Relating for Gold (Part 2)

The Rise of Localism

Whilst not subscribing to every aspect of ‘localism,’ as a political philosophy and economic strategy it has something of merit to offer. As its name suggests, Localism prioritises the local. It supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of Government, production of local history, culture and the forming of a local identity.[1]

Proponents of this thinking tend to favour the local over the regional, national or global interests, a better way maybe to follow the old adage of ‘think global and act local.’ Meaning in this instance we can promote the local with an eye to broader concerns. Local Government is beginning to pick up on these notions, not only looking to strengthen the identity and economy of a municipality but to foster a place based approach, which recognises smaller hubs of community and seeks to empower them.

Media expression is also picking up the concept of the local with the rise of what is know as hyper local journalism. Yarraranges,tv is a burgeoning website focused on the telling of local stories for the purpose of building familiarity and relationships between members of the community.[2] In and of itself the telling of story is important to cement identity and create commonality, however with the further aim of building local connections, storytelling takes on a deeper and increasingly significant role in the community.

Localism is one way to help us understand the importance and to motivate us to be part of the rebuilding of the relational fabric of our communities. I can’t help wondering how different life might have been for my mate Steve, if that fabric had been stronger.

Steve

I first met Steve at our Op Shop in Pakenham. Big House Communities the missional endeavour that Amy (my wife) and I were leading, after a few years of operating out of our house, with no public space, had finally managed to secure a double shop front. We used the space to sell clothes, furniture, books, bric-a-brac and a host of other items. Then in the spacious back room we were able to create a lounge area and a kitchen space. Each week day a small team of volunteers would make sandwiches or soup, sometimes a cake, which would all be available for those that needed a feed, or community or just a place to come and sit and be.

One day a particularly rough looking man came for a sandwich. His grey hair was dirty and messy, his skin was a funny yellow colour, with tattoos covering his arms. He arrived with his two best mates Collie and Taebo who waited patiently outside with a bowl of water. Steve had lived a tough life, I suspect someone who just couldn’t find their fit in the world. He had been in and out of prison for various robberies and assault and was currently living in the shed of a suspected paedophile.

Over time a relationship began to form between Steve and a few of us in Big House. He eventually accepted an offer to stay with one of our families. It wasn’t long till he had bonded with the kids and began to feel somewhat at home. The journey wasn’t always simple and there were a few hiccups along the way, however in all of this process a new Steve began to emerge. We saw a kind, articulate man who loved to help others. There were constant stories of him working in people’s gardens, building planter boxes and generally being around if people needed a helping hand. The first day he helped at the Op Shop saw him showered, hair tied back and a huge smile on his face as he set off to vacuum the whole shop.

Life was never simple for Steve, despite seeing the colour of his skin change and him coming to faith, he eventually died of alcohol related causes and experienced many ups and downs along the way.

For me, Steve’s story raises a few questions; What are the expectations that we have of a transformed life? As Bart Campolo (now a Humanist Chaplain) said a few years ago at a Surrender Conference, ‘his ticket has already been punched.’ Campolo was referring to people like Steve who have lived a very different life to most of us and are fairly entrenched in that life, to the point that they may not be able to make a complete break from it, or at the very least will continue to wear the physical and emotional consequences of chronic alcohol and drug abuse and criminal activity. Taking into account the complexities of working with people like Steve what are some guiding principles and methodology that will help us live and demonstrate the essence of the good news we are bearers of?

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

For many, thinking about community development in a Western context is a bit of a conundrum. Traditionally CD is thought about in the third (or developing) world and has economic implications. This is also true of ABCD in a Western setting however the economic lift is a by product of developing the social capital within the community. Put simply ABCD is a process for the empowerment of whole communities through the utilising of strengths within that community.[3] Though not a response peculiar to Christian thinking in our language ABCD recognises the inherent worth and value present in individuals, each person being a loved creation. It also affirms that within each community there are Kingdom possibilities yet to be unearthed.

In this way ABCD is akin to Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is a reconfiguration of action research. It focuses on a 4-D cycle; Discovery, Dream, Design, Destiny / Delivery.[4] The research method is collaborative with participants and seeks to discover what is working well within the community, what people enjoy about where they live and what they would like to see happen over say the next 5 years. The underlying belief behind this approach is that organisations or in our case communities move toward what they study.[5] Related to this Whitney and Trosten-Bloom describe four beliefs about human nature and organising that form a basis for AI and highlight its roots in the research epistemology known as social constructivist theory.

  • People individual and collectively have unique gifts, skills and contributions to bring to life (this is also a core understanding for ABCD).
  • Organisations (and communities) are human and social systems, sources of unlimited relational capacity, created and lived in language.
  • The images we hold of the future are socially created and, once articulated, serve to guide individual and collective actions. (ABCD seeks to bring together these images or hopes for the future, encouraging active participation in their outworking)
  • Through human communication in the form of inquiry and dialogue, people can shift their attention and action away from problem analysis to lift up worthy ideals and productive possibilities for the future.[6]

ABCD builds on this and values the contribution of 3 levels within the community; individuals, organisations and institutions. Kretzman and McKnight emphasise that everyone within a community has something to offer to build it up. This could be in the form of a gift, skill, perspective or some other talent. They especially include the mentally and physically handicapped and those who sit on the margins within a community.[7] Kretzman and McKnight advocate for an intensive mapping of these assets alongside what organisations and institutions have to offer. In the pure form of this methodology individuals are interviewed to determine their skills, what they might be prepared to offer the community and even what they might be willing to teach others.[8]

The next level of contribution are organisations or what is called in the United States citizen associations. These include churches, sporting clubs, hobby groups, not for profits and so on.[9] Kretzman and McKnight believe that the possible contribution of these groups is greatly underestimated and that they can often be stretched passed their original purpose to become full contributors in the development process.[10]

This potential was demonstrated by recent work I was involved in with the City of Wyndham. They wanted to do a strength based community planning process and so we designed a set of questions that helped the community members identify the community groups around them, what they saw as their current strengths and how these strengths could be utilised to realise a vision for the community.

 

In this kind of mapping the third level in the community are formal institutions, including businesses, schools, libraries and hospitals. These are some of the most visible aspects in a community and it is relatively easy to list their contributions. It can be difficult to help them gain a holistic view of the community and so motivate them to be involved in the development of the whole community.[11] However in a local context I believe this conversation is becoming easier as placed based approaches to development are gaining momentum.

ABCD Principles

(Next week we’ll unpack the principles of ABCD and introduce the relational proximity framework)

[1] “Localism (Politics),” Wikipedia, last modified July 17, 2015, accessed August 4, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Localism_(politics).

[2] “About Us, ” Yarraranges.tv, last modified 2015, accessed 4 August 2015, http://yarraranges.tv/

[3] John Kretzman and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising a Communitys Assets (Chicago, IL: ACTA, 1993), 1.

[4] Fiona Cram, “Appreciative Inquiry” MAI Review, 3 (2010): 1.

[5] Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros (2003) cited in, Cram, “Appreciative Inquiry,” 1

[6] Whitney and Trsten-Bloom (2003) cited in Cram “Appreciative Inquiry,” 2.

[7] Andre M. Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom: An Argument for Asset Based Community Development in local communities as a practical expression of the Kingdom’s advance” (MA Minor Thesis, University of Divinity, 2012), 66.

[8] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6-7.

[9] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 66.

[10] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6.

[11] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 8.

Relating for Gold (Part1)

Over the next few weeks I’d like to share with you an article I have written on the importance of Asset Based Community Development and Relational Thinking in relation to strengthening individuals in the context of working with marginalised communities.

 

Introduction

I wonder how do you see the people that you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the thrust and parry of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in His image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps8:4-9). However for some, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.

If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that elements such as emotional and existential pain present. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)[1] together with Relational Thinking (RT)[2] establishes such a framework and provides for us a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.

Through the exploration of community I will unpack the importance of local connections and how they unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. This process will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.

Local Communities

Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.

If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world.[3] If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.52.55 pm

Figure 1 Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.

Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including; individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types and the list goes on. The results are equally as devastating both for individual psyches and communities more generally.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.53.55 pm

Figure 2 Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.

During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham was a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These two factors had a number of immediate implications. Firstly it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community often led to the focus of the parent’s lives being elsewhere, even recreation could be removed from the place where there house was situated. On the other side of the equation the children were in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it, learnt about its history. In a sense made their ‘home’ in the community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children ‘acting out.’ They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused was palpable.

Even within a household the relational web can be broken leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and broader society. Some would argue if the basic building block of a community is broken, ie the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities. Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start there, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from reaction to a focus on medium to long-term goals.[4] From a Biblical perspective the prophet Isaiah outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where; there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isaiah 65:17-25). The building block for this type of world is the local community.

(next week I’ll show the importance of the local community and introduce you to Steve)

[1] Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed byJohn Kretzman and John McKnight. They have established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (http://www.abcdinstitute.org).

[2] Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (http://www.jubilee-centre.org, http://relationalthinking.net).

[3] Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.

[4] Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives – Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.

Reflections on a Journey

View from Poatina lookout
View from Poatina lookout

The morning after the storm saw a clear, blue sky, radiant in its beauty, the air was crisp with just a hint of movement, providing an auspicious canopy for the mountains and fields. Another glorious winter’s day in the Midlands of Tasmania. There was no hint of the disruption of the night before, as pilots braced themselves for bumpy landings and drivers wandered between lanes unable to determine the road markings in the glow of the headlights and raindrops bouncing off the asphalt.

This sort of weather is not peculiar for an island state as the winds blow and the climate changes sometimes on an hourly basis. I have fond memories of mornings like these rising early to walk in the stillness of mist with blue above me. The valleys full of green rolling fields falling away from the side of the road, in front of me were the impressive Western Tiers and further up, their crowning jewel the Great Lakes. In winter I remember waking up some mornings, looking up to the mountains and seeing their tops shrouded in the most beautiful white powder. On those mornings despite the cold there was a quiet reverence about the village, a collective awe. Only to be broken by a ute full of young adventurers who would bring the snow down to us via the bonnet of their vehicle.

This weekend Amy and I have ventured back to Tasmania to catch up with old friends as well as explore places we missed during our three and half year stay in Poatina. As I write we are getting ready to drive up to the village. Such a beautiful place yet a place full of old emotions, hopes, ambitions, memories and pain.

For the uninitiated Poatina began life as a hydro town, housing workers that built the massive infrastructure to supply hydro electricity to parts of Tasmania. The giant pipeline which is a central feature of the work, now looks like a scar down the middle of the western tiers. As the infrastructure was finished, and the workers moved away the town became somewhat obsolete and so was put up for sale. There were a couple of other interested parties, but through a miraculous turn of events, Fusion Australia a Christian youth and community organisation was able to purchase the town. It’s purpose for purchasing was to create an intentional community to care for at risk young people. As well it was to be the national headquarters for the movement and a place of training for workers.

We moved into the village when much of this was already established. There was a youth program, which included giving young people the opportunity to begin study in various trades as well as being cared for by the loving embrace of a community concerned to see them succeed. We came to do Fusion’s training having already been working with the movement in South Australia.

As we arrived in the village it didn’t take us long to realise the hive of activity that would soon envelope us. There were rosters for the various businesses, people involved in maintaining and developing the infrastructure. Another circle connected to training. The national operations of Fusion had an office complex in the village, many of those guys looking serious and official, there was a communications hub and so on and so forth. Quite the thriving community yet with all the pretence of a quiet sleepy town.

Reflecting back on my experience in Poatina, despite our training that sort to push us in an alternate direction, the town consisted of a very driven community. As part of the youth program Amy, Josh and I were a first port of call for young people coming to the village, helping them transition to a more independent lifestyle. I filled rosters at the chalet, both in the kitchen and front of house, I worked the shop, sometimes the garage (just serving, I wouldn’t haven’t trusted me to even help with any of the mechanics), completed Fusion’s diploma, helped to establish the radio station and filled many on air shifts, helped establish and was the manager of an evening cafe on a Friday and Saturday night, was on the village management group, helped with an introductory training course in Launceston and ended up provisionally managing the work in Launceston for a short period. All this in three and a half years.

Looking back after the experience in Poatina I felt I got caught up in the machinery of the village, I suspect most of us did. Much to my growing chagrin I wanted a big role, a role I considered important, which pointed to leadership. I feel now I missed a lot of things because of that ambition and what I needed to do, to feed it. I think about the young people that came through our house, how present was I for them? Could I have done more with them? Played, just been available? I’m not going to beat myself up too hard about that, but as perspectives grow and change, I see what’s truly important a little differently.

We came to the village as students and as such it took time to build relationships with the permanent residents, who saw many such groups come and go. Even so whilst a common task of sorts bound us together due to busyness and a lack of emphasis from senior leadership there was surprisingly little deep connection between people, particularly between people in different circles. We have a number of great enduring relationships from that period, yet there could have been so much more. Don’t get me wrong there was fun and laughter along the way, but surprisingly little deep connection.

The training we received for the most part was excellent, some of the books we examined shaped my thinking considerably into the future. The lecturers knew their material and for the most part delivered it well. There was plenty of chance for interaction and questioning. The classes were made up of people exploring their hopes and dreams, longing essentially for a better world. On the whole Poatina provided a great community for people to explore a particular model of youth and community work.

Yet it was driven and looking back there was much done for the sake of doing it. As much as there was freedom to explore as I got more involved in the work, decisions tended to be unilateral and there was very little room to input new ideas, even those being looked at in the training.

I struggled to leave for 18 months, I struggled with frustration over not being seen and heard, I struggled with new ideas that found no expression, I struggled with Amy about what it meant to leave well and in God’s will… I struggled. And so 11 years on it was interesting to visit the community once again. I think we’ve been back once in that time but on this visit a very different Poatina presented itself to us.

The infrastructure was the same, the community hall, chalet, all the houses, the streets. The view was still spectacular, the mountains behind and valleys on the other three sides. Yet a great deal of the driveness was gone, it was quiet and to the outside observer almost peaceful. Again though if you dig deeper a different story emerges. Five years ago events took place that changed the shape of the community. The senior leader of Fusion was asked to leave due to inappropriate behaviour, this sent the movement generally and the village particularly into a tailspin. Many of the Fusion people finished up with the movement, hurt and disillusioned, others not of the Fusion ilk moved into the village to join the community and today there is somewhat of an ‘us and them feel.’ Those not connected to Fusion are reluctant to respond positively to most initiatives that feel top down and those who still work with the movement tend to be the ones holding all the infrastructure together.

I believe in the power of intentional community, when a group of people come together to live, and respond to some sense of common cause outside themselves that ultimately unites them. It seems to me to be a great reflection of what the Church could be. They are notoriously hard work, fraught with danger, yet there is something in their genesis which I believe is part of the restoration that the world needs. They require commitment, sacrifice and are counter cultural in the extreme.

Could Poatina once again take its place in this journey? There needs to be a lot of dialogue, a lot of forgiveness and the beginnings of a new dream shared by all in the community. However I need to believe it is possible, not just for Poatina but other intentional communities in the cities where we live… they just might be a core solution to so many of the issues we see around us everyday.

Reclaiming What, For Whom?

Reclaim Australia proponents scare me. They tell us that Muslims are taking over our country, they exhort us to wake up, tell us that the Koran promotes terrorism and that halal is Sharia Law. They want to reclaim Australia for all those who hold to ‘Aussie values.’ At the same time they stand for equality at law, claim women are equal to men (which if push came to shove I bet they don’t hold to) and they tell us they want to reclaim free speech… I suspect this is a veiled way of saying let us sling off at Muslims and whoever else we want to freely. Underneath all of this for many there seems to be a fundamental faith, and so all their views get couched in absolutes (http://goo.gl/lf0rY9).

These absolutes make it very difficult to enter into a reasoned debate with people of the Reclaim Australia ilk. I realise I am being uncharacteristically uncharitable and my feelings towards those who align with Reclaim Australia are potentially shrouded by the part of me that is still becoming. However my frustration continues, if you peruse their website most of it is couched in very religious language and information tends to get lost in this language and leaves the average person scratching their head as to what they are actually about. This suggests to me that they are not interested in a civil debate and are more about raising a fanatical flag of fear. They scare me!

The reclaim marches over last weekend appear to have been poorly patronised only boosted by the involvement of The United Patriot’s Front, a nationwide movement opposing the spread of left wing treason and the spread of Islamism (http://goo.gl/7Qxm6Y). (WTF!!) The Melbourne rally saw the most unrest with police firing capsicum spray into the crowd in an effort to subdue protestors. 5 protestors were arrested in Sydney and there was a punch thrown in Canberra.

But in essence what message comes across and what is the counter message from the anti-racism side, are there any elements in either side that can helpfully lead to a better Australia, that can reclaim or recreate Australia to be a place that we can all call home?

In an article in the Conversation Irfan Ahmad from Australian Catholic University connects Liberalism with the Islamaphobia showed by reclaim Australia (http://goo.gl/j7kPuX). Liberalism put simply is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality (Google). This concept according to Harvard’s John Trumpbour is a child of the enlightenment and as such is shot through with Islamaphobia. Ahmad points out that a key premise of Liberalism is the individual and the rights of the individual. So why are people so antagonistic towards Muslims, aren’t they people, don’t they have rights too? Ahmad rightly sees that much of contemporary liberal thought, backed by the media treats Muslims as a collective.

An example of this, Anders Breivik kills 71 people in Norway, initially it was blamed on Muslims, later it was found out that Breivik identified as a Christian, immediately he was seen as a psychopath, just an individual. Contrast Brevik with Man Haron Monis who was responsible for the Lindt Café siege towards the end of last year. It took a long time for the media to recognise him as an individual. It may still be labelled an act of terror, where in fact again it was a lone gunman with a history of mental instability. So when there is extreme behaviour by a section of the Islamic community, the whole community is tarred with the same brush. Ahmad is right that the media has not really helped us understand the actors on either side of the police blockade. The focus has been on the clashes with the public left in the hands of the radio talk back community to draw their conclusions.

A case in point is included in Reclaim Australia’s 9 demands, demand 8 is to ban female genital mutilation (FGM). They are claiming it to be a Muslim act against women. However religious scholars such as Tariq Ramadan and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad make it clear that FGM is a local custom and in some places is practiced by Christians as well as Muslims, this is not a particularly religious issue. While I am certainly not in favour of FGM, its causes need to be properly understood, not assumed.

Like Reclaim Australia, the anti-racism protestors have also for the most part come from a negative base, knowing what they are against, but not helping us understand what could be. One of the organisers of the anti-racist demonstration, Mel Gregson, lamented both major political parties are using Islamophobic rhetoric in order to demonise refugees and justify the invasion of countries in the Middle East (http://goo.gl/EjLATJ). Whether this is true or not, it doesn’t really lead us anywhere.

The president of the Australian Islamic Research and Education Academy, Waseem Razvi talking with RT (http://goo.gl/EjLATJ) refutes the claim that Islam is taking over Australia, stating that Muslims represent a 2% minority in Australia. Helpfully he sets a new tone for a patriot, seeing them as someone who would walk with minorities and respect the multicultural spirit of Australia. However he sees Muslims as scapegoats.

The sides are definitely set, the teams chosen and the game of culture clash is in full play. As you would have picked up by my opening comments I have a leaning towards the left and would more readily support the anti-racism position. However with the sides locked in conflict, I’m not sure that either can lead us anywhere. I’m challenged by a Facebook post from Jarrod McKenna, who very clearly states that he believes in transformation and is empathetic with people from both extremes, believing that if their story was his story he may very well react in the same way.

I believe the key to the future resolution of these clashes could be in his sentiments. I am a fallen creature, evidenced by my opening lines in this blog, I too believe in the possibility of transformation. I am transformed and continue to be transformed. Part of this transformation is beginning to see with new eyes, when I can look at a Reclaim Australia proponent through the eyes of love or an extreme Muslim and recognise them as the same as me, then and only then can I begin to act as a peace maker and begin with them the long and arduous journey of reclaiming or perhaps recreating Australia into the place that we can all call home.

Young Person Overboard

If you are a church goer, how would you describe the state of faith of young people in your church. For the purpose of this exercise think about people aged 12-25. How many are there in your fellowship? Over the past 5-10 years has the number of young people actively involved in your church declined? For those who remain how would you rate the vibrancy of their faith, 1 being alive, active, relevant; 10 being almost dead, going through the motions?

One of the metaphors to the describe the church is that of a boat, for many young people it seems the boat no longer provides safe navigation or is not heading where they want to go.

Rowan Lewis in his recent article in Equip, The State of Faith in Australian Youth: Haemorrhaging, Exodus or Exile, again sounds a warning gong that has been struck on and off for the last 40 years. Starting in the 70’s, research by Bodycomb commissioned by the Joint Council of South Australia showed marked decline in church involvement started from age 19. In many cases the report showed that the decline was due to a subconscious drift rather than conscious choice. Without seeing the report I’m presuming this means as work and family pressures increased keeping up attendance at church became a lower priority. In the 80’s and 90’s similar results were seen and analysed. In the 90’s there was a presumption that this was again due to life stage however the data showed this to be a mistake and in fact young people were leaving the church and not returning. It has become clear that over the decades there has been a progressive increase in the decline of young people from the church.

Cited in Lewis, researchers (Hughes and Mason, in separate works) in 2007 noted that there were dramatic losses of young members from various churches, at the same time there was an increase in ‘no-religious identification.’ They concluded that there was little doubt about the main destination of this exodus from the church. The bad news continues with Hughes noting that young Australians who in 2001 connected with a church, 500,000 of them decided that in the 2011 census they had no religion. For many the 2011 census was the first time they could assert their independence and show where their sense of connection lied or where it didn’t as the case may be. Goodwin in 2013 demonstrated that it was not only young adults who were leaving the church but in fact younger teens were leaving as they transitioned from childhood to youth.

Lewis concedes that young people are leaving the church in droves but they may not be leaving the faith, at least not in the first instance. He believes they are in an exile state caused by a church that is not engaged in the current cultural landscapes and portrays a black and white faith that doesn’t allow room for mystery, lament and doubt. Added to this I see a church that largely doesn’t know how to constructively raise its voice in the public debate around inequality, justice, poverty, public space and a plethora of other nuanced issues. Related to this inability and connected to an impoverished spirituality is an inadequate discipleship model that in many cases disciples people to an institution rather than the person of Christ.

I grew up in traditional Baptist churches and it was only as I moved from Sydney to Adelaide did I begin to see the inadequacy of our discipleship. I couldn’t have articulated it then, however there seemed to be a massive dichotomy between ‘Sunday’and ‘Monday.’ It seemed to me that we didn’t look any different to those outside the church. Young adults of my vintage were concerned with the cultural norms of education, earning money, buying a car, a house etc. For the most part I didn’t witness a grappling with faith, an asking the serious questions of what does my faith say to my everyday? How am I to be salt and light in the places and spaces that I occupy? Sure there were bible studies, but quite often serious questions would be skirted around and not addressed. The question of formation was one left to the colleges, which only a fraction of people attended.

So then as the research shows many people of my vintage left the church, now I haven’t tracked with them, but I suspect they have never returned and are perhaps now inoculated against faith. For the most part I suspect they don’t enjoy the benefits of an intimate walk with Jesus and receive his peace in the most surprising ways, despite the complexity of the situations faced. Perhaps they don’t get to experience the sense of walking into who they were created to be and seeing the joy in our Father’s eyes as he welcomes them home. I’m not going to speculate on whether they are saved or where they will spend eternity, that is up to God, however in the here and now the church of my generation has not served them well. They and the Church are the poorer for it.

At times as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve not been able to walk away from the Church. I believe God is at work in the world outside of His own people, however the Scriptures tell us that God is especially present with His people and that there is a grace conveyed in that presence and so our faith is a unified and sacramental one. Lets be clear though, walking away from any particular local expression of Church is not necessarily kissing all of that goodbye, however if people have not been equipped for a faith journey outside of a local church, then I fear they are in real trouble.

Lewis points to the need for this type of equipping, but localises it to youth ministry. I would go further and say that the basic orientation of how we equip people needs to shift. The Church once again needs to fix its gaze universally and recognise that God is so much bigger than any local expression or denomination. With this as a framework we can begin to walk the unity we have as the body and then we can recommit to our purpose for existence, being salt and light in the places and spaces where we are called to be. Letting the mystery of our faith, our doubts and laments as well as our joys and celebrations be the flavour and the light which permeates the world. If we can swallow our fear, trust in a big God and be big hearted enough to embrace ourselves and others, we may just find that those looking to jump overboard might reconsider.

Neighbourliness: A Key to Mental Health

Despite not being a sports fan, it’s obvious the murder of Phil Walsh has had massive ramifications for the Adelaide Crows and the AFL more generally. Not to mention the devastation that has been played out on the Walsh family, as they come to terms with the murder and the alleged actions of one of their own. The word tragic doesn’t come close.

Of course as always there’s lots of speculation associated with events such as this. Initially it was thought that Walsh’s son, Cy was on Ice, this has been downplayed by investigators, with Cy being held at Nash House Mental Health Facility, in Adelaide (http://goo.gl/OF0vK3). With this tragic event most likely being perpetrated by someone with a mental illness, it got me thinking about mental health in our country. In many circles there still seems to be a stigma attached to acknowledging that you have a mental health issue. As many will know this has become a live one for me as I continue to suffer with anxiety.

I’ve recently been rekindling an old friendship, on our first meeting after a number of years he told me about his recent journey with Bi-Polar and some of the ups and downs that have ensued. Like my anxiety, for the most part his Bi-Polar is under control. For both of us this is partly because of medication, great support networks and partly because of deliberate choices to not let the illness take over our lives.

Sadly for many with a mental illness this is not the case and they are left to flounder in isolation and sometimes in quiet (or noisy) despair. Misunderstandings around mental health in Australia are surprising with one in five Aussies aged 16-85 experiencing a mental illness in any year. The most common forms of illness are depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorder. 8.5% of Australians have two or more disorders often referred to as complex. Almost half of our population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime… yet we continue to not talk openly about these issues.

I wonder if this plays a factor in the 65% of people with a mental illness not accessing any treatment. And for those who do seek help, it may not come in the form they expect due to serious problems in detection and accurate diagnosis (http://goo.gl/3Av2Si). The statistics roll on with women more likely than men to seek help, and the older you get the less likely you are to experience a mental illness (http://goo.gl/P38p5f). Surprisingly for many, the connection between mental illness and violence is not automatic, with 90% of people suffering mental illness having no history of violence.

Unfortunately for the Walsh family it seems Cy maybe in that 10% where mental illness and violence collide. However despite what can often be a disturbing exterior most people with mental illness are looking for connection and a sense that they can be understood and respected. Organisations like Beyond Blue seek to diminish the stereotype and even encourage us to ask RUOK. Perhaps that simple question with a little bit of knowledge might go someway to helping include people who quite often feel on the outer of society.

We live in an affordable housing complex and Amy asked an interesting question, do the people in the front office, who deal with all kinds of issues arising from an eclectic bunch of residents know mental health first aid? The concept is similar to physical first aid. It draws on the fact that many people do not get professional help or delay doing so. An informed person in their social circles could help them navigate the options available to get the appropriate assistance. They are also able to help in a mental health crisis. For example, if a person is feeling suicidal, harming themselves, having a panic attack or being acutely psychotic, the skilled helper can reduce the risk of the person coming to harm. Since 2001, 1% of the total adult population of Australia have received this training, but its not enough (https://goo.gl/dOWqnQ). I wonder if someone in Cy Walsh’s social circle had been in a position to apply mental health first aid, could the tragedy have been avoided?

Perhaps a well-informed neighbour can make all the difference? Urban Seed and Life Expedition (community development organisations in Melbourne’s CBD) are running Good Neighbour month during July. Their grand vision is to see neighbourhoods, cities and nations transformed through good neighbourliness, into spaces where everyone has a place to belong. They see the key to this being compassion (http://goo.gl/xNwauF). If compassion could be cultivated in the places and spaces that we occupy what difference would it make to how we experience work, home, our local community? Instead of seeing people as strangers to be feared or at least to be wary of would we instead be open and recognise them as neighbours we haven’t met yet?

In this way I wonder if we would uncover at least some of those around us who are suffering a mental illness exacerbated by loneliness and shame?

21 Today!!

Amy told me that today, our marriage is old enough to drink in the US. Not sure how significant that fact is, however the past 21 years have certainly been significant, wonderful, challenging, loved filled and an amazing adventure. I’m so grateful that I have gotten to share them with the love of my life, as we have supported each other through life’s ups and downs and have both grown and changed as people.

Of course in today’s climate where the definition of marriage is being questioned, I can’t help but feel the current debates are missing the point. Whether between people of the opposite or same sex, marriage is so much more than a state or church sanctioned right, symbolised by the signing of documents. Rather it is the union of two people in what each intentions to be a life long commitment. A commitment to grow together, to hold the other in the highest regard, to learn together, make mistakes together, laugh and cry, raise kids, explore, have adventures… simply shape and travel the journey together in the bonds of care and love. From a Christian perspective it is also and I dislike the cliché a union under God. Words fail me here as the sacrament of marriage (undeserved favour of God revealed) is conveyed from each partner to the other in a reflection of the way Jesus loves.

In the hustle and bustle of life, I’m not always as conscious as I’d like to be about what marriage means to me, but for the last 21 years I’ve been privileged enough to live in this bond. However, not everyone can believe that we have been married that long and shared so much. Twice in the last couple of weeks people have commented on how young we look, how fresh our relationship appears and have shared their amazement that we have a 16 year old son. So I guess there are some advantages to marrying young! Well many advantages from where I sit, however not everyone saw it that way. I remember talking with my Dad and receiving his view that 20 was too young to get married. In fact Amy was only 19 (we married 11 days before her 20th) and I love being able to say she was my teenage bride. However it appears those commenting on the age we got married were right, at least statistically speaking. In 1990 the average age of first marriage for a male was 26.5 and female 24.3. This has increased, with the 2010 averages being 29.6 and 27.9 respectively (http://goo.gl/LXssN1).

Other friends at the time also expressed their concern, encouraging us to wait until after we had finished study and had jobs. Even back then we had the sense that our path would be different and if we waited for the steady income, we could be waiting a long time. In fact truth be told we’d still be waiting. Reflecting back, to our detractors, it seemed that marriage was just another thing that you did in the long line of expected cultural norms, which included going to university, getting a well paid job, buying a reliable, preferably new car and a house. Joe Hockey would be pleased!

For me in 1994 marriage signalled the beginning of an adventure, a joint journey where together we would try and figure out what life was about and how to live our faith authentically in the changing world around us. Of course we are still trying to answer those questions in the face of having a teenage son, having experienced paradigm shifting burnout and both exploring new avenues that will hopefully better allow our true selves to be expressed and through that our faith. The journey continues and we continue to cling to each other.

Sadly for many married people in Australia this has not been the case. For a whole plethora of reasons from financial stress, domestic violence, falling out of love to communication difficulties, differing life goals and infidelity, couples end up separating and eventually divorcing. At the outset of a relationship, through to the decision to get married people generally don’t picture themselves in the family court working out custody issues or who gets the vinyl copy The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan. Yet this becomes the reality and acting out of pain and hurt, reasonable people go to extraordinary lengths to inflict more pain and suffering on each other.

It seems that even in relatively healthy marriages we have strayed from the original intent and believed the lie of our culture that it really is all about me. Perhaps its stems back to the reason why we enter relationships in the first place. If we start a relationship with someone in order to meet our need for company, fulfilment, sexual release, a sense of belonging or any other need we have, then we will bond with the other person as long as they continue to meet that need. If they stop, or if we perceive someone else will better meet our needs then we begin to stray. The alternative is to enter into a relationship desiring the best for the other. Putting the meeting of their needs above the meeting of ours. As we do this it opens the opportunity for the other to respond to us in similar ways.

I realise this is hopelessly simplistic and recognise there are times when it is not emotionally safe to offer ourselves in this way and that some relationships need to end. However the principle stands, that ultimately in one way or another marriage or any relationship for that matter will fail if we focus on the meeting of our own needs. In marriage if we can truly trust ourselves to the other and look for their best interest we might not only make a successful marriage, but thrive as two individuals.

So AmyNoel I give myself to you again, to love, to cherish, to esteem, to honour, to hold, to protect, to put your needs above mine… I love you!