mount-annanOkay, so to return to the story of Thin Places. First I have to locate it historically. Thin Places began back around 2002 as an offshoot of Community of Hope, a ministry amongst New Age seekers at Mind Body Spirit Festivals that I’d been part of since 1997 or thereabouts. I could write a whole bunch of posts about this too, but for today I’m simply going to refer you to the book, Jesus and the Gods of the New Age, which covers this in a whole lot more detail.

Thin Places began as a conviction that we needed to take things further than just outreach events, that we were being called to more deeply integrate worship and witness as a contextual Christian community. So I gathered together a bunch of people, some of them converts from the New Age movement like myself, some of them just Christians with an interest, and started experimenting with alternative worship.

By this stage Neo-Paganism had began to edge out New Age as the cutting edge of alternative spirituality so we began to ask ourselves, what would a more ecologically sensitive and symbolically aware Christianity look like? We started experimenting with alternative worship in homes and nature. We aligned our gatherings with the seasons, eight each year, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Some of us became more integrated with the Neo-Pagan community and became involved in alternative gatherings such as the Winter Magic Festival.

There were however weaknesses to this approach too, which became more apparent as time went on. First of all, the nomadic element. Not everyone was as willing to travel, which led to irregularity in the group numbers. Second of all, reflective liturgy didn’t work as well for us once kids came on the scene. Thirdly, it was still weak on the discipleship side. Fourthly, and most importantly, I realised that in some ways we’d over contextualised, though in others not enough. Eventually these factors led us to move on, and Thin Places is no more, but I’ll have to continue this later.

3 thoughts on “The history of Thin Places

  1. Oh yes, kids change everything! Interesting that Wiccans also have struggled with this one, integrating children into religious practice.
    I appreciate your reflections, especially interested in hearing more about #4. But am impressed by this very authentic vision about what could be, by the flexibility of the faith, and by your willingness to try. People interested in contextual missions can really learn from your experience, Matt.

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  2. Actually, to answer #4 fully I’m going to share some of the post Thin Places history. In many ways Thin Places represented the hard core of Community of Hope, the people who began with the Mind Body Spirit outreach but who wanted to explore the implications further, and others who were drawn to this approach. So it was natural, I suppose, that some went on to more genuinely incarnational approaches to mission further afield. One couple went on to embed themselves in the alternative (Hippie) culture at Nimbin, on the far north NSW coast, where New Agers and Pagans far outnumbered Christians. Another couple moved to Tasmanian for much the same reason.
    As we began to migrate beyond Sydney I began opening up the Thin Places yahoo group (one of my first forays into online ministry) to other missional minded people from interstate and overseas, simply to stay in touch and keep the conversations happening. Philip Johnson invited a number of his international contacts to the group, some of whom contributed to the paper on RELIGIOUS AND NON-RELIGIOUS SPIRITUALITY IN THE
    WESTERN WORLD (“New Age”) at Lausanne 2 and the Encountering New Religious Movements book that is now under discussion. You’ll find the paper here:
    http://www.lausanne.org/documents/2004forum/LOP45_IG16.pdf
    Anyway, even as we were going more global, I was still looking for ways to go more local. Philip had called an end to the Mind Body Spirit Festival work by this stage (others have since taken up the baton in Australia and the UK) and we’d become more actively engaged in more localized events ( Psychic Fairs on the Central Coast, Winter Magic Festival in the Blue Mountains). But again, some of us wanted to take things further. Taking inspiration from some Melbourne friends I joined a Pagans in the Pub group as a way of more deeply engaging with the Pagan community. One of our friends, John Smulo, was actually invited to speak to a gathering of 30 or so Pagans one night. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. How often have you heard of a Christian minister being invited to talk to a Pagan community?
    Having become more familiar with and to the Pagan community, I leaned of a Pagan drumming circle in my local neighbourhood, which I joined, and enjoyed immensely. Every month we gathered to drum together on Djembe’s and other instruments and talk. This was when it began to sink in just how misguided our Thin Places experiments were in some ways. They were still way too “attractional” as Mike Frost or Alan Hirsch would put it.
    But there were challenges with this approach too (oh, as an aside, I witnessed a couple of Pagan full moon circles around this time, I expect you may be interested in that as well) as it was great for conversation but not so great for taking things any further than that.
    Which is around the time that I started up the Anything Goes discipleship group in our local church. As the name implies, it was for anyone who wanted to ask anything. Some of the members included: a former occultist (well, two if you include myself), a Hindu teenager, a semi-Pagan, semi-whatever guy with a few drug issues he was seeking to recover from, and some Christians with open minds and hearts. This was where we got into some discipleship much more deeply, and where again, I learnt some of the limitations of the earlier approach.
    Now, I said before I realised that in some ways we’d over contextualized, though in others not enough. What I learnt from the drumming circle is that RELATIONSHIP IS PRIMARY and that we had to totally abandon the “if we build it they will come” mentality that, in retrospect, was still present in Thin Places to an embarrassingly large degree. What I also learnt from the drumming circle, the Pagans in the Pub and the discipleship group is that DIVERSITY IS ALL THE WAY DOWN, and that I’d been misguided to focus so exclusively on outreach to Wiccans.
    You see, our initial experiments had all been based on applying McGavran’s “homogenous unit principle” to postmodern Western contexts. But I’d found no homogenous unit. Yes, those communities contained Wiccans. But they’d also contained Heathens, eclectic Pagans, Shamans and Discordians. In focussing on Wiccans as a “homogenous unit”, we’d blinded ourselves to practical realities of the mission field. In essense, in any forum or friendship network open enough to welcome a Christian such as myself, I’d be encountering a variety of Pagan traditions, with little in the way of homogeneity. And so the principle would fail.
    Moreover, in any discipleship group I started, inevitably I’d have people wanting to join from a variety of backgrounds, again with little in the way of homogeneity. I came to realise that preserving the Thin Places vision of a “Messianic Wiccan” group (ref to overseas experiments in Messianic Islam) would have required me to turn away many of those who’d joined us. So, I abandoned the homogenous unit principle. I’d taken it to its logical conclusion and found it wanting. I came to see that, however well it may have worked for “closed” tribes, it wasn’t for the “open” tribes I’d encountered. In that respect I came to differ from some of my missional peers.
    So, this leaves me where I am today, as an advocate for a third way of doing missional church. It’s now accepted wisdom that homogenous WASP churches are failing to reach beyond WASP culture, which demands we recognize its limitations as a one size fits all solution. But, having gone as deep as I have, I’ve discerned similar limitations on the horizon for the neotribal churches promoted by the missional movement.
    So I now find myself as an advocate for hetrogenous church (and contextualized discipling), despite the challenges inherent in that model as well.
    The homogenous church model doesn’t require me to find ten ex-Wiccans wanting to explore Christianity before I start an ex-Wiccan small group. It simply requires I find ten people from diverse backgrounds, so diverse that an ex-Wiccan wouldn’t feel like the odd one out, even if she were the only ex-Wiccan in the group. For if you’re all odd, none of you are. I compliment this with highly contextual one-on-one discipleship, but for groups I contextualize in a far broader way, along the lines Philip Johnson outlined in his article: Alternative Spiritualities as Unpaid Bills.
    http://mattstone.blogs.com/Alternate%20Spiritualities%20as%20the%20unpaid%20bills.doc
    So that’s what you’ll see on this blog. It isn’t Pagan focussed, but it’s open enough that many Pagans feel comfortable interacting with it. And articles on magick, ecology, feminism, energy healing, symbology and mythology can be found by those who’re seeking an alternative Christian take on that. I take it as an endorsement of the approach that Wild Hunt Blog, one of the most popular pagan blogs, directly links to this site.

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