Can we be both faithful and effective in our Christian mission actions in Anglican Schools?
Are there mission actions that are more effective than our current ones?
(This is Stephen Harrison’s presentation at the Chaplains Pre-Conference at the Anglican Schools Australia Conference 2015)
Now both of these questions raise more questions – what do you mean by mission actions, what is effectiveness, how do you measure it?
Another way of putting these questions might be to ask – if we find that the things we do at the moment to carry out our Christian mission aren’t working or having impact on the people they are directed towards, could we do something else, and if so, is there something we could do that would have more impact?
I am not sure I know the answers to these questions. I am not even going to address them very directly today. But let’s explore together.
I wonder if you have ever been lost. Seriously lost. So lost someone had to come and rescue you? I wonder how long it took for you to realise you couldn’t find your own way out? Did you realise? If you did I wonder…what did you do in between realising you were lost and being rescued?
Recently I read Deep Survival by Laurance Gonzales. The subtitle to this book is: Who lives, who dies and why. For me it provided some helpful metaphors for how the church is dealing with its new circumstances. Circumstances mind you that have been new for a long time. Circumstances that I think are a lot like being lost in a cultural wilderness.
Are we surviving in the current cultural environment?
One of the things Gonzales says is that the people who survive are those that accept they are lost and realise that they must live in the environment they find themselves in…not the one they wish they were in. Those who survive pay great attention to all that is around them. They are filled with wonder by their environment and they engage with it, they learn about it, they embrace it. But the key is that they must live in the new reality so much so that their rescue is often felt to be an interference to their activity.
I think this is a good metaphor for us in the Anglican Church.
Maybe the church has been lost in the woods of culture and society for a while. Not from any fault of our own. Like many people who get lost we thought we knew the terrain we were entering but at some point the familiar landmarks were gone. I realise this is probably not new to you and in many ways we have already begun the exercise of accepting our reality and remapping our world. The question is have we done it deeply enough?
Are we eating insects like Bear Grylls and enjoying them or are we are still hoping that someone will rescue us and pop a Big Mac in our hands? We have to accept the new and changing world we find ourselves in, see it clearly, adapt to it and live in it.
In the wilderness it takes some time to learn the survival map well enough to live in it for a long period. It takes years and years. Even something as simple as starting a fire with sticks can take months to be proficient at. We need to not only remap but learn new skills, of not just survival, but living. Part of my own research is in mapping the territory of what is happening in the Anglican School world, and trying to work out the new skills of survival.
This remapping is primarily focussed on what influences young people’s worldview formation, particularly in regards to faith. I very much see worldview formation in terms of social influence, faith is a gift, sure but if we are to engage in mission and evangelism we still need to take account of the reality before us… we need to understand people are influenced by very many things in their social world and that these influences matter. When we explore as a whole the social world of the young person we come to realise that school is only one influence among many and it is not the strongest. So what does mean for what we might do, for our mission actions?
Effectiveness of Mission Strategies
I am sure at some time or other you have wondered how effective the things we do in schools are at influencing young people towards faith. This may be an uncomfortable question for people in school ministry to explore. How do we measure the effectiveness of our mission actions? Should we measure anything? But does it matter if what we do is effective or not? Surely our faithfulness is more important than any outcomes?
At times I hear chaplains say: We have a seed planting ministry. I agree and I affirm this idea. The question we might ask though is: Are we good seed planters?
In the parable of the sower we see a farmer throwing seed everywhere with willing abandon. We see a picture of the generosity of God’s grace. We should do the same but what if we are spreading the seeds while they are still wrapped inside their foil packets. Impermeable to the elements. The number of seeds that germinate and grow may be out of our control but certainly there are things we can do that might increase the likelihood that the seed will have a chance to grow, regardless of whether it lands on soil or path.
We can get a sense of the possible impact of what we are doing, of our mission actions from a range of sources.
We can look at:
- What students say. [Survey]
- What research says. [Social Influence]
- What theoretical understandings tell us. [Education, Sociology etc]
But in all that information are there pointers to how we might increase the effectiveness of our actions?
I would say there are four things that particularly matter
- Relationships matter.
The depth of relationship between the people engaged in activities intended to help one grow in a particular direction, matter. In the school the teacher-student relationship is going to be the most influential for the majority of students. More so than their relationship with the chaplain. How is this relationship employed in our mission actions?
- Time matters.
This is one of the reasons teachers are influential. They spend a lot of time with students. But how much time we give to things such as chapel or RE matter as well. What will be more influential – something that happens once a term or once a week? It may depend on what it is but quantity does matter.
- Context matters.
How does the whole context the student lives in shape their thoughts about the Christian worldview? How are we addressing the wider culture and things like family and friendships?
- Communication matters.
How we say what we say. Are we actually communicating? I think most chaplains are very good at this.
What are the key culture making engines in our society?
But I want to focus briefly on one of these factors. That of context.
Context matters greatly in world-view formation. In the world of the young person there are a whole range of spheres that are in essence culture making engines. They include – family, friends, school, mass media, the local and national culture they live in.
Some of these are more powerful than others. They are more influential.
One way of thinking about this is to consider the different spheres of influence to be like planets of different sizes. The young person is like a comet streaking through the solar system. The larger planets have greater gravity, greater pull and are more likely to draw young people into their orbit. I know this metaphor is a bit mixed but you get the picture.
The culture of society is a big planet, very powerful. It also influences other planets, like family which is also a big planet. Friendship is also very big and powerful. What about the influence of school ethos…? Well I think the research seems to say that it is a small planet. The same might be said for things like RE and chapel. So what can we do? Should we just accept this limitation, this lack of gravity and just focus on being faithful?
I don’t think so. There are things we can do.
Mission beyond the School
When we look at the whole context the young people in our schools live in. When we consider the influence other settings have, something important emerges. Some of the most powerful influences are not within the school but beyond it. For example and as already mentioned, the family. Family is so significant it can trump wider culture if the family is intentional about what they do. The greatest predictor for instance of adult religiosity is parental religiosity.
If one of our goals is to have an impact on faith formation, family is one of the places we need to focus. Realising that most chaplains, most people in schools are too busy to engage in ministry beyond the school, the rest of the church probably needs to be involved. To work with the school as a location to connect with and engage families in mission and evangelism. It may have been the case in the past that anything beyond the school would be the local parish’s responsibility this way of thinking won’t fit with our new environment. The school is a place for mission and needs to use its relationships and resources in effective ways.
So can we be both faithful and effective in our Christian mission actions in Anglican Schools? I believe the answer is yes. But it may not happen through much of what we do now. New mission actions are needed within the life of the school and beyond it.
- How do you feel about the metaphor of ‘being lost’ and ‘surviving’ in term of our missional engagement with the world?
- Is the Anglican Church surviving in its new environment?
- Does it matter if our ministry is effective in terms of impact? How might this be measured or evaluated?
- What might need to occur to take the ministry of the school beyond the school?