… creating a mission methodology for emerging new church communities
In September 2009, I sat down at my desk and tried to work out what I was going to do. I was the first official URC Pioneer, tasked with making sense of this new fangled concept ‘Emerging Church’. It seems such a dated term now, but then it was all very new. My remit was to emerge a new church community, preferably one that had some resemblance to the United Reformed Church, of which I am a minister. The question was, how on earth was I going to get started?
At that time I happened to be reading through the book of Ezekiel in my Bible for my daily devotions. I identified in him a true pioneer, someone called out by God from his religious institution, to be a lone voice in the wilderness. His actions are at times most bizarre. Yet Ezekiel is marked out by his faithfulness, and after a time of isolation he is given a vision of hope for the future – a picture of a new community, with new life breathed into it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The key turning point for Ezekiel is a vision in which he wanders through a valley strewn with dry bones, a picture of lifelessness and despair (Ezek. 37.1-14). It is God who then asks the question one might expect Ezekiel to utter: “Can these bones live?” Thus begins a cyclical process of engagement, prayer, prophecy and activity, through which the process of restoration begins.
I identified within the passage a missional process consisting of dialogue with God, intervention by the Holy Spirit, and periods of activity (movement, observation and prophecy). It presented me with a mission model holding together a close personal relationship with God, dependence on the activity of the Holy Spirit and the anticipation of transformation of a community. It held a strong appeal so I decided to adopt it.
The next stage was to decide how to start. The amazing Richard Passmore, then working with the Frontiers Youth Trust, was on my strategy group. He let me have a copy of his soon-to-be-published book, ‘Here Be Dragons: Youth Work and Mission Off the Map‘. The book suggested a nine stage process for emerging churches with young people, using a method called symbiosis.
Symbiotic youth work is an experiment in cultural mission, which holds humility as a core value, alongside the desire to learn from those we are engaging with. At a time when the notion of ‘church’ and the connotations surrounding this notion are often negative, restrictive and prescriptive, it is a reimagining of what community, informed by Shalom principles could be… It is living out, engaging in and wading into the messy stuff that is important, not just trying to bring ‘truth’ to a situation or even trying to journey to a fixed destination.
(Passmore and Passmore, 2013, pp.12,14)
For a pioneer with a mission methodology founded on prayer, discernment and allowing the Holy Spirit to work, this principle seemed a natural next step.
And so I began. After a time of observation I began to start identifying people with whom I might emerge a new ecclesial community. It was here I learned a valuable first lesson: mission cannot be hurried. All of my reading had counselled patience. Bishop Graham Cray, who was at that time the Archbishop’s Missioner, had advocated taking time to “listen to God and listen to the community”. Another very experienced pioneer for whom I had great respect advised me “not to expect there to be anything to look at for at least two years.” They were both right The activity God wanted at this stage was relationship building, not action. Ezekiel’s role is to observe, to prophesy, to speak of God’s promise, and to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the situation – not kneel down and try to identify which bones should go with which. (Ezekiel 37.1-4)
In training I had been taught to conduct a community audit. This consisted of meeting with, and talking to, key figures in the town: the vicar, the manager of the doctor’s practice, the community police, the town clerk. The Synod Moderator, who was my line manager at the time, also suggested this. Somehow this didn’t fit with a symbiotic mission method. Instead of listening to those who already had a voice, I wanted to get alongside the voiceless, hearing their stories. I attended pubs, hung out in local shops, walked my dog, took up yoga and joined the Community Association. In addition I joined a book group and started a film club. After a few months I began a pub discussion group.
And yet, after almost a year in Cullompton I still hadn’t worked out what I was ultimately there to do. I very much liked living in Cullompton. It was incredibly welcoming with lots of talented residents, all of whom had interesting stories to tell. However there were also stark contrasts in the community. Paradoxically, Cullompton was both growing and declining. It was growing in population but losing its historical identity as a rural market town.
As I got to know different people and listened to what they said, I could sense a yearning for something new to happen, for Cullompton to rediscover its heart. With a population of just over 8,000 at that time Cullompton had seven pubs, six hairdressers, several beauticians and three alternative health practices. The local surgery had just opened what it described as an ‘integrated practice’, offering complimentary as well as traditional health treatments. There was also a not insignificant minority exploring what might be described as ‘alternative spiritualities’. All of these were a stark contrast to what was on offer at the churches and there was a huge gap. It was in that gap that I felt a call to locate my mission.
In the summer of 2011 I wanted to carry out a piece of research for my MA on the spiritual activities of the town. The study I wanted to undertake was based on the research of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead in Kendal. One of my proposed research subjects was Cullompton’s Natural Care Centre. I phoned the number on the website and the owner, Sue Keeping, invited me over for a cup of tea. And, in that hour, over a cuppa and a chat, the idea for what eventually became Hug Cullompton took form.
More next time …