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.’





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?




Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.





Future Church with Mike Frost

23 01 2009

The first thing I did after being licensed to my new post was to go to that other city down the road to hear an Aussie bloke called Mike Frost talking about missional church. He was an inspiring and engaging speaker. He was obviously on top of his material. He spoke without notes.

Max is missing
The first of three sessions was in the evening of Friday 3rd October. He told the story of how he had a life-changing experience of engaging in mission in a biker’s pub in Elizabeth; a tough area near Adelaide. Mike was working as an evangelist and was invited to accompany somebody he met at a conference to come and see what he was doing at the Rose and Crown Hotel. It didn’t seem very cutting edge at first. A bad gospel song accompanied by some very ripe jeering from the audience, followed by a talk which Mike was asked to give, also accompanied by jeering. Then Mike asked if anyone wanted him to pray for anyone. This huge tattooed biker called Max asked him to pray for the lads (soldiers) in East Timor. Then Mike and the man who’d asked him along sat at the bar. The man than asked everyone sat at the bar what question they’d ask God if they had the chance to ask just one.

When it came to Max’s turn, he said he would ask God: ‘Who am I?’

That story, even though it’s second hand, bore repeating I thought. Mike Frost used it to illustrate how people for whom church is ‘the last cab off the rank’ were nonetheless engaged in a deep and profound spiritual quest. But it’s clear that in most of our churches, Max is missing.

What is church?
According to Mike Frost, there were four aspects of church life that were pretty much common to all protestant churches:

  1. worship
  2. community
  3. discipleship
  4. mission

The problem, according to Mike Frost, is that worship has become the central principle around which the others are organised. All our effort goes into keeping the church machine running. If we identify people with gifts we give them a job to do that’s about the worship gathering. The finances are all spent on sustaining the gathered worship. The machine becomes self-serving. Church planting has been about setting up a worship service and then inviting people to come along. Why are we surprised when they don’t? Or if they do, don’t they usually turn out to be Christians who are just fed up with their usual church and wanting to be part of something new?

What if mission was to be the organising principle?

That’s not just a question of re-ordering our common life because the wheels have come off (which I think they have) but because, as Mike Frost was saying, it’s, theologically speaking, the proper way to reflect the God we love, worship and serve.

Being ‘sent’ is fundamental to the nature of God. God sends God sends God, sends us. The Creator and source of all being ‘sends’ the divine nature in the generation of the One through whom Creation comes to be. That same One is sent as Redeemer. The Creator breathes out the Spirit who sustains and enlivens Creation. The Redeemer sends the enlivening Spirit out to fill the people God has called to participate in the work of Redemption. The Spirit sends those same people out in mission. Sending and ‘sent-ness’ pervades the whole economy of creation and salvation.

So what does it look like if mission is the principle around which everything else is organised?

It looks like Jesus!

Where is Jesus? On the street. With the outsiders, the poor, the irreligious. He breaks down the separation between the holy and the material; the sacred and the stuff of everyday life. He takes the holy water set aside for worship – for ritual washing – and turns it into wine for a party. 17 barrells of it! What would most churches do if that happened now?

This sort of re-ordering will challenge us to decide whether we want to be missionaries or members of the audience. Will we be part of God’s move in the world or consumers of religious goods and services.

If mission bceomes the organising principle then we’ll worship as we go – celebrating as we find grace at work among the people to whom we’re sent and mourning their loss with them. We’ll become disciples in the same way the first disciples of Jesus did: watching him at work among the crowd. And we’ll enjoy the deep fellowship of those who share in an ordeal – the life of ‘communitas’.

Waterskiing church
Mike Frost told several stories to illustrate what this might look like. One that stuck in my mind was of a man who gave up going to a ‘normal’ church on a Sunday and invited his friends to go waterskiing with him.

The first time they went he said that they’d be sharing a really good time together and that as he’d been brought up to say ‘grace’ before enjoying a good meal they ought to say grace before they enjoyed what they were about to receive. His friends looked a bit taken aback but they went along with it. Then he said that as they were praying, they might as well see if there was anything else any of them wanted to pray about. After an awkward silence, one of them hesitantly said he was worried about his job. Another mentioned his sick grandma. So the bloke prays for his friend’s work situation and for the other fella’s grandma. And they get on the water and have a fantastic time skiing.

Next week, the same thing, except this time the man who was worried about his job, says how much better things are for him at work and the other fella says his grandma has improved. Now here’s the bit in the story as I’m hearing it when I want to get clever. I’ve never believed or experienced that prayer is as simple or straightforward as that. I don’t think God is into delivering the shopping! But I decide to give Mike Frost a break and go with the story.

Anyway the story goes that more and more people come along, so that now there’s a couple of hundred each week. They’re baptising people in the river where they ski and sharing bread and wine at the picnic tables at the riverside.

My question about the understanding of prayer that story implies hasn’t gone away, but I think it would be fun to try it out, no? And the thing that really excites is that this story is about church happening where people are. It’s about worship and fellowship and discipleship flowing out of being part of God’s mission.

Fishing for people
One of the things that also really struck me was what Mike Frost said about Jesus calling those Galilean fishermen to become ‘fishers of people’. We tend to instantly imagine the individual on the riverbank with his rod and line. The questions then are about how do we bait our hook and how do we reel them in. He reminded us of what was right in front of our noses: Peter and Andrew, James and John didn’t fish like that. They used nets. And how did they spend their days? Not fishing at all. They spent very little time actually hawling in a catch. They spent the days cleaning and mending their nets.

Mike Frost suggested this as a very powerful image for the networks of relationships that Jesus was inviting his first disciples to invest their time in. Now I’m wary of any suggestion that we view our relationships in any instrumental way. We don’t make friends with people because we want to snare them in our net! But if we can see that as God working through us, as we are, who we are, where we are, I think it can be a powerful image.

It also reminds us that we don’t ever go alone. Fishing for these men was a collective activity. They shared the task and helped each other. None of them on their own would be strong enough to bring in the catch, they needed each other.

So we’re called to be missionaries but not solo missionaries.
We’re called to be missional communities.

Ringing the Bells
Mike Frost’s own missional community expresses its common identity through adopting a rule of life. It’s a much more monastic model that it is an ecclesial one. That’s something you pick up on again and again as you think about missional communities and the emerging church.

For Small Boat, Big Sea, the simple rhythm they adopt is captured in the acronym ‘B-E-L-L-S’ which stands for:

Bless
Eat
Listen
Learn
Sent

There are more details here.

It looks to me to be very much a reflection of the first Christian community’s life as recorded by the writer of Acts in 2.42-47. I think this could be a really fruitful way forward for the congregation of St Luke’s and for any other missional community that emerges as I work in the city centre.

Conclusions/Questions
I haven’t here being particularly critical of Mike Frost’s thesis. That’s mainly because I find it so convincing and it chimes so readily with my own emerging thinking on mission in the heart of Portsmouth. There are some questions to be answered though about what mission might be for. What’s the purpose of our being ‘sent’? What are we uniquely bringing to those to whom we are sent? What about the affirmation that you’ll find in every part of the church, whether high catholic or new church, that our ultimate human vocation is to worship God? Doesn’t that conflict with the primacy of mission that Frost’s/my approach calls for? Answers on a postcard, please…