learning to search for common ground

two red heart decoration on ground
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

One Easter the local Baptist Church hall was transformed from preschool into Art Exhibition. On Good Friday, I agreed to steward, on the proviso I could nip out when the joint churches ‘Walk of Witness’ arrived so I could do a reading.

That morning the other volunteer steward arrived to be greeted by crowds at the door. She hurried inside, wondering what was going on.  On finding the exhibition deserted, she came out just in time to see me, sporting my clerical collar, reading the story of the Crucifixion.

Afterwards, we sat and talked. We had met through a previous Hug Cullompton art exhibition, and had become friends. Over previous cups of tea she had shared with me her childhood experiences of church – where she was told not to ask such awkward questions, and was sent off to play elsewhere as she was thought disruptive to the other children.

Her questions had, in my view, been quite typical ones. She had wondered why God should be described as a man and how ‘he’ had created the universe.  What I would consider a healthy curiosity had been deemed by her Sunday School teachers insolent.  As a consequence my friend had rejected the church, much as the church rejected her, and taken her own, rich, spiritual path, totally away from formal Christianity.

As we drank tea and ate the homemade cakes she had brought, we discussed the meaning of the Easter story. She said:

“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be sat here talking about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. Nowadays I even find myself praying to him.”

What my friend described was not a ‘conversion’ experience. That’s not what this was. Fundamentally my friend’s views had not changed. Her belief in a divine, benevolent, creative power remains, as does her passion for nature. She continues to understand Jesus as a powerful energy to whom she can pray. Her issue is not belief; it is the accompanying doctrines of the church with which she cannot identify.

I have found it is often the doctrines and practices, which we ‘in the church’ take for granted, that present huge problems for those struggling to articulate and make sense of their beliefs. Language that rolls off our tongues without a second thought can alienate and exclude, to the extent that many walk away from Jesus, rather than try to work out what they consider to be unfathomable concepts.

I have often been heard to say, “I find that what people believe tends to vary a lot less than the differences in the way they describe it.”

As fewer and fewer people associate with the Church and its way of articulating itself, missional conversations are increasingly going to require delving beneath the surface, listening for what people actually mean by the language they use.  I often find that people who speak about their beliefs in very different ways to me actually believe the same things.  If Christians are to communicate successfully what they hold dear, it is for them to step outside the comfort of their own doctrines and traditions, and listen without judging. I suspect that, if they did, they would often find they are standing on common ground.

For more about the how to go about sharing the faith in secular England, click here.


Walking the journey from despair to hope…

beach-sea-coast-sand-ocean-horizon-531737-pxhere.com… or, facing the reality that the church needs change and working out how

I remember the day I first discovered that the church in Great Britain is in decline.  The year was 2007 and I was sitting in my first MA seminar.  The module was entitled Secularisation and the Church, and on the screen was a graph charting the decline of the different denominations. The United Reformed Church (URC) line was the steepest.

I remember feeling angry. I was a relatively newly ordained minister, with a church maintaining its numbers, despite a number of deaths among older congregation members. As a church we generally blamed our lack of substantial growth on the church down the road, attendance there being a prerequisite for admission to the  local church school.  As I stared at the line-of-decline I felt as though I had been deluding myself. Our failure to attract new attenders had less to do with church school policy and more to do with societal and cultural changes to which we, as the church, weren’t responding . It seemed I had dedicated years of my life, and my future, to a failing organisation.

For the next few years debate continued on whether or not Britain had become secularised  – as though denying a truth would make it go away.  The way I see it now, even if it wasn’t the case then, we are living in a secular age – if we mean, by the term ‘secular’, an age in which British people generally no longer understand the world through the lens of formal religion.  What the sociologist Peter Berger (1990) termed the ‘sacred canopy’, under which people make meaning in England, has indeed been seriously compromised, if not fractured.

Which raises a question: what is the Church to do about it?

A book which tackles this subject is Mark Ireland and Mike Booker’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (2015).  It is a follow up to Evangelism: Which Way Now? published in 2003, which outlines and assesses a variety of evangelistic courses.

In Making New Disciples Ireland and Booker begin by acknowledging the societal and cultural changes which have impacted the church since the publication of their first book:

  • Increasing secularisation in Britain has resulted in the marginalisation of the church in public life;*
  • Britons claiming to identify as Christians are now a minority, and even fewer align themselves with any particular denomination;
  • People are less likely to join institutions of any kind, including the church;
  • Many of those who do not relate to Christianity see the Church as “repressive, sexist, homophobic and often associated with child abuse”;
  • Research has shown that Christians are less likely to attach importance to passing on their faith than teaching manners and a moral code.

*although sociologists such as Grace Davie and theologians such as Elaine Graham are arguing for the reverse of this – labelling it a ‘post-secular age’

They suggest that what they call ‘standard’ churches no longer appeal to the majority of British people.  Grace Davie suggests that, for those now into a third generation of non-participance in institutional religious life and hardly any understanding of the Christian narrative at all, Church as a concept holds virtually no relevance.

Despite all these negative facts about the state of the institutional church, my personal experience is that there is still an interest in, if not thirst for, that which is beyond human understanding.  Whether it manifests itself in going to church, performing occasional internet searches, or attending Mind, Body, Spirit fairs, I have found that the urge to identify with, and find some comfort in, a benevolent creative power and sense of an afterlife, is very much alive and well in Mid-Devon.

The question, then, is how do we harness this interest in a belief system among those who wouldn’t even consider ‘going to church’ to find the answers? An even more profound a question is, do we need to?

For Ireland and Booker the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. They are, after all, committed members of the Church of England.  Their suggested method is what might be called a ‘blended economy’ of church – a variety of different expressions, united in a relationship of mutual prayer and support:

Fresh Expressions and inherited mode churches together, listening to one another and working to see what God is doing, have the potential to grasp a new understanding of the Church of God. It is less a case of ‘traditional’ and ‘fresh’ running in parallel but separate from each other, and more one of a changing, emerging shape, with both old and new being changed by mutual understanding, respect, listening and care. The future could be a new shape of church for all of us. (pp.152-153)

Ireland and Booker are realistic about the ability of evangelistic courses, so popular a decade ago, to bring people into encounter with the church for the first time.  They suggest that people who have no church background are more likely to be attracted through being invited by someone whose faith inspires them, than by seeing a service or course advertised and being enticed in.  They also argue for a richer variety of means of delivering worship, citing Messy Church, New Monastic communities and other forms of Fresh Expressions (experimental ways of worshiping),  as valid ways of doing this.

In a society which is increasingly secularised, there is a need for the church to respond to the variety of beliefs expressed by those around us, with openness and grace. Through reading the book I have identified four key influencers for someone considering exploring the Christian faith for the first time:

  • Example: many of those who come to faith do so because they have been inspired by someone known personally to them, and want to know more about that person’s motivation.
  • Invitation: it is an immense step for anyone to walk into a church or activity which is completely unfamiliar to them. If they are invited by someone who will accompany them throughout it is made much easier.
  • Welcome: there isn’t a Christian I know who hasn’t had one of  those bone-crunchingly awful experiences of going to a new church and being made to feel wholly unwelcome.  Being accepteded and valued from the start is key to a successful introduction to church.
  • Accompaniment: the journey to faith is often a long and complicated one, made much less confusing and challenging for someone if walked alongside someone who is there to love, support and pray for them.

Making New Disciples is a great resource for those looking for ideas and initiatives to attract new people to the church.  The authors highlight the importance of prayer and spiritual development, alongside committing to following Jesus day-by-day (discipleship), and developing the habit of sharing faith with others.  At the heart of it is their assertion that the future of the church lies, not in developing church-shaped-disciples, but a disciple-shaped-church.

Suggested Reading:

Ireland, M. and Booker, M., 2015, Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (London, SPCK)

Brown, C, 2009 (2nd ed.), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (Abingdon, Routledge)

Berger, P, 1990 (2nd ed.), Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, Anchor)

Davie, Grace, “Religion in Public Life: Levelling the Ground” in Theos Think Tank, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2017/10/28/religion-in-public-life-levelling-the-ground, accessed 31/07/2018

Graham, E, 2017, Apologetics without Apology: Speaking of God in a World Troubled by Religion (Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock)

Church ‘in the thick of it’

action-administration-austria-258644.jpg..or, refocusing the core identity of the church

I recently attended a session entitled ‘Ministry on the Edge’, although I wasn’t sure what ‘on the edge’ meant. Was it working in ‘edgy’ roles, ministering to people ‘on the edge’ of the church or engaging with those on the margins of society?

I was reminded of a time I had accompanied an ex-offender to his first appointments on release from prison. I was a community chaplain at the prison, and it was my job to meet him at the gate.  During the forty minute bus journey to get to his home town, we talked.

He told about his family life. His mother was a heroin addict.  His father had left when he was three. He had been in and out of care throughout his childhood, and his oldest brother was a well-known local drug dealer.  Not visiting his brother was a condition of his release, due to the likelihood of him getting mixed up in criminal behaviour and re-offending.  Instead he was given a place in a hostel on the edge of town. When I saw it I was shocked. I wouldn’t have placed my worst enemy there, let alone someone struggling to go straight after a life of crime.  I knew he wouldn’t stay there, and I would be seeing him back at the prison in the very near future.

That piece of ministry might have been in an ‘edgy’ role with a person ‘on the margins of society’ and certainly on the fringes of the church; but, to him, that day was a pivotal moment in his life, and I was there alongside him.

One of the things I love about Christian ministry and service, in all its different forms, is the way God calls the unlikeliest of people to place those who might be considered ‘on the edge’ at the centre of their concern.  The media might represent the church as an institution preoccupied with processional activities and doctrinal wrangles, but in reality, day by day, people, motivated by their faith in Christ, are visiting the sick and lonely, feeding the hungry, supporting those who want to turn their backs on a life of crime; and bringing hope to the hopeless.

What might be considered ministry ‘on the edge’ is, in reality, ministry ‘in the thick of it’ – ‘being’ the hands of Christ.  All around the world, both within and outside the bounds of church, Christians evidence their faithfulness through faithful action.

Jesus said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.   (Luke 4.18-19)

That’s what churches do.  That’s what Church is.  While processional activities and doctrinal wrangles are both part of the rich fabric of the church, that’s not what Jesus claimed it to be about. It is by locating its core right in the thick of it, alongside the impoverished, the imprisoned, those who suffer inequality and the oppressed, that I believe the church can best fulfil its calling. In that way, we will get a better glimpse of God’s future – and the future of the church.

For more on relocating the focus of the church, click here.

Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’


Is there a difference between being ‘missional’ and ‘mission minded’?

When I first heard the term ‘missional’, I thought it was a made-up word; one of those pieces of jargon that would have its day then fade away, much like a lot of trends.

But the term is here to stay, and as time has gone on I have fallen in love with it.  One reason is that those I first heard using the term were those whose missiology (way of thinking about mission) I most respected, and whose ecclesiology (way of understanding the nature of church) resonated most with mine.

So what is it that makes a church ‘missional’, rather than just ‘mission minded’?  To my way of thinking it’s all to do with mindset. A ‘mission minded’ church understands itself fundamentally as a worshipping community, with a commitment to reaching out to others, serving them or inviting them to come and join. A ‘missional’ church is one which sets down  roots and creates identity within its cultural context; and it is developing from that context that members gather for worship and spiritual nurture.

One of the best books about being a ‘missional’ church is Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come. First written in 2003, then re-edited and republished in 2013, the premise of the book is that, for a church to be fully ‘missional’, it needs to be ‘incarnational’.  In simple terms this means that it models itself on the identity and actions of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch identity four features of the incarnation which, for them, are key to modelling a church fit for today’s world:

  1. Through the person of Jesus, God identifies with humanity, down to the smallest, seemingly most insignificant person;
  2. As fully human, Jesus’ identity was shaped, both by his context (first century Galilee) and his relationships (with Mary and Joseph, the people of Galilee, his disciples and those whom he encountered during his ministry);
  3. In Jesus, heaven and earth meet, opening up access to God for all, not just the educated or those in positions of power or authority; and
  4. In Jesus we see the human image of God – and therefore the ultimate example of whom we should follow and how we should live.

As a consequence they argue that, for a church to be missional, it should reflect these four features.  It should be:

  1. For everyone, regardless of age, social background or educational ability;
  2. Fully alongside the people with whom it minsters, engaging in, and being impacted by, their cultural context and life experiences;
  3. An experience of heaven meeting earth; where Christ is encountered in transformative, life-afirming ways; and
  4. Modelling itself on the actions and teachings of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch are critical of many forms of church, suggesting that, all too often, they “make the gospel synonymous with a bland, middle-class conformity, and thereby alienate countless people from encountering Christ.”   They even go as far as suggesting that Jesus himself might struggle to fit in with the vast majority of congregations today.  (p.58)

Instead they call for churches to adopt a way of being which is formed through relationships rather than activities.  Gathering and worshipping become the organic consequence of a growing sense of relationship, with Jesus and between one another, rather than an activity to which people who might be interested are invited.  They describe their vision for the church thus:

An incarnational mode creates a church that is a dynamic set of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances. It enhances and “flavors” the host communities’ living social fabric rather than disaffirming it. It creates a medium of living relationships through which the gospel can travel… a group of Christians infiltrating a community, like salt and light, to make those creative connections with people where God-talk and shared experience allow for real cross cultural Christian mission to take place (p.62)

When they speak of ‘cross-cultural mission’, they do not mean working with ‘others’ in foreign countries. They are actually speaking about their own – in this case Australia. The mission, which they believe is called for by God, is needed within their own communities and with people they know – the majority of whom have no knowledge of, or encounter with, the Jesus whose gospel message they so desperately want to share.

The Shaping of Things to Come might make uncomfortable reading for those who love, and are immersed in, traditional church culture – in fact it does come with a health warning at the beginning.  It is a rare person who wishes to read a book so highly critical of that in which they are so heavily invested – and perhaps at times it is over-critical. However, it does have some important observations to make, and I challenge anyone who reads it not to see merit in the radical change for which they argue.

The question remains, what are we in the church to do?  As I said at the beginning of this article, I do believe that transforming from being ‘mission minded’ to ‘missional’ is chiefly about mindset.  The challenge to us is not dissimilar to the one issued by Jesus to the disciples who were present at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8//).

When Peter discovered himself in the very presence of the Transfigured Christ, his instinct was to build a tabernacle – a dwelling place for Jesus and each of the prophets.  He wanted to stay there, keeping the experience where heaven and earth collided forever up a mountain.  But Jesus was having none of it. He insisted that the consequence of such a sacred experience was to go back down into the valley and to abide there, serving the poor, the dispossessed and those most in need of healing.

In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes that Jesus, God made human, dwelt (literally ‘pitched his tent’) among us (John 1.14). It was from that dwelling place that he sent out his disciples to be his hands in the world.  Again and again throughout Bible we read accounts of transformational encounters between individuals, about relationships forged and communities formed. They were not without issues – and at times Paul is scathing about the way some of the earliest believers treated others. But the earliest churches were, by and large, vibrant, egalitarian communities, sharing worship over meals in people’s homes; with believers and enquirers sharing something of their own, of themselves, with those to whom they were bound by faith.

It seems to me that, in The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch recapture some of the vision of the early church. Such visionary endeavour is not limited to their writing, nor to their methodology. But it is worth a read.  And it is worth reflecting on whether, in the future – or indeed in the present – we wish our churches to be ‘missional’ or ‘mission minded’.

Suggested Reading:

Frost, M. and Hirsch, A, 2015 (2nd ed.) The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)


Church and the ‘Missing Generation’…


What is it that attracts and keeps young people in church through their teens and into adult life?

As a child I remember finding church incredibly boring.  The main service was incurably dull, and Sunday School lessons always involved listening to a story then colouring in a picture to do with it. The wooden chairs were really uncomfortable and I hated colouring.  That was Church.

More formative, probably, was joining the junior choir. I loved singing. I loved belonging; and it was it through those songs that I developed an early sense of God’s love for me.

When I was thirteen a new phase of my life began. I joined ‘Sunday Club’. Sunday Club met (unsurprisingly) on Sunday evenings, and was for 13-18 year olds.  There was no faith element. We just hung out.  At the age of thirteen I went from being an outsider to being one of the big kids; and it was great.  I can’t remember there being one conversation about Jesus – but I can remember, at the age of fourteen, being outraged that millions were starving in Ethiopia while most of the kids worried about whether or not they would be allowed to have a tv in their room.

I left church at the age of eighteen. I could no longer buy into an institution which preached the words and deeds of Christ but, in my idealistic opinion, didn’t seem to practice them very well.  I also found that the childish faith I had been taught didn’t really work in my adult world.  I needed to search for meaning somewhere beyond my own limited experience. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that ‘somewhere’ was to be found in a deep relationship with God rather than in another country or culture.

I came back to church following discussions with a Jewish housemate and her Sikh friend.  They encouraged me to go, so I did.  My local United Reformed Church welcomed and loved me as I was – with all my questions and doubts; and encouraged me to take on responsibilities in my mid twenties.

Research suggests that a combination of believing in God, a sense of belonging, and being taken seriously are key factors in keeping young people in the church. My personal experience certainly suggests that. Despite the reduction in the number of ‘cradle Christians’, the Evangelical Alliance has found that there are equal numbers identifying as Christians in each generation. While I remain to be convinced that as many young people are engaging with belief in Jesus now as they were forty years ago, I do think churches can benefit from engaging with current research findings and the suggestions coming from them.

The United Reformed Church has recently published a report on the ‘missing generation’ Drawing on a variety of sources, it highlights the importance of both believing and belonging, and challenges churches to take seriously the questions and potential creativity of those in the 20-40 age group.

To read the report click here and scroll down to p.25 (marked p.23 in the Book of Reports).


forming community through (a) prayer

lords-prayer-statueThe story of the ‘Hug Prayer’

A friend recently asked me, “Why do they keep changing what they put in the Bible?”

I was confused. As far as I was concerned the contents of the Bible were more or less fixed in the second century, give or take the odd section, and a bit of arguing over the ordering of it its contents.

The person with whom I was speaking was actually referring to the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer. She couldn’t understand why the ‘proper’ one was no longer used in her local parish church. I explained the history of the Lord’s Prayer, the words of which were originally spoken by Jesus, probably in Aramaic (a dialect from the first century CE),  then later recorded in Greek.  By about the fourth century most people who could read the Bible, read a Latin translation of it.  It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the Bible began to be translated into the vernacular (national languages, including English), with what we now know as the Authorised, or King James version, being used from 1611. The version to which my friend was referring, using a modern translation from Greek into English, is the one formally adopted by the Church of England in 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer has played an important role within the life of Hug Cullompton.  In February, 2015, while we were starting to think of putting some of our values onto paper,   we decided that, rather than write a vision or values statement, we would compose a prayer, outlining our beliefs and motivations as a community.  One of the Huggers came across an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer  online.  It is written by Mark Hathaway, who describes it as “something between a poetic translation and “midrash” based on the ancient roots of the Aramaic words of the prayer.” 

Mark Hathaway’s interpretation helped us think about our own understanding and response to the words of Jesus and, after much debate (including a three month email conversation making sure we were all happy with the terminology we used), we adopted our own ‘Hug Prayer’ in May, 2015.

The process we went through might sound simple and short-lived. The reality is that the prayer was three years in the making.  Until we had relaxed into a way of being and thinking together, respecting each others’ very different spiritual views, it would have been impossible, even to open up such a conversation, much less to write a prayer we could all agree on.  The issue of the way language is used to understand and communicate ideas about faith is a huge one, which is probably why I will return to it again and again. This was a mere example of the complexity.

I await permission to reproduce Mark Hathaway’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, so in the meantime, here is The Hug Prayer without it:

Hug Prayer copy




Imaging the Church

abstract-acrylic-art-1061778.jpgI find the very different images used to describe ‘church’ fascinating.  In Avery Dulles’ seminal work he describes five models: institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant.  He suggests that no one model tells the whole story of the church, but in ‘being’ and ‘doing’ church, elements of these five aspects are at play.

Lexicographers tend to be less imaginative. The Oxford Dictionary defines church as:

  1. A building used for public Christian worship.
  2. A particular Christian organisation with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.
  3. Institutionalised religion as a political or social force.

And rightly so, for that is how the word ‘church’ would generally be defined, both by those who who associate with its institutions, and those who do not. 

The United Reformed Church’s Basis of Union (1972), its founding document, describes the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, the agency through which God’s mission is outworked in the world (Clauses 1-4).  However, its “unity, holiness catholicity and apostolicity… have been obscured by the failure and weakness which mar the life of the Church” (Clause 5).  As a consequence the Church must “ever be renewed and reformed, according to the scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (Clause 6).  

Reformed ecclesiology understands the church to be both an embodiment and exemplar of what it is to live in full covenantal relationship with God. It is also an educator to bring people into that relationship.  However it can be argued that historically the Church has struggled to meet this purpose.   In response to this paradox, theologians have developed the notion of the visible and invisible church, the visible church being that which we can see, fallen, broken and imperfect as it is, while the invisible church is the church as God desires it, perfect and in full relationship with God.

In the modern era particularly, with its focus on individualism, becoming part of the invisible church has been connected with the understanding that personal salvation is achieved through belief in Jesus Christ, with those existing outside the church condemned to eternal damnation, even though they may not realise it.

For a minister engaged in a gritty, day to day ministry to those who would be considered church ‘outsiders’, I instinctively felt that this highly theoretical concept failed to engage with the messiness of life.  I also struggled with an understanding of church, membership of which seemed to rest so heavily on one particular doctrine. One member of Hug Cullompton illustrated this perfectly the first time I met her. She said of her experience as a teenager living in the Midlands:

When I was Baptised and confirmed I saw it as the beginning of an exciting new spiritual journey.  I wanted to be challenged and I was desperate to learn more. I went to my minister, who told me I was saved, and that was what counted. I had already ‘made it’. For me that was nowhere near enough.  And that is the day I began to walk away from the church.

Today she is a person of deep faith and spiritual understanding, but none of that is a result of membership of a church.  Hers isn’t a unique experience by any means. That so many people I have encountered have wanted to explore a sense of the divine, but felt unable to do it within the context of ‘church’, truly saddens me.

I decided to search instead for a concrete theology of church and mission, scripturally based and properly thought through; one which I felt genuinely engaged with what it is to be human and in relationship, deeply or vaguely, with a creator God who is love (1 John 4.16).  I read statements from great Reformers reaching back as far as the sixteenth century, but also more current documents such as the Basis of Union, and books such as Ian Mobsby’s The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century, and Pete Ward’s Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church, both written in 2008.

Both Ward and Mobsby understand the Church to be a living organism. It is the agency through which God in Christ breaks into the world, by the power of the Spirit, incorporating God’s people gathered as one into an eternal, intertwining dance. Moving and constantly changing, and with a strong emphasis on mutuality and love, the church is a reflection of the Trinity.

This emphasis on movement and fluidity reminded me of how Vincent Donovan changed his understanding of church in the face of his experience in rural Kenya. The signifiers of the ‘visible church’ – a hospital, school and mission house – had no relevance among the population of indigenous, nomadic Masai.  The only way for Donovan to bring the Christian faith to these people was to leave the bounds, both of the mission station and his concept of the Church, and venture out, seeing where in the desert God was already at work, and attempting to join in.

My reading and reflection, combined with my experiences on the ground, helped me to realise the need to step out from within the confines of the church which had shaped me.  My aim was not to create either ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ church, but to join together on a journey of pilgrimage with a group of people, also wishing to make sense of, and give purpose to, the sense of the ‘divine embrace’ they had already experienced.  In Hug Cullompton I found just that: a group of individuals in relationship with God, albeit beyond the bounds of traditional church.  As we began to grow into a community, we became more than friends. We were people on a mission; open to the leading of the Spirit and determined to become agents of change, in the name of the God with whom we were in covenantal relationship, even though none of us would ever use that phrase.

I am not saying that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of church is wrong, I would, however, suggest that, in the light of my experience, it might be missing a clause.  To the first three I would add a fourth definition of church:

  • a pilgrimage people, an ecclesial community, located temporally and geographically within God’s redemptive plan for the world.


Suggested Further Reading

Dulles, Avery, 1988, Models of the Church (2nd ed.), (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan)

Karkkainen, V-M, 2002, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Ecumenical, Historical and Global Perspectives (Nottingham, IVP)

Mobsby, Ian, 2008, The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century (London, YTC Press)

Volf, Miroslav, 1998, After our Likeness: The Church as the image of the Trinity (Cambridge, Eerdmans)

Pete Ward, 2008, Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church (London, SCM)

‘Imaginality’ as the key to transformation


One evening in September 2011, six women met in a room in Cullompton High Street.  All of them had either been personally invited or responded to a poster in a shop window. The meeting was to explore the possibility of starting a spiritual support group “for the world, for the town, for you.”

We began by introducing ourselves and saying why we were there. All of us were interested in mutual spiritual support;  but just as importantly, we wanted to be part of a group that existed for the benefit of others.

After the introductions, we held a time of silence.  Participants were invited to pray, reflect, meditate, practice mindfulness – whatever was their habit. It lasted about ten minutes; then afterwards we shared what we had discerned.  We had a flip-chart, on which the aspirations of the group were recorded. The images we shared after the prayer time were also drawn on the paper.  It quickly became clear that Cullompton was to be focus of our energy: to bring about transformation through prayer and action.

Over the months we continued to fill our flip-chart paper with words, images, pictures and diagrams.  The image which emerged became the basis for our name (Hug Cullompton), our logo (a hug heart) and our mission (one-off projects through which we could serve and touch the hearts of others).

As an organisation our habit has been to focus on one key activity at a time: a community fair, an art exhibition for local artists, a venue for the new food and drink festival, a Men in Sheds initiative. Once a project gains momentum and a life of its own, we will bless it and let it go.  Our one exception is ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’. Each week we throw open our room, offering refreshments, hugs, friendship, holistic treatments and prayer.  In addition to our community projects, each of us has our own personal discipleship, serving the town in different ways.

One of the Hug Cullompton members likens our way of working to the ‘imago’ process through which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  The caterpillar enters the pupa, a place of transformation, enabling it to spread its wings and leave the pupa behind.  The butterfly then blesses the area which first facilitated its existence, pollenating the plants on which it once fed as a caterpillar.  

‘Imaginality’ provides a good analogy for this pioneering story.  I’m not saying Hug Cullompton should take all the credit – everything we do is in partnership with others, and there is a host of amazing people doing incredible things for the sake of the town – and anyway, we are simply joining in with what God is already doing in our community. But I do think that the way we function is worth sharing, as it is such a positive example of transformational activity.

I have learned so much from my fellow huggers: about grace, patience, dignity, generosity, inclusion and most of all, love.  We certainly wouldn’t qualify to become an official congregation of a traditional church denomination, nor would we want to.  But if ‘church’ is about being called out to be Christ in the world – about living in relationship with others and sharing the love of God – then Hug Cullompton has it sussed.

For more about how Hug Cullompton has influenced my ecclesiology, click here.