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.

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.

Taking church out of the building – and into the pubs

Carol services are a regular Christmas highlight in most places – but in the Martley area, the most fun ones are those that take place in the pubs. David has a band that comes together for this, to lead everyone in singing both carols and modern songs with Christmas themes. Thus, ‘Silent night’ takes its place alongside Slade.

Pub carols at the Admiral Rodney

Pub carols at the Admiral Rodney

So far this year, we’ve had carols at the Crown in Martley and the Admiral Rodney at Berrow Green: tomorrow night we’ll be at the Masons Arms on the edge of Wichenford.

It’s increasingly important for church to move out of the building and into the community – and this is a great example of that.

A reflective interlude

A friend, Matt Breckon, is hesitant to describe himself as a poet; but his reflection on the communion at Noak Farm leads one to think his modesty may be misplaced…

The Priesting

On a hill above Martley in the warm embrace of sun and Son
We sat to modern country feast
of offered loaves and fishes in Galilean vale

The newly priested curate rose and at the hay bale altar tore bread
              and poured a cup of haemic wine.

Broken. Poured out for you.
rural healing
An urban death.

Then interrupting introspection Holy Spirit like a duck, emerging
              from the farmhouse pond o’er the communion table sped,
a pointed arrow
an outstretched neck
Fade gleaming city temples for here God’s resplendence is.

Matt Breckon, 2013

One afternoon above Martley (photo by Nick Eden)

Above Martley (photo by Nick Eden; click to enlarge)

Church beyond the walls…

Last Saturday was both intense and enjoyable. I got ordained as a priest in the early afternoon, and then a few hours later celebrated my first communion in the open air, on the hillside above Martley.

It may seem strange to have a second ordination just a year after the first one; it’s an Anglican thing, but this one permits me to celebrate Holy Communion and to be able to take weddings. The service was similar to the one last year, but somehow it had more impact emotionally on all of us involved. This may in large part be due to the wonderful sermon given by Bishop Jack Nicholls, who had also led the retreat in Cropthorne. He has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that have a deep impact emotionally as well as spiritually.

Ordination completed: me with Hazel Charlton and Richard Bubbers, and the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge.

Ordination completed: me with Hazel Charlton and Richard Bubbers, and the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge.

Afterwards, there was a celebratory barbecue at Noak Farm, most generously hosted by Richard and Claire Bray. Their farm is on the hillside just above Martley – it’s a stunning location with amazing views. It was a relaxed gathering, and a great opportunity for the church to meet friends and family from Cheltenham. We were very fortunate to have excellent weather – which had seemed unlikely during Thursday’s downpour!

One main reason for having the event there was to be able to use it to do my first Holy Communion – using a bale of straw for the altar, and with spectacular views of Martley and the surrounding Worcestershire countryside. Although God is present within church buildings, he’s also present outside the walls, in the midst of this rural community, within the countryside which he has ultimately created. I was glad of the opportunity to express that through leading communion in that context.

For me it was an extraordinary day and one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

First communion - at Noak Farm above Martley, with the Malverns in the background.

First communion – at Noak Farm above Martley, with the Malverns in the background. (Click to enlarge) (Photo taken by Nick Eden)

First communion - at Noak Farm above Martley

First communion – at Noak Farm above Martley. (Click to enlarge) (Photo taken by Nick Eden)

Renewal in the countryside

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.

Wichenford Cafe Church

Our own Fresh Expression: Wichenford Cafe Church (Photo: Mark Wild)

Wichenford Cafe Church

Wichenford Cafe Church (Photo: Mark Wild)