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 …

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!

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)


Transforming Cullompton with a Hug

Pioneer Minister, the Revd Janet Sutton Webb tells how an emerging community’s discipleship has proved transformative in a mid-Devon market town.


‘Can we, in the United Reformed Church, do Church differently, in ways which are true to our Reformed tradition and appropriate for today’s context?’ That was the question I was tasked with answering when I first came to Cullompton in mid-Devon.

I had been appointed as the United Reformed Church’s first Pioneer Minister in September 2009 to work in the South Western synod and I moved to Cullompton in July the following year.

Hug Cullompton came about through a group which began to meet in 2011. Since then it has grown and developed its own set of spiritual practices, as well as demonstrating a high level of commitment to serving the community. Each member contributes what they can and, in return, is equally valued for their skills and talents – whatever they may be.

Each participant’s call to discipleship is outworked through their own service, supported by the other members. For example, one sings with the community choir and serves as a volunteer at the community centre. Another has amazing ideas for events which the participants organise together; a recent initiative saw £1,300 raised at a local country estate for two Cullompton Charities, Cullompton Arts House and Cullompton Swimming Pool Campaign.

As the Minister of Word and Sacraments, my contribution to Hug Cullompton includes helping people to explore the Bible, leading services – such as the annual pub carol service – and presiding at the sacraments. I feel truly valued in that calling but my position invites no more authority than any other in the group.

TRIO HUGS 554x415One member had a strong desire to offer Christ’s love and healing power to anyone who needs it. The result of this vision is Wellbeing Wednesdays when Hug Cullompton’s room is thrown open for anyone who wants a chat, cuppa, hug, or free treatment. Most members volunteer or pop in at some point each Wednesday. Rather than a concentrated act of worship, it is during that period every week when the members gather, demonstrate God’s love to others, and explore what it means to live as people of faith in today’s world.

Hug Cullompton works in partnership with a number of organisations. Initiatives tend be one-offs: a fair showcasing local talents and businesses, a community art exhibition, providing a venue for the town’s first Food and Drink Festival. Hug Cullompton organises them, shares them and blesses them, then – as one member put it – “lets them grow wings and fly”, developing or not as the Holy Spirit guides.

One Hug Cullompton member likens Hug’s way of working to metamorphosis. A caterpillar is compelled to enter a pupa to be transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The term used to describe activities relating to this entomological process is ‘imaginal’ – which seems appropriate to use in relation to Hug Cullompton. It has been transformational – not just for those directly involved, but also for the town as a whole.

When asked what Hug Cullompton is all about, another participant said without hesitation: “Four things: practical spirituality, personal empowerment, making connections and growing community.” What better definition could there be of an emerging church?’

Why inherited and new forms of church need each other

The writer of Ecclesiastes, observing the way of the world, states that…

there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is vanity.

It might be an accusation levelled at the Fresh Expressions initiative and other associated movements which have emerged over the past twenty years or so. Martyn Percy describes many of the attempts at new forms of church as ‘old tricks for new dogs’

While this might be justified in some cases, it is certainly not true of the myriad communities springing up across the United Kingdom, both within larger denominations and outside them. Their aim is to worship God, follow Jesus faithfully, and carry out mission appropriate to their current context. Whether or not what they do is ‘new’ is, to them, rather irrelevant.

In their book Emerging Churches: creating christian community in postmodern cultures (2006, pp. 44-45), Gibbs and Bolger list nine defining features of these new communities, the first three of which are outworked in the second six. Over a decade later, they still remain broadly true or have developed even further:

  1. Identifying with the life of Jesus. This might contrast with, or be additional to, self-identifying as a member of a particular church or denomination.
  2. Transforming the secular realm. Reflective of a theology which sees the work of God in all things is a desire to see an end to the distinction between the sacred and profane in all aspects of culture.
  3. Living highly communal lives. Emerging church participants tend to understand worship as a way of life rather than once-a-week service.
  4. Welcoming the stranger. This is offered without any anticipation that any new person will be expected to sign up to a doctrinal creed.
  5. Serving with generosity. Acts of kindness are viewed as foretastes of the Kingdom of God.
  6. Participating as producers. All members of the community take corporate responsibility for worship, mission and ministry.
  7. Creating as created beings. Revelling in creative acts of worship, generosity and community service, there is a strong sense among members that they are participating in God’s mission to the world.
  8. Leading as a body. Many emerging churches aim to have a flat structure and full equality among participants.
  9. Taking part in spiritual activities. Often ancient and contemporary spiritualities from a variety of different church traditions are adapted for corporate and personal use.

Continue reading “Why inherited and new forms of church need each other”