‘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.

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.



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.

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

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.

Tug boat or cruise liner?

... or why inherited and new forms of church need each other

Cruise Liner

While I was in the process of being introduced to a church as their prospective minister,  I awoke one morning with an image of a tug boat floating alongside a cruise liner.

The prospective church was a large, traditional one in a wealthy area. The people were lovely and the job interesting, but I really wasn’t sure why on earth God might want me to go there. I was used to being part of a small, innovative community, where traditional forms of worship and structured management patterns were a misnomer. What did I have to offer a flagship church, and why on earth would they want me?

During my prayer time later that morning God spoke:

“You are currently captain of something that is equivalent to a tug boat. You know your waters, you have control of the tiller, and you can choose exactly where you go and the route you will take. The prospective church is like a cruise liner. It is large, unwieldy, and will take ages to change direction. All the passengers and crew already know where they want to go and how they expect to get there. You have the ability to be captain of either vessel – it is your choice – but be under no illusions as to the nature of the job you are considering, and choose wisely.”

As it turned out, the introduction went no further. It was the right decision on both sides. But it gave me food for thought.  At present I am content being the captain of a tug boat. I know my context, I love my job and I can be of real value in the place where I am.

But the picture stays with me – possibly because in my image the two vessels are attached to each other, and necessarily so. The purpose of the tug boat is defined by its association with the cruise liner, while the cruise liner would struggle to leave harbour without the tug boat’s help. In the same way the church needs both flagship congregations and small, experimental ecclesial communities. One without the other would lead to an impoverished church.

But let’s face it, not everyone wants to navigate the oceans in a tug boat…

Click here to find out more about: Why inherited and new forms of church need each other.