Encountering New Religious Movements: Thin Places

Encountering-new-religious-movements Folks, I have been asked to provide some background on the Thin Places missional worship experiment I led some years ago for some US seminary students studying the book, “Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach“. Thinking my responses may be interesting for some of you as well, I’ve decided to blog some of what I have to say.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it was co-edited by my friend John Morehead, along with Irving Hexam and Stephen Rost, and featured articles from a number of top scholars and innovative missiologists, a number of whom were also friends I’d met in the course of moving and ministering amongst people from New Religious Movements, locally and globally. This ground breaking book, published in 2004, ended up winning the 2005 Christianity Today award for Missions/Global Affairs.

In the course of its writing, Encountering New Religious Movements made reference to some of my activities in an article entitled, “Reaching Wiccan and Mother Goddess Devotees”. For your reference, here are the pertinent bits, authored by Philip Johnson and John Smulo:

Thin Places

Our apologia is not just a cerebral exercise, but also translates into a missional approach to worship where Wiccans can experientially find the fulfillment of their quest in Christ. Bill Stewart and Steven Hallam have collaborated with us in designing an artistic reinterpretation of the sabbats that visually portrays Christ’s mission. This artwork has been used as an evangelistic tool in the context of booth ministry.

Another practical outcome of this apologia is that it has recently (2002) inspired a lay missionary experimen known as Thin Places. The creative impetus came from our collegue Matthew Stone, who has for several years been involved in evangelism with New Age and NeoPagan devotees. The expression is borrowed from remarks made by George Macleod, founder of the modern Christian community in Iona. Macleod indicated that a “thin place” is one where the physical and spiritual realms are so close together that we sense that Gid us not far from us. It is a place of pilgrimage. In geographical terms, a “thin place” can be a transition point, such as where the earth and sky touch on a mountaintop, where urban dwellings touch the boundaries of a forest, or the coastline where land and water converge, and can become a sacre place for worship. Another nuance is that of transition zones or rites of passage in our lives – such a sborth, puberty, moving from school to employment, marriage, menopause, and death – where God’s presence should also be felt and acknowledged.

Thin Places is a nomadic network of lay evangelical Christians in Sydney (some are theologically educated), who are committed to a missional theology of worship that gathers on each sabbat. By “nomadic network” we mean that the group is geographically scattered and that the local changes each time they convene for worship. This reflects the sociological realities of contemporary urban life where people network with each other across the eight points of the city’s compass and do not necessarily associate identity and primary meaning in life with the suburbs in which they live. The motif of the nomad is grounded in the scriptural example of the Patriarchs, who were often mobile, and the wilderness sojourn of the post-Exodus people. In like manner, Thin Places invokes a “portable faith” that goes from locale to locale according to the six weekly cycle of the sabbats. The locales oscillate between private dwellings and open public spaces (e.g, beaches and parks).

Another motif in Thin Places is that of Christians in exile, which draws inspiration from the Israelite experience of exile in Babylon. the exiled Israelites were compelled to face up to what their spiritual priorities ought to be as they found themselves inhabiting a strange place that was multicultural and religiously diverse. Today’s Australian evangelical cannot help but feel a spiritual exile because the Church is in a multicultural social context where other religions flourish and Christianity is no longer regarded as the definitive expression of faith. 

A multilayered missional theology informs the activities of Thin Places. There is recognition that, biblically, worship and misisons go hand-in-glove. The immanence of God’s Spirit within the creation (Acts 17:27) grounds the basis for the notion of there being “thin places”, precisely because God is near. This then links into a theology of the creation that acknowledges it belongs to the transcendant Lord (Psalm 24:1; Colossians 1:16-17) and that we are stewards of the earth. It encompasses the awareness that the creation praises God (Psalm 148), and animals are included in the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:17-25). A Christocentric focus takes centre stage, because the incarnation of Christ occurred in the sphere of the creaion. By the Cross and Resurrection, we see how th redemption of humanity and the renovation of the creation takes place.

Participants form a circle around an alter dedicated to God in Christ that is erected at each locale as a focal point for a contextula form of worship. Each one contributes with music, art, prayer devotional and meditative exercises, mutual encouragement through personal storytelling of what God is doing in their life, Scripture and communion. At these gatherings, the participants also tithe their time and resources to support prophetic practical action on issues such as the degredation of the creation, cruelty to animals, and social injustices.

Matthew Stone has encouraged the participants in Thin Places to cultivate friendships with Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. the aim is to invite them to the sabbat gatherings. As discipleship occurs, it is envisaged that a church for pagan converts will develop. Our Melbourne collegues, Bill Stewart and Peter Jolly, participate in “Pagans in the Pub,” where opportunities for personal witness are unfolding. Mark and Mary Muss have recently settled in the alternate spiritual community at Mullumbimby, where they are establishing themselves as tent-maker missionaries through booth ministires in local markets and permaculture. Our collegues, Warrick and Diane Saxby, are tent-maker missionanies with Neo-Pagans in Tasmania.

There’s more to the article of course, and the book, but that’s the guts of my involvement. Next I’ll share some of the artwork by Steven Hallam, some more about what we did, why we did it, and how my teaching and practice has shifted in the past 8 years through this and other experiences.

 

5 thoughts on “Encountering New Religious Movements: Thin Places

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, as well as Thin Places. Living in a small but religously pluralistic area, I think its content would be helpful to me. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it and how your perspective has shifted since, hopefully before Samhain!

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  2. Well, speaking of Samhain, you might be interesting to know that we run a Remembrance Service on Samhain in 2008 and 2009, as an opportunity for people “to offer thanksgiving for departed loved ones – for mentors who have inspired us, for family who we miss, for friends long gone – and to pray for those still grieving.” We ran it as a sort of reverse Tenebrae service. If you know anything about Samhain I trust you can see the links.
    Link can be found here:
    http://www.facebook.com/?sk=2361831622#!/event.php?eid=142658406890&index=1

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  3. I salute this vision, Matt! Do you know anybody who is praying for it to continue and grow? My experience is, for better and/or for worse, that not many people are interested in supporting this kind of thing by prayer, person, or resources. It seems that a “Thin Place” is too close for comfort for regular folks.
    I’d be interested to hear about any recent developments…

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  4. Matt, this great. Do you have any thoughts on why Australia has been a particularly fruitful place for this sort of scholarly and missional engagment?

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