I will try to fix you

5 12 2011

My last post was a look at one of the questions raised by the idea of relational mission: what’s our motivation? What is underlying our desire to befriend people? This is some further musing on the same question. But this time I’m looking at it from another angle – what have the people we have befriended gained from being our friends?

I guess I’m challenging the unspoken assumption that getting to know ‘us’ is a good thing. In all the Church’s talk about mission, it’s taken for granted that our outreach to new people not currently connected to the Church is beneficial for those new people. That’s a theological assumption, I think. But if we no longer believe that we take God to where God is not (which, thankfully, we don’t) what ‘goods’ do we bring? And dare we test empirically how good it really is for people to interact with the Church? For whose benefit is that interaction, really? For those with whom we interact or for ourselves?

We are at least in part motivated I reckon by wanting to see the Church grow. Why? To shore up our own fragile faith by persuading others to share it or by temporarily fending off the decline that so sorely tests our confidence? Sound cynical? It is a bit. If we believe we really have good news it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves. But at the same time we need to recognise that our proselytising tendency can be experienced by others as a threat, particularly if they are of another faith background or are avowedly secular or humanist. While others might be prepared to say that those people are just plain wrong, I am not. We have to share this world. We need to find ways to peacefully co-exist. That means I think according people a high degree of dignity and respect and taking their views seriously. That means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. For me that means being prepared to ask whether, from the perspective of, say, a secular humanist, we might ever be viewed as a positive presence. So again I find myself asking: what ‘goods’ do we bring?

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I was having a conversation recently with someone who used to work in retail. They were telling me the story of a retailer who tried to grow their business by increasing the sale value of each customer interaction. The net result of all their action was that the business stayed exactly the same. Setting out to grow the business resulted in stagnation. The concentration on what the business wanted from the customer interaction did not allow that business to meet its aims. When, instead, they focused on what their customers wanted from their interaction with the business, the business grew.

That’s an anecdote and not careful research. But it does suggest that the Church will fail to achieve its desired growth if that is what it thinks about. Instead it hints that concentrating on the people with whom the Church interacts, considering their needs and desires, will be the only way that growth can happen. It’s only while we’re looking the other way that growth can occur. That’s a pretty bold statement and it’s based on pretty flimsy evidence. But surely that is what we’re all about. No, not bold statements based on flimsy evidence. Though that is something of which we’re often accused! I mean putting others first. We should be seeking to generously strive for the benefit of others as an end – the end – in itself, not merely as a strategy for achieving our organisational goals.

Some will argue, I guess, that wanting the Church to grow is for the benefit of the (capital ‘O’) Other. It’s for the ‘Glory of God’, whatever that means. But the Christian story surely makes clear that God is always out for the benefit of the (lower case ‘o’) other (even if some parts of the Bible are a little more difficult to reconcile with that proposition).

I wonder if you can see what I’m getting at? If you can, you might be able to help me because I’m not quite sure! I think I’m just trying to push the question of motivation all the way – in this instance in non-theological terms. Why? Because I think we have to at least try to imagine what it might be like to encounter a community of people that, to some degree, have an agenda that includes seeing you change. The Church is not unique in that but it’s there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about progress. It might mean – it pretty much does for some church members here in Somerstown, I think – that people with insurmountable mental health or addiction problems at least find a place to belong and to find companionship in the midst of their struggles.

But [finally he gets to the point] what has it meant to the newer members of the Sunday Sanctuary to encounter this fragile community of Christians and become part of it? How has that been good for them?

I haven’t really asked. But others have. These are not desperate or broken people we’re talking about, at least no more desperate or broken than the rest of us. So we haven’t fixed anyone (as if we could). The sense I have is that our new friends, like the rest of us have found a deeper and growing sense of belonging, self-esteem and purpose. And they, like us (these distinctions seem so empty of meaning now) have found new friends. We are all discovering a wider – yes theological – framework in which our being, our living and dying, our meaning and our place in this universe make a bit more sense. For some reading this, of course, that framework is inherently delusional and so cannot be a ‘good’ but I do beg to differ here. We are inhabiting, a little more deeply and in some subtle and unexpected ways, the idea that – to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s book – love wins. We’re aligning our lives as individuals, as families and as a whole community with the idea of that gentle victory, just a little more each week. I think in a tiny, tiny way, that’s making the world a little bit of a better place. That’ll do for me.

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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.’





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.