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.’





One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]





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.





Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – 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 (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.





Cirque d’humanité

8 06 2010

Am I a weirdo? Does anyone else feel moved, almost to tears, when watching a circus? I remember watching the main show at the Millennium Dome (now the O2) and weeping.

I think it was something then about the sheer beauty of it. The Moscow State Circus on Pompey’s Southsea Common didn’t quite have that same quality. But it was breathtaking at some points. I think what moves me is the humanity. Human potential is on show in the most awe-inspiring way.

The performers are like superheroes. The feats they perform are phenomenal. And yet. They are clearly human beings. They aren’t superheroes. They sometimes get it wrong. And there are moments where you can just tell they’re as unsure they’re going to pull it off as the audience members are. Or at least this one is. These are ordinary people who have been willing to work tirelessly to develop their strength, stamina, suppleness, balance and co-ordination to a very high degree.

Some of these things will be on display in the beautiful game over the next few weeks, of course. But though I love football and I’m really looking forward to the World Cup, I don’t remember being moved to tears by the sheer humanity of the display. There are tears when you support England. But they’re not for that.

Maybe it’s because I know that football players are paid obscene amounts of money. It’s as if the humanity and passion of it is sullied to a large degree by filthy lucre. I don’t doubt these circus performers would like to be rich. But I’m pretty sure they’re not. They’re travellers. People of the road. There’s something about the fragility of the economics of a circus and the performers who work in it that makes the humanity of it all the more poignant.

They’re a small community, living and journeying together and doing things with their bodies that you wouldn’t think possible. But possible they are. And so they communicate something to me of the beauty of human potential. (Dance often has the same effect on me.) They inspire and confirm the thought that each and every person I meet is amazing and has the potential to do amazing things.

It inspires me to disbelieve the things I know children in some of the schools I work in say about themselves or have said to them (not by the schools but by the wider culture). They feel that they’re no good. They’re not. The enormity of their potential makes me weep.

And yes, I am cast from that same human stuff. So I too am encouraged to strive to be more than my last post suggested I thought I can be.

I probably have booked a place in pseud’s corner with all that, but to be honest, I don’t care. I’m happy to be thought pretentious. Whether this makes sense to anyone else or not, I don’t think I can stop myself from shedding the odd tear at the circus. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns, etc.





A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!





Bums on pews

15 12 2009

The wisdom out there – and it probably is wisdom of the wise type – is that we’re not and shouldn’t be into a numbers game. We don’t judge our success or failure on the basis of the numbers of people we attract to whatever we’re doing. In fact faithfulness might well be a lot more important than success. So we’re not about bums on pews. Well in our case, we can’t be as we’ve left the pews behind.

I agree with all that. As much as I strongly desire to see the Church grow, I’m not about growing ever bigger individual churches. I’m about growing new, small churches. Lots of ’em.

So why is it, despite all that, that I should be so encouraged by the numbers of people we’ve seen in our first three weeks of running the Sunday Sanctuary in a tower block in Somerstown in central Portsmouth? Week one, we saw six new people. Week two, three of those came back and they were joined by six other new people. Week three, five from week two came back. They were joined by twelve others. There is an extent to which numbers of people must be an indicator of how much of a connection you’re making. To be honest, I’m quite chuffed that over the course of our first three weeks we’ve met twenty-four new people. I’m also really chuffed that eight of those have come more than once.

I take completely the point made by a colleague in his frequent references to his experience of running a youth group. There can be a point at which you’re into crowd control rather than being able to build real, quality relationships with people. I guess my response is recruit more helpers, don’t wish for fewer guests!

Another colleague in the Diocese this week was encouraging me to share the story of the numbers we’re seeing. I’m happy to do that. The even more encouraging story that the numbers don’t tell is the openness of the people we’re meeting. We could just be entertaining a bunch of people who grab the free stuff and run. But it’s quite different from that. The people we’re meeting seem genuinely open to being gotten to be known, if that makes sense! I think we stand every chance of making friends with them if they continue to come.

The challenge will be, as I was reminded today, that the population of this locality is so transient, that people might well be moving on just at the point where we’ve established some kind of genuine relationship. But that challenge doesn’t mean we can just wash our hands and walk away. Here we are. Here we are staying. Maybe we can in some small way be a stabilising influence on the locality and help edge it towards becoming a true community.