Identity formation for all ages?

Identity formation for all ages?


Identity formation is considered one of the key elements of youth work.  As young people progress on the journey from dependence to interdependence, they are engaged in a process of trying to either find or establish their identity.  Whether this identity is ingrained in their very nature or something established by their social circumstances is an often debated subject. But it is unlikely that this is an either/or discussion, as both nature and nurture are likely to be determinants in the process.  There can be no doubt that our social circumstances do influence our perception of ourselves and how others perceive us, whether this is where we live, our family, our experiences, etc.

The reason why we associate identity formation with young people is probably due to the influence of Erik Erikson’s work on developmental psychology.  Erikson argued that humans (particularly in Western culture) develop through eight stages in a somewhat linear fashion.  He argues that during this period of adolescence we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues.  If we do not successfully negotiate this stage, then we will experience some form of role confusion.  The youth worker often has a key role to play in this process of assisting the young person to understand themselves, whether this be providing opportunities to form new interests such as sports or music, assisting in spiritual formation, work around sexual identity, or engaging in political discussions.

However, we should not just limit identity formation to an adolescent process.  Our identity is constantly changing.  Some of this change is caused by a change in our social circumstances.  Marriage, parenthood, illness/disability, commencement of studies, retirement or moving house may result in us becoming a spouse, a parent, disabled, a student, a pensioner or a migrant.  Each of these will affect our perception of ourselves and the perception others have of us.

Likewise, it is not just our social circumstances that result in a continual identity formation. Our values and beliefs are also constantly changing.  As we interact with the world around us – whether through what we watch on TV, the people we meet, or the things we read – our values and beliefs change as we interpret the information and form our opinions.  This is not a new phenomenon and some interpreters claim that this is what Jesus was referring to when he said “The eye is the lamp of the body.” (Matt 6:22 NET).  Nonetheless, it can provide for interesting situations, for example when you meet up with someone for the first time in a long time and both of you have a perspective of one another which is rooted in who you each used to be, and rather than taking into account how values, attitudes and opinions have changed in that time.

The early Christians had a similar experience.  David Horrell, in his book Solitarity and Difference[1], studies how the early followers of Jesus created a group or social identity, which is their outworking of a change in identity through an encounter with the Christian gospel.  He notes that “the identity of a group according to social identity theory has cognitive, emotional, and evaluative dimensions, and is further defined by ‘norms’ that stipulate ‘a range of acceptable (and unacceptable) attitudes and behaviours’ for members of the group.  Moreover, distinctions drawn between ingroup and outgroup members serve to enhance a positive – and necessarily comparative – sense of group identity.” (p92)

For these early followers, they embarked on a process of forming a group identity that was to some extent distinct from the Jewish, Greco-Roman and other cultures from which they came from, but which at the same time was not hostile to them.  An example of this can be seen in Romans, where Paul addresses the Jewish Christians in chapters 1-7 (see 2:17) highlighting that they are children of Abraham through faith, not by obedience to law which is not open to the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.  And then in chapters 9-13 he appears to address the Christians who do not come from a Jewish background, highlighting the rich heritage of the Jewish faith and their interaction with YHWH (God) (e.g. 9:4-5).

For Christians today, we still wrestle with this concept of identity formation and how we continue to be shaped by the Christian gospel.  Our Christian identity and associated values,should not be static, but should be constantly transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2).  Such a continual renewal should result in our reflection on our theology (our understanding of God and how He interacts with the world) and either cause us to revise our theological positions or re-affirm them anew.  Theological reflection is therefore a response to our continual encountering of the Christian message and should both shape our identity and our practice.

Likewise, the other features of our identity will affect how we engage and respond to the Christian message.  Whether we are a spouse, a parent, disabled, a student, a pensioner or a migrant will affect how we both interpret scripture and the Christian message, as well as how we practice it in our worship, mission and discipleship.  Therefore, no single model of church is likely to suit everyone and there is a need to create space for a variety of ways of worshipping, doing mission and discipling each other.  The question for us as a church is how we might facilitate and equip people for this.

Graeme McMeekin
Vice Principal

A number of programmes are commencing over the next few months.  If you would like to know more, please complete our online Intent to Study enquiry form, stating which course or programme you are interested in. You can also call the office on 0141 552 4040.  Courses/Programmes starting in the next few months include:

[1] Horrell DG (2005), Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics, London: T&T Clark

A Missional God and a Missional Church

A Missional God and a Missional Church


In lectures given in 1952 at Trinity College, Glasgow, the theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin was already addressing concerns for the church under the title of The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church[1]. Newbigin reaffirmed the Church as a “visible community”, in which an understanding of the body of Christ is more than an abstract or ‘spiritual’ (invisible) notion, but rather it is “the actual visible life of the Christian fellowship in the world” (p71).

The Bible is replete with the notion that mission is at the heart of the nature of our God. At the very beginning of the Abrahamic story, Abraham is left in no doubt that “all peoples on earth” were to be the ultimate recipients of the blessing bestowed on his family by God (Genesis 12:3). Probably the most quoted verse of the New Testament reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16), being later followed by “As the Father has sent me …. I am sending you” (John 20:21)

In his 1991 seminal work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society[2] Newbigin considers the problem how to conduct Christian witness in a society which has “pluralism as its reigning ideology”, without resorting to the past autocracy of Christendom. The issue for Newbigin, as it is for us, is the (in)credibility of a message in which “the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross” (p227). So what is his answer to this dilemma?

“I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it”.

Newbigin’s conclusion highlights the essential paradoxical juxtaposition of congregational nature: living and loving as the body of Christ for the sake of the world. Even if it ever could have, I suggest that the church can no longer expect to evangelise by propositional proclamation alone. The days of evangelistic rallies are finished in the Western world. The seismic turn in our culture since the 1950s can be summed up in two significant compound words: post-Christendom and post-modernism. Firstly, following a thousand and more years of Christianity and its battles, most Scots believe they have heard it all before and are now rejecting what they perceive as the Christian God. Secondly, as I wrote in my last blog, post-modernism is leading the Scottish population to disbelieve all propositional statements, not just the religious ones. Language, including religious language, is losing its meaning.

For the Christian community, the essential hermeneutic of its message in an age of unbelief and scepticism lies in its believing and a relational life together, summed up by Jesus: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This hermeneutic reflects the very heart and behaviour of Jesus (John 13:34) which itself reflects the missional character of God. I am not proposing this as a nice idea to which Christian communities should aspire, but rather as a fundamental Biblical understanding of God’s chosen means of communication, rooted in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and his people.

Pioneer missional communities

The majority of congregations in Scotland have not grasped this truth – that they do not exist for themselves, but rather they are for the world. This is the paradox: our love for one another, our worship and learning together, essential as it is to the health and dynamic of our local congregation, nevertheless has a centrifugal purpose and is the driving motive for our community to adopt a missional stance. We witness by the character of our community as much as, if not more than, by our proclamation. If the character of our Christian community falls short of our words about God, then the wider community will simply not believe us. But if our words about God proceed from our character and relationships, then our means of communication is holistic and complete.

At SSCM we are championing Pioneer Ministry, and I say strongly that such pioneers should not and must not be seen by others, or see themselves, as ‘lone rangers’. Interestingly, the early pioneers of the American West did so in large family groups travelling together, not as lonely trekkers. Pioneers for the good news of Jesus should work and relate in Christian love and service, in teams or groups, in which words are interwoven with love and works. Pioneer groups should never adopt an attitude of triumphalism, but strive to serve together in such a way as to become infectious catalysts for further missional attitudes to emerge: such groups are springing up throughout our nation. It is to encourage pioneering and church-planting that SSCM is offering a very practical course in Pioneer Ministry, led by seasoned pioneers. The very first intake of students onto the CertHE in Theology (Pioneer Ministry) are beginning their studies just now. Could you (or someone you know) join those pioneers next year?

Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

[1] Lesslie Newbigin (1955), The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, was originally published by the British Council of Churches for a year-long discussion programme in the UK. It was reissued by the World Council of Churches in 1984.
[2] Lesslie Newbigin (1991), The Gospel in a Pluralist Society London: SPCK

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Part 2: The Church & Her Witness

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Part 2: The Church & Her Witness


My last blog post was based on the small book by the Reformed/Pentecostal scholar James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.[1] In this I outlined his analysis of three major philosophers who have shaped Western culture in the 21st Century. Once properly understood, Smith contends, they become allies of and not obstacles to Christian witness. I want to summarise Smith’s arguments for the Church’s opportunities in postmodernity.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is considered the father of deconstructionism, a term often understood negatively. Smith maintains however that Derrida’s intention is not destructive; rather it is to make the case for interpretation as the means by which we all – including scientists – perceive and understand the world. Derrida thus challenges the claims of empirical objectivity which have dominated Western Enlightenment culture from the 17th Century (Descartes and Hume) until the 20th Century (Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer).
This opens a space for us to question all those current assertions which claim to be universal facts, not interpretations, and allows for the possibility of other constructions, including that of the Christian narrative. The postmodern loss of objectivity, says Smith, “does not entail a loss of boldness about the truth of the gospel” (p51), for our knowledge of God does not come from ‘proofs’, but from His self-giving (revelation) to us. Furthermore our witness does not rest on rationalistic persuasion, but on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit.
Derrida argues – in the light of deconstruction – that genuine interpretation comes from corporate sources, i.e it is something done in community, with others. This chimes with the Bible’s emphasis on that ‘host of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1) past and present, local as well as global, who continue to shape the Christian confession in conjunction with our prophetic voice.

The scepticism of François Lyotard (1924-1988) was aimed at the widely-accepted rationalistic/humanistic metanarratives of social progress (Kant and Marx), as well as those of the scientific enterprise which have dominated modernity. Smith cites the work of the American physicist/philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996), who argued that scientific knowledge depends on ‘paradigms’ which in themselves are forms of belief; a “matter of faith” (p71).[2]
Smith suggests that the suspicion of rationalistic metanarratives presents a unique opportunity for Christian witness (p70). The postmodern scepticism of autonomous reason allows us to promote the ancient Augustinian contention for “faith preceding reason” (p72). In other words, faith is the ground or basis of all comprehension, including that of scientific discovery.
Following Lyotard’s  argument for the narrative construct of knowledge, Smith reminds us of the narrative character of Christian revelation which should be repeated with joy in a ‘story-telling church’ in worship and in lives lived together; this in turn becomes a dynamic aspect of our witness.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), in his study of prison discipline, aims a general critique at all structures – prisons, schools, hospitals, churches – in which privileged knowledge functions primarily as a means of power. Smith argues passionately that the 21st Century Christian church, so often the perpetrator of abusive manipulation, should strive to display the servant image of Christ: the “renewed image bearers of God” (p106).

I end with an illustrative story. A number of years ago I had the privilege of baptising a lady of 86. A member of the Communist Party in her youth and a convinced atheist all of her days, she came under the influence of a caring Christian house-group in her later years.  One day, looking around at her beloved small garden, she mused to herself “there must be a God: this beauty cannot be an accident”! At that moment “everything fell into place”, and was the beginning of a journey to Christ. It was not, as some might suggest, that she had capitulated to the irrational, but that by conviction of the Holy Spirit she realised another more plausible narrative was possible. The Christian narrative is one we can continue to tell and gain a hearing for in our postmodern society.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

[1] James K.A. Smith (2006), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic
[2] See also the writings of the Hungarian-British polymath/philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), e.g. Knowing and Being (1969), who argued that all knowing takes place within the context of personal commitment.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?


The title for this blog comes from an accessible small book by the Reformed/Pentecostal scholar James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.[i] In this volume Smith argues persuasively that postmodernist thinkers of the 20th Century are allies and not enemies in our Christian witness. In light of the stated objective of SSCM to place Christian mission in its contemporary social and philosophical context [ii], I will endeavour to unpack some of Smith’s useful reasoning.

Smith makes the case for the difference between postmodernism, the writings of – mainly French – continental philosophers, and the culture spawned by that philosophy which has become known as postmodernity.

In pre-modernity (the Christian) God was in his heaven and the earth was at the centre of the universe. The modern period was ushered in when Galileo (1564-1642) declared that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and the modern age of rationality advanced when Descartes (1596-1650) shut himself in his room and vowed to only believe that he was a thinking person: hence his dictum  “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum).

Post-modernism is a child of the mid-20th Century when, rocked by two devastating world wars, Western thinkers turned away from the certainties of the scientific endeavour and began to question objectivity itself. Smith’s contention is that postmodern suspicion offers an opportunity to forge a Christian apologia in thought and ecclesiology, one which may turn out have more in common with our pre-modern forefathers in the faith. To do so he examines three postmodern writers:

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is considered the father of deconstruction when he (in)famously stated that “there is nothing outside the text”. Although ‘deconstruction’ is commonly considered a negative concept, Derrida’s intention was positive. Derrida wished to convey that there is always interpretation in our reading of the world: that is, we can never get behind or past texts. Smith contends that this approach deconstructs the scientific claim of empirical objectivity and allows for the interpretation of revelation which “informs our horizon” (p48). Smith argues that the horizon of revelation will not be just individualistic, but will take into account the interpretation of the believing community, both in time and in space: from church history as well as “in the voices of our global brothers and sisters” (p57).

François Lyotard (1924-1988) is best known for his scepticism of metanarratives. Although this may seem to negate the metanarrative of the Bible, Lyotard’s objections are aimed at accepted rationalist/humanistic metanarratives of social progress (Kant & Marx) and of the scientific enterprise. Smith writes “for the postmodernist, every scientist is a believer” (emphasis mine) (p68). Lyotard claims that all knowledge is rooted in narrative; or as Francis Schaeffer would have us believe, all claims to knowledge have presuppositions.  This, claims Smith, throws us back onto the ancient Augustinian ontology of revelation where faith precedes reason (p72), and gives us an approach to knowledge which signals new opportunities for public Christian witness.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) placed a study of prison discipline as a framework for his arguments that all structures – prisons, schools, hospitals, etc – function with power arising from privileged knowledge. Hence his famous dictum “power is knowledge”. Smith argues that Foucault is right in his suspicion of power, in the way such power is used to manipulate and shape people’s lives. Christian churches should then be wary of manipulation through knowledge, which is not only wrong, but feeds into postmodern suspicion. Nevertheless Smith takes issue with Foucault in that not all discipline is wrong, and says that some forms of (voluntary pre-modern) disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, should be encouraged and are genuinely post-postmodern.

Smith translates his arguments regarding postmodernism into some practical suggestions for the character and witness of churches in the age of postmodernity. These suggestions and more will wait for another blog.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

[i] James K.A. Smith (2006), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic
[ii] The SSCM handbook on Pioneer Ministry states “the Christian Church must consider itself as being in a pioneering and missional environment within a new social reality, resulting in the need to reflect upon the practices and presuppositions of both the church and its surroundings”

A Conversation with Greg Boyd, Glasgow, Saturday 23rd July

A Conversation with Greg Boyd, Glasgow, Saturday 23rd July


Neopolis and the Scottish Network Churches are sponsoring A Conversation with Greg Boyd on Saturday 23rd July 2016, from 10am-1pm, at Bishopbriggs Community Church, Glasgow, G64 2SN.

Greg Boyd (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an internationally recognized theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist and author.  He is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, and has authored or co-authored 20 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of GodGreg’s apologetic writings and public debates on the historical Jesus and the problem of evil have helped many skeptics embrace faith, and his writings and seminars on spiritual transformation have had a revolutionary, freeing impact on many.

In our conversation with Greg, we will highlight issues that are pertinent to urban mission and ministry.  In particular, we will explore the biblical theme of shalom and what difference it makes in our approach to ministry in the cities of our world. How are we to understand the identity of Messiah as the ‘prince of peace’ and how does it impact us at a street level?  Why does the apostle Paul offer a midrashic treatment of Isaiah when he suggests that Christ ‘came preaching peace’ and how does this shape the contours of the Gospel for the city?

Furthermore, we will explore with Greg all of the nuances of what he means by an open view of God.  How are we to understand the Bible as narrative as it impinges upon the freedom of God?  How are we to approach the centrality of the Gospel is it relates to human freedom?  Greg will give special attention to how our theological frameworks shape the manner in which we pray—for ourselves, our contexts, our ministries and our missional mandate in the world.

Our time with Greg Boyd will be entirely given to questions, debate, and roundtable discussions.  Come along with the questions you would like to pose to Greg.

Book now via Eventbrite. The charge of £10 per person includes lunch.

The Last Thing Scotland Needs is More Religion

The Last Thing Scotland Needs is More Religion


In response to my last blog on the need for pioneer ministries in Scotland, someone wrote “the last thing the world needs is more religion”. I completely agree.

In 312 the Roman Emperor Constantine ‘converted’ to Christianity and over time he adopted this faith as the official religion of the Empire. Up to then the followers of Jesus Christ – nicknamed ‘belonging-to-Christ-ones’ or Christians in their earliest years – were a growing minority in the Roman Empire. Persecuted for their faith for over two hundred years, not least because they claimed Jesus as Lord and not Caesar, they met secretly in homes and in caves.

However with the Constantinian intervention, a new state ‘religion’ was born and Christendom was inaugurated in the years that followed. Whereas followers of Jesus had been persecuted on pain of death for non-allegiance to the imperial cult, everyone in the Roman Empire was now forced to be baptised as Christian, with equally serious consequences for non-compliance.  Now the greatest power on earth became wedded to the Christian church, which in turn, and over time, adopted positions of privilege and power.

In The Priestly Kingdom, the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder argues that although the Reformers of the 16th Century – in reaction to corruption in the church – believed in the self determination of local congregations over against the Bishops of the Holy Roman Empire, they backed away from announcing their autonomy because they needed the sponsorship of the city fathers (in Zwingli’s case) and the territorial princes (in Luther’s).[1] There can be no doubt that when the Reformation came to Scotland under the leadership of John Knox (1560) the vision of a ‘covenanted nation’ under God brought beneficial changes which included equality of men and women before God, democracy in church affairs and a concern for the welfare of the poor.[2] However – in keeping with the Constantinian shift – the church remained wedded to the state.

I suggest that if ‘religion’  is primarily understood as that cultural and belief system which has endorsed corrupt hierarchy, fuelled civil strife, supported wars and legitimised oppression, we want no more of it either in the world or in Scotland.

Jesus however stood against ‘religion’, and paid the ultimate price for it as the religious rulers of his day encouraged the crowd to cry out ‘crucify him!’ Similarly the first church leaders (Peter, Paul etc.) and the early church fathers all suffered and some were martyred because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.

The era of post-Christendom now offers us the greatest opportunity to be true to a genuine ‘good news’ message of the love of God and the salvific centrality of Jesus’ ministry focus, his death and resurrection. As outlined above, in the era of Christendom which has now lasted for over 1500 years in the West, nations and peoples (such as the Scots) were identified as ‘Christian’ – not because they had chosen to do so, but by dint of their birth. Now men and women are free to choose to follow Jesus Christ (or not to) because they have come to recognise him as saviour and wish to adhere (by the enabling of the Holy Spirit) to the ordinances of love and service to the world. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it well when he outlines the task of the church in era of post-Christendom:

“The first task of the church is to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives”.[3]

It is this post-Christian era which now gives rise to the need for what has been termed pioneer ministry, since within Christendom a settled Pastoral calling to minister to the faithful is all that was required. A YouGov poll in 2014 stated that now 77% of the British population describe themselves as not very/not at all religious. It is in outreach to this large majority of our population that the challenge lies. The Scottish School of Christian Mission’s statement on Pioneer Ministry states “the Christian Church must consider itself as being in a missional and pioneering environment in a new social reality….” Churches must now consider with urgency what it means to be missional and pioneering communities. This is the challenge that faces us all.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

*The CertHE in Theology (Pioneer Ministry) is launching in September. Complete our online enquiry form to find out more.

[1] Yoder, J.H. 2001. The Priestly Kingdom University of Notre Dame Press, p23
[2] Storrar, W. 1990. Scottish Identity: A Christian Vision, Edinburgh: The Hansel Press, p33
[3] Hauerwas, Stanley. 1981 A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic Notre Dame I.: University of Notre Dame Press, p85

Why Scotland needs pioneer ministries

Why Scotland needs pioneer ministries


Sixty years ago the Western world experienced a seismic intellectual, sociological and cultural shift which was deeply rooted in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century but which did not take full effect until the middle of the Twentieth. In his insightful book The Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown mounts a powerful case for the view that the process of secularisation as we know it was the result of a massive “discourse change” in the 1960s, especially in the latter part of that decade. Brown argues – convincingly in my opinion – that the Evangelical discourse still had powerful cultural themes in the United States and in Britain at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Evangelicalism reached its peak in the UK in the 1950s. In 1954 the Billy Graham Crusades were attended by 1.9 million people in London and 1.2 million people in Scotland. This was also the era when missionary endeavour flourished from Scotland and hundreds of missionaries passed through the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow – the ancestor of the SSCM – to venture out to the farthest reaches of the globe.

So, what’s changed?

We live in the aftermath of two world wars which shook the complacency of the Enlightenment narrative that ‘reason can make sense of everything’ and that it could fashion a panacea for mankind’s ills. Beneficent post-war sentiments which drove mid-twentieth century missionaries to take God to a broken world became post-war disillusionment in the general discourse, and drove the move to push God out of the picture all together: this we call post-Christendom. At the same time, Enlightenment certainties which gave rise to modernity began to implode. This spawned popular non-theistic philosophies and non-rationalistic cultural movements from the mid-twentieth century onwards: this has been called post-modernity.

So, what about Scotland?

Scotland has a particularly strong bond to Christendom. According to William Storrar in his book Scottish Identity: A Christian Vision, the notion of Scotland as a godly nation stretches as far back as the Declaration of Arbroath in 1312 and remained strong throughout the Protestant Reformation of the latter part of the Sixteen Century and the  ‘disruptions’ of the centuries that followed. This notion depends entirely on the assumption of a largely believing and church-going nation in which children are included from birth. The ministry to such a church is consequently pastoral – taking care of the flock – in ‘word and sacrament’.

So, what ministries are needed for post-Christendom?

A survey carried out by Scottish Social Attitudes in April 2016 highlighted the fact that fifty-two per cent of those who participated in the survey said they are unaffiliated with any organised religion. Faced with the social, cultural and intellectual realities of a post-Christian Scotland, I suggest new forms of ministry desperately need to be engendered, arising from a paradigmatic shift in thinking in relation to the nature and purpose of the Christian church. In essence, this shift is from a church that people ‘come to’ to a church from which people ‘go out’ and ‘give out’.  It requires an ecclesiology we are not used to; namely the participation and equipping of the whole body of Christ for ministry. It will require leadership willing to pioneer beyond comfort zones. The SSCM handbook on Pioneer Ministry states that this form of ministry is by definition “innovative and does not rely on any fixed approach or method”.  Such demands on the church in Scotland are unprecedented: but then, so are the circumstances.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

Our new Certificate in Theology (Pioneer Ministry) will begin in September 2016. To find out more about this course or to apply, complete our online enquiry form.

Village goats, mammals and dinosaurs: what kind of training is needed for mission and ministry?

Village goats, mammals and dinosaurs: what kind of training is needed for mission and ministry?


“For a long time, teachers in our seminaries have thought that if they teach students sound theology, Greek exegesis and church history, these students would begin to function like church leaders”
(Perry Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 2014)

“Effective ministerial training should not primarily be about training ministers in the skills they need to minister effectively today; instead, it should be about giving them the capacity to respond well to the pastoral challenges of the day after tomorrow, which we haven’t yet begun to imagine. And what they need to respond well to such unknown challenges is a thorough grounding in theology”
(Steve Holmes, University of St Andrews, at, 2015)

“We are in a new environment of experimenting. Some schools are putting ‘everything’ on the table in an effort to discern the adaptive shifts they need to make. This is creating a new openness to developing experiments in learning and training. We are in a space of new learning and discovery. No group has an inside track on what it all needs to look like”
(Alan Roxburgh, author and leader of The Missional Network, at, 2013)

This is a time of insecurity and innovation in training for mission and ministry. It is a time of considerable debate and (enforced) experimentation. Established educational and formative methods are being questioned, within and without the existing Bible colleges. The two oldest Bible colleges in the UK, both founded in 1892 (the Scottish School of Christian Mission – originally founded as the Bible Training Institute – and Redcliffe College), have undergone dramatic changes in the last two years.

So what is going on? I will be looking at these questions, and seeking a few possible solutions, in two seminars to be held at next week’s Global Connections conference, when I will look at the following issues:

Contextual and missional issues
The cultural shift from Christendom to post-Christendom in the UK, with its attendant decline in church attendance and Christian confession, is beginning to be taken seriously (with substantial variation across different denominations and streams). An increased interest in pioneer ministry, Fresh Expressions, church planting or community engagement is leading to the question of what kind of training is needed, and for what kind of ministries.

Pedagogical and formative issues
So how are training and formation best approached? Here, the debate is vigorous and robust. Perry Shaw’s quote above may be provocative, but it reflects a view that is gaining ground. Apprenticeship and in-context models of training are increasingly popular, and the defence of more traditional methods tends to come from those who are somewhat personally invested in them.

Institutional and organisational issues
Many Bible colleges are struggling. The fall in student numbers, the increasing cost and regulation of higher education programmes, the tribalisation of evangelical Christianity, and the subtle but real competition between colleges all take their toll and lead to anxiety and uncertainty.

In the article quoted above, Alan Roxburgh continues:
“There is a disconnect between the kind of leader that seminaries are producing and the growing sense of the kinds of leaders now needed on the ground in congregations. There is a heightening of anxiety across church systems that what seminaries are producing is simply out of step with what is needed. There is a growing conviction that the established model of the ‘professional’ clergy will go the way of the Dodo. We are in need of shaping new kinds of contextual learning communities which are working at discovering together what the new leadership needs to look like. This is not an abandonment of classical or intellectual skills but a loss of confidence in the existing professional, graduate models of leadership”.

So, what do we do about this? The interdenominational Bible colleges have historically been the training providers for many of the UK’s different denominations, mission agencies and other Christian charities. But do they get treated like the proverbial ‘village goat’ (everyone milks it, no-one feeds it)? What is the responsibility of the UK’s churches and Christian organisations for ensuring the survival of their training providers (or, more broadly, for the survival and flourishing of training provision of some kind)?

New forms of training provision and new organisational forms are a sign of a healthy environment, a reflection of the diversity and entrepreneurialism of evangelical Christianity. But an environment will select the organisms and organisations which flourish and those which don’t. A changing environment is not always kind to the incumbents. Are we going to be the mammals, or are we going to be the dinosaurs?

Richard Tiplady

Jamming a spoke in the wheels

Jamming a spoke in the wheels


Overturning unjust and oppressive structures (Luke 1:46-55, especially v51-53)

This final approach (of four) to Christian social transformation appears at first glance to be similar to the Reformed / transformative approach. But it is more radical and more confrontational; not transforming but overturning, not renewing but replacing. Of the four, it tends to be the least appealing to evangelicals, who tend to be socially conservative, but it has clear biblical support and so is a challenge to all of us who claim to accept biblical authority.

Mary’s song has strong Old Testament precedents, with the people crying out to God and the prophets railing against exploitation and oppression, all of them expecting God’s intervention on behalf of the poor, whether in psalms like Ps 73; 85; 86, or prophetic passages like Isa 1:18-25. The same emotion lies behind Mary’s song, with the Jewish people under Roman rule, the most powerful empire of the known world. Having previously been under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule for 500 of the past 600 years (with only glimpses of freedom), they were longing for God to intervene and deliver them.

How does this affect us in the UK today? Perhaps less than it used to, although one does not have to go far back into history to find parallels. Robert Tressell’s novel “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, which recounts the woes of exploited workers during the laissez-faire capitalism of early twentieth-century Edwardian England, was one of the most widely-read books by British soldiers during the Second World War, and is credited with playing a powerful role in post-war demands for a universal welfare state. Neither should the Christian socialist foundations of the UK’s Labour Party be overlooked. Perhaps the closest parallels today lie in unequal global trading relationships? There will be some who think that UK politics is heading in the kind of direction that might require such an approach closer to home as well.

Issues of injustice and exploitation can be complex, hard to understand and hard to decide what to do for the best. The challenge to the church is to keep the Old Testament prophets (and Mary’s song) in mind, and to have the courage to challenge and confront similar injustices today. As the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims caught beneath the wheels of injustice. We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”.


Earlier in this posts, I described churches as “communities of personal and social transformation”, empowering individuals to seek or work for transformation in their workplaces, neighbourhoods and families, with churches as bodies doing the same in their towns, nations and worldwide.

As we have seen, there are different ways of doing this – showing compassion and caring for those in need, working to transform politics and community life, demonstrating an alternative community, and confronting and overturning injustice. All four have strengths and weaknesses; all four have biblical support. All four should be in evidence in the mission of the church in Scotland today.

Richard Tiplady

The Church as an Alternative Community

The Church as an Alternative Community


“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14)

Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12). What is rather more challenging is the fact that he also described his followers as such, and as a city on a hill, which cannot be hidden. This is a solemn challenge, and one in which our lives together as his disciples matter a great deal, which is probably why it gets so much attention in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 17; Acts; Romans; 1 Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians). We should also pause to note that Jesus said “you are …..”, not “you might be ….”.

The desire for transformative social impact is laudable, but our world is deeply fallen, corrupt, and under the influence of the evil one. It exhibits a brokenness that strongly resists being ‘fixed’. Utopian dreams often fall far short and become oppressive themselves.

In such a context, the church is an alternative community. We bear witness by who we are, not by what we do. There is a strong Anabaptist heritage to this idea, although it goes back to the early church itself, wherein the early Christians shared all their possessions and sold property in order to give to those in need (Acts 2:44-45). The North African theologian Tertullian wrote about Christians thus; “See how they love one another, and how ready they are to die for one another” (Apology 39.7), and the last pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (who ruled briefly from AD361-363) wrote the high priest of Roman paganism to complain, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also!”.

The main idea is that rather than trying to change the world through effort, one tries to influence it by showing an alternative. Often pacifist and non-violent, it tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount. It focuses on the cross of Christ, and on weakness and suffering (e.g. 2 Corinthians). And it is powerfully influential, as shown by the impact of just three people – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.

But the focus on community purity can easily degenerate into petty legalism, as the subsequent history of many early Anabaptist communities demonstrates. Jesus said the same when he criticised the Pharisees for tithing their dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). Perhaps this broken, fallen, corrupt and resistant world needs a more radical approach to change?