Reaching Out

The other day I experienced something quite profound in human nature. I was at a football match with my 15 year old son Dom to see his team who were playing really badly and were looking like they were going to get beaten by a far better team.

As my son got more and more tense at the prospect of the pasting we were witnessing I had tried and failed to console him. During the match I noticed a young toddler with a dummy in his mouth who probably hasn’t even started speaking in the row in front of us. He had no interest in the game but instead was facing Dom who was upset and visibly (and vocally) stressed at what was happening on the pitch.
I continued to try to calm him down and try to put things into perspective as his dad – I just made it worse (isn’t that what dad’s of teenagers are for ?). As the game went on I saw Dom motioning to the boy in front as he tried to move the toddlers hand which was reaching out and touching his leg and Dom complained that he kept doing it. I realised then what was going on. As he looked into Dom’s eyes I could see that he recognised his emotions and that he was going through something painful. So without even realising it he empathetically was trying to reassure Dom. He didn’t have words to say but he knew someone was upset and rather than be bound by social conventions he reached out to try and reassure my son that everything was going to be OK.
About a year ago my wife and I laughed at the bizarrely inappropriate language when trying to get a running watch fixed and all the emails from the customer service thanked her for “reaching out to them” when actually all she wanted was for a broken watch to be fixed. During that match a toddler with a dummy in his mouth and an inbuilt sensitivity to human emotions helped me experience what reaching out can really look like. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Let’s not forget that children are just as much a part of our village (or cities). Maybe we should watch and learn more from children if we are all to be raised.

Get your tent and pitch it for a while…a flexible model for mission

It is the time of year when tented cities at festivals appear all over the UK and families take to living under the hallowed canvas, normally in the UK as with this year to shelter from the rain. But the glory of camping is the flexibility to pitch our tent at will to become a temporary home. My family have had our main holiday under canvas for the past consecutive 8 years and as a regular festival goer for years before that and even having walked the West Highland Way with just a tent on my back I have appreciated the benefits of camping.

I used to think that we needed new models of church and innovation in mission that was something like scaffolding being put up around our old church buildings so that if they did crumble one day there would still be something standing in their place.

Now I’m not so sure,

I think we need still need the scaffolding approach in some places but if that is our only plan then I fear for the future of mission in the UK. For a start scaffolding is only ever going to be in the same place as our existing churches, whether they are physical buildings or communities of interest. Also those scaffolds will take the same shape and form of the existing buildings they are attempting to replace even though they will be made of newer materials, which may also not be as long lasting – give me a house made from stone any day over a temporary metal one.

At this point please also excuse my metaphor for churches based on buildings as I firmly advocate that a church is the community of people who comprise it, not the bricks and mortar that they meet in however useful a resource that might be.

In the “Foundation Series” by Isaac Asimov, Asimov paints the picture of a whole civilisation and how it moves through some significant crisis points where it could either become extinct or flourish, fade out or become reenergised. I have often heard, and used myself, in sermons about the Chinese symbol for “crisis” being two symbols meaning both “danger” and “opportunity”.

Crisis - Danger and Opportunity2

There has been lots of research highlighting the crisis in decay of church attendance in the UK and although there are some areas of growth and new congregations, a larger part of the established church and wider denominations still seems to be declining or at best staying static. The church as we know it is in great danger, but that brings with it great opportunity.

A lot is at stake and many of those of us who attend church and enjoy the structure that we have grown up with struggle as we are disorientated that the current status quo is not sustainable for the long term. I believe we do need those existing structures, I’m an active member of my local church, but we also need those scaffolding type churches too, some of which might be temporary, others that could become new established churches, but in order to engage in real mission especially with young people and with those who have not been a part of the church we need to go into new places we and they haven’t been to before, becoming more of a tented community leaving our rigid building materials behind for a time.

DSC02114 (2)

In Frontier Youth Trust we use a quote from Donavan, “in working with young people do not call them to where they were and do not call them to where you are as beautiful a place as they may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a new place that neither you nor they have been before”

Walter Bruggemann talks about the 3 stages of where we are in our faith or: Orientation, Disorientation and Re-Orientation. (Nigel Pimlott succinctly covers this in his book Youth Work After Christendom, p49-50). The sense of disorientation that we feel can be described in the way that we sense the danger we are in but often aren’t able to take the opportunity to leap into another paradigm of mission as in a process of reorientation our thoughts and concepts are not fully formed – feel intangible or difficult to visualise.

Therefore people of faith at the moment experience that disorientation as we experience a world outside of the church that is moving away from where we are at a velocity faster that we can keep up with and the distance we need to travel in meaningful mission continues to grow. We are therefore living in a time of Faith in Transition and we need to explore ways that we move from church to mission. Just as in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series we are experiencing multiple crises which are moments of great danger but also great opportunity.

When Christianity or the church has been in crisis in the past there have sometimes been revivals in faith. The Welsh revival of 1904 was one of those revivals, along with others, that were youth led. A colleague Richard Passmore (www.sundaypapers.org.uk @richardpassmore) shared with me the words of the Welsh Youth Poet Laureate who has prompted him and me to think around the phrase he used,

“We call the walls to dust”

I love the image this statement paints, the idea of shredding to dust that which separates us. Many young people face ever taller and thicker walls and equally as I lead Frontier Youth Trust (FYT) which is a dispersed community of faith based youth workers we need to pay attention to the walls between us. We continue to seek shalom as expressed in Ephesians 2v14.

Skate Park Art resize

At a time when young people seem to be under attack by society and when the UK government are removing benefits and opportunities from the under 25s in a significant manner, how do we live as a learning community with young people and offer them hope?

Do we only invite young people to be part of a slightly more energetic version of what we already have or how dangerous are we going to be with our mission? Unless we hold our mission lightly we will always be pulled back to the conventional model by a gravitational pull that we are unable to reach escape velocity.

We have been talking in FYT about the need to enable the translators of mission. In doing so we want to release the interpreters who can journey with those young people and help them to reimagine and redefine the terms that are cultural while still seeking the Kingdom and pointing to the person of Jesus and building community.

So at a time when as a nation we choose canvas as a place to live under even temporarily, will we move to a camping model of mission away from our scaffolding and building model of mission?

A Middle Aged Dad in Limbo

Boys Will Be Boys?

It is a bit of a cliché but it is not unusual to talk about small boys pulling legs off spiders. However, for a young boy to do it in an 18 rated video game as he relentlessly searches through the underworld of Limbo for his lost sister, isn’t a stereotype. Being killed by a monster sized spider among many other manner of gruesome ways and resurrected countless times, now that is something that is less familiar… certainly to me anyway.

Neither of my two boys like to kill spiders. We are a “glass on paper and out the back door” type of family. So it would be fair to say that as I progressed through the dark world of Limbo I have jumped out of my seat several times as something lurking comes out of the gloom to end the Limbo Boy’s life in a dreadful way. It was hard as a dad of two boys to play this game and my feelings went from slight tension to nerve wracking responsibility as I guiding him safely past deadly puzzles. I have literally seen the whole world turn upside down during the game, made worse by the looming revving saw blades and a combination of gravity and inertia making deadly close encounters inevitable.

So why did I put myself through this whole experience if I found it such a challenge to negotiate? It started with a conversation about the nature of spiritually in computer and console gaming and after meeting Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer). I was very excited about the possibility of exploring the nature of this and especially how young people can have an awareness of God’s spirit within gaming rather than take everything on a superficial level. I wanted to explore the meaning within gaming and so I was challenged to enter that world on my own without a safety net and my experience was very profound.

As a relative rookie to gaming, I haven’t played a lot of console games other than when participating in a youth work session. As a family we have mainly played multiplayer games like Guitar Hero and Mario Karts. However apart from the odd app on my phone as a single player I have a definite experience deficiency and distinct lack of ability.

Limbo Swing

Limbo: Playdead, Microsoft Game Studios (XBLA)

Playing something that is such a different paradigm from Angry Birds or Solitaire has been monumental for me. Aside from how many stars I got in a level didn’t really care about the pigs or birds however angry they were but the impact of my time in Limbo was immersive for me. The outcome of this game has led to me being emotionally entwined with the main character boy’s quest. The result is that after several hours of navigating Limbo, I almost feel in loco parentis of this small virtual person. With his piercing refulgent, shining eyes that stare hauntingly into the darkness, I cared about the outcome of the game – this thing I was involved mattered to me way more than any throwaway app.

There were times during the game that I simply had to take a break as I didn’t want to keep putting him (or me) through the pain of playing. My empathy of feeling his pain reminds me that I got laughed off the sofa as I started to cry at the end of the film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) My emotional attachment was as real for a robot boy at the end of that film as it would have been for a human boy. The game connected me with the fatherhood of God and I couldn’t suppress the compassion that I believe is integral to who we are as created human beings.

Limbo has taught me patience and a relentless perseverance as the boy continues to seek his sister lost in the midst of a dark world. His redemption relies on her salvation and until she is free neither could he be free. I am not by nature a patient person and the process of going back into a puzzle again and again to progress has been refining for me. This relentless seeking is something I need to develop myself as the alternative of accepting easy answers and not tackling the real issues is a real temptation for my faith. In the game Limbo not seeking an answer or continuing to journey however hard would result in staying trapped in the same place for ever. I hope the process has left me more patient and tenacious as when I finally did work out how to get past those difficult parts, especially the end of the game, I felt so elated at the breakthrough, something perhaps I can best relate to my worship in my outside life after reaching the top of a particularly hard climb on my bike or when I have completed a Marathon. Not things I can do in church but experiences when I have felt God near.

Without spoiling the final sequence, as I reached the end of the game Limbo, I was reminded of my own baptism and sense of cleansing followed by a peace that was reminiscent of Psalm 23 and lying down in green pastures. For me this echoes the thought that after the struggle comes rest, while also the journey is significant and the process of reaching a destination can be more important than actually reaching it. Something I can relate to in my own spiritual journey as I have continued to seek community within relationships of meaning.

For a number of years I have pursued the mission of going into the world of culture to look for and to point out things that look like the Kingdom of God or reflect the teachings of Jesus. Even in the darkest of places I believe that as we have been created to have a spiritual connection in community and with others there are surprises all around us if we only but look.

I have grown in my faith during this process as I feel this has been an exercise in reclaiming a ritual to have a spiritual meaning that in some schools of thought is a way of connecting the ordinary to the remarkable, the superficial to the significant.
I have found this process quite a refining, if difficult, exercise but now I have to be brave and take the next step. I can’t but help wonder where playing this game will take me to. How do I facilitate others to explore a game that has meaning as well as gameplay that could be a mutual learning and developing exercise? If this game really meant something to me, how can I help others to go deeper than just the superficial level where most remain?

Alastair Jones
@A_B_Jones