Do we offer a 'plausible structure' to others? (Kim Hartshorne)

Wednesday, 30 April, 2014

Kim Hartshorne asks whether we offer a 'plausible structure' to others.

As a Bishop's Mission Order and small missional community, we at the Upper Room in Cirencester ponder how to appropriately and effectively do mission in our context. How do we reach people who have never heard the good news of the Gospel in a way that makes sense? How do we make sure we show and tell the Jesus story so that our actions and words work together to communicate clearly?

What we've learned over six years is that telling, proclaiming, witnessing and evangelising is just not enough - nor is inviting people into 'our church' and then expecting them to get the hang of it because it makes sense to us. This is somewhat to do with British postmodern society where experience and authenticity tend to make more sense to people than believing a list of doctrinal truths. It also makes sense in our context, where the group of people we're trying to reach have no recent history of following the Christian faith. In the main, they are marginalised people who have not had direct links with Christianity for several generations – or more.

They have no foundation to start from, given that many schools have not held Christian whole-school assemblies for years now and no-one said prayers with them at bedtime. Childhood Bible stories, cheery hymns, Sunday school treats and family Christenings have not been a part of their history. The language of faith is now foreign to many people of white, working class backgrounds.

Life in the Upper Room community is about opening up a space where people, who've lost their thread of connection to the gospel, can come. It is a space where people can be introduced to the narrative and try it on for size, question and explore, begin to find where they belong in the story, taste and see and participate in it. We offer the Upper Room as a 'plausible structure' to others, sharing the story of Jesus, who he is, what his coming, living, dying and rising is all about – and what being in the family of God feels like, eating and praying together.

The idea of 'plausibility structures' was first discussed by Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality (Berger & Luckmann, Penguin 1979) and explored further by Sam Richards in Mass Culture (ed. Pete Ward, BRF, 1999, pp116-130). The idea is that we all need spaces, relationships and experiences that enable us to understand, process, internalise and begin to believe and live the gospel. In a surrounding culture that no longer has this belief explicit in its daily story, this becomes important. In order for the narrative to make any sense, people need to be able to experience it, participate in it and chew it around, taste it, see what it feels like, try it out with others.

The need to 'have a go' is a very human characteristic and a facet of learning and growing. We need spaces to practice, and learn from each other's questions and reactions. A community where it is assumed we all agree and believe the same things is often a place where authority and the pressure to conform is subliminating the process of questioning that is a natural part of learning.

Richards posits acceptance into the ritual of communion as access to tasting and experiencing the action that surrounds the death and resurrection of Christ. In joining in, sharing the peace and the bread and wine, people are drawn into the welcome of God at the heart of the faith community. We always ask new people to offer the cup of wine to others at communion, and all are welcome to take bread and wine, as we have seen how transformative the invitation to participate is on people's journey to faith.

Rowan Williams writes in Lost Icons that our development as a person and a self occurs over time, in communities with others, and our self-awareness is shaped by shared understanding (pp140-143). This means we need to be aware that each person brings themselves into dialogue with tradition and culture. Where that has broken down, in terms of our shared understanding of the Christian faith, new spaces need to be made for this dialogue to occur. Williams believes we need a sense of ourselves being held within a narrative, even as this narrative is constantly being re-edited over time (p144). Every event that happens is connected to others and to the gospel and re-orders who we are and will be, so that 'every telling is a retelling, and the act of telling changes what can be...' (p144). In this way, new identities can be explored and inhabited.

This offering of a space and community of fellow humans to journey alongside, a place to retell and reshape our stories in the light of Christ's redemptive story, is what we are all about as we seek to offer a 'plausible structure' at the Upper Room.

About the author: 

Kim Hartshorne, a lay pioneer minister in the Diocese of Gloucester, leads the Upper Room, Cirencester and is in her second year of training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry at CMS and Cuddesdon. 

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