the problem with the word ‘church’

DIEWoUzWsAAqMfHA few years ago my husband and I went to visit the ‘Sagrada Familia’, in Barcelona. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and begun in 1882, it is as famous for being unfinished as its magnificent architecture.

Consecrated despite being unfinished, it is intended as a place for people to go and praise, pray, learn and reflect.  Gaudi himself said, “La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work in the hands of God and the will of the people.”

The Spanish word for ‘church’ is iglesia, derived from the Greek word κκλησία (ekklesia). Like the English term ‘church’, iglesia is used to describe both a place of Christian worship and the community of people who meet there.

However, for the earliest Christians, ‘church’ was never about buildings. They met in each other’s homes (Col 4.15; Philemon 2) to break bread, pray and worship together.  Each day they would go about their daily lives, telling others about what they were learning and experiencing as followers of Jesus (Acts 2.41-47). They were κυριακός (kuriakos) – meaning they belonged to God – the term from which ‘kirk’ (Scottish) and ‘church’ (English) are derived. And if the book of Acts (2.47) and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (1.6-10) are accurate in their depiction of how their example impacted on their wider communities, as a way of life it was irresistible.

These ekklesiae (plural of ekklesia), as the churches were known, were not only irresistible in the way they demonstrated love, generosity and grace. They were radical too.  The term ekklesia, literally translated, means ‘the called-out’.  In Jesus’ time it was a term routinely used for an elected civic body in the Roman Empire. By adopting it for their own use, the earliest Jesus-followers were demonstrating that they were already operating as organised groups. More notably, they adopted an egalitarian structure which was, at that time, totally counter-cultural. There was no distinction between slaves and free citizens, women were as likely as men to lead the churches, and Jewish believers had parity with Gentiles (non-Jews). Most importantly and radically of all, they refused to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god – and that was what really marked them out and set them apart from others.

I dearly wish we had two words for ‘church’ – one for buildings and one for communities – but we don’t.  The Sagrada Familia teaches us that there is nothing wrong with the awe-striking magnificence of an iglesia/church – after all, our ability to appreciate such beauty is a gift from God.  But there is more to ‘church’ than draw-droppingly beautiful buildings. As Christians we are called to ‘be’ church – shaping our lives as Jesus taught and the early disciples demonstrated: to love God with a passion, and to live in community with an attitude of generosity and grace that others just won’t be able to resist.

To read about a theology of church based on love click here.




a theology of church based on love

614921_511521685528553_1599187832_oThe Bible passage Acts 2.42-47 provides an inspiring description of the way of life practised by the earliest Christians. There is a strong sense of mutuality, and the faith, hope and love of the believers is an example to everyone around them:

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Of course that will not be the whole story. The writer of Acts will either not have known about, or chosen not to highlight, the tensions which invariably exist among a group of humans coexisting in the world.  But one striking thing about the description of the earliest Jesus-believers is their commitment, both to each other and to introducing this amazing new way of life to others…

… A way of life powered by love.

Luke’s outline of early Christian life seems so simple, and yet Ecclesiology, the study of the church, is anything but.  There are many different interpretations of what constitutes ‘church’ – how it should be understood in the light of Biblical interpretation, and how heavily influences such as tradition, experience and culture should be allowed to impact on beliefs, structures and styles of worship.

Yet I would argue that, at the heart of all ecclesiology, from whichever perspective it is done, is the basic understanding that the church is the outworking of God’s love for the world.  It is a covenant relationship, between the God who created and loves us unconditionally, and a people committed to living in response to that love.  As John Bradbury writes in his book Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Reform and Renewal:

God is in relationship with the whole of the world in that God has actively called the world. The church is that which, through the activity of the God who brought it into being, proclaims this vocation or calling to the world and proclaims that the world is also called into the church. (2013, 78)

Similarly Brian McLaren, in his 2016 book, The Great Spiritual Migration, defines the church in covenantal terms:

“God’s love is non-discriminatory… God loves us not because we are deserving and lovable but because God is loving, without limitation or discrimination” (2016, 46-48).

The logical consequence of this, he argues, is that those who follow Jesus should also demonstrate this love, both in everyday encounters with those around them and through “embedding love in meaningful ritual”, whether that be in formal worship or other meaningful activities (54-70).

However both Bradbury and McLaren argue that this covenantal identity is often sacrificed at the expense of doctrine and ritual, with the church focusing on protecting and reproducing itself rather than existing as what McLaren calls a movement based on love (21-24).  Indeed Bradbury states:

Holding onto the church for the sake of its institutions, structures and even perhaps those inside of it is not the vocation of the church. The church in the present context simply must stop worrying about its survival. It is not there to survive. It is to be there for the world. (216)

The understanding of the church as, first and foremost, a covenantal community based on love, certainly resonates with the experience of Hug Cullompton. I would suggest that there are three ways in which we demonstrate it in our own particular way.  None of them are rocket science, indeed I am simply showing our take on what most churches already do; but I have been to some in the past where I have struggled to see any of them practised, and sometimes it is good to state explicitly what instinctively we already know.

  1. Being actively welcoming

Hug Cullompton welcomes people from a variety of different spiritual backgrounds and encourages the asking of questions. Our modus operandum might be described as Radical Welcome:

Radical welcome is the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of the Other… [It] is concerned with the transformation and opening of individual hearts, congregations and systems so that The Other might find in your community a warm place and a mutual embrace…

(Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, 2006, 1)

Although we do have a room in the High Street, our organisation is associated more with our activities and community initiatives. Our weekly meeting, Wellbeing Wednesdays, is an opportunity to experience love and learn about faith and spirituality through informal conversation rather than formal worship. Those who join us tend to walk alongside us rather than becoming advocates of a particular set of doctrines.  

2. Communicating God’s Love

We are tasked, not only with providing an environment where people can experience God’s love, but also communicating it. We are committed to providing a safe space, where no question is unacceptable, and no concept is beyond being explored. 

We also recognise that those starting to think about faith or spirituality after a break of many years, or for the first time, will probably have discovered ideas and experienced practices from other religions as well as other continents.  In reality many of those ideas replicate, or even predate, teachings of Jesus and doctrines of the Church.  For example Jesus’ teaching,  “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6.31 and parallels) can be found in a whole host of religious teachings including Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Janism and Native American spirituality.  A symbiotic conversational method (one which presupposes that neither party has all the answers) will enable both parties to make connections as they learn more about each other’s beliefs and about God. 

3. Sharing God’s Love

John Proctor, the General Secretary of the URC, during his opening address at the 2016 General Assembly (their national meeting) summarises this well:

We are not in this for ourselves. We are in it to make a difference, for Christ’s sake, among our neighbours, in our localities, through our personal living, by the pattern and values that shape our life together, and by the love, care, respect and compassion we have for the people around us.

From the outset Hug Cullompton’s stated purpose has been to show God’s love  in very practical ways; through prayer and community initiatives and occasionally by inclusion in projects further afield.  Whether it is to support the festival life of the town, promote art and culture, or assist individuals setting up in business, Hug Cullompton is committed to creating alliances and developing partnerships which allow the Holy Spirit to flow and bring an experience of God’s covenantal love to the town. In doing so I believe we can give Cullompton a glimpse of the true promise it shows as a community of people created and loved by God. 

There is far more that can be said about ecclesiology – and it is a subject I expect to return to several times in the coming months.  I have, in the past, been accused of not being radical enough with my suggestion that emerging church is actually all about love. But I do believe it’s true.

For me it’s about experiencing and sharing the transformative love of God, demonstrated in the words, works and ways of Jesus. The ‘ologies’ – theology, ecclesiology, missiology, soteriology and the rest, are simply tools to help us work out the best way to do it. And at some times they are more helpful than others!

Suggested Reading

In the Bible: Matthew 22.35-40, John 3.16-17,  Acts 2.42-47, I Corinthians 13

John Bradbury, 2013, Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Reform and Renewal (Edinburgh, T&T Clark)

Brian McLaren, 2016, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (London, Hodder and Staunton)

Stephanie Spellers, 2006, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (New York, Church Publishing)


Learning the art of intentional listening

adolescent-converse-all-star-converse-all-star-1021145Recently I responded to the Facebook comment of someone at an early stage of pioneering.  He said he was concerned he wasn’t being productive enough. I understood exactly what he meant, so I responded with this:

I remember that phase so well – there’s only so many times you can walk the dog, sit in a coffee shop or try out yoga before you start wondering whether you’re being a fraud. The answer is, you’re not – and that bedding in time is essential if you are going to do something truly contextual.

When I was at ‘minister school’ we were trained into expecting to work huge numbers of hours.  In practice a lot of us seem to feel we haven’t done a proper job until we have worked ourselves to the bone, collapsing, exhausted, on a Sunday evening, wondering how we ever managed to get through the week.

So when we go to a pioneering role, it seems to be against our very nature to do what is most required: listen, wait and pray.

The reality is, that initial phase is essential.  If growing church is all about building relationships, then it cannot properly emerge without first forming them. I remember in the early days, writing reports full of endless possibilities. I was desperate to prove I wasn’t sitting around idle. Every time I met someone interesting, I dreamed about what a new church community might look like with them in it. I was bursting with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, and I wanted to provide my strategy group with measurable outcomes.

But they were wise enough to insist I put the breaks on; that I spend more time listening, learning and praying. My strategy should simply be that.

Eight years later I am so thankful my strategy group made me do it. For one thing, what has emerged, the amazingly wonderful Hug Cullompton, looks nothing like any of my original suggestions. But more importantly, I can see how the time spent getting to know my town and its residents has borne fruit long term.  I have unwittingly become a networker, a facilitator and a resource mediator in the town. When God inspires us to do something, I already know who we need to speak to and how to get it done.  And  I see, reflected in the sense of love and reciprocity we have fostered, the mutuality of the Trinitarian God who is the “source, guide and goal of all that is“.

There is a a retired minister of a different denomination who apparently goes round saying that I don’t do anything. Well I guess, in his understanding of ministry, I probably don’t. I don’t fill buildings with singing congregants for an hour on a Sunday morning. I don’t spend my time visiting members of my ‘flock’ or threatening people with impending doom unless they ‘give their life to Christ.’ But I have accompanied individuals through their darkest hours, supported people coming out of prison, prayed for and with people who have told me they are atheists, and even suggested to the odd person that they might benefit from attending church!

And it is in that relationship building, in being Christ’s hands in the world and sharing God’s love with a level of intentionality, that I experience ‘Church’ – being done, being experienced, being lived.  It may not be the life to which I thought I was being called when I candidated for ministry in 1998, but it’s definitely the one God wants for me now – and I love it!

To read more about the methodology I adopted for pioneering in Cullompton, click here.

In the footsteps of Ezekiel…

fullsizeoutput_138e… 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 …

Starting to see the church through the eyes of others

A few weeks ago I went to the County Show with my husband and daughter. It was a massive event. Although we were there over six hours we really didn’t get to see everything.  

One stand we visited was the ‘Churches Together‘ area.  It was a wonderful haven in a sea of very expensive attractions. There were free refreshments, a band playing, a ‘mini-ring’ set of bells to try, children’s activities area and a bouncy castle.  After having a quick look at the stalls (all Christian organisations) I found a place to sit in the large, cool barn area.  I looked around. On the wall was a screen with a rolling set of Christian images. Banners adorned the walls.

It felt a bit like being at a church coffee morning.

As I sat, I wondered. What was the target audience for this area? Was it aimed at Christians, or at anyone who would benefit from hospitality? It was well thought through, and certainly it was an excellent attraction for families with young children.  But I wondered how attractive it would be to those unfamiliar with church culture.

The genuine difficulty for Christians attempting to reach non-Christians is that we find it very difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of somebody who isn’t one; and because we are so used to being comfortable in our Christian subculture, we forget that non-Christians may well respond very differently.

As an Emerging Church Pioneer my remit has intentionally been to step outside the institution of the church, journeying alongside those who would never engage with the churches where I live. Part of that journey has included learning to live in a culture which, for me, was very foreign – one where people don’t do church, think church, or speak church.

To do evangelistic mission successfully in today’s context requires first, recognising the state that the church is in, then (perhaps after spending some time in mourning) committing to do something about it.  A major aspect is learning how to speak about Jesus without using Christian jargon.  It’s not always easy, and may well require sacrifice.

But it is also important to remember that it is not without precedent. Christianity is a faith which should, in human terms, have died on Good Friday.  But ours is a story of fall and redemption, death and resurrection, despair and hope. It is a story of a God who loves all of creation, who became incarnated in Jesus, and who passionately wants the faith, hope and love of those who follow him to play their part in redeeming the world. 

And following Jesus never was meant to be comfortable…

To read more about communicating Christianity in a strange new world click here

Communicating Christianity in a strange new world

fullsizeoutput_138cHave you ever thought about the sheer strangeness of the church? As an institution it has so many particularities: the way its customs are practised, the terminology that is used, the many assumptions made about all sorts of things, from the beliefs one must have to the way furniture is placed.  While these things are food for the souls of many regular churchgoers, to those visiting for the first time they might seem, well, just plain weird.

Pioneers wrestling with trying to breach the gap between church practice and common cultural experience tend to use the language of “unlearning”.  However, as one Hug Cullompton volunteer pointed out, “You don’t want to unlearn everything you believe. What you need to decide are those things on which you won’t compromise, then stick to them. Everything else becomes open to discussion.”

Existing missionally in the gap between a clearly defined set of Christian doctrines and the experience of people who have no knowledge of, or background in, the church, has had interesting ramifications for me.  To be open to encounters with people outside the church, and managing not to not baffle them with Christian language or concepts, requires a level of generosity in hearing – not only people’s faith stories, but also their attempts to articulate their beliefs.

As I have listened to, and conversed with, people in the community who have no historical association with the Christian faith, I have realised two things.

  1. Many of their beliefs are similar to mine, but they either have no language to articulate them them or do so in terminology that might be described as ‘folk superstition’ or ‘alternative spirituality’. 
  2. For people to sense that I value their beliefs, they have to feel I respect them, whether I agree with them or not. 

I therefore decided on a personal policy of never telling anyone they were wrong.  I could disagree with them if I felt it would be helpful, but I couldn’t disrespect them.

People experience the divine in different ways, and have profound questions about the meaning of life. But often they struggle to articulate these thoughts and experiences, and feel as though there is nowhere they can safely explore them. For many with whom I have walked this journey, the story of Jesus is as foreign as the Greek Classics, and the last place they would look to find meaning is the church.  Some consider it a bigoted and outdated institution, others have had negative childhood church experiences, some reject the church because of the way it is portrayed by the media; but mainly, they just see Church as an irrelevance that has nothing to do with them.  To turn the tide requires walking, not only into today’s culture as it is, but trying to do so whilst looking at the church through the eyes of someone else.

A fascinating reflection on speaking of Christ into a foreign culture is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered (1970, 2nd ed. 2001). Donavan was an American Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to the Masai Mara in Kenya.  He arrived at the church compound, with its huge church, hospital and school, all virtually empty. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “They don’t come,” was the reply.  Disconsolate, Donovan tried to work out why the Masai didn’t want free education or hospital treatment, and why they didn’t come to church. Eventually he decided the only way to find out was to ask them.

Donovan bought an old truck and headed out into the desert. When he located the Masai, a nomadic people who existed using centuries old practices, he joined them.  Over a period of time they told him about their god, ‘Engai’.  Donovan heard elements of his own faith reflected in these descriptions, and gradually he was able to begin speaking about Jesus.  He told them about God made human, a God present with them there in the desert, a God who is love.  Donovan’s ministry did eventually result in the emergence of a Masai church community. But they never did develop the habit of visiting the compound. The European culture they experienced there was just too foreign to them.

Donovan’s is obviously an extreme example of inculturating church into a culture utterly different from his own experience. However, what he learns about meeting people where they’re at, and communicating the gospel in a way they can understand, provides a useful reflective tool for those wishing to work with people who have never ‘been to church’.  Where we go, how we live and the way we speak all have implications – and unless we can speak into our culture in a way those we want to hear can understand, the prospect of success is always going to be limited.

So how do we go about equipping ourselves to take on the task?  There are all sorts of resources: books, websites, training courses.  Here are a few:

  1. The London Institute of Christianity has a huge number of free resources for those wishing to start thinking about sharing their faith in the community.
  2. The URC’s Walking The Way initiative has lots of helpful suggestions of how to develop a whole-life sense of discipleship, including sharing one’s faith.
  3. The Church Mission Society publishes a variety of devotional texts and courses on the theme of mission and discipleship.
  4. Robin Greenwood’s book, Sharing God’s Blessing: How to Renew the Local Church, has great advice for churches.
  5. Aimed particularly at those working with young people, but which is just as relevant to anyone wanting to communicate Christianity to those with no church background, is the excellent Here be Dragons by Richard and Lori Passmore.
  6. If you’re looking for a good survey of a number of well known resources try Mike Booker and Mark Ireland’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism.
  7. For inspiration you could try Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration.
  8. If you’re only going to read one thing to challenge and inspire you, do read Vincent Donovan”s Christianity Rediscovered. You won’t regret it!

It is my belief, however, that you can’t ‘learn’ talking into a culture from a book, however good and worthy that book is.  The only way to do it is by getting stuck in: go out into the world, listen to what people are talking about, and respond. For those not used to explaining their faith it might sound really difficult – and to start with it probably will be. But I promise, it does get easier.

A few weeks ago I was conversing with a deeply committed Christian who wasn’t used to speaking about her faith. She asked how she might do it.

My response was, “Practice. I assume you are here (at church) because it makes a positive difference to your life.” she nodded. “I assume you’d like others to experience it.” She nodded again. “Well, they’ll never know that unless you share it with them. So why not just be honest and tell them what it is about being a Christian that’s so great?”

I haven’t seen her since. I wonder how she’s getting on!

Grandad’s Socks

… or, how my pioneering adventure began

People42It 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.

or: –

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.

harsh realities or new opportunities?

Preparing to Re-imagine church for today’s culture

The title ‘Pioneer Minister’ formalised a grass roots movement which had been emerging across different church traditions since the late 1990s. It was also a response to the publication of the Church of England’s ‘Mission Shaped Church’ report (2004). The report acknowledged the declining number of people in England participating regularly in Sunday worship, and highlighted the need to develop fresh new approaches to address it.

At around the time the Church of England instituted the Fresh Expressions initiative to facilitate experiments in new forms of church, the URC created a special category ministry post of ‘Emerging Church Pioneer’.  The job description stated that  “many initiatives referred to as ‘Fresh Expressions’ are in practice a re-packaging of existing understandings of God.” It stated that there was a need to “release someone with practical theological gifts to wrestle with what God might be calling us to do within contemporary British culture… a researcher and practitioner who [could] gather a community and enable them to engage creatively in a journey of faith.” The aim was “for the URC to push its own understanding of what it means to be a church,” and to ask 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?”

My task when I was appointed was to re-imagine church.  I believed then, and still do, that before we can begin to re-imagine church for the future, it is necessary to understand current realities.  I also believe that, unless we respond to the changes in our culture, the future of our churches is in peril.

I would also like to suggest, however, that it is not all bad news. What is fading away is a model of church fit for a past era. In fading away it makes way for a new one, more relevant to today’s context and to generations of potential followers of Jesus.

So first let us recognise some of these harsh realities; but also explore what opportunities they present us with:

  • Decline in British church participation has now reached ‘critical levels’. 
    The Faith Survey has shown that the percentage of the British population now attending church on a given Sunday is 4.8%.  Traditional denominations such as the Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed churches are all seeing a substantial reduction in numbers, with many closing (, 19/12/17).
    There are examples amongst both ancient and new forms of Christian community which are growing and thriving. Those brave enough to tackle the issue head on and think creatively are attracting a new generation of Christians.  Messy church, cafe church, forest church and new monastic communities are just a few of the current ‘brands’, although they are certainly not accounted for in church attendance statistics. Even less likely to be included in such statistics are the many small ecclesial communities such as the Grace Community in London, faithfully living out their calling, on the fringes of the denominations which spawned them, but entirely outside the margins of statistically-measurable church attendance. Still more beyond the bounds of measurability are the informal ministries of those like Mike Walsh in Manchester, who are growing communities and sharing a faith adventure, but not through formal worship. I might even be counted among them!


  • Most children are growing up in a Britain where neither their parents nor grandparents went to church.
    While churches struggle to maintain their traditional structures and worship practices in the face of reduced human and fiscal resources, even more profound a change is the absence of any true sense among the majority of the population of what it might mean to be a ‘Christian’.  For most British people, the habit  of ‘going to church’ has not entered their psyche, and they know very little about Jesus or the Christian faith.
    Although this sounds depressing, it does present the church with an opportunity.  When I was growing up, the media and those around me were hostile to Christianity, and often practising Christians were hesitant to admit it. However, in the past decade I have found that has changed. Most people outside the church, with whom I converse about faith, do not have enough experience or knowledge of Christianity to accept or reject it.  They simply have never encountered it.  This experience has turned my assumption – that I would meet hostility when I talk about Jesus – on its head.  In fact, most people I meet are either mildly interested or somewhat fascinated by what I have to say.


  • The impact of technology and how people process new information. Technological developments have transformed access to information, and the sheer volume of ideas to which people are exposed. Adults under 50 are likely to have been educated, and drawn their ideas from, a wide range of sources, using a variety of research methods (Bradbury, 2013, 202-205). These paradigmatic changes have had a genuine impact on the church’s ability to offer worship and teaching at a level, time and in a style, which are relevant.
    New technologies open up exciting new ways to learn about Jesus, explore ancient and contemporary spiritualities, and develop healthy and vibrant worship lives. Those willing to embrace creative ways of worshipping and grow communities of love which enable human flourishing are thriving. They simply look different to the church of the past.


  • The impact of the way people form relationships and build memories
    A transformation has taken place in the way people form relationships and the way they build memories, both personally and socially. The sociologist Val Gillies suggests that increased freedom from traditional gender roles and familial ties has seen people replacing a sense of “social obligation” with “negotiated intimacies” (2003, 9). Meanwhile while the rise in exposure to other cultures, opportunities to live and work in different places, and the ability to befriend people who live remotely, has resulted in changes in how people perceive kinship ties.  John Bradbury suggests that changes in the way people remember means that shared traditions are at risk of being lost as they lose relevance in today’s world.  At the heart of this is the loss of interest in, and respect for, buildings, structures, institutions, and doctrines (2013, 202-205).
    There is still a need for a sense of belonging, whether that is as part of a local church community or something less traditional, such as a monastic or dispersed community, such as the Northumbria Community, or a community gathered round a subcultural interest, such as the Christian Motorcyclists Association

I recently took part in a plenary, the final question of which was: ‘If you could give one piece of advice to people wanting to grow the church, what would it be?’  One panelist said, immediately and without hesitation:

Go and make a friend, someone you wouldn’t normally be friends with. You are the church, and its only by YOU being in relationship that the church will grow.

An important part of the church’s story is its self-identity as a people living in relationship with God, united with those who have come before those yet to come. Buildings, structures, institutions, worship styles and even doctrines are not what makes the church.  What makes the church is people – in relationship.  In my view it is this that will carry it through the times of remarkable change in which we live.


Suggested Further Reading:

John P. Bradbury, 2013, Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Renewal and Reform (Edinburgh, T&T Clark), especially pp.175-187

Church of England, 2004, Mission Shaped Church (London, Church House Publishing)

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, 2013, The Shaping of Things to Come (2nd edition) (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)

Val Gilles, 2003, Family and Intimate Relationships: A Review of the Sociological Research (London, ESRC), accessed 5/6/18

Brian D. McLaren, 2016, The Great Spiritual Migration (London, Hodder & Stoughton)

Stuart Murray, 2018, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (2nd edition) (London, Wipf & Stock)