the art of starting out on a new mission journey…

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… or, creating liminal spaces for those ‘outside the church’

My experience, working in the main with people who do not go to church, is that people are on all sorts of different stages of a faith journey. And they by no means follow a trajectory the zenith of which is church membership – or even faith in Jesus. I have encountered a plethora of experience during my ministry, from those who have never really considered engaging in a spiritual life, to others whose decades-long quest to find a way of living in genuine relationship with the divine has resulted in a rather unusual range of beliefs and practices.

I would suggest that the church has, until now, been relatively ill at ease with this increasingly complex religious and spiritual milieu, only now beginning to wake up to the fact that there are as many expressions of faith and spirituality as there are individuals in the world. 

I have used the term “those ‘outside the church'” deliberately with a sense of challenge. For I would suggest that such an assumption – that there are those who are ‘in’ and others who are ‘out’ of the church – is, in this day and age, a questionable one.  A ‘MissionWith‘ theology – one which requires a person of faith to walk alongside others, providing a transformative presence regardless of their credal adherence – makes far more sense to me than a doctrine of election.  And in Post-Christian Britain, where we have the freedom to choose Christ or not, it seems more loving, and more Christian, to provide that narrative through example, so that others might experience it, and come to know the love of Jesus, for themselves.

This article sets out some ways in which churches might engage with those beginning a journey of faith. I suggest that congregations first spend time reflecting on themselves, both as individuals and as a congregation, to discover what delights they find in their faith, and to highlight the assumptions they bring to the table . These insights can then be used to help discern how they are being called to shape new evangelistic endeavours.

1. Asking ‘What sort of church are we’?

The first stage of preparing for missional engagement is being realistic about oneself. This is true for both individuals and congregations as a whole. It requires starting with a certain level of honesty.  There is no point coming up with an amazing but unachievable mission strategy, or seeking to attract others who won’t want to engage with the church’s particular style of theology or worship.  Some questions churches might ask themselves:

  1. Who am I/are we as a congregation? What is my/our theological tradition? What tenets of the Christian faith are important to me/us as a congregation, and to what extent will I/we want to prioritise these as I/we share our faith with others?
  2. What am I/are we being called to do through this piece of work? What do we want to achieve? Is it to extend our current worshiping congregation or start a new one, or do we simply want to attract people to think about their spiritual life? What would success look like for me/us?
  3. When will I/we want to evangelise? Will it be on Sunday mornings, so we extend our worshipping congregation, or would it be better to do something else at a different time? What time realistically fits me/us, and how regularly should we do it (one-off, weekly, monthly, to fit with particular religious, local or national festivals)?
  4. Why am I/are we doing it? Do I/we simply want new people to carry on the practices I/we love, are we trying to do something totally new, or is it somewhere in between?
  5. How can I/we do this? Are we being realistic or are we just setting ourselves up to fail? Do we mind ‘failing’? Are we prepared for what we try to not work? What are the obstacles that might prevent us achieving what we want to? And how do we follow up initial successes, enabling new sojourners to move forward in their faith journey?

It is important to stress that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  For too long congregations have been made to feel as though they should be embarking on particular programmes or strategies to which they are not suited, as individuals or congregations. In my view this achieves nothing other than leaving them exhausted and discouraged: sometimes it might have been better not to try anything at all! 

2. Creating spaces for emerging conversations and inviting others to inhabit them

It has been suggested the Hug Cullompton provides a ‘liminal’ space – a community which exists to provide a spiritual link between the outside world and the church. While I believe this view does Hug Cullompton a disservice (it is a community in its own right with its own set of spiritual practices), and a ‘them and us’ theology is particularly unhelpful, it is certainly true that there are elements of Hug Cullompton’s experience that might inform how churches create opportunities for those wishing to explore faith.  Consideration might be given to providing, either temporarily or permanently:

  1. A ‘space’ (both physically and spiritually) where questioning can take place without any assumption that there is a right or wrong answer about matters of doctrine.  This might take the form of a drop-in, a discussion group based in a cafe, a pub open-mic session (‘ask the vicar’ style event), or other contextually relevant initiative.
  2. An experimental area where different forms of prayer and devotion can experimented with outside the parameters of ‘normal’ Sunday morning worship. This might take the form of midweek meditation in a village hall, a short service in a completely different style and venue to normal, or a drop-in prayer venue in an empty shop.
  3. A space which offers opportunities to think about the person and teachings of Jesus without being expected to become a ‘committed’ church member. This might take the form of a drop-in provision, cafe or pub discussion group, or session for adults dropping off kids for uniformed organisations.
  4. An activity or group which uses a particular hobby or medium (art, film, music?) through which faith can be explored, with a particular view to attracting those already engaged in that hobby/medium. Examples of this might be an art exhibition, community production, camera club, repair cafe, book group, or wine tasting course.

One fatal error churches have made in the past (and I have too as a pioneer minister) is to assume that by creating something amazing and advertising it well, people will automatically come.  In today’s Britain, where we are confronted at every turn by a plethora of words and images, and opportunities are endless, advertisements can get lost.  And besides, it is no accident that Jesus challenged the disciples to ‘go out’ to make disciples.  If they had continued sitting in their fishing boats and simply put up a poster advertising the Christian faith, the world would be a very different place!  I have come across many congregations who believe that, in refurbishing and developing their buildings, the resultant sense of missional endeavour will result in radically increased footfall at Sunday morning services.  This is rarely the case, not because the buildings are lacking, but because the assumption that there is an intrinsic link between buildings and evangelism is fundamentally flawed.

The only way to make new disciples is by instigating, maintaining and growing relationships; and, through them, sharing faith. The way to get people to come to missional activities, be they ‘liminal’ or otherwise, is by inviting them.  The way of attracting new people into liminal spaces is to see the spaces as relational, not physical.  Jesus made disciples by going entering their everyday – he called fishermen mending their nets and spoke with a woman out collecting water; Paul insisted on setting up his tent-making stall in the local market; early Christian communities grew through conversations among people and invitations to meals.  The New Testament is full of stories about people, not buildings. It is about the transformative power of Christ’s love, not a set of doctrines or worship practices.

If we are serious about sharing the good news of Jesus’ transformative love, then we have to be willing to share it – with everyone, not just those who choose to come through the church doors on a Sunday morning, and not through the medium of advertising.

For many in churches it takes new levels of courage to share what is most meaningful to them. There are lots of specialists to advise and help. Why not get in touch with one, and start the New Year with a new determination to share the good news of Jesus?

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