… or, how my pioneering adventure began
It is now nearly nine years since I was appointed the URC’s first pioneer minister in September, 2009. The denomination had recognised the need to appoint a theologian-practioner to ask, and possibly suggest some answers to, the question:
“Can we, within the United Reformed Church, do church differently, in ways that are true to our Reformed tradition, but also relevant to contemporary culture?”
Looking back on it, pioneering was still in its infancy then. Terminology and patterns of ministry that have now become commonplace didn’t exist. There was a prevailing attitude within the inherited church that emerging church theology was a fad and lacked spiritual and intellectual depth. The truth was, we were all just finding our way in a completely new landscape.
Although there was a job description for my post, I’d fairly well torn it apart during the interview. During my presentation I had talked about the two very different models of pioneering I had been challenged to undertake: Fresh Expressions and Emerging Church. I was very clear. I could do one or the other – I didn’t mind which, and thought both models were of equal value – but I couldn’t do both. In my head, Fresh Expressions was an initiative, a ‘thing’ to be developed within the bounds of inherited church, albeit on the fringes. ‘Emerging’ church was a methodology, a way of being in the world and doing mission which genuinely questioned how God is calling us to ‘be’ and ‘do’ church in today’s world.
The analogy I used to explain the difference between Fresh Expressions and Emerging Church respectively was entitled ‘Grandad’s socks’:
I loved my Grandad, and every year I gave him a gift for his birthday. For the first 38 years of my life I gave him the same thing: plain socks wrapped in brown paper. The number of pairs increased over the years, and occasionally I changed the colour, but eventually I decided it was time for something new. As I saw it, there were two options:
I could give him some very different socks. They could be anything from jazzy and patterned, to quite plain but a different length. They would be wrapped in a sparkly box, and appear entirely different. But ultimately they would still be socks.
I could spend a year alongside Grandad, finding out what was meaningful for him, what inspired him and what made him tick. Then we could decide together on a present for him, emerging from our joint observations. It might be that Grandad ultimately still wanted socks – but the important thing would have been the process through which we went to decide that.
We decided to go for the latter, the more radical option.
And so I moved to Cullompton, a market town in Mid Devon with a population of about 8,000. I began with research: I read, I networked, I prayed. And I walked my new patch, often with my dog, always observing, listening, waiting for God to speak. I had expected God to call me to a location where the church had more or less left town – but Cullompton was the opposite. It had a thriving parish church, with more than 400 people on the roll and three busy services each Sunday; and it had four other churches. It also had seven pubs, four beauty parlours and three alternative health centres. It seemed such an incongruous mix of cultures. I felt God calling me to a ministry in the midst of it all – to work with people who would never engage with the churches in the town, but whose interest in the spiritual was taking them on an adventure.
The rest, as they say is history. It has been an amazing adventure, the observations and learning from which I intend to share over the coming months. In the meantime, for a bit more on some of the issues we face as we prepare to reimagine church, please click here.