Facilitated Conversations: talking positive

Yesterday Sir Joseph Pilling reported to General Synod following the publication of his much discussed ‘Pilling Report’ on the Church’s approach to the issue of human sexulaity.

I don’t intend addressing the Report (with the accompanying Dissenting Statement from Bishop Keith Sinclair, one of its members) here, as this has been widely reported and analysed elsewhere.

The challenge now is how those of us in the Church of England approach and prepare for the proposed facilitated conversations. This is the main recommendation of the report although, as was revealed in the Q and A’s yesterday, the design and timing of the process has yet to be worked out. And that provides a window of opportunity.

I spoke yesterday at a Synod fringe meeting about the risks and opportunities of facilitated conversations, especially for those who have been heartened by the dissenting statement from Bishop Keith Sinclair and who hold to the Church’s current teaching.

I identified 3 risks and 2 opportunities. First, on the negative side, there is the risk that those who hold to the Church’s teaching will be deterred from participating positively if the talks are convened using forms of words that imply pre-agreement over certain key issues.

Some, for example,  have voiced concerns that talks might be based on the assumption that Scripture is not clear about the ordering of sexual interests. However I thought this would be unlikely given the tone and sensitivity of aspects of the Report.

Second, I stressed the importance of listening to the experiences of people who experience same-sex attraction as being critical to the whole process. But there is a risk that only those who take a revisionist line might take part, thus aligning the experience of ‘lesbian and gay people’ with the theology and ethics of those who adopt a liberal stance. We need people to speak from their experience whilst holding both conservative and liberal views on this.

I noted however that the Pilling Report itself had set its face against this, which was extremely helpful:

‘Nor is it a repetition of the call for people in the Church to listen to the experiences and perspectives of gay and lesbian people. Instead, it is about addressing the real differences of theology, scriptural reading, cultural assumptions and so on between members of the church, whatever their sexual orientation. It is about mutual listening across differences expressed’  

This is encouraging, especially as there are now several anglican clergy ‘living out’ their experience together with their commitment to biblical teaching. However we do need to be vigilant that the language of conversations isn’t confined to the old binary of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. Human sexuality is more flexible and nuanced than these social constructions imply and we need to engage with today’s realities rather than yesterdays social labels.

Third, I highlighted the risk of those holding the orthodox position entering into the talks unprepared. In particular I’m concerned that people on all sides of this debate simply do not understand the complexities and nuances of the whole area of human sexuality.

More important still, those taking an orthodox view have often failed to grasp the role of emotion and context in the way people assess opposing viewpoints and make up their minds. The ‘gay advocacy’ movement has been skilled in its understanding of this. Much work is needed on the tone and content of messages conveyed and those seeking to help orthodox people understand these issues must attend to this issue with urgency. I commended the ‘Living Out’ website as a a much better example of how we should be conveying the Church’s teaching through narrative and nuance.

Finally, the opportunities. I think we should engage positively with the facilitated conversations and we have the opportunity, now, to contribute to the design process to ensure that as many people as possible take part, and do so positively.

The prospect of these conversations also spurs those of us who hold to the Church’s teaching to examine our hearts and minds, to root out homophobia where we find it, and ensure that we are building inclusive Churches that welcome all into the challenge of  discipleship and radical obedience to Christ.  Once again, the Living Out website, now the top google hit on that term, is the place to start.

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When William Booth took on the big manufacturers of safety matches – and won

Justin Welby’s invitation to credit union’s to join with the Church and ‘outcompete Wonga’ stands in a great tradition of evangelical social reform. It reminds me particularly of the case of William Booth and the matchmaker bosses.

The manufacture of safety matches was big business in Victorian England. But shockingly many workers, who were usually women, suffered a form of jaw necrosis called ‘Phossy Jaw’. An occupational disease among those working with white phosphorus, it resulted in painful tooth and jaw-ache, swelling of the gums and, over time, chronic abscesses with a foul smelling discharge. The jaws also took on an erie greenish white ‘glow’ in the dark. Unless the affected areas were removed surgically, the results could be fatal.

This was an ugly, painful, dangerous and severely disfiguring disease that could easily be prevented by using the safer, though more expensive, red phosphorus, and following good occupational hygiene.

But the factory bosses preferred to sell their matches cheap, and their workers continued to suffer.

So in 1891 William Booth, who had founded the Salvation Army in 1865, became a match-maker. He purchased a derelict factory, did it up, installed machinery and ensured high ventilation and good hygiene. And he used only Red Phosphorus.

Then, joining with sympathetic retailers around the country, he campaigned to get them to  sell his new matches ‘for the sake of the workers’. As boxes of ‘Lights in Darkest England’ appeared in homes around the country, his competitors were made to feel the financial as well as moral pressure, and the use of white phosphorus declined rapidly.

And then William Booth closed his factory down.

Like William Booth, Justin Welby believes that we don’t have to choose between saving men’s souls and improving the quality of their lives. The one motivates the other.

But  William Booth never forgot the sense of passion and priority that led him to found his Salvation Army in the first place : ‘To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour…’

I’m praying that Justin Welby stays rooted in that tradition too.

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How Should You Praise Your Kids?

How should we give praise and encouragement to our kids? No parent or teacher thinks, ‘I wonder what I can do today to destroy my child’s confidence, rubbish their achievements and mock their efforts to do better.’ We want our kids to flourish and be successful. So we dole out generous heaps of praise to try to get the best out of them.

Children love to be praised too, and they absorb praise for their talents and cleverness like blotting paper. They like the ‘you-are- brilliant/smart/special, etc.’ endorsements best. It gives them a real boost.

However, when we overpraise children with global statements like these or, worse, allow them to overhear us picking off other people’s children along the same lines (‘What a thickhead that kid is’; ‘She’s a born winner’), we are sending them a dangerous message. We are teaching them that ability is a ‘fixed’ characteristic that you’ve either got or you haven’t got.

Kids who have been taught this type of ‘fixed’ mindset are often frightened to fail, because, if success means you are smart, then failure means you are dumb. So they avoid challenges and resent negative feedback.

Some of the most academically robust work in this area has been carried out by Professor Carol Dweck, a long-time critic of the ‘you’re special’ approach. It’s all about mindset, she says.

The word ‘mindset’ describes our basic psychological ‘stance’: the lens through which we look at the world. Are you a ‘glass-half-empty’ person? If so, then you have a broadly pessimistic, ‘see-the-problems-wherever-possible’ mindset that negates the positive side of the equation. Our mindset influences what we see, how we interpret it and, crucially, how we respond to the world.

As children develop, the numerous ways in which we interact with them, encouraging them here, discouraging them there, quietly construct a mindset that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. So, says Dweck, we need to pay attention to the messages we send when we say things like, ‘You learnt that so quickly; you’re clever!’; ‘Wow, just look at those sums! We have among us, ladies and gentleman, Einstein in the making!’; ‘Just look at that painting; Is this the next Michelangelo or what?’

When we talk like this, what our children hear is, ‘If I don’t learn this quickly, I’m not clever; I’m a thickhead!’; ‘If I don’t get A* the next time round, I won’t be like Einstein, so I’d better not attempt anything too hard’; ‘If it goes wrong that won’t be very special! So better just keep things simple . . . ’

I once attended a conference in the Swiss Alps and stayed on for a couple of days’ skiing. I was lucky to have there a group of about seven or eight friends with whom I’d skied after previous conferences. We pretty much knew one another’s ‘level’ and could get ourselves round the mountains at about the same rate. Allowing for the occasional mini- disaster, our dignity was generally preserved and our egos left intact.

One afternoon we were taking a well-earned rest at the head of a new run, when a very keen-looking group of experts gracefully zigzagged their way through the deep virgin powder above us and came to a rest alongside. I recognized a good friend of mine among them, along with several other conference attendees. ‘Hey, come and join us, Glynn,’ my friend said. ‘We’ve got a guide and we’re heading off-piste.’ I thought for half a micro-second before politely declining the offer. As the élite skiers went on their way, a member of our group observed, ‘Glynn would rather be the best in this group than Mr Average in that . . . ’ Ouch.

He was right. And something similar happens when we induce what Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets in our children about being ‘special’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘smart’. It encourages them to avoid challenges that might compromise the view they have formed about their abilities, and where they fit into the scheme of things.

Dweck believes this approach has produced a generation of young people with fixed mindsets who can’t get through the day without an award, and who expect success because they are special, not because they’ve worked hard. Kids like this tend to avoid opportunities to learn, in case they may make mistakes and, when they do make mistakes, rather than correct them, they will often try to hide them. They don’t believe they have to make the effort either, believing that ability comes with success guaranteed. ‘This is one of the worst beliefs that students can hold,’ concludes Dweck.

Dweck has validated her findings with some fascinating studies. In one of them she set a group of pupils a fairly easy task and then coached their teachers to praise half of them for their intrinsic ability (‘You must be smart at these problems, brilliant’), and the other half for their efforts (‘You must have worked hard at these problems, well done’). Dweck’s team then asked the subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as: ‘Your intelligence is something basic about you that can’t really change’ or ‘You are either smart or you’re not; you’ve got it or you haven’t.’

Students who had been praised for their intelligence in a ‘you’ve-got-natural-ability’ sort of way were much more likely to agree with the fixed-mindset statements, in contrast to children praised for the effort they had put in. Similarly, children praised for their intelligence, when asked to define what they meant by intelligence, described it in terms of inflexible ability, whereas those praised for effort focused on skills and knowledge and the need to keep learning.

In other words, when we praise ability, we strengthen fixed mindsets, but praising effort promotes ‘growth’ mindsets. So it’s this ‘growth mindset’ that we need to be encouraging in our children.

But here’s the compelling part of this research. The students were now offered a challenging task that would teach them some new skills or a dead-easy task that would guarantee a near perfect mark. The students who had been praised for effort– those cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ – sought out opportunities to learn and plumped for the more challenging tasks. Most of those praised for their intrinsic intelligence and ability, on the other hand, opted for the easy task.

The bottom line of these kinds of experiment is that Dweck advocates giving our children and students ‘process’ praise, rather than ‘ability’ or ‘status’ praise. Process praising highlights engagement, strategizing and persevering. You shift the focus from who they are to what they do: ‘You really studied for your test, and your improvement shows it. Great – keep going’; ‘You read the material over, then tested yourself on it. That really worked! Well done’; ‘I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies until you finally got it.’ For students who get it without even trying, Dweck says, ‘All right, that was too easy for you; let’s now do something more challenging that you can really learn from.’

But what about children who work hard and still don’t do well? Say something such as, ‘I like the effort you put in. Let’s work together to try to work out what you don’t understand.’ Or alternatively, you can try something like, ‘We all learn at different speeds. It may take more time for you to catch on to this, but if you keep working at it, you will.’

Of course, it isn’t easy to disentangle process from ability entirely. At some point a student has to come to terms with the fit between her particular strengths and the task in hand. But the point is that praise and admiration are focused on the effort, not the individual. Kids shouldn’t necessarily believe that anyone can become an Einstein or a Usain Bolt, but they should believe that even they had to put in years of effort and hard work to become who they were.

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The Gospel of ‘you’re incredible’: more cultural selfism, or a clever evangelistic hook?

OK. So in the last post we underscored some theological problems with the ‘To God you’re Big Stuff’ approach to evangelism and sketched out some of the ways it panders to modern entitlement culture.

But might there be something in it? In their book ‘The Narcissism Epidemic’, Psychologists Jennifer Twenge and Keith Campbell make an eye-catching point. They argue that, with services that offer optimal choice and demand nothing, today’s most successful churches have adapted cleverly to our self-orientated culture by front-ending their appeal with what people want.

They cite Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest church in the United States, led by the successful author and pastor, Joel Osteen:

Lakewood is clearly giving the people what they want. ‘God didn’t create you to be average,’ … ‘You were made to excel. You were made to leave your mark on this generation … Start [believing] ‘I’ve been chosen, set apart, destined to live in victory,’ writes Osteen in his book Become a Better You.

Twenge and Campbell suggest that Osteen ‘clearly practices the self-admiration he preaches; the walls of Lakewood Church are covered with perfectly airbrushed pictures of Osteen and plaques quoting his words.’

‘Some of his advice verges on narcissistic acquisitiveness, such as when he suggests that we should all be expressing our wants, as his son was when he received the new guitar he wanted and immediately asked, “when do you think we can get my new keyboard?”!’

But Twenge and Campbell also argue that there’s a flip side to Osteen’s message that is ‘almost a course in anti-narcissism’. ‘The second half of Become a Better You [says], “Praise people as much as you can, swallow your pride and apologise, let strife out of your life, build better relationships.’

Their central point is that successful churches ‘connect’ with people’s narcissism, but then attempt to draw them into something larger than themselves. In other words, once they have got people through the front door, they begin to draw them back into a religious worldview:

‘This odd bit of alchemy – taking narcissism and trying to turn it into altruism – is at the heart of much modern religion.’

I think there may be something in this argument but it’s still a very high-risk strategy. Why?

Well, in a scholarly and far-reaching analysis of the highly successful Willow Creek ‘seeker’ model in the US, Greg Pritchard warns that, while adopting the psychological language of popular culture may well enable our churches to identify with the un-churched, if we conduct our church discourse in ‘psychological categories’ there’s a danger we end up with churches full of people with ‘psychological identities’. As a consequence, ‘the goals and means of one’s ethics change from a God-centred to a human-centred orientation.’

In other words, says Pritchard, when you talk like a pop psychologist, you begin to think like one.

There are risks here for leaders too, especially those who lack the wisdom and peer support to detect the intoxicating effects of celebrity culture that also gets imbibed with ‘you’re incredible’ approach. And once church-goers have become accustomed to a weekly Sunday service that plays to their natural inclination towards self-admiration, it’s all too easy for altruistic messages to get lost.

It’s certainly going to make it harder if we want to impact on selfish ‘habits of the heart’ that have been constructed and rehearsed for the remaining six days and twenty-three hours. So I reckon we need a more open, honest and challenging debate about narcissism and the cult of self in modern church life, and pastors do us few favours by simply aping, and playing to, our heart’s desires.

Getting the balance

But isn’t there an important balance to maintain here too?  The Gospel IS profoundly, wonderfully about human flourishing. Against all the odds, to the graceful heart of God, we ARE indeed ‘big stuff’. Not because, we are intrinsically worthy but because…well, he just loves us. He loves us because He loves us, and that’s grace.

True, we are called to repentance and a full recognition of our sin and the desperate nature of our condition outside of Christ. But when viewed in Him we become creatures of destiny with a future beyond human imagining.

And this surely is at the heart of our evangelistic message. It’s not THE heart, but it’s at the heart. The heart, surely, is that in the death of his son and the salvation of sinners, God Himself is glorified. Our own glory is experienced almost as a ‘bi-product’ of lifting our sights beyond ourselves and entering into his glory. But the call to human flourishing in Christ is there at the heart of the message too.

Indeed, at times Jesus did ‘front end’ his message with an appeal to our human desire to flourish:

‘He has sent me to announce freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. (Luke 4:18-19) 

But here is the crucial difference with modern entitlement culture: whilst he graciously called us into the glory of the fully human, it was always by way of the cross. Life comes through death. Flourishing, it seems, is always a bi-product of doing something else. And so, it’s when we seek the Kingdom of God, and his glory, that we discover that ‘all these things’ become ours as well. Seek God’s kingdom, submit yourself to his will, and you get the world thrown in, as well as ‘yourself’. Those who lose their lives are the one’s who find them.

And so it seems to me that we are being ‘gospel’ people when we offer glory, but it’s glory that comes by way of repentance and self-denial. We can surely offer our friends life and life eternal, but we do no favours if we short-sell the reality that we only find ourselves when we are prepared to lose ourselves.

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To God you’re Big Stuff! How modern evangelicals adapt the gospel to cultural narcissism

A few months ago, I came across a Church website with a strap-line that went something like:

                              ‘You’re incredible! We’re here to celebrate you! 

Contrast this with how Jesus announces the Kingdom of God:

                                       ‘Repent: the Kingdom of Heaven is near! 

What’s going on here? It’s worth lingering over these contrasting approaches because, whilst it’s clearly an extreme example, the website slogan is part of a broader cultural shift in modern evangelicalism.

Look more carefully at the Church’s slogan first. The sales pitch pivots around the good news that there is something amazing and glorious about us that’s worth celebrating. The second part of the strap-line – we want you, the customer, to allow us to join in the celebration – is essentially motivated by the first part part- that there is something about you, the customer, that demands our attention and applause. So we want you to allow us to join in your story.

Now contrast Jesus’ pitch. His announcement of the Kingdom of God turns this approach on its head. With the command to ‘Repent’, he’s telling us that we are not as good as we think we are. Worse, what’s wrong with you, Jesus is saying, can’t be sorted with a slight adjustment of the hand on the tiller: the coming Kingdom calls for a complete turn-around of behaviour and perspective.

Here, the first part of Jesus’ message depends upon the second part. Why should we repent? Because something much more important than you is on the horizon. The King is coming and you need to prepare yourself to be part of His Kingdom and His story. He is graciously allowing you to join him and become a part of his story.

Comparing the 2 approaches, Jesus’ message seems hopelessly out of kilter with the spirit of the age. Would he seriously expect to get much of a response today? Who is going to turn up at a Church trumpeting a message like that? If this is true, perhaps our Church website is onto something…

In today’s culture, we don’t want to come to Church to sing ‘Tell me the old, old story’ but rather, ‘Let me tell you my story!’ Forget forcing our kids to sing ‘we are weak but he is strong’, now you can buy the T-shirt: ‘I may be little, but to God I’m big stuff!’

Indeed, in some circles the cross itself has been turned into another symbol of self-worth. Doesn’t God love us with such a passion that it took his Son to the cross? Then we must be worth saving. Wow. You’re incredible!

Wade Clark Roof, who has been studying the religious journey of baby boomers since the mid-1980s, sees these changing perspectives as a ‘radical shift from an ethic of self-denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment’. This results in a religion ‘functionally and spatially located in the self … Individuals are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred space … This kind of religious individualist neither wants, nor feels the need for, formal religious institutions.’

And so, to make the point, in one wide-ranging study of modern religions carried out by UCLA sociologists, the authors tell of a woman named Sheila who invented and then practised her very own religion. Its creed and liturgical structures were so unique that she named the religion after herself: ‘Sheilaism’.

What do you think? By attempting to be relevant to our culture have we over-engineered the Gospel to the extent that it’s no longer, well, the Gospel? Indeed, is it a false Gospel that should be denounced as heresy? How much of the emphasis about ‘human flourishing’ coming out of our Churches is simply piggybacking onto the same dynamic?

In my next post I’m going to explore this a bit further. I’m also going to try to explain why some churches that claim to be gospel-centred still think it’s OK to adopt this approach as a front-end pitch in order to attract their target audience into an initial engagement with discipleship.

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The recent meeting of the General Synod’s House of Laity: my speech in support of Philip Giddings

On Friday the House of Laity of General Synod of the Church of England trudged through the snow to attend an extraordinary meeting to vote on a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the Chair, Dr Philip Giddings. Here’s the speech I contributed to that debate:

Chair, I very much regret that this motion has been brought before us.

I do not think that any of us were prepared for the tsunami of emotion that swept across the church last November. Emotions can sometimes be a powerful force for good – they can show us what needs to be done and then insist that we muster the courage and the determination to do it.

But emotions – especially anger and frustration- are also dangerous forces in the human psyche. They can drive us into unreason and unleash primitive forces that require catharsis or the search for a victim.

Aristotle was surely right when he warned,Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy’.

And so, given the strength of the emotions in the aftermath of the November debate, we are have been set an extraordinarily difficult task this afternoon and I urge that, mindful of primitive forces potentially at play here, we examine the charges leveled against our Chair as fairly and objectively as we can.

The charges that I find most difficult are those that relate to the implied responsibilities of Chair of the House compared with those of ordinary members.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that whilst our Chair speaks as the Chair he was not IN the chair at the time of the debate. I have never heard it suggested that office holders should not express their own view in these circumstances. Indeed we elect them on the basis of their experience and authority to do just that, surely.

Philip Giddings did not present his view as if it was the view of the house. Indeed, he acknowledged the likely majority view and indicated that he wanted to express a minority view. And neither was that view a vanishingly small minority view within the house of which he is the Chair. It transpired that over one third held views that were comparable.

Given our diversity, I can see why some of the house might think twice about electing him to be the Chair. But his views were very well known when we voted for him at the beginning of this quinquennium, and surely that was the time to express our distaste for them. Further, our procedures insist that, in due course, he re-submit himself for election, and that will surely will be the right time to re-consider our support for him, not this extraordinary meeting convened in the heat of the moment.

Then there is the allegation that he did not support the overwhelming view of the house of Bishops. Are we really saying that our Chair should be inhibited from taking a view contrary to other houses? Have we forgotten how, in July 2009, we applauded so warmly when Dr. Giddings opposed the recommendations coming from Archbishop’s council for a reshaping of the constitutions – how we roundly rejected their recommendations and adopted his amendment? It was because of his huge experience as the foundation Chair of mission and public affairs and years of leadership at the very heart of our church institutions that we voted for somebody of his stature and willingness to have an independent mind.

Of course we want our Chairs to express themselves sensitively, to work collaboratively and to be accessible to all our members. But has Philip Giddings failed on this count? Where is the evidence? He has years of experience of collaborative engagement with the institutions of the church under his belt.

Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy’. In the light of this warning, can we safely conclude that we are angry with the ‘right man’ here? And in the right way?

Even for those who felt that a grave injustice was done last November, can it now be right to compound one injustice with another? I urge that we reject this motion.

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