(A Short Post on) Public Faith, Cultural Privilege, & Confected Culture Wars

Mike Frost* posted the following statement on social media yesterday:

The church has grown so accustomed to cultural privilege—a privilege it should never have had in the first place—that its erosion feels like persecution, when it’s not.

As a result, instead of meaningful engagement with society, we draw battle lines in confected culture ‘wars’ featuring praying football coaches, dissenting county clerks, and recalcitrant wedding cake bakers.

To my mind, this is one of the most piercing (and succinct!) analyses of the state of public faith (and flawed understandings of ‘mission’) in places like Australia and the U.S.—and I’m sure a number of others—that I’ve seen in a long time.

I won’t add any further comment on the statement here, but would love to get a conversation going around it in the comments section.

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* Mike is a leading voice in the missional church movement, Vice Principal of Morling College (in Sydney, Australia), author, speaker, and a bunch of other things (including, some might say, provocateur).

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Suburban Permaculture as Missional Living

A few months ago I mentioned that I was seeking to focus my attention for 2014 on three streams of thought (and practice), and the interaction and overlap between them. Those streams were missional thinking and practice, the spirituality and practice on nonviolence, and the principles of permaculture. You can find the original post here.

In this post, I’d like to tease out some of the connections—especially in the overlap between missional thinking and practice and the principles of permaculture—by way of an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years now. The idea has not come to fruition for at least a couple of reasons (that I won’t go into here), but I wanted to put the idea out there both as (what I think is) a good illustration of what I’m talking about, and for anyone who might be interested in trying to implement something similar.

I attend a church in the north-west of Sydney—a typically suburban area that is now seeing a rapid increase in medium-density dwellings (townhouses, apartment complexes, etc.). It’s what you might call an upper-middle class kind of place, with people typically having reasonably well-paying jobs, large mortgages (on large houses with tiny yards), and many demands on their time. It’s the kind of area where it’s easy to get wrapped-up in your own little world and not really know your neighbours, and where you can scratch all your consumeristic itches at the mega-malls and ‘homemaker centres’ to your heart’s content.

My church would be the perfect place, I think, for a community garden. We have a large (currently-)grassed area which would be absolutely perfect for it!

To begin with, this area could house a reasonable number of traditional garden beds, as a place where people from the community could come and grow their own fresh produce. Many residents in the area have tiny little yards (that probably don’t even qualify for that name), with many having no yard at all. If set-up and promoted well enough, I believe that this sort of place could pick up a reasonable amount of interest from people in the community who would: a) love to be able to grow some of their own organic food, b) be interested in getting themselves and/or their kids outside and their hands dirty, and c) be interested in getting together with other people in their community to help form new friendships.

In terms of the set up for the area, I would see it as an opportunity to take people on a journey into the world of permaculture through an easy entry point. It would be set up with some traditional garden beds, compost heap, and a worm farm or two near the entry point (the first thing to catch the eye of people coming in for the first time), moving on to a couple of mandala gardens with, perhaps, a decent-sized herb spiral to the side, and moving again into the beginnings of a genuine food forest (as a place to demonstrate deeper permaculture thinking through plant guilds, stacking functions, ‘closing the loop’, etc.).

From here, I would suggest seeking to bring in an experienced permaculturist, perhaps once-a-month, to talk about the principles and practices of sustainable small-scale food production, and maybe also to begin talking about ideas such as the ‘slow food movement’ and the like.

The next step, though, is where, I think, it starts getting exciting.

What I would really love to see is for a place like this to become a kind of hub for training up and sending out people into their townhouse and apartment complexes equipped with skills in innovative small-space permaculture design (or whatever you would like to call it). The idea would be to see people enthused to get together with their neighbours to devise ways of taking such complexes on a journey of becoming self-sufficient and sustainable (in terms of fresh produce) and fostering community. Apartment balconies could become places where each resident grew one item, which would then be shared and traded with neighbours who were growing something else. In this way, no one household/family would need to grow everything they needed, but could form co-ops with their neighbours so that each had something to contribute and each could share in the diversity of what others were producing. This could spread to common areas in these complexes becoming places where plants were grown for their usefulness, not just for their aesthetics.

The (to my mind) natural extension of these ideas would be to see neighbours sharing meals together to celebrate what they have done together and the friendships that have grown alongside the food.

In regards to the ‘missional’ element of this idea, I see it in regards to the local church becoming a ‘sending point’ for people into the community with creative ideas for fostering community and trust and a sustainable future together. The plan is not predicated on some cynical plot for getting ‘bums on seats’ in the Sunday services, but rather in helping draw people together in the community to share food and laughter and life with one another.

It’s my belief that brokenness manifests itself in different ways in different communities, and I see it in my own community (and my own life) in terms of isolation and detachment from those around us, as well as in the consumeristic drive that results in ‘convenience’ over sustainable living. The idea outlined above, I believe, could be one way of seeking to address this sort of brokenness, with the church seeking to become a valued and trusted partner in the community that is working for wholeness and wellbeing. This, to my mind, is precisely what the  local church should be doing.

Of course, the sort of thing I describe above would be implemented over a number of years. It would take time to see these things happen, and there would need to be thought towards short-term ‘wins’ as well as planning for the longer-term goals. It’s also something that would take a fair bit of experimenting; some ideas would work, others would become lessons learned for future reference. Of course, these just happen to be permaculture principles. The same principles that undergird sustainable agriculture also happen to be good ways of thinking about human communities and social interactions, and that’s precisely why the overlap here is so exciting!

Now, I realise that some people might see what I’m describing here as some sort of ‘communist dream’, but it’s simply one way of trying to deal with the destructive individualistic and unsustainable society that I find myself in. If you’d like to run with this idea, please do! I don’t ‘own’ it, and I don’t want to restrict the possibilities in any way. If you’d like to chat more about it, please let me know. I’d be only too happy to kick around ideas with you as you think about implementing something like this in your own community (or through your own church). Finally, if you are already doing something like this, I’d love to learn more from you!

Intersecting Thoughts Roadmap for 2014: Missional/Nonviolence/Permaculture

I’ve set myself the goal for 2014 of centering my thinking specifically around three spheres of thought, and the possible overlaps between them.

These spheres of thought are missional thinking and practice, the spirituality and practice of nonviolence, and the principles of permaculture. Things always look more interesting in Venn diagrams, so I’ve included one here:

missional_nonviolence_permaculture

I’ll blog more about the ideas that are emerging from this study in other posts, but I just wanted to outline here some of the reasons why I’m interested in these areas, and also to list a few of the influences on my thinking in each area (and, ideally, to gain more input into this!).

In regards to missional thinking and practice, I’m captivated by its incarnational and holistic nature. I’m also energised by the almost limitless possibilities in regards to what missional communities look like (far removed from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach).

I’m reading books like David Bosch’s classic Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, through to authors like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost with their The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (and Frosty’s excellent The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church). I’m also including in the mix titles like Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, and Bryant Myers’ Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.

I was extremely fortunate last year to spend some time with Ruth Padilla deBorst, and to hear about what integral mission means for her (and how she seeks to embody it). I’ve also had the opportunity recently to see the work of a wonderful group of Christians in an area near where I live (north-western Sydney), seeing how they live out this incarnational, holistic mission in a lower socio-economic area (working around social enterprise opportunities and partnering with the local council for a community garden, to name just a few of the things they do).

In regards to the spirituality and practice of nonviolence, it’s been something that’s been growing on me for a number of years now. I attended some nonviolence training with Pace e Bene Australia in 2012, perhaps not totally convinced about it all. Having emerged from that training, reading through the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living textbook and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, I found myself thoroughly convinced and eagerly desiring more.

My reading, admittedly, has been a little light-on to this point. In addition to the titles above, I’ve been working through various bits and pieces by Gandhi and MLK (and watching countless YouTube videos of nonviolence in action), in addition to Walter Wink’s fantastic little primer Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. The most important influences on me in this area, however, have been some friends of mine, as we have formed something like the beginnings of a community of practice. Discussions about non-violent direct action (NVDA) concerning a couple of hot-button political issues have been incredibly enlightening.

In regards to permaculture, I think the three core principles speak for themselves:

  • Care for the earth
  • Care for people
  • Share/return the surplus

Permaculture—far more than just growing vegetable gardens—is a way of thinking and acting that has ramifications for the whole of human life, ranging from the environmental sphere, through to social (and spiritual) applications. Basically, it’s about moving from mindless consumption to sustainable, integrated thinking and living.

I’ve been working through the Regenerative Leadership Institute’s free online permaculture design course, as well as reading Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and Bill Mollison’s classic Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.

What is really exciting, however, is thinking through the ways in which these spheres of thought intersect. In both missional and permaculture thinking at least, the edges and the overlaps are exciting places to be. As I indicated above, I’m going (hopefully) to post about this in much more detail over the coming months, but it’s just something that I thought was worth noting at the outset.

So, there it is. This Venn diagram represents for me the focus of my thinking throughout 2014, and I heartily invite you to explore any or all of these possibilities with me.

It probably goes without saying, but I should point out that I’m a total rookie when it comes to each of these systems of thought—especially when it comes to putting them into practice. My interest in these areas is not just in regards to thinking interesting thoughts or having interesting conversations (though they’re good and fun), but in embodying the values in my own life in concrete ways. My hope is that my own life and my way of living is significantly changed through this process.