the way of illumination to these questions, but I hope it will inspire others, as it has done me, to continue to pursue theological reflection in the service of forming communities and churches that are vibrantly and naturally connected to Christ, His Church and his mission and creation, in our post-modern world. And here I must declare some of my other bias. I love the church, in the plurality of its forms. It was a church that enabled me to meet Jesus, and begin a life of following him, and helping others to do the same. For all the problems of the church, and they are well documented, I believe the renewal of our churches is our hope for the future of Christianity. Whilst many have been hurt by church, I think the church has been just as hurt by those leaving it, criticising it and declaring it as irrelevant to the future. Whilst I understand the pain of Christians who have been denied a life giving faith, for their homes, work, and families, I have found the anger and rage in many voices unpalatable. And as I write, and seek to assess the church and its theology and practice, and suggest critique and a way forward for renewal and change, I know that I must inevitably end up stereotyping, misunderstanding and making my suggestions from a place of ignorance. I hope my voice will not add to the burden of leaders and churches, who are mostly wonderful people, trying their hardest to serve. So I hope in this dissertation my readers will find a voice of optimism, hope, and construction. That there is theological thought and tools that will enable the deconstruction and reconstruction of many of our churches, which is I believe the process, road and path to renewal. As I have interacted with other pastors and church leaders from my undoubtedly limited perspective, I have had the privilege to share my research and stories from our church. In this I have found a key reader for my writing, of people who know that church is not working, tired of being told they are irrelevant, that they should pack up and close their services, buildings, get rid of their staff, and to have immediate relevancy. For they know that this is not the case, and these axiomatics do not produce the promised mythical new post-modern nirvana of church. The future of church is not in anger, endless deconstruction, but in the hard daily grind of generous submission to each other, hope and dependency in the church Catholic, and spur one another onto engagement in the hard task of theological reflection, that brings genuine renewal. Most of all, I hope my writing and the story of our church will inspire others to see that church is not primarily about making it relevant, to my post-modern needs, but about recruiting people who will in the face of all the churches shortcomings, decide that they will serve, give, pray, minister, and share, and thereby see others come to and grow in faith, which is a blessing and reward enough in itself.