Why are posts like buses?

26 02 2009

I don’t know. You wait a week for a post and then three come along at once…

…except that’s four now! Doh!

Isn’t this just what a good parish priest does?

26 02 2009

One of the local clergy at a recent social gathering asked my wife what was so different about what I am doing. Why call it ‘pioneer ministry’? Isn’t it all just what someone might do as a parish priest?

Well my answer to that question is somewhat fuzzied up by my involvement with St Luke’s – a parish church.

But a difference has been crystallising in my mind in recent days.

I have seen more than one  model of parish ministry. I have seen someone operate as pastor/chaplain to a fair-sized congregation. I have observed another trying to grow their fair-sized congregation by moving into more of a chairman-like role – leading the leaders (or serving the servants if you prefer!) Those models are more prevalent, I think it’s fair to say, in more evangelical settings.

I’m not here to dis’ those approaches. They work to an extent if by doing so you can motivate your congregation for the work of mission. But you need a fair-sized congregation to start with. And it tends to result in an attractional model of mission. All well and good if you’re focused on the open dechurched. But if you’re attempting to make church happen out where the unchurched and closed dechurched people are at, it may well not get you very far.

Another model is a more incarnational one. Often, in more catholic leaning parishes, the priest sees her/his role as focused on the parish directly, not the parish through the congregation so much as in the previous models I’ve mentioned. That form of ministry places the priest in the community. It’s a ministry of presence. That’s perhaps closer to what I’m about in the pioneer role I have.

The difference, I think, is that those sorts of parish ministry tend to be about breadth of presence. You just are seen about in lots of different settings and so the community gets to know and trust you. Brilliant. But not the same as what I’m doing. I will be in a variety of settings over the next six months. But in order to identify/choose the one that will be the focus. A lot of what I do may well be about presence. But it will be sustained presence in one place. I will be looking to make *church* happen. But church as sharing a journey of spiritual exploration with all sorts of people – certainly not just those with a christian commitment. So it’s about depth of presence.

Now as I said that is complicated by my dual role, because it may be that one or two of the things I leave aside in making a choice about pioneer ministry, I pick up in relation to my parish role. But even that may well involve a new form of church community that doesn’t look quite like what church has traditionally been expected to look like. The St Luke’s post was advertised as requiring some form of fresh expression. We (the community at St Luke’s) don’t know as yet what form that will take, but we’re certainly asking the question…

ps. Sorry, this is a very Anglican post. I am an Anglican priest, and the language I have for exploring this topic is Anglican, but I know these issues are not being faced by the Church of England alone!

How shall we sing the Lord’s song…

26 02 2009

Following on my last post, I began to wonder about whether this group might be better off, just practically, meeting in the pub next door which doesn’t have music. That would be okay, I guess. I feel that it would be a shame. [I’m running ahead of myself here – this group might well prefer to continue meeting at our house. I’d be fine with that. But I will just pursue the thought…]

I don’t know why I chose the Fleet especially. Partly it was because I had in mind that I wanted to arrange a Beer and Hymns night on Easter Day. [Still not sorted, but I’m working on it.] But partly because I just felt drawn to it. And maybe it was just one of those jumping in type choices – it seemed as good a place to try as any other and once I’d plumped for it, I wanted to see it through and not spend the whole of my ‘immersive’ fortnight wandering from one place to another.

Since choosing it, I suspect that I may have been the butt of the divine sense of humour…

The pub has a 90s nightclub attached called… Babylon. I can‘t believe I didn’t spot it straight away! But there it is. Much indeed has been made of how the church’s current condition is like the Exile. I won’t go over all that ground again. But suffice it to say, that the optimism, even arrogance of the nation of Judah that their position was unassailable, is not dissimilar to the position once occupied by the church in this country, not to say the West. Now we find ourselves in a strange land. We can retreat into little enclaves of churchiness or we can try to work out how, like Boney M, we can sing the Lord’s song in the cultures we find ourselves in.

I like a challenge. I think it’s better that we stick with the place we/I have found ourselves in and work out how we can be church there, despite or maybe even because of the difficulties it presents…

That all said, I want to reassure any members of that group that I will not impose that setting on you. We can continue to meet in my home. It’s been most helpful to see what it might be like to have some form of more recognisable church there. It doesn’t mean it has to be you/us. But maybe it could be.


26 02 2009

On Tuesday, the St Luke’s ‘home group’ met in the Fleet. I put home group in quote marks there because it wasn’t in a home!

It was a very different experience for us all. But I think a positive and enjoyable one. We all like going to a pub, I think. It’s a social occasion. Most of us enjoy a drink. So the home group didn’t take a lot of persuading! They were pleased too, I think, to come to the place where I’ve been spending some of my time recently. Barbara and I arrived early for a bite to eat and met up with some friends (also members of the home group). We were beginning to think the others weren’t coming when they all arrived.

After settling in, getting drinks and so on, we spent a little bit of time, picking up our theme from Sunday, thinking about prayer. I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and fun way. So I made some cards (laminated to protect them from beer stains!) with a whole lot (54 in fact) of different words that people might associate with prayer. You can see the words I produced here. The file is called ‘prayer labels.pdf’. I spread them all out on the table and asked each person to choose the three that chimed most with their understanding or experience of prayer. I deliberately made sure that there were no duplicates so that everyone had to choose three that were unique to them. I then invited each person, if they wanted to, to share in turn, ‘Why those three words?’ I then asked people to put their words back. I then invited everyone to join in as we placed as many of the words as we could in one of five circles. (The file is called ‘Lords prayer circles.pdf’ [with apologies to Lynn Truss for the lack of an apostrophe]) Each circle had one phrase from St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. (That’s St Luke the gospel writer, not St Luke’s as in our church!)

I think that second exercise got people thinking but nobody really responded to my invitation to talk about what had come out of it for them. That was okay. I then made a connection with the season of Lent which was going to begin the next day, and spread out a series of forty cards on the table with suggestions for things people might want to consider either giving up or taking on for the season. They were all pretty light-hearted in tone. There were twenty suggestions each for things to fast from and things to take on as a discipline during the forty days of Lent. I invited everyone to take one card away with them, not necessarily to do what it says on the card but just as something that would prompt them to think during Lent. Of course, if people did want to use them as a commitment, that was fine too.

I tried to show a film (a slideshow of Simon Smith’s wonderful illustrations of Jesus’s forty days in the desert) on my iPhone. Partly just because I could. (Look at my iPhone… shiny…!) That didn’t really work. Maybe because it’s slow and meditative. [I’m planning to use it on Sunday instead] Maybe really short, arresting little films could work. I’ll let you know. The other reason it might not have worked is that the pub was showing the Champions’ League match between United and Inter. I ended up watching that instead too!

What struck me as I was preparing those materials and after Tuesday night, was how what we were doing was like a game. And actually how appropriate things that were game-like would be in that setting. People play games in the pub. What if we could play games with some spiritual content? I want to get hold of a copy of Richard Passmore’s ‘FaST game’ for next Tuesday. (Which kind of blows my plan to run a lent course out of the water [or should that be beer? 😉 ]) I’ll let you know how that goes…

It was really great to see what would happen if you took church into the pub. On this occasion, it worked. I wonder what it would be like to share a eucharist in that setting. This is a different way round from what I have been working on over the previous couple of weeks. That was about the pub becoming a setting for new church. This was existing church making its home in the pub. Compared to what church is often like, it was a lot of fun, I thought. There’s a buzz of conversation and fun that can *sometimes* be lacking in a church building. Just having a lot more people around than there are normally in the particular church building where I’m associate priest was good! Even if they were unconnected with what we were doing.

The challenge will be to ask if this group would be happy to make this their permanent home. As the evening went on, and the footie finished, the music was much louder and the conversation was harder…

All quiet on the Western Front

18 02 2009

Hi Pioneer followers. The blog will go quiet for a few days as this week I are mostly been spending time with my family. See you next week!

This arvo

13 02 2009

This afternoon was a little compressed after writing up the last few days. Again I followed conversation yesterday with sitting back and just being around.

I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the shift manager, he even remembered what my usual is (Guinness). I also exchanged an acknowledgement greeting with J (pub regular) and a member of the very first group I approached last week.

That’s the end of that fortnight in the pub. I think it has suggested some real possibilities for further work. I wasn’t convinced it would after the first few days but I’m pleased to see that it has.

As I haven’t got the SureStart centre placement organized for the fortnight after half term, I think I might come back to the pub. I want to see what it’s like in the evenings too. The St Luke’s home group will be there for two weeks. I had thought about church family lunch being at the Fleet too but no under-18s are allowed in so it won’t work for St Luke’s.

It probably won’t surprise you to read that I’ve enjoyed my time so far. Who would’t! As I said to some of the people I spoke too, best job in the world!

Whatever happened to Tuesday

13 02 2009

I’ve never been one to do things in a predictable order. So it’s no surprise to me that I rushed on to Wednesday and Thursday without stopping first to feed back on Tuesday.

This was a good day too in my pub/church adventure. I spoke to two groups of people. A group of 2nd year game design students and another group on a video related course. The first group were very friendly and chatty and seemed quite relaxed about my presence. We spoke mostly about our odd-shaped families and about aspirations for the future.

The 2nd group were consoling each other and making plans in response to what they saw as some inconsistent marking policies on their course.

I got into a conversation with one lad in particular who worked as a bouncer at one if the city centre bars. He had some thoughts on the Street Pastors scheme. He felt it was a good idea in general but what he had observed was a degree of nervousness among the Street Pastors he had seen out and about. He felt they were actually reluctant to approach people and he as a bouncer wished they would sometimes come and speak to him.

I told him that it was a very well run scheme and that people were very well trained but that I would feed back his impressions.

I hope to find an opportunity to go out with the Street Pastors myself soon to see it in operation first hand.


13 02 2009

Well almost immediately after posting that last entry in the pub (via my iPhone), I was invited over by someone it turned out I had met before. (I was a welcome guest!) W had been on an Alpha course at St Jude’s (where I was curate). She was meeting her dad for lunch. It turned out that we had met before too, though completely independently of my knowing his daughter. We had a good chat about what I’m doing and what was going on for them. It was a gentle lead back into conversation for me. And it sort of helped me with a question I had in my mind as I walked to the pub.

When I had been doing some research in preparation for the Friday Fridge, I had gone into one or two of the pubs in Southsea wearing a dog collar. Then too I had invited myself into other people’s conversations. But I had also experienced being approached by others. Normally the conversation began with someone asking: ‘Are you a real vicar?’ (To which the technically correct answer would have been no, I was assistant curate. But what people meant was, ‘Are you a real church bod?’, not, ‘Are you really the incumbent of a Church of England parish, enjoying the right of Freehold to the Living of the Parish?!’) Now that was at a different time of day and in a different place. Lunchtime drinking is generally a more gentle and restrained affair than in the nighttime. People are probably more reserved during the day than when they are a little more ‘refreshed’ in the evening. But I wondered whether hanging around might lead to people asking me who I am and what the hell I think I’m doing! Well not quite, but it did remind me that building relationships with people is what it’s all about. I must state again that there’s no instrumentality in that. I’m not building relationships so that… Building relationships is what it’s all about.

After speaking with the people I found that I knew (a bit), I approached three people sitting together – G, C and L (one man and two women). We had a very interesting conversation. We shared some common experience as they were mature, part-time students and I have twice now been a mature, part-time student. (Actually now I come to think about it, I’m doing that a third time with my MA.) But we quickly got on to talking about my role and into a conversation about belief and how we shape our lives. Two of them had had negative experiences of church. G had recently left a new church, where he had for a time been a youth worker, because he found that church to be too judgemental. And C had devout family members, including a mother who had at one time been in a religious order. L was currently attending a church with her children.

I reflected on my experience that conversations about the deep questions of life are often of a better quality outside church settings because people don’t have the sense that they knew what answers they are supposed to give. Often, my experience of church is that there is a lack of honesty. People feel constrained to say the right thing, rather than what they really think. This was a reflection that was expressed at a clergy and church worker gathering I attended in October last year.

G expressed skepticism that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda he suspected was to convert people and get them into my church. I understand why he felt that way. In fact, as he said, he had had that agenda when he had been a church youth worker in the past. I told them that I honestly don’t have that agenda.

I wonder if that worries some of you who are from a church and are reading this. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I think I can honestly stand by that statement, as far as it relates to my role as city centre pioneer minister: I don’t have an agenda to convert people and get them into my church. Even in relation to my role as associate priest of St Luke’s, I’m much more interested in getting the church out among the people than in getting the people into the church – especially if church means the building. I would like to see the Christian community grow but not through presenting people with a bald choice and pressurising them to jump one way.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I want people to hear the invitation of Jesus to follow him. But I’m really not interested in trying to tell them what to think. I can’t convert anyone. If God is real (sorry if that ‘if’ offends – but that’s not a closed case for everyone reading this) – if God is real – then it’s up to God to reveal God’s self to people. I think I’m invited to be part of that process of revelation but not through beating people over the head with what I think! It’s much more about what sort of person my faith makes me. Who I am is more important than what I say. If my words badger and berate, then people don’t encounter the loving invitation of God through me. If my words, my manner and my whole being express a depth of respect, love and dignity, then maybe they will begin to wonder at what it is that makes me that way. (That’s a big if for a flawed human being!) But I am released and relaxed by the thought that it’s not my job to make anyone believe in God. It’s up to each person to make their own mind up. And as I’ve said, I don’t think belief is nearly as important as how we choose to shape our lives. I want to live my life as if God is real (mostly I fail) and quite a lot of the time I have a strong sense that God is. I think it can be a positive and transformative thing for an individual to live as if God is real; for themselves and more importantly, for the rest of the world.

I say ‘can’ because it rather depends on what you think God is like. Basically I’m with Adrian Plass: ‘God’s nice and he likes me’. (Though I would have  preferred it if Adrian hadn’t used a gendered pronoun!) I don‘t think convincing people by force of argument leads them into a living relationship with God. I’m fairly convinced that if I try to force or push a response it does nothing other than turn people off.

When I asked those people whether this couldn’t be church (‘this’ being the conversation we were having in the pub) C asked if people wouldn’t need to believe in God for that to be so. I said I didn’t think so.

It wasn’t a question that Jesus ever seemed to worry about. That’s of course because almost everyone he spoke with, did believe in God. But he didn’t seem that hung up on doctrine. He had the odd theological run in with people, like with the Sadducees when he challenged their denial of the possibility of a general resurrection, but mostly he was concerned about people’s faithfulness being expressed in mercy, love and inclusion. Following him didn’t mean saying a creed. It meant laying down your life for your friends.

So I think it would be entirely possible for an emerging community in the pub that was exploring the questions of meaning together to be *church* without all of that community’s members being able to say that they believed in God. In fact for one member of that conversational group, the church she attends does feel like a safe place to be as someon uncertain of God’s reality. I didn’t get the impression that there was open conversation in that setting, but at least she didn’t feel pressured to become something she’s not.

If that all sounds vague and woolly, well probably you’re right. But again, if God is real, God can bring something out of that conversation. And I do bring something to the table. It’s not being the one with all the answers. As I said to G,C and L, I don’t think I’ve got what they need, any more than they’ve got what I need. I think it’s the space between us and within our conversation that’s really interesting. That’s the thing that offers an opportunity for us all to grow. What I bring comes back to something I said in response to a comment on a previous post: a willingness to open up a space for dialogue that is not bound by the niceties of being in church. I also think I bring a deep engagement with the story of Jesus as the church tells and experiences it. Through living that story, I have found a depth of personal encounter with *God* experienced as ‘immanent transcendence’: the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves-or-This-World encountered in real, everyday life – through wonder, joy, suffering, beauty, hope and human relationships and community.

That conversation yesterday was a very inspiring and exciting encounter. The parting comment from the little group I spoke with was, ‘We’re here most Thursdays.’ It suggested that they were not averse to continuing the conversation. It raised for me the possibility that yes, this pub or another like it, could be a place where *church* could begin to happen. Not as we know it Jim, but still in a fragile and emerging way, church. Let us boldly go…

Fleeting moments

12 02 2009

So here I am in the Fleet once again. Your ace reporter is on the scene bringing you the latest from this popular pub in the Guildhall Square.

Actually it seems more popular today (Thursday 12th February 2009) than it did yesterday. Way back then, the afternoon was quieter. Yesterday, I just sat and looked and worked on some stuff for Sunday. Most of the groups around the pub were sat together a bit defensively. What I mean by that is that there was no way to join them without invading their personal/group space. To an extent of course I will inevitably invade a group’s space whenever I invite myself into their conversation (shades of Jesus with Zacchaeus?). But I am nervous enough of approaching people without the need to push my way into a group whose circle is closed. I’m not prepared to do that.

It’s that thing about being a guest again.

Jesus was not always a polite guest (I’m looking as someone used to English manners, not first century Jewish ones). He could be quite direct with his hosts (Lk 7.44-47) but not because he had no regard for etiquette. He just gave a much higher priority to real love and compassion than any social pretense.

This whole issue of being a guest is becoming more and more prominent in my own thinking. I think it might be the defining characteristic of pioneer ministry if not mission in general. We spoke about it at the St Luke’s home group this week. I was recalling the story of the 12 and the 72 being sent out. Barbara (my wife) pointed out that it’s central to Jesus’s ministry as he is so often the guest of others. I’ve said that on this blog before but the thing that Barbara reminded me about was that Jesus was a guest when he was born as Luke relates it. According to that story, he was born in a borrowed room that wasn’t his family’s normal home; probably not a stable, but the ground floor room in a house where the household animals are sheltered overnight. That the family, including a heavily pregnant young girl, had to stay in that part of the house suggests to me that they weren’t honoured guests. They were unwelcome.

This might require a massive reorientation in our thinking. We have tended to approach mission in attractional ways. [No scoop there, ace!] We have focused on our buildings. It’s been about filling a space where we are the host but, though ‘foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to call his own’ (Lk 9.58). The Incarnation is about the One through whom all things were created, being a (mostly unwelcome) guest in Creation.

Maybe being involved in God’s mission, following Jesus to where he is today, by his Spirit, means being an unwelcome guest in other people’s spaces. All of which does nothing to ease my nerves or reluctance to speak to people!

But here goes…

Another day in the office

6 02 2009

So after missing out on Thursday 5th, I did get to the pub again today. I didn’t engage in much conversation today. Instead I had a bit of lunch and worked on some stuff (a sermon and the order of service) for Sunday at St Luke’s.

Should I feel like I was wasting an opportunity by not getting on and talking to people? I didn’t feel like I was. I spoke briefly to bar staff and enjoyed a nice lunch. It was a good place to think about the text I had for Sunday. I do pretty much always think about the mission implications, but somehow being in the pub rather than my study made it all the more real. And I got to observe a bit more of the life and colour of the place.

And maybe some people spotted the clergyman in the pub and thought about what that might mean. Maybe I’ll find out when I go back next week and start speaking to people again… or maybe I’ll find out that they’re wondering why there’d be somebody in fancy dress in their pub at that time of day…

I’ll let you know. But for now another highly un/productive afternoon. Thank God.