“Sweaty church”, “Questioning Church” and “An organic community for the elderly” – these were some of the topics being discussed over the last couple of days, in an MA study block on “Can Mission shape the Church?”. It’s been an intensive time, largely focussed on student-led seminars which have often sparked heated discussion.
John Lee told us about “Sweaty Church”, a new initiative at St. Paul’s, Holgate (where he’s the vicar and where, coincidentally, I spent a week last July). For young boys, Sunday mornings often clash with football, and church somehow seems a less attractive option – so the church has come up with an afternoon event primarily for boys and their families. It combines boisterous fun and Bible-based teaching, and has already proved to be a hit with young families in the area.
A couple of the seminars looked at the needs of the elderly, and the realisation that their needs conflict with those of young families – but that mid-week lunch clubs can be effective ways of serving them and providing church.
Many of the sessions were very thought-provoking. Mike Loach, a former Philosophy teacher, challenged us with “Questioning Church”, saying that too often church does not provide a healthy environment for honest questions. An hour later, Dan Pierce was arguing that the essence of church is that it should be for the whole of society, not just small sub-units – and he was sharply critical of the tendency of many Fresh Expressions to be aimed at distinct sub-cultures. (TubeStation, which reaches surfers in Polzeath in Cornwall, is a well-known example.) While I wasn’t fully convinced by their arguments, the debates that both Mike and Dan sparked were really good.
I ended up doing the first seminar on Monday morning – which was good because people were at their most alert and attentive! One of the questions I asked was how church should reach people in Urban Priority Areas. I asked it because the answer seems to be both clear and costly: church leaders need to live on the estates that they hope to reach. This way, people get to know them for who they are, and genuine relationships are built up. For example, the key leaders at Stockton Community Church, such as Duncan McAuley on Victoria Estate and Tony Grainge on Easterside in Middlesbrough, do exactly this. Tony has recently become part of the Eden Network, which has had a dramatic impact on the youth of a number of urban estates across the country – because team members have moved onto the estates.
Doing this course has been one of the highlights of the teaching here – because I feel better equipped for my future calling by doing it.