Jeremiah 29:1-7 & 1 John 3:11,18-24
‘With & Among’
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Samuel Wells, the vicar at St Martin’s in the Fields in London, tells two stories from ministry contexts he has worked in that have shaped his thinking about the role of the church in the community. [Source: A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God by Samuel Wells, 2015, pp305-6] The first incident was soon after his ordination in 1991. There was a gas explosion in which several of his parishioners were involved. He took the bus across town each day to sit with those who were badly hurt. He noticed that several people in his congregation were quite energised. Several set about giving the house and garage of the couple most seriously injured a complete makeover and really getting the place tidy. At the time he wondered about how much of this drive to sort out the lives of the hospitalised was really about the needs of those injured, and how much reflected instead the powerlessness or sense of guilt of their friends. The couple, needless to say, had no particular desire to have a tidy house. The other story he tells is of his ministry at the Ivy League Duke University in North Carolina where he was Dean of the Chapel. When he arrived there Hurricane Katrina had just devastated New Orleans, especially the poorer quarter. He was awestruck by the generosity of heart of many people who took annual leave and jumped in minivans and headed down to rebuild houses and clear debris. He writes: “I had never experienced such an energising can-do attitude in the face of such an enormous disaster.” But at the same time he was also baffled by the immediate assumption that rebuilding houses and clearing debris was obviously what was required, and that untrained but tremendously willing volunteers were the best people to provide it. Linked with that is that there was never a conversation with the affected people about what might suit them.
These two examples go some way to highlighting a tendency in how churches go about their mission. As well-intentioned as helping people is, the decisions around what help is needed are determined by the church rather than negotiated with the recipients. To put it bluntly, it isn’t a conversation, it’s an assumption. It isn’t a posture of ministry with or among, it is a ministry at. Undergirding it is an attitude of ‘we know what you need.’ In that sense it is patronising. Of course no one means any harm, helping others is a reflex of a warm and caring attitude. It is just that people sometimes think that they are the ones who know what is best for people and they assume that what works for them is what will work for others. Over the centuries overseas mission has tended to operate on similar ‘we know what is best for you’ terms.
When it came to replacing our ‘earthquaked’ church buildings we were making our way into some new ways of thinking. We had begun to notice that the old ways of ‘here’s a church, you come to us’ weren’t cutting it anymore. This way of operating hadn’t worked all that well for 30 or 40 years but we had had enough people in our life to cushion us from the impact of change in community behaviour. After the earthquakes we were also observing an immediate reflex in many other church communities to rebuild in the style of what was there before as if it would make things come right. We began wondering if we could adopt a different posture, and take a pause in order to try to be more strategic. The idea of forming a new entity called ‘The Village’ was part of that posture shift.
With The Village concept we decided we would do our part to adopt a more open, adventurous, humble, and experimental posture. We would create adaptable community spaces to engage in a new conversation with our communities with less of ‘this is what we think you need,’ and more of ‘what might our relationships and spaces offer for a new conversation about how to do and be church?’ This far on, the answers are still revealing themselves, but I thought it might be useful to fill you in on some of our thinking and offer my perspective on how things are going.
A good part of our learning has come from the experiment of starting a Community Centre in the life of what was formerly St Stephens in Bryndwr. Nearly 25 years ago, Rev Brian Hardie gathered a small team and they began an experiment. As I understand it, English as a second language classes and pre-school music groups were the mainstay activities. Other activities began, like computer and art classes. A Presbyterian Support Counsellor did a lot of work with needy families and children at Aorangi School. The hall was refurbished to create attractive community spaces. There were a few grumps and groans and bumps and splatters, but slowly the Community Centre gained traction and began attracting the kind of community funding that enabled good management, a contribution to the costs of running the facilities, and a buoyant story to convey to the community. It also worked a kind of magic with many in the congregation who began to get involved as volunteers. Eventually the lines between the church and the Community Centre became quite blurred. People volunteering understood their involvement as a ministry, and enough of the people taking part in the activities began to identify that what they were involved in was a fresh expression of how to do church. For me, the Foot Clinic and the Clothing Shop have been two of our most significant Bryndwr projects. They both reflect deep threads of the gospel way – church people washing the feet of their elderly neighbours and a clothing shop never running out of stock like the loaves and fishes miracle. And both projects contributing significantly to the budget!
Meanwhile across the way at Papanui an entirely different but equally significant thing was happening – The Nest was quietly forging a different way of expressing Christian spirituality and creativity. To some it may have appeared to be a side-line, kind of out the back thing, because of where it operated from and that it didn’t fit traditional lines of how we do church. But the only way you get to learn how to reinvent church is to have a go at something different and a team well-supported by Rev John Hunt and others got about the business of being inspirational. When we were planning the Papanui building we decided to bring The Nest into the front space. The first glimpse any passers-by have of our space is of a room with bounce and colour. There is life there! It has taken time and patience but this year there has been some new nesting with a children’s creative arts group making use of the space. Also, Parish Council, The Midweek Reflection group and even the Presbytery Council prefer to meet in The Nest. They all like the energy and warmth of the space.
Our decision to create adaptable community buildings, even though our capacity to run everything ourselves has diminished, has invited us into an even new way of understanding community mission. Partnerships. We have begun forging partnerships with other community groups out of necessity. There are two levels to this necessity – firstly, we wanted our surrounding communities to feel that our spaces were for them – they weren’t our clubrooms, they are places for community connection. We needed our community to come in and bring their life with them. The second aspect of necessity is that we cannot afford to do church without them. Actually we never could – the church has always needed the goodwill and generosity of the community, but that need was often hidden by the ‘we are the church, we know what you need, you come and fit with us’ attitudes. Nowadays, the insurance and compliance costs of having our buildings comes to something over $40,000. We simply cannot afford to have these buildings without partnerships with other community-focused groups. One of my bugbears over the years has been the way that people at church have used the term ‘hall-users’ when describing the groups from outside our traditional church life who are operating in the spaces. Users? Only rarely have these groups been offered the spaces for free. They are contributors. They are also life-savers. Their activity in our spaces not only helps us pay for the costs of running the facilities but they also make us look better than what we are – with their help we offer a wide and interesting range of ways to seeks and build the peace of the city. They bring life and colour and energy and interesting stories. They also love our spaces and they tell their friends. The language of ‘Community Centre’ is pretentious unless the space becomes a centre for community life. That is happening more than we realise.
The ongoing challenge for us is to connect with the people who identify with our space as their space. How do we host? How do we relate? We dance with the dancers, we relate to and care for the families, we smile and encourage people of all ages, and we invite people to treat the spaces as their own. We behave in generous and kind ways. We welcome. We listen. We serve.
Here’s a list of the kinds of activities happening in our spaces. I happened to have my google diary open for the week beginning 17 November and here are the groups we are involved with either by providing or
This year we also hosted the Citizens Advice Group while their usual space was undergoing repairs.
This next year the Community Centre through its partnerships, programmes and community funding has budgeted to receive $87,000. This figure does not include the other revenue the church receives from other more occasional groups we are hosting in our buildings. This income will all contribute towards the costs of insurance, building warrants of fitness, office staff, Community Centre management, electricity, cleaning, maintenance, coffee and tea, and advertising. Just imagine us having to find that kind of resource without this significant community help! And just imagine how small our life would be without those 300-plus people doing life in our spaces in any given week!
The greatest mystery to me has been why other churches haven’t adopted a model like ours. The hardest challenge for the church these days – any church, is how to connect with the surrounding communities. We don’t have all the answers on that one, but we have many people from our communities coming to activities in our spaces and wanting to help us keep those facilities open and fresh – they want to contribute, and they value our hospitality. What a platform for connection we have!
We have a vision for The Village that is plastered on the front page of our Annual Report: To be an open, vibrant, vital, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities and play our part in the well-being of the city. This vision contains a reference to the reading we heard from the Jeremiah 29 reading. That we are to seek the peace of the city where God has sent us, for in its welfare we will find our welfare.
We can no longer do church without our communities – we can’t afford to, and we could never afford to. Our well-being is in their hands. Don’t you think that that is a curious, humble and amazing thing to work our way into as we find our way in the years ahead?