Last week I went to an outstanding conference run by the Fresh Expressions organisation, on renewal in a rural church context. What made the conference so good was that it was highly focussed and very practical, and struck a good balance between talks, discussions, and free time to mix and mingle.
At the start, the keynote speech was given by Jerry Marshall, on “Applying entrepreneurial leadership to rural mission”. He defined an entrepreneur as “a person who habitually sees how the world could be better in some way, and then brings the resources together to make it happen” – which was a stimulating idea for those wanting to bring renewal to a rural context! Three points particularly stood out for me:
- In planning new initiatives, we need to start by looking for the need, rather than the solution. We then look for the resources to meet the need.
- It is essential to decide on the goals – and then agree to pay the price in advance. I think ‘price’ can be understood not just in terms of finances, but particularly in terms of the time and resources of all concerned.
- People and passion are vital!
We then heard from other practitioners about actual examples of Fresh Expressions in a rural context. One of these was Sally Gaze, who is now a vicar in Norfolk, and was one of my predecessors as curate in the Martley area! Simon Lockett from Herefordshire captured the imagination with several ideas: in order for the vicar to be seen to belong to each of the villages, he now camps in each one for a week in the year – in a yurt! He’s also in the process of developing an outreach project based around a pizza van.
The ample time for discussion in small groups meant that we could process what we had heard, and then think through how to apply it. One entertaining session was when we discussed key values for renewal in the countryside: three words in particular recurred across the groups, which were ‘prayer’, ‘messy’, and ‘passion’ – which probably says something revealing about those of us who were there!
I got a huge amount from the session on “Youth discipleship in the countryside” – and not just because of the content. Peter Atkins, a church leader who was one of the conference organisers, recognised that two of the 19-year-olds in his church, Emily Harrison and Catherine Ward, would be the ideal people to lead most of the session. Doing so exemplified how people thrive when leaders relinquish some of their control, and enable others to step into the limelight. Emily and Catherine’s top tips for youth discipleship were: to be relevant and relatable; to keep it relational; and to persevere.
Throughout my time there, I enjoyed being with a group of people who are all restless with the way church is usually done in the countryside, who have no illusions about the current predicament, and are passionate for renewal. It was an inspiring conference.