Welcome to a reading adventure. Over the next 10 weeks, we’re going to read together the book Changing the Conversation – a third way for congregations by Anthony B Robinson. Intro. Chapter 1. Chapter 2. Chapter 3. Chapter 4. Chapter 5. Chapter 6. Chapter 7. Chapter 8. Chapter 9. Chapter 10.
Each week you’ll find here a short reflection and reading guide to help you on your way. Sometimes these reflections will unpack specific contextual issues for Australia, sometimes they’ll expand a little on the ideas in Changing the Conversation. They’ll also include some discussion starters for you to use in chatting about the book with your friends and fellow-readers.
Let me encourage you as you read, to do so with an open mind. As you encounter Robinson’s 10 conversations, as you engage with these reflections, as you share together this reading journey – seek first to be open and inquisitive, rather than defensive. Challenge yourself to say “what if?” rather than “that won’t work”.
Enough of that, on with something to get you started as you read the Introduction in Changing the Conversation.
A Third Way?
One of the keys to getting to grips with Robinson’s view is understanding his focus on finding a ‘third way’. For Robinson, that means seeing the world today as one in which there is a constant temptation to see things in black and white, for arguments to be polarised into two simple and diametrically opposed perspectives. We can see some of this tendency in political debate in Australia today, over issues such as asylum seekers, approaches to reduce carbon emissions and so on for just about any topical political issue we care to name.
Polarisation breeds conflict…
And as Robinson points out, we’re not immune to that in the church either. We use labels like progressive, traditional, liberal and fundamental and so on. Each label implies difference, and can often be used as a form of weapon against another.
Robinson’s third way is an attempt to find new ground that doesn’t depend upon adopting one or the other of two polar opposites – but instead looks for the value in a range of perspectives. It’s an approach that is best described as the difference between an either/or approach, and a both/and approach. Can a traditional, institutional church also be missional? Can liturgical worship also be contemporary? Can an evangelical church emphasize the importance of community service? Can we abandon those traditional distinctions?
The third way suggests that the answer to all of these questions is “yes, why not?”
One question we might ask is whether a third way, or both/and approach is practical, or whether we end up doing neither well in the hopes of doing both? Does that idea of the “third way” as compromise or conciliatory approach sell the whole concept short, leaving us trying to tread the middle ground between two extremes? What would it look like to abandon any interest in thinking about the idea of polar extremes at all?
Bounded Sets, or Centred Sets?
In his opening remarks, Robinson also introduces the concept of bounded, open and centred sets, drawing on set theory to describe some different approaches to church (and particularly to church membership or participation). The idea can be further extended to define “Christian” as well.
It’s a helpful idea, but definitely one case where a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, it might be worth hearing from Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book The Shaping of Things to Come with an image that feels very Australian. Frost and Hirsch wrote regarding what they describe as the missional-incarnational church, comparing it with a more traditional model of church they label as attractional. On the topic of bounded sets vs centred sets, they offer this image:
A useful illustration is to think of the difference between wells and fences. In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighbouring farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. This is a centred set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the livestock will remain close by. (p47)
In our metaphor of the wells and fences, the notion of building fences to keep the livestock in fits with the normative idea of organising churches. The traditional church makes it quite difficult for people to negotiate its maze of cultural, theological, and social barriers in order to get “in”. In fact, “getting in” for some people takes a great deal of commitment and effort. And by the time newcomers have scaled the fences built around the church, they are so socialized as church goers that they are not likely to be able to maintain their connection with the social groupings they came from. They are fundamentally changed by the experience of wanting to be on the inside of the church. They become insiders and now have a clear notion of who the “outsider” is and why.
We propose that a far better and more biblical way is to organise like the Outback ranch. Sink wells. If you sustain your connection with the water source and ensure others can get to it, you will find a whole host of people relating to Jesus from different walks of life. We allow people to come to Jesus from any distance and from any direction. Our aim in mission is to fully present Jesus and to facilitate that vital connection. This is the essence of our Priestly function – it is evangelistic (Rom 15:15-16). The person of Jesus stands at the epicentre of what we do. (p 208, The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost M, & Hirsh A).
Thinking about your world…..
- How do you sit with the idea of the “third way”? Where can you identify your church or faith community as being at one end of a spectrum?
- Can you identify one or two ways in which your church or faith community acts as a bounded set? Could it be helpful to re-interpret the life of the community from a centred set (soft at the edges) perspective?
- What are the questions that Robinson’s introduction raises for you? What do you want to know more about?