Co-navigators and mapmakers: reflections on training local pioneers | James Butler [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

James Butler

This article is an attempt to capture and reflect on the small group discussion I was part of at the hui conference. Our group was discussing how we can provide training for those who have naturally built Christian community around them and never even considered themselves pioneers; they have just been faithfully following and responding to what God is doing in their community.

A story

The group found it helpful to capture some of these stories of the people we were talking about, meaning we had actual people in mind when discussing this. [1] This is one of the stories shared. Alice (not her real name) is in her twenties. By the time she had finished school she had two children and had very little education beyond primary school. She had been given a council flat on a marginalised estate. An elderly woman from the estate had helped her, and actually helped her to find her way to God. She started going to the local church and gradually began to gather other children around her and bring them to church too. Unfortunately the church found the children too disruptive. They told her that the children she was bringing were too noisy and asked her to stop coming. She stopped attending the church but continued to gather children around her and was also beginning to connect with their parents. It was becoming difficult to gather everyone together at the same time. They inherited a rather run-down building on the estate, which they did up with the things they could find and borrow. They began to gather there and within a very short time there were 80 to 90 people, children and their parents. She is the kind of person that attracts people to her. From nothing she has developed a thriving Christian community. In the midst of all this the issues of abuse and poverty remained for her and for others in the community.

We realised that the key question we need to ask was: what does it mean to “train” Alice and those like Alice who are local, indigenous pioneers? We couldn’t generalise to some imagined other but needed to connect with the stories of the people we knew.

The problem with the word “training”

It was clear that language was going to be a bit of an issue. As a group of tertiary-educated, middle-class white people, we were at least alert to problems of power and colonialism. Even using the word “train” seemed to bring with it a whole wealth of assumptions: that she needed training, that we would be able to train her and that we somehow had the answers to her problems. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed raises all these questions about education. [2] He denounces a “banking concept” of education, which makes students passive receivers of a particular world view that keeps them oppressed. [3] Instead he sees a need for students and teachers to move from monologue to dialogue and be able to unveil reality (as opposed to the fragmented reality of the oppressor) and co-create new knowledge that brings transformation. [4] They become an active subject in their own liberation. Dialogue and cocreation became key points in our group’s discussion.

One question we asked early on was why, we thought, Alice might want to engage in education with a group of pioneers. Why would she even need to if things were going so well? Our answer was education as gift. This moves us beyond Freire encouraging us to see that education isn’t just a means towards liberation but is a good in and of itself. It also means that rather than seeing the world as polarised between oppressor and oppressed, we wanted to recognise the gift that Alice brought to education – how she too fed into this common good of education.

Training as gift

Gift doesn’t immediately solve our problem. Many have helpfully written about the problems of gift, of the disparities of power and the reciprocal obligations within gift. [5] However, we saw the use of the language of “gift” as a means to developing reciprocal relationships. [6] In this view the wider learning of pioneers and the insights of academic theology are offered as a gift in a dialogue: not knowledge offering a universal understanding of the world but acknowledged as contextual and brought into dialogue.

Within our discussion we had another key question: if we are committed to mission as the missio Dei, the mission of God, then how do we maintain this discernment at the heart of theological education? This is a particularly western problem – the study of theology becoming separated from the practice of Christianity and spirituality. [7] Gustavo Gutiérrez states in We Drink from our Own Wells that the root of spirituality is experience. Drinking from our own wells means encountering the Spirit in our own experience. Spirituality always grows out of a contextual experience and is an attempt to live according to the Spirit in that particular context. [8] Spirituality isn’t primarily individualistic; it is communal, but it recognises the importance of the personal. It is a people together on a journey of encounter with God. This journey, beginning in encounter and following the Spirit, is called Christianity. It is comprehensive, in that it encompasses “every aspect of human existence”, but it contains different streams, from people living and reflecting on the gospel in their own experience and context. [9] I want to push this slightly further to talk about how this is a discerning of the missio Dei, as people, pray, worship, live, work and serve in a context. Developing a contextual spirituality is an attempt to respond faithfully to the work of the Spirit. But this discernment is further enriched through dialogue with these other streams. Through dialogue the act of co-creation happens, through the work of the Spirit, as different theological voices are brought together and God is disclosed in the dialogue. [10]

Education, understood as gift and dialogue, is not about translating from one context to another, but a dialogue between people seeking to live faithfully in their own context. They can offer their experience and wisdom to each other as a gift, learning from the other. In designing a way of doing training which takes seriously these ideas of gift, dialogue and co-creation, we particularly drew on three metaphors.

Three metaphors

Co-navigators

The first metaphor was that of co-navigator. A navigator has a particular role on a ship: to guide the captain through difficult waters and unknown coastline. She needs to have a deep, practical knowledge of the currents and the rock formations, and is able to read the weather and the tides. I am reliably informed by members of my group that if a boat is navigating seas unknown to the crew, they might take on a local navigator to guide them through the unknown waters, someone with local knowledge – an expert in their own context.

It seemed this idea of navigator was a helpful one. The teacher is the navigator, the one who knows the land and the sea, the currents and the tides in general. But in new contexts, a co-navigator is needed, who might not have the depth and breadth of knowledge of the navigator, but has specific, contextual knowledge that is vital for the journey. Everyone brings a particular expertise, which is offered to the whole. In the case of Alice, she has very limited education, which may put her off seeking formal training, but the idea of co-navigating and co-creating allows her specific knowledge and experience, not only to be valuable to the training but to be vital.

Of course, both teacher and student are really co-navigators responding to the Spirit. It is the Spirit who leads and guides: the navigator. Another metaphor from pioneering that resonates with the discussion is Jesus as true north. [11] In any act of navigating, the most basic piece of equipment is the compass. In finding true north, everything else can be calculated in relation to that. While this might sound glib, in reality without this sense of true north our training of pioneers is missing. After all, if our whole purpose is to follow Jesus, in faithfulness to the missio Dei, through the Spirit, then losing sight of true north will be disastrous. Even the best navigator will run aground if his compass is off by a few degrees.

Map-making

Map-making is a key job of a pioneer in exploring new landscapes. As new lands and seas are navigated, new maps are needed. We imagined the curriculum as a map, with key landmarks, or areas of knowledge and wisdom that had previously been navigated, rather than a linear progression. These areas of knowledge and wisdom might be missiology, pioneering, biblical studies, Christology, etc. Together the teacher and student can plot their own course through the landscape that works for them. Not only that but there may be new areas to explore and new maps to be drawn, which can be done in collaboration between the teacher and student. Returning to the idea of co-navigators, different gifts can be brought to the curriculum. Co-navigating in a new context, the student will be aware of the issues and ways they have navigated them in the past, and the teacher will have wisdom about how others have navigated similar terrain in different times and places. Thinking of the curriculum as a map rather than a linear path or series of modules also requires connections to be made between them. If you are map-making together, the new learning is always being set in a new context and always connects to the landscape currently there. It expands the horizons rather than trying to push people into another map entirely. But it also relies on a dialogue, of mutual learning as people bring their own expertise. The metaphor of map-making makes clear that we shouldn’t boil down the curriculum to its essential elements, but always recognise that it is navigated in a context.

The treasure chest

With all the talk of navigating and map-making, perhaps we just began to imagine we were pirates, but the third metaphor we came up with was the treasure chest. In this way education is envisioned as a collection of treasure, from experience, knowledge, wisdom and practice, which can be shared. All can bring things to add to the treasure chest and all can take things from the treasure chest. Wisdom and practice from different communities can be shared in a relational way. This attempts to recognise that the theological knowledge of someone with a tertiary education is just one gift among many. By bringing it into dialogue with the practical wisdom of the local leader, and with the experience of the seasoned pioneer, we can learn together about God and discern together the work of the Spirit. We also talked about the importance of a physical box – this isn’t some disembodied online library of resources, but embodied wisdom connected to particular people in particular contexts. All these things attempt to recognise the contextual nature of learning, but not to get trapped into thinking that we can only work in our own contexts. It is then a gift to receive the resources, insights, challenges and even disagreements from those in other contexts as we all together seek to navigate the Christian life and faithfully follow Jesus.

Three practices

While there were plenty of practical ideas as the group discussed this, I offer you three that might encourage others to develop a creative response to these challenges.

Bringing gifts

This draws on the idea of the treasure chest. How could the treasure chest be a physical thing within the training? People could then recognise their gifts and the gifts of the community within the wider training. This would go beyond some idea of people’s own particular skills or spiritual gifts, but incorporate their experience, and the spirituality and practice they have developed together as a community. This may take time to recognise but people can be encouraged to value their own context, to share their experience and offer it to others – and indeed receive others’ gifts.

Assessment as gift

While this may feel like stretching the idea of gift too far, perhaps assessment could be reimagined as a sharing of gift. Not simply something written for the teacher to demonstrate learning, but a gift to the community to share experience and wisdom: a starting point for a conversation rather than a monologue to receive a mark. This would require creative ways of presenting assessment. It might even encourage peer-to-peer marking.

Training as a team

It might encourage us to move away from training individuals who are supposed to disseminate knowledge to others and instead encourage collaboration, cocreation and co-navigation among teams. This honours a sense of the Spirit being discerned together, the journey of Christianity being something that is communal, and the fact that spirituality comes out of a communal experience in a particular context. There are of course many challenges about training in teams, not least cost, but the group recognised that there could be huge value in developing training that encouraged this dialogue within a context as well as between contexts.

Conclusion

We were conscious in thinking about Alice and other pioneers like her that we didn’t want to draw her out of her context for education for the sake of it. Nor did we feel that having a set curriculum would serve her. Instead from the idea of dialogue, co-creation and education as gift we moved to consider teachers and students as co-navigators, relying on one another’s expertise to sail together. This meant that there was mutual and reciprocal learning. Contextual knowledge wasn’t just beneficial to learning, but fundamental. By thinking about the curriculum as a map, which was being drawn together, and navigating across a broader landscape, education is kept in a context at the same time as making broader connections. The idea of gift exchange sees gifts in a more diverse way and encourages people to recognise them in each other and their communities. Recognising this within the grand narrative of the missio Dei, without these local pioneers and their communities, we can lose sight of what the Spirit is doing and beckoning us to join in with. Education then becomes a journey of mutual discernment and together seeking to be faithful to God and join in with what he is doing.

James Butler is pioneer MA lecturer and assistant coordinator at CMS. He teaches in the areas of mission, ecclesiology and practical theology. His PhD explored how small missional communities sustain their social action. He also works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Roehampton, researching themes of learning, discipleship and social action.

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Notes

[1] Clearly if discussing this beyond the conference, these people would not just be talked about and remembered but included in the conversation.
[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York, London: Continuum, 2005).
[3] Ibid., chap. 2.
[4] Ibid., chap. 3.
[5] The key text on gift is Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002); Bretherton explores power and types of gift in relation to fair trade in Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 186–87.
[6] Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, eds., The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2014), 17.
[7] This is explored in depth in Ashley Cocksworth, Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2018), 41–74.
[8] Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, trans. M.J. O’Connell, 2nd edition (London: SCM Press, 2005), 37–38.
[9] Ibid., 72.
[10] One helpful account is theology in four voices in Helen Cameron et al., Talking about God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010).
[11] Baker and Ross, Pioneer Gift, 4–5.

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