Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.

Cafe church in rural Worcestershire

On Sunday, the cafe church in Wichenford had its second anniversary: we had 50 people of all ages, enjoying fresh coffee, bacon butties and an informal service. This has been one of the major highlights of my time as a curate here, so I thought this anniversary marked a good time to reflect on it in this blog.

Cafe church in Wichenford

Cafe church in Wichenford

Gail and Amber do the reading

Gail and Amber do the reading

One of the attractions of cafe church seems to be that it works for all ages. It’s designed to be family friendly, so we have a regular kids’ activity (in the style of Messy Church) to one side, and kids are free to wander during the meeting. This is one of the things that helps to give it a lively atmosphere.

But we’ve also found that it works for older folks whose preferred style might be the Book of Common Prayer – because it’s an excuse to leave the house, have breakfast out and meet friends.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

The cafe church format lends itself to creativity. In some of the months we’ve had sketches provided by some of the young people, and we’ve had a singing group a few times as well.

The bacon butties being served

The bacon butties being served

It would be completely impossible to do this without a dedicated team of helpers, and one of the essentials has been to identify those who are willing and able to commit time to being part of the hospitality teams. I’ve been really encouraged by the way team members have shared the vision of what cafe church is about, and have helped to create a welcoming culture.

The cafe churches in Wichenford and Martley are just two examples of the Fresh Expressions of church that are taking place around the country. Each one is an attempt to enable people in the 21st century to connect with Jesus Christ in a new way, with less of the baggage that traditional church is perceived to have in today’s post-modern culture. Indeed, the ultimate goal is not primarily to have large numbers at a church event – encouraging though that may be; it is for more people to recognise that Jesus Christ is alive today; and moreover, to realise that relationship with him is meaningful and powerful for their own lives.

Kids' activity in progress

Kids’ activity in progress

All photos (except the third) taken by Mark Wild, who retains the copyright.

Cafe church videos

One reason that cafe church works well is that allows for considerable creative scope. Highlights over the last year include a number of sketches. We’ve also been able to show some powerful video clips that wouldn’t fit into a normal liturgical service, but are appropriate and effective in this more informal context. Here are three which we’ve used.

  • Nick Vujicic has an astonishingly moving and uplifting testimony. Born without arms and legs (a genetic condition unrelated to thalidomide), Nick has become an accomplished motivational speaker and evangelist. This clip from the Oprah Winfrey show is probably the best summary of his life and message.

  • Last month, we looked at the subject of forgiveness. I happened to stumble across a clip (or rather, saw it recommended by a Facebook friend!), about a woman who forgave the man who killed her only child – and who now lives in the house next door to hers…

  • This month I was keen to focus prayer on Brazil, as hosts of the World Cup, and needed a video clip that would focus on some of the social issues besetting the country. This one provided exactly the focus that was needed.

Being pioneers in west Worcs

Rural west Worcestershire might not be the most obvious place to pioneer from, but our cafe churches seem to have caught the imagination of the diocese. Thus, David and I were interviewed for a video that has been advertised in their Kingdom People mailing. Here it is.

I only had ten minutes warning before Sam Setchell arrived (she’s the communications officer in the diocese). I have never tidied up the place so fast!

We’ve also featured on the Fresh Expressions website. Here’s an article I wrote,  called “What time is it?”: the gist of it is that we need to do church in new and fresh ways because the culture around us is changing.

Inspiration at church

I’ve been reflecting recently on what it has meant to me to be a part of Trinity Cheltenham over the last dozen years or so, and the one word to sum it up would be ‘inspirational’.

Worship at Trinity Cheltenham

While at theological college in Durham, I was shocked how fashionable it was to knock big churches, and was surprised to find myself consistently being the lone voice providing the other side of the argument. Frankly, I don’t care how large or small a church is, as long as it is a place where people can experience the presence of God and encounter Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, a church like Trinity can be a beacon for an entire region, breaking worn-out stereotypes of what church is, and showing by example what it means to bring the gospel to all sections of society. Big church can be inspirational church.

Take, for example the Easter Baptisms at Trinity… there had been so many wanting to be baptised in March that another service had to be laid on, and as with each of them, the church was packed. It is so exciting to hear individual stories of how encounters with Christ have led to transformed lives. One person may have struggled with depression, another with addictions; one person may have had everything they’d wanted but felt completely empty inside, another may have come only to stop the wife badgering them; some have had dramatic encounters with Christ, others have had an ongoing journey for years; but each unique story is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ.

Easter baptisms at Trinity

Large churches can also host big events. One of the most amazing took place last Friday evening, when former world super-middleweight champion Nigel Benn came with his wife Carolyne, to give their life story. I think most of us there were expecting to hear boxing tales – but instead we heard about how their lives had been turned around completely.

Nigel Benn was someone who appeared to have everything, having literally fought his way to the very top, along the way earning the sobriquet “The Dark Destroyer”. Yet he fell into drug addictions and had many affairs. One of these hit the papers, and led Caroline almost to despair. One morning, after dropping the kids off at school, she found herself going into an empty church where, for several hours, she wept. She left feeling that she had encountered Christ and announced as much to Nigel – who thought she was cuckoo.

Nevertheless he went along for the ride – but somehow an older Baptist pastor and his wife were able to reach into him. The turning point was when he realised that he needed to confess to his wife all the times that he had betrayed her – and he knew that he needed to do this to be free from the bondage he’d found himself in. But it wasn’t just one or two affairs – it was many. Carolyne was so angry that she threw everything at him that she could lay her hands on. For six months or so they were separated while Nigel lived with the pastor and his wife. But we could see before us the reality of the transformation in their lives since then. That, ultimately, is why Nigel Benn was far more eager to share his passion for Christ than he was to talk about boxing.

A packed audience for Nigel Benn at Trinity


Nigel Benn (with Carolyne) responding to a question from Mark Bailey, the vicar.

The preacher on horseback

"Wesley reasoning"

I’m currently reading and enjoying John Wesley’s journal… and I am absolutely astonished by how much he accomplished, the opposition that he endured, and the unwavering zeal with which he lived and worked.

Take, for example, the turbulent events of Friday Feb 12, 1748 [online here]. He rode to Shepton near Bristol, and found great anxiety amongst the people there: “A mob, they said, was hired, prepared, and made suffficiently drunk, in order to do all manner of mischief”. Unperturbed, Wesley preached in the afternoon without hindrance, “and the hearts of many were exceedingly comforted”.

He was curious about the whereabouts of the mob – but it turned out that they had mistaken the place where he would preach. They caught up with him afterwards, following him to where he stayed, “throwing dirt, stones, and clods, in abundance: but they could not hurt us”.

Wesley and his host (a Mr. Swindells) escaped inside, but the mob were determined to break in, firstly by trying to batter down the solid front door, then by breaking the tiles above. Wesley and Mr. Swindells went upstairs and started to pray. After a while Wesley was prompted to leave immediately, to which his host objected strenously, pointing out how many stones were flying around. Nevertheless they departed, and went downstairs. At this point:

The mob had just broke open the door when we came into the lower room; and exactly while they burst in at one door, we walked out at the other. Nor did one man take any notice of us, though we were within five yards of each other.

The mob were about to set fire to the house, but as one of them lived next door they refrained. Another cried out “they are gone over the grounds”, which Wesley thought was good advice, so he and his host slipped off across town. He was met there by Abraham Jenkins, who guided him to Oakhill. But this was not an end of their troubles. Jenkins advised him to go down a bank,

…but the bank being high, and the side very near perpendicular, I came down all at once, my horse and I tumbling over one another. But we both rose unhurt.

He adds drily that he arrived at Oakhill within an hour, and in Bristol the next morning.

At no stage does Wesley appear to have made life easy for himself, always being focussed on the ultimate aim of his work. Thus, throughout his ministry he was eager that those who joined the Methodist societies maintained high standards of holiness. For example, in Sunderland in 1757 he writes,

I then met the society, and told them plain, none could stay with us, unless he would part with all sin; particularly, robbing the King, selling, or buying run goods; which I could no more suffer than robbing on the highway… A few would not promise to refrain; so these I was forced to cut off. About two hundred and fifty were of a better mind.

Nevertheless he was under no illusions about what was required to enable a society to be successful. Two years later, while in Colchester, he was reflecting on what enabled a society to be successful and grow.

I found the society had decreased since L.C. went away; and yet they had had full as good preachers. But that is not sufficient: by repeated experiments we learn, that though a man preach like an angel, he will neither collect, nor preserve a society which is collected, without visiting them from house to house.

In evangelical churches in the 21st century we frequently pray for revival in this country – but are we prepared to work as hard and to endure the opposition and the difficulties to the extent that John Wesley did?

Shaping the Church

“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.

The squirrel is back…

Anybody would think I’d put the feeder at this height just for her!

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.