I’ll be your friend Roland

25 11 2011

Now I’m really showing my age! Anyone else out there remember Roland Browning off of Grange Hill? He was the fat lad that all the bullies picked on in the BBC kids’ TV show in the 80s. However hard things got for Roland, he was never quite desperate enough to take up the offer of friendship from Janet St Clair. Janet’s catchphrase on the show was, ‘I’ll be your friend Row-land’. At least I think it was. Maybe it’s one of those catchphrases that people never said, like, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. Anyway, the point is that however desperate you get, there are some people you don’t want as your friends. It’s less embarrassing to be a Billy-no-mates than to count some people among your mates.

I think Christians are to the rest of the world what Janet St Clair was to Roland Browning – the people who want to be your friend; but you’d rather boil your own head than be seen anywhere near them. That has to be remembered, I think, when we talk about making friends with people. If we encounter a certain reluctance from people when invited to our soppy events, that may be magnified when we try and be their friends. First you have to persuade people that you really are quite normal, or at the very least that your lunacy is more like theirs than they’d ever really imagined.

There is a serious point here. I think people are suspicious of Christians trying to be their friends because they think there’s a hidden agenda. ‘You just want to be my friend so you can make me join your church.’ It’s an understandable suspicion because it’s, at least partly, true. What does it really mean to say that mission and ministry are going to have be relational? Lots of things. But translating it into everyday speak, it sounds very much like ‘make friends with people so that you can tell them about Jesus’.

Doesn’t everyone have an agenda? The drug and alcohol worker I talked about yesterday wanted to work relationally. Translation: I want to befriend people so that I can get them off drugs and alcohol. People not keen to get off drugs and alcohol might not want very much to be befriended by a drugs and alcohol worker with targets to reach.

If this sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. I just want to temper what I’ve been saying in the past couple of days with some realism and to encourage myself and maybe you too to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might be the subject of my/our efforts to befriend. Relational mission inevitably means that there is an agenda behind crossing social divides and making friends. Members of the Church will do that to some extent because they want to share their faith.

But that doesn’t have to translate into instrumentalism. We don’t have to see making friends as a means to the end of evangelism. That is how people have experienced their interaction with Christians. Some Christians lose interest in people who don’t quickly make some grand profession of faith. Truly relational mission must involve a commitment to love and care for people whatever their response to our faith. Sharing our faith will involve giving an account for the hope within, talking about our experiences, not preaching. But it must also include responding to people’s real needs with real practical love and care. And here’s the nub: being prepared to receive both those things too: listening to people’s real experience and allowing them to care for us too. Without that, we patronise people. We meet them as ‘clients’ imagining ourselves in a position of superiority – having the ‘goods’ people need – rather than engaging with people as fellow human beings. That means recognising and accepting that we have as much to receive as to give and that in the end the only resources we have to bring are ourselves. All we have to offer is who we are.

That’s a world away from thinking that we, charitable, middle-class people, will out of the goodness of our hearts give the poor people of this working class area what they need. But in offering ourselves, I think we do bring something unique. First of all, who we are is (however imperfectly) shaped by  the Christian story that we inhabit. Whatever truth there is in that story will not be communicated by argument and persuasion; it will communicated only by who we are. Secondly, in offering ourselves in real friendship, that anticipates receiving as well as giving, we honour, respect, value and love people in a way that few others do. It’s a way of expressing our belief in people. It’s a way of saying: ‘You’re worth getting to know’.





All of rabbit’s friends and relations

23 11 2011

20111123-093746.jpgWhat does ‘relational’ mean? It’s a word I used in my last post. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot in blogs like this. I’ve heard it many times at the sort of church conferences and workshops I frequent. I’ve used it in conversation innumerable times. But is it just a buzzword? A sort of linguistic bandwagon onto which I have uncritically jumped?

Probably. A bit. But it has come to have some real content for me in recent weeks as I’ve reflected on our adventures in mission over the past two years.

Its meaning and implications really crystallised for me in a conversation with a drug and alcohol worker. I wasn’t the client, before you ask. I had been speaking at this person’s church. After the service they told me about their frustration with their work. Imagine yourself in their situation. You work three days a week. One of those days is taken up with paperwork. On the other two days you have a caseload of more than twenty clients. You can see how it would go. You’d never be able to do much more than a cursory monthly meeting with each of your clients. All you could do is to monitor progress, if there were to be any, any real support or intervention would be incredibly difficult, not to say impossible, to achieve.

Now imagine that you can work as this person really wanted to – relationally. Imagine your caseload is cut down to three or four people, maybe even just two or three. You can invest real time with people and build up a level of trust and understanding that are currently impossible to achieve.

The personal risk and cost are much higher, of course.

First of all you’d have to sacrifice your contact with 18, or 20 people from among your current clients. But what good are you actually doing for/with them? And in saying goodbye for now, you’re not necessarily saying goodbye forever. You’re focusing your energy on where you really might be able to make a difference and not spreading it so thinly that you can realistically achieve very little of value. And you might be able to get to some of those others in time.

Secondly, you’d be taking a much higher risk in terms of the potential for your efforts to fail to achieve a positive outcome. With a big client list, where you can achieve a very limited amount, you can at least spread the risk of failure and your measurable outcomes will, of necessity, be more modest. If you invest everything in a small number of people, you might expect (or at least your paymasters will expect) much more dramatic outcomes. The failures will be much more professionally and personally costly; professionally because your reputation suffers; personally because if you have any real empathy (and why would you do this sort of work if you didn’t?) your clients’ failures will really hurt you.

That’s the sort of approach I think has been developing in my ministry and in the life of the Sunday Sanctuary
. It’s less about trying to create something that will be a catch-all and draw in lots of people with whom we have minimal contact (if that were even possible) and more about investing focused time, energy and resources on a small number of people.

There’s much more to say about this. What does it imply about our motivation for befriending people? What are the implications for our community life? What does it actually mean? Or to use a well worn cliché – what does it mean where the rubber hits the road? These are some of the questions I’ll be pondering out loud on this blog in the coming days.





A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

20111122-172653.jpgIt has been two years since the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began gathering instead in one of the nearby tower blocks. On Advent Sunday in 2009, with the Bishop’s permission, we ceased Sunday services and opened instead what we have called the Sunday Sanctuary. This wasn’t simply the relocation of our services to another place. We went right back to almost nothing. We had breakfast together and invited residents of the tower block (mainly young families) to join us. We imagined that the typical encounter would involve a bite to eat, a chat and maybe something a bit hands on and – with a light touch – spiritual. Maybe people would stop for 20 minutes or so.

We had no idea whether anyone would come. But come they did. And those who came did not come for a brief visit. They came in the moment we opened the doors each week, stayed with us all morning and before long, unbidden, got stuck in with clearing up at the end of the morning. This very different sort of engagement than we had imagined meant we very quickly had to give the morning more structure and shape. It threw us back on the liturgy. What we do together now has the skeleton of an Anglican Eucharist – we gather over breakfast; we set aside all that we regret from the past week; we collect our thoughts and prayers; we share a story and reflect together on its meaning for us today; we look out to the needs of those around us and the wider world; we give thanks; we share bread and grape juice and we ask God’s blessing as we go on. Though the flesh on the bones might not be so immediately familiar, there is a family resemblance with our sister churches in the Church of England.

As I reflect on the past two years, and what we’ve learnt together, I am bound to ask: has it been a success?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by success. I think we set out on this journey with a little bit of a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘if you build it, they will come’. (That’s a misquote I know but I hope you’ll excuse a little creative license there.) I think we set out with the idea that if we changed what we do together; changed where we do it and changed who we invited to come, that we would make some sort of breakthrough in Somerstown and in particular in the block of flats (Wilmcote House) to which we had relocated.

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

We have failed to make a big breakthrough in Wilmcote House or in Somerstown. We have engaged with a small number of families in the block, some who have stayed with us and others who have moved on after a little while. But most of the young families in the block pretty much ignore us.

Maybe our ‘offer’ is wrong. We insist on children coming with at least one grown up. We are running a family gathering in a place and at a time when a significant number of parents just want their kids out of the way or off their hands. We had a suspicion from the outset that a kids’ club would be overwhelmed. We had neither the people nor the resources to sustain something like that. So we set ourselves the parameter of barring unaccompanied primary- and pre-school age children at the very beginning. That has proved very difficult at times. I have hated having to turn away kids that are desperate to come in.

But even more fundamentally, I think, the biggest flaw in our thinking is that we were still ultimately operating an attractional model of mission. We were still creating an event that we expected people to come to. We made it as easy as possible for people to come – especially by moving ourselves much closer to where they live. But it still relies on people responding to an invitation from strangers to come to an event they know little about.

So though we took a massive step out of our comfort zone, I still don’t think we fully inhabited Jesus’s radical sending of his disciples to be guests, reliant on the hospitality of others in hostile territory.

As an initiative, then, in terms of measurable outcomes, it has failed.

But what a beautiful failure.

I write this a couple of days after we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. And as I write this I am looking forward to seeing six more members of our community confirmed at the cathedral. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

We have grown in numbers in a small way. We’ve also lost some more longstanding Christians. Some were not able to cope with being so far out of their comfort. Others have simply relocated. So we are not much bigger.

That is so often the measure by which people – consciously or otherwise – judge whether something has been a success. I hinted at it myself earlier by talking about a ‘big’ breakthrough. And on those terms, we have just about stayed steady. We have failed to achieve numerical growth.

But our growth in depth has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

But above all we’ve grown in the depth of our relationships. The newer members aren’t people who’ve joined us any longer. They are us. We have become one family.

There are lots of things we’ve learnt through this whole experience.

First, I think we’ve been reminded of something we already knew, even explicitly remarked upon. People in this place don’t come to stuff. It’s not a matter of tweaking our event to get it just right and then people will come. They won’t. They’re not interested. They don’t care what we have to say. Maybe we could cast our net a bit wider (leaflet all the tower blocks instead of just one) and maybe we’d get one or two more families like the lovely ones who found their way to us and became part of us. We will probably do that. But the fundamental and stark reality still holds. If we build it, they will not come.

Second, we can’t look to the handful of local families who are part of our community to reach their neighbours all by themselves. That’s because they are not the hard to reach, troubled families. Those who have joined us are really nice, together people. If that sounds judgemental on the rest of the families around, I’m sorry. But most of us know what we mean by ‘nice’ people. These are they. Sunday Sanctuary really was a sanctuary for them from the troubles and menace around them. It would take incredible courage, confidence and faith for these brand new Christians to reach out to the most challenging of their neighbours.

Third, that means this is no ‘hit and run’ sort of ministry for me. The idea I started out with that I could spend about three years here and, during that time, get something off the ground, train up local leaders and then move on to the next place (I really thought this!) – well that just seems laughable now. I am going to have to be here for the long haul.

Finally what has dropped like a great big penny is that ministry here has to be relational. Again, I’ve said that before. Right at the outset. But I’m only just beginning to understand what that means. What we’ve discovered, because this is what’s actually happened, is that if we’re going to make a difference in Somerstown, it will be one family at a time. It will be about investing in real friendship – giving time, attention, love and practical support to a small number of people at any one time. It’s like the old story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the sea after a storm. The beach is covered in starfish as far as the eye can see. A man says to the boy: ‘how on earth do you hope to make any difference?’ Picking up another starfish, and casting it back into the safety of the sea, the boy says, ‘made a difference to that one.’