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.’





We’re one, but we’re not the same

9 10 2010

So what do I need to tell you to bring you up to date with all that’s going on in the world of pioneering in Pompey? I suppose if I am going to stick to my new short post rule, it had better be one thing at a time. I think the last thing I reported (ignoring for a second my musings after a home communion) was that we, the Sunday Sanctuary, were about to embark on a process of discernment. We were going to try to work out the best way forward for us as a whole community — former members of St Luke’s and newer members from Wilmcote House. And by working out, I don’t mean just figuring it out for ourselves. I mean that through our reflection and sharing, we are intentionally looking to participate in the emergence of God’s future for our community. (I’ll unpack a bit more of what I mean by that in a future post.)

But just to explain how we actually went about it… On two consecutive Sundays, we gathered as usual and shared a welcome and breakfast together. Then, when it came to our circle/all-together time, we explained the three options that the PCC had come up with. These were meant to be a basis for conversation, not a straightjacket. We approached the process with an openness, an expectation, even, that something else could emerge that we hadn’t considered yet.

So after explaining the options, we encouraged people to spend some time in quiet, reflecting on each of the options. Adults and older children each had a sheet that invited them to write down one thing that excited them about each idea and one thing that concerned them. The younger children each had a sheet with smiley faces. They needed an adult to help them, reading the options to them and showing how to use the sheets. We then followed that with a time where everyone, of every age was encouraged to share in turn. We set some boundaries for this sharing. We went round the circle twice; first sharing our concern and then the second time around sharing what excited us about each idea. There was to be no comment from others as each person shared. Each person was to be listened to and their contribution allowed to stand. We followed that with a time of more freeflowing conversation.

I had intended to conclude this time by describing what I perceived to be the mind of the group and then inviting people to participate in a five-finger vote on what I would be suggesting. There was a little bit of disquiet from one or two of the church council members when we mentioned voting. I think I had not explained clearly enough what this meant. It wasn’t about taking a decision that properly belonged to the council, but simply a way for people to express their support or otherwise for what I would have been suggesting as a distillation of the conversation so far.

As it was, there wasn’t enough unanimity to formulate a single expression of the mind of the gathering. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t unity. I don’t think that unity is the same thing as unanimity (and this isn’t what you’re looking for in a discernment process anyway). But on what basis can I claim that there was unity? I can’t give you a concrete moment. It’s more a sense that I have, and others shared, that it mattered to everyone what happened; that our newer friends viewed themselves as belonging to the Sunday Sanctuary, not merely people who come to something.

I think I probably can identify a couple of explicit things that are signs of that. First, there was the fact that our newer members fully participated in the discernment process and were not embarrassed or reticent about sharing their responses. Second, those same newer members were concerned about making our time together more churchy and in expressing that, it became clear that they really value the way we do things together on a Sunday morning.

When you put that together with the desire from the more established members to share the discernment process with our newer members, I think it’s evident that we are well on the way to becoming one community. We’re not of one mind. But we are one body.

I’ll tell you more about how it has all worked out practically in another post, because this is already too long! But for now I think I’m happy to celebrate this moment. I am blown away that we have come together in this way so soon after we started.





New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.





He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.

21 06 2010

So in the end it is the Tuesday homegroup that has given way for the PCC. I didn’t reinstate Sanctuary in the pub. I was knackered after camping with two sons plus lively borrowed friend of #2 son. Then early start Sunday to ensure I was ready for the Sunday Sanctuary, which involved me eating habanero chilli flavour ‘Death Rain’ crisps and real, live (actually dead and cooked) locusts. We were doing the plagues of Egypt, Horrible Histories style.

(Every time I try to type son on the iPhone keypad, it comes out as ‘sin’ — is there a message there?! And while we’re on stuff that’s got nothing to do with anything, someone nearby is playing Michael Nyman — my favourite composer. That’s apropos of nothing, by the way, thought you might like to know. 8-] )

Now my brother is coming to visit from the States next week. I will probably have to cancel Sunday night in the pub again as he, his wife and daughter are arriving that night. And then I’ve got an issue with our Tuesday evening. I set a discernment process in motion that includes these next few Tuesday evenings. But my brother and his family are coming to visit immediately following my step brother’s wedding. Do I:

  1. Cancel Tuesday completely
  2. Ask someone else to host a normal homegroup (cancel discernment gathering)
  3. Ask someone else to run discernment process in my absence (gulp)
  4. Tell my brother to amuse himself and stick to the plan (pretty sure anyone else in the group being visited by globetrotting sibling would cry off homegroup!)
  5. Something else. Over to you, dear reader…




Best laid plans

18 06 2010

With two members of the PCC at the last minute unable to come for what would have been a very significant discussion, I felt I had not choice but to postpone the meeting last night. So no options for a way forward yet. I am trying to rearrange something before Tuesday when the wider congregation meets to look at the first option.

Interestingly, I am prepared to put aside the pub conversation this week to enable the PCC to meet this Sunday evening.

What does that say about the relative importance of that gathering?





Gimme five (although four will do).

17 06 2010

The PCC have been considering a review paper that I wrote for them. On the basis of that paper and PCC members’ responses, the PCC will try and produce three options for a way forward at its meeting on Thursday 17th June, 2010. Three is more of a guideline than a straightjacket, so if it turns out we need two or four options, that’s what we’ll do. Over the course of the three weeks following that meeting, at our Tuesday evening gatherings, we’ll be looking at each of the options in turn and entering into a process of spiritual discernment.

That process, much like the way we approached it at our weekend away back in March, comprises 3 broad stages:

  1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
  2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
  3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

This process is adapted from Victoria G Curtiss’s Guidelines for Communal Discernment, available here.

1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
Our usual habit of eating together and sharing Communion will function as the first of those stages but perhaps to ensure the rest of the process doesn’t feel too confined, we might forgo having a pudding for these weeks! We will also try to start the meal promptly at 7:40, giving 10 minutes for people to arrive, say hello and get a drink. I will try and ensure we have finished at the table by 8:30. At the end of our Communion, we will hear the option being considered and be given a printed copy. We then move into the main exploration.

2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
I have suggested we proceed as follows:

  • Letting go
    I want to invite us all to approach our discernment prayerfully, letting go of any barriers to being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. To do that we need in a moment of quiet to ask for the grace to lay aside our ego, preconceived ideas, biases, and predetermined conclusions that may limit openness to God. What we’re looking for is ‘holy indifference’. That means being indifferent to everything except God’s will. It doesn’t mean, ‘I don’t care.’ And it doesn’t mean we lose our values and convictions. It simply means we are called to be open and focused above all on what God might be calling us to be and do. (Much of this is word for word from Curtiss)
  • Reflecting on the Bible.
    Listening.
    It would be tempting to select a text that offered some support to my own point of view! Or at least for people to feel that I had. I suggest therefore that we make the set gospel reading each week our text for that week. I think it would be helpful too to hear an initial reflection on that reading from different people each week. I am therefore looking for three people who will be willing on one of those weeks each to bring a short reflection (5-10 minutes) on that reading. It will require a little preparation, of course but I already have two volunteers.
    Connecting.
    We’ll follow that with a few moments in quiet, during which I’ll ask each of us to write down the one word or phrase in the reading or what was said following that spoke to us most immediately or seemed to capture the essence of what God might be saying to each of us. We’ll then swap those papers and read each one in turn.
    Examining ourselves
    We then take a few moments in quiet to ask ourselves the question: what might God be asking of me as I approach this process of discernment?
  • Sharing our stories
    Again, in quiet, on one side of a slip of paper, we each write down one thing that concerns us about the option before us and one thing that concerns us. We share our concerns in turn. We all listen in silence. We share our excitement in turn. Again, we all listen in silence. One person records all the things that are shared.
  • Pause for reflection
    We keep a moment of quiet for reflection on what we have heard.
  • Discussion
    We take time to explore our response to the option put before us in conversation.

3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

  • Choose direction
    As ‘president’, I attempt to gather our collective response to the option before us and shape it into a summary statement. We express our support of the proposal using the five finger method, as follows:
    5 fingers      I am fully supportive.
    4 fingers       I am mostly in agreement 
and am willing to support the majority.
    3 fingers       I have questions or reservations
 but am willing to stand aside;
    2 fingers       I am somewhat opposed and have concerns.
    1 finger        I cannot support this at this time.
  • Rest with the direction
    We spend a few moments in quiet again, entrusting our exploration to God and praying for our continuing discussions.

Out of this process, the PCC, as trustee of the parish’s resources, will determine how we should proceed together, selecting one of the original options or another that may have emerged from our exploration. I’ll keep readers of this blog up to date with how this proceeds.





Which way(s) now?

15 06 2010

So enough of me and my angst (for now 😉 ). This week the PCC meet to kick of the process of reviewing where we’ve got to with what we’re currently doing and how we might develop. The discussion will be in two parts. The first part takes us through the values of a mission-shaped church, as we have been paraphrasing them. The second is about trying to determine what options there are for taking things forward.

PART ONE: Where have we got to?

Are our Sunday and Tuesday gatherings:

  • INSPIRED BY GOD?
    Are we* all drawn closer to God?
  • RELATED TO CONTEXT?
    Are we* connecting with the locality and its culture?
    Are we* relating to the right context? (Are we where we’re being called to be?)
  • MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
    Are we* making life better for the community we serve?
    Are we* making enough of a difference to enough people?
  • CHANGING PEOPLE’S LIVES?
    Are we* active in calling and helping each other to become disciples of Christ?
  • BUILDING COMMUNITY?
    Is all that we* do characterised by welcome and hospitality.
    Are our* ethos and style open to change as new people join?

* To what extent should we consider newer members from Wilmcote House as being part of our community in these questions? Is it us/them, or we? That’s not an entirely straightforward question. The way we have responded to newer members needs in practical ways suggests the members of the Congregation Formerly Known as St Luke’s (TCFKASL) see these newer people as part of our community. And the way they have got involved in helping to make our Sunday mornings happen suggests they have a sense of ownership and investment in who we are together. On the other hand, these newer members have not yet taken the steps (such as baptism) that would allow them to officially participate in the governance of the parish.

Where do we go from here?

The original vision for TCFKASL, that I laid out last summer, is that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ (in the neo-monastic vein) in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

  • How does that look now that we have begun to engage?
  • Is the original vision still sound?
    If not, how do we go about forging a new vision?
  • How do we change what we do now in order to address its current shortcomings and to allow for the emergence/evolution of our vision for our place in this locality? This might include consideration of our target group, the location of our activities, their timing, format and frequency as well as how we make best use of our current resources and personnel.
  • Do we need to change what we do now radically or more gradually?
  • What different possibilities are there that we can agree to take forward into the discernment process with the wider congregation in the coming weeks?