A Vision for Solarpunk Churches

Stained glass solar panel by designer Marjan van Aubel

Forgive me for not having blogged much recently; it’s been a heavy few months, what with 2020 feeling like the world is cosplaying the Book of Revelation. Between plague and war, fire and floods, the future feels precarious. Billionaires have been watching us fighting over toilet paper and have their luxury doomsday bunkers all ready to go, while climate change is now a lived reality for many communities around the world. How we respond to all this is going to be a reckoning for the Church throughout the world. No pressure.

Of course, if we’re honest, many almost welcome catastrophic events as heralds of the End Times. Why worry about melting ice-caps, goes a certain line of thinking, when God’s going to put everything right when Jesus comes again? There are whole theological currents involved in this thinking – Millenarianism and Dominionism and so on and so forth – but it’s hard to see them as comfort for the future when we’re living in the middle of multiple crises, when we’re all trying to ride out a pandemic.

But what if this isn’t the apocalypse? What if this is the new normal? What’s the Church’s role in a changing world? That’s a question that’s been with us since Peter had a vision of the worst dinner ever, and it’s one we’ve got to answer in a world of COVID and wildfires. And it’s rooted in our vision for the world – not just our own congregation, whether or not we should be meeting without masks or whatever – but our vision for the communities we serve and the generations still to be born.

Because I’m a great big nerd, I think about this and my thoughts end up going down a solarpunk route. Solarpunk is an aesthetic, influenced by cyberpunk and steampunk, but optimistically rooted in what the world would look like if we fully embraced renewable technologies and sustainable living. And, because this is my blog and I can write what I want, I think solarpunk can be married to ecclesiology. Here’s what I mean.

Back in 2015, the designer Marjan van Aubel presented a stained glass window that doubles up as a solar panel, with a charging point installed into the windowsill. The window isn’t at the point where it will power your worship band, but imagine integrating this sort of technology into church design, building on an artistic heritage and using it to make a statement. And I don’t know if this tech is commercially available or financially viable, but that’s not the point of the exercise – the point is to imagine and embrace a future where we design our buildings to serve both our local communities and the Global Village, to appreciate that the Holy Spirit is an artist and an inspiration and will help shape our congregations in unexpected ways if we’re open to it.

That may mean rethinking what ministry looks like in the future. Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of The Repair Shop, but think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches, all the carpenters and electricians and engineers we worship alongside. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources in a world of austerity and economic pressure. There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a pop-up ‘fixer space’? Carrying a set of tools can be just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar, because sometimes fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

And then think of our church gardens, our churchyards, the scrap of grass next to the carpark. A few years ago, it was noted that these spaces were often havens of biodiversity in urban areas, homes to ancient trees and minibeasts. Maybe that’s something to lean into, using these green spaces to encourage bees and butterflies, maybe even develop community gardens. That gives us something to learn from Ethiopian Christians, who have a long tradition of verdant ‘church forests’, deliberately tended as symbols of the Garden of Eden. In a time of global crisis, we have to learn from our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

And I know all this feels a bit pie-in-the-sky, and I know it takes time and money that we don’t always have. I get that; writing a blog post is way easier than putting any of this into action. But there’s something inside me that insists that this is important, that we have to be like the prophets who envisaged a future in which God healed the land, who told their people to seek the good of their cities because there were going to be living there for a while. What if that’s a calling for our generation – not to be first in line for the Rapture, but to be on the front line of all the crises that face us, to meet the challenge of crazy times by dreaming even crazier dreams.

Because, when it comes down to it, I think that’s where Jesus would be.

Penteconnectivity (Acts 2:1-13)

Tongues of fire and a rushing wind and the buzz of an anti-Babel. Pentecost is a burst of supernatural energy in the aftermath of Easter, the moment the Holy Spirit takes centre stage by evaporating the rulebook. It’s possible we get too comfortable with that; when three thousand pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in a hundred different languages, a tiny GalIilean movement became a global church. Our problem is that we domesticate that, take the diversity of Pentecost and trap it within homogenised silos.

An example: In the West we have plenty of noticeboards covered in newsletters from mission organisations, and supporting them is great, it’s important to show solidarity. But how often do we make this a one-sided thing? We write a few cheques, deploy a few workers, but do we, as fellowships, learn from our brothers and sisters? Do we grow as a result of this missionary work, or do we do we just enjoy the warm, paternal glow we get from helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

When the Spirit swept through the disciples two thousand years ago, a global church was created, each different language representing a different perspective, a different environment, a different context. Three thousand new believers had to go home and figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus among their own particular circumstances. All those initial learning curves, all the lessons of the two millenia that followed represent the familial memory of the Church. But it’s scattered and disjointed because we don’t spend the time to sit and listen to each other, to share stories around the campfire; in the Information Age that’s tantamount to a sin. We don’t do the Church any favours by pretending that the Spirit’s monolingual.

The Church is universal, a network of believers spread throughout the world, brothers and sisters despite the differences we place between us. Pentecost burns through the barriers, blows them down, gives us the words and the language we need to become a family. We need to embrace that, humbly using our Missions budgets to not only support other Christians but also to learn from them, forging genuine, mutual, globe-spanning relationships. And may our Pentecostal celebrations echo with a thousand different voices, with a thousand equal tongues.

A Church is a Body is a Network (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

I grew up as the world was getting smaller. Dirt cheap air travel was a thing, communities became less homogeneous, and the Digital Revolution networked us all, a wider world emerging into our lives through our phone line. Nowadays even that phone line is less important.

The funny thing is, churches were always ahead of this game, at least theoretically. ‘The Global Village’ may have been the iconic phrase, but the idea of the Church as a worldwide, universal, interconnected body is baked into the New Testament. It’s a different metaphor but it’s no less powerful.

Powerful. That’s an interesting word, because I think we lost some of the impact of that metaphor. Some of our churches got too powerful, too comfortable, too safe. We remembered that we were connected, but we lost a sense of being interconnected.

Maybe that came out most clearly in our approach to mission. We would go out to countries with fewer resources, with pressing needs, and contribute time and many and support. None of this is bad, as long as it’s done in the right way, but too often it can be a one-way street – we’ve got it all sorted, so we’ll go out and help those who aren’t so sorted. And while that gets walls painted and bills paid, I’m not sure that does much for our humility. We see ourselves as doctors fixing someone else’s body and lose the idea that this is actually self-care, that the body that’s being healed is our own.

And so we have a one-way network, a radio transmitter more than an Internet. And so we support missions, but the relationships aren’t always there, we aren’t always learning from each other, photocopied newsletters are pinned unread to our noticeboards because they don’t represent relationships that are integral to our community – to our Body.

So how do we make this a two-way street? Maybe more people need to go on mission trips with learning mindsets than fixing mindsets, but that still feels more transactional than relational. Maybe this is about budgets – spend some mission cash on bringing people to our churches and yes, learn from their experiences and knowledge and expertise, but also build relationships, have meals together, pray together, then talk about how our kids are doing. We’re a body, a family by blood,,but that blood is not our own and we should remember that every time we take the bread and wine.

So, while this isn’t always possible, and I know this is a privileged thought, why not think about how to Skype in mission partners to preach or do readings or for their children to take part in the nativity or share communion (or vice versa)? Are there connections that can be established via diaspora communities? Are there implications for our politics? What can we do to make our interactions relational rather than transactional?

Because the church is a body, is a network, and if we don’t act like it, the church will be weakened. We need to see ourselves as connected. We need to see ourselves as interdependent. We need to see each other as family, not just relatives. We need to see ourselves as one.

Listen To The Stories Of Which You Are A Part (Amos 9:7)

Who is your church’s historian?

I don’t mean the person who accidentally wrote a thesis on the Council of Nicea on their holidays. I mean the person who remembers the first minister, who knows why the stained glass window has a dodo on it, who can tell you the stories behind all those dedication plaques, who knows why everyone got so upset when you unilaterally threw that old lectern in a skip.

Now, this probably isn’t a formal role – after all, we’re normally too busy trying to find cleaners and worship leaders and guitarists – but I’m willing to be that person’s there. They’ll be the one who starts telling tales of the church in a corner of the coffee morning, a little old lady who doesn’t hold a formal role in the fellowship, but who knows all the stories. And sadly, when she passes on, the stories will pass with her.

(Of course, there’s an opportunity for an intergenerational relationship building project here, if you’re interested…)

There’s an importance to this, as knowing the history and the story of a place helps to anchor our current identities, while also rooting the story of our congregations in that of their local area. Too often we travel to a commuter church and we don’t appreciate how that church relates to the houses and shops and factories we drive past on our way, nor do we know exactly how the church got there in the first place. It’s not always clear how a church even got its name.

There’s also humility in all this. We’re often told to think about our story, our journey, to the exclusion of how we fit into the stories of others. you know, we’re not always yhe hero. Sometimes we’re the supporting cast. Sometimes we’re an extra. Sometimes, just sometimes, we’re the villain.

There’s a moment in the Book of Amos when God turns to the Israelites and points out that he’s also been at work in Ethiopia and Crete and Syria and no-one seemed to appreciate that as they weren’t listening to the stories of those around them, weren’t paying attention to how God was moving in the world rather than among a specific church council meeting. And that’s a humbling lesson we could do well to learn.

So listen to that little old lady who knows all the stories. Write them down, put them on your website, pass them on to the next generation. God may be saying something through them.

Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth? (John 1:43-51)

People seem to have an issue with my accent.
See, I grew up in Dudley, but I was born in Derby, and so everyone feels the need to comment on my accent as if I’ve just descended from the icy moon of Europa than 40 miles down the A38. And I’m hardly the victim if some horrendous hate crime here, but when people start dissing my accent in Dudley then, well, it gets a bit frustrating.

There are echoes of this is Nathanael’s response to the suggestion that he should go and meet Jesus of Nazareth: “Nazareth?! Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth?!” He’s soon shut up by an encounter with Jesus himself, but the point still stands – this boy from Cana has issues with folk from a neighbouring town. Maybe that tells us something about Nazareth itself – was it a town of hicks and hayseeds? Was it the sort of place from which characters in a Springsteen song would plot their escape? Did people mock the Nazarene accent? Did people mock Jesus’s accent?

There’s a harsher angle on this though. Nathanael’s attitude reflects our modern attitudes: can anything good come from deprived neighbourhoods, deindustrialised cities and shanty towns, favelas and barrios? Or are they simply havens for poverty, crime, despair and hopelessness?

Our answer to this will affect how we respond to places like Nazareth, whether or not our churches seek to emigrate to them or simply colonise them with an attitude of superiority and supremacy. And in doing so we forget that this is the sort of place in which Jesus grew up, in which he spent 18 years on building sites and in workshops, in which he hung out with friends and neighbours and aunties and uncles.

And so Nathanael’s comment, and Jesus’s incarnation into the margins rather than into the heart of Jerusalem should lead us to ask where the good already is in the places we may have write off, where the Holy Spirit is already at work, where the Kingdom is already built.

Because when God walked the earth in human form, he didn’t ignore the impoverished places, he grew up there; he didn’t mock the one-horse towns, he lived in them; he didn’t invade or colonise, he inhabited. And that should be our attitude as well, because otherwise, in our snobbery and our privilege, we may miss all the good that emerges from the Nazareths of this world.

And leave my accent alone!