A personal manifesto from 2001 for what I would go on to do

Imagine an advertisement for a new product. The ad consists of several paragraphs of small print describing the product, in academic language. Would you buy it? Would you read the ad? Imagine a television advertisement in the form of a Open University TV lecture, delivered by a bearded man in a V-neck jumper.

OK, I'll admit that this is potentially highly amusing to our ad-jaded palates. But there are reasons why products are not generally advertised this way. There is a place where this approach is valid. It's called the Patent Office. But you wouldn't sell a product by its patent application form.

So why does the Church discuss alternatives and futures in this way? Is it surprising that no-one buys? If the emerging culture prefers the language of images to the language of words, why do we use words to convey how Christianity will be incarnated in this culture? Rows and rows of little grey paperbacks in your local Christian bookshop. Why do the books have no pictures?

What's the visual language of the new Church? How do we know if we'll like it if we can't see what it looks like? What it sounds like? Tastes or smells like? We talk about structures, but how do structures work out in practice? Who puts flesh on the bones of theory? When we do, does it look like Bernard Manning or Kate Moss?

Really this line of thought was all sparked last year by a clothes ad. It appealed immensely to me, but objectively I knew that the clothes would be nothing special. What hooked was the feel of the ad - how just a few fragmented pictures could tell the story of a whole way of life, and make you want it. And I wondered, how do we tell the story of new forms of church? How do we convey the feel so pungently, that people say yes, I want that? How do we depict that which doesn't yet exist, so that people will go and create it out of desire?

Note that this process cuts both ways. Sure it'd be nice to sell new forms of church to the world. But suitable forms don't yet exist, so we need to sell them to the Church first! I find myself thinking of MediaLab at MIT. Large corporations such as IBM or Sony fund research into the future shapes of society, because without such visions they cannot create appropriate products. They know that the future will not conform to the boundaries of the present, and that the crazy and the weird may be nearest tomorrow's truth. But the Church doesn't seem to have any equivalent research facility.

Church organisations seem very tied into 'products' for immediate results. They think that existing product categories are sufficient. They think that it will be enough to restyle a Bible, or an act of worship, for people to grasp the beautiful truth of the Gospel and come running. Well, we tried that, and it didn't work. It's not enough now to focus on single 'products'. What needs attention is the cultural universe into which those products will be sent, which will determine how they are received and understood. And it takes more than written words to shape a cultural universe in the 21st century.

What the Church needs now is a creative projects unit.

A centre for creative thinking not tied into specific agendas

  • run for the benefit of the whole Church
  • with freedom from short-term goals or doctrinal boundaries
  • whose job it is to visualise and embody the latest theoretical thinking on Christianity and culture
  • an ideas lab to think the unthinkable or crazy
  • to mock up and prototype and feed back into the theory
  • to disseminate ideas and how-to knowledge
  • to support and link the creative work being done elsewhere on the interface of Christianity and contemporary culture regardless of denominational or national boundaries