Tracking the Long Rhythms of Grace
If we want to nurture a church that is able to avoid unhelpful fads of Christian mission culture we need to be proactively observing patterns of practice across time and place, and allow this learning to shape our future priorities.
The value of routine data
I was asked for a job interview recently to talk for ten minutes on how routine data can best be used to support the future development of maternity services in Scotland. I didn’t get the job! And yet, as I thought about routine data for my interview preparation, it drew me into reflecting on my experiences of pioneering in Scotland.
I work in public health, sometimes described as ‘specialising in the bigger picture’. We rely on the collection and analysis of routine data to help us build a picture from one to many, from micro to macro. Information is collected proactively, systematically and regularly across the population: birth weight, method of delivery, maternal smoking status, age of death, cause of death and so on. Monitoring. Measuring. Checking. Over the course of time trends are observed, interrogated and interpreted. Inequalities are mapped, assumptions are challenged, recommendations are made, policies are formulated, action plans are implemented and evaluations are commissioned. Routine data collection should be at the heart of such a process. It is trustworthy because it is systematic, regular, and gathered without a specific agenda in mind (such as promoting the success of a particular project in a particular place).
Of course the politics of forming policies are messier than this. There is always the temptation to base policy on an engaging story of success rather than evidence driven by routine data. Such stories are often, but not always, based on anecdote, fuelled by social media fads, or ad hoc data biased by short-term personal, political or economic motivations. We end up with multiple projects with limited lesson learning, a degrading of institutional memory and further entrenchment of inequalities. Such projects may be well-intentioned but are often misguided. They become a form of ‘complicit mercy’ – laudable compassion projects that actually entrench systemic injustice rather than mitigate it. They come with significant opportunity costs. What appears to be innovative and ground-breaking is anything but. Without a commitment to investing in routine data there is an increased danger that any attempts to address health issues in our population are shaped instead by the loudest voices telling the ‘best’ stories such as these.
Church and mission
A comparable reality seems to hold true within church culture. We are too often seized by a new story of success, committing resources to pilot this or that new initiative that worked elsewhere. Or establishing a new project with good will but little reference to established good practice or the contours of our specific context. The danger is that we end up with a cycle of unevaluated off-the-shelf projects that start excitedly and fizzle out badly. Initiatives undermined by not leaning into established wisdom, and approaches not sustained for long enough to see what their true worth is.
A commitment to allowing routine data to shape Christian mission in Scotland could help us to identify which stories we should be listening to, how they weave together, and who God intends us to be. In doing so we seek to identify and join with Holy Spirit-led ‘long rhythms of grace’, reconciling micro and macro perspectives. We see this in the priority given to documenting the genealogy of Jesus at the start of the Gospel of Matthew - each generation recorded name by name back to Abraham, before reaching the very specific story of Mary pledged in marriage to Joseph in verse 18. We see it in the Old Testament prophets continually urging the people of Israel to understand their present circumstances in the light of the bigger narrative: their call as descendents of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. Tracking the long rhythms of grace enables us to become a future-facing church.
What kind of steps could be taken to shift the church in the direction I am suggesting? Establishing something equivalent to the Anglican Church Army Research Unit would be a start. Its calling is to ‘watch what God is doing in mission; focus on those beyond the normal reach of churches; listen to the stories of pioneers; discern the principles that emerge; share these principles with the wider Church’. The Church of Scotland has taken a small tentative step with their Statistics for Mission publications that collate census data into parish profiles. But I am not aware of any systematic attempts in Scotland to (for example) routinely collect data on the ‘births’, ‘deaths’ and ‘causes of death’ of Christian mission initiatives, nor of any systematic mapping and analysis of ‘church inequalities’.
This type of unit could help to counter some of the short-term mission fads that otherwise plague the church. But it will have limited impact unless there is an accompanying willingness to address underlying distributions of power and resources that leave the poorest communities absent from incarnational ministry and church planting strategies. This requires strong and thoughtful leadership. Those currently in positions of power within church structures need to develop a capacity to shift their perspective to a wider aperture - to interrogate and critique the stories and ideas presented to them, to search out those who have been faithfully serving and building God’s church under the radar, and dig into the intergenerational history. Done well, such actions will build institutional memory and help to facilitate proactive long-term responses that get to the root of the challenges set before us.
Daily rhythms and the practice of pioneering
For those who are pioneers, particularly those who have rooted their lives in a specific community or neighbourhood, I would encourage you to value the ‘routine’ relationships and rhythms of life in the context God has called you to. Many of these seem mundane – daily tasks of school pick-ups, chatting to a neighbour as you put the bins out, helping organise the local gala day etc. But over time I believe these narrow aperture experiences enable us to develop a depth of insight into our communities that is not easily substituted or replicated. When these insights are woven together within a big picture narrative, they play an invaluable role in helping the church discern who God is calling us to be, and in resisting short-term unhelpful mission fads. As we seek to reconcile the strategic macro level and the relational micro level my prayer is that we can inspire one another to lift our eyes to Christ’s gaze, learning to anticipate and welcome the Spirit breaking in with kingdom justice and the hope of God’s creation fulfilled.
Join in the discussion on Facebook