As a fresh expressions of church in and around Belfast, Boring Wells is a network of different communities of faith or 'wells' for people who may find the journey into the culture of church too difficult. Leader Adrian McCartney gives an update.
We have established wells in a variety of contexts, such as people's homes, a community centre, a school, around a pub community, a decommissioned church hall, and a coffee shop. Each well is a different stage of development and not every attempt has been successful.
As a complementary missional community to the inherited church structure, we work alongside parishes to:
- stimulate, initiate and create missional opportunities;
- disciple and support pioneer leaders and help them work alongside existing church programmes.
We constantly aim to reach those who sit outside those programmes but we don't have a hidden agenda for trying to get them to go to a church somewhere. Instead the idea is that we allow and encourage faith to grow among them, seeing a community of faith develop in their context and for it to be expressed in whatever way that is. Some of the communities have developed a side to them that looks quite like a church type thing; others are way back on the journey and don't look anything like a church-type thing.
But we believe there is a journey in this and there's an exploration so we're working with all of them in that. They are all led by lay people who are self trained and self motivated but, because there are a growing number of people who want to do these things, we feel we have to support them more because most of them have probably come from church backgrounds where there was support and fellowship and belonging.
We have something called The Gathering which is a fortnightly opportunity for anyone associated or interested in any wells' activities to get together for worship, teaching and sharing. That takes place in St Colman's Church Hall, Dunmurry. We also have regular worship evenings in the home of wells' members.
A well called WOW is based in a school for teenagers with severe and profound learning difficulties; it is probably the best thing we do. It started when the parents of some of these young people told us that it was too difficult to take them into a traditional church environment. The name of the well comes from the question, 'What does Jesus say when he sees you walking in the door?' The answer is, 'WOW!'
The most recent well that we've been working on has developed in an interesting way. In the middle of 2011, another church closed in Belfast – St Christopher's, Mersey Street – with three parishes being amalgamated into one and two sets of church buildings closed down. I contacted the rector of the new 'conglomerate' and asked him, 'How are you going to cope with all of this? It creates an enormous inner city parish'. He said, 'We don't have the resources to do hardly anything'.
It was then I asked if he would let us bring a team of people to one of the disused sets of buildings. In early 2012 he gave us the go-ahead and we moved a crowd of people from another area of the city to meet there. St Christopher's is in the streets of terraced houses that were homes to the workers for the Titanic; the yellow cranes of the now defunct shipyard are landmarks in the area. The people who moved to St Christopher's fresh expression had started with us in a pub and then went from there to a school building – but we discovered that the well didn't work because we started doing services on a Sunday morning and all we gathered was disillusioned Christians from other places and that wasn't the aim. The aim, as always, was to reach people outside, beyond the edges of the church.
Then, in late 2011, one of our guys said, 'Remember how we circled the wagons when we settled ourselves here to do church? It's time to put the wheels back on the wagon…' So put the wheels back on and moved the whole congregation down to inner east Belfast into an empty church building.
Our Bishop told us that the one thing we were not allowed to do was Sunday morning services. We thought, 'Well, that's OK because we now know that having Sunday morning services is exactly what we shouldn't be doing to start something!' Instead we have started a Messy Church, set up our own version of a foodbank called The Larder, organised craft/sewing mornings and provided second hand clothing – and been involved in a lot of community action in one way or another. We are loosely calling it 'The Larder, The Stitch and The Wardrobe' because CS Lewis grew up in this part of Belfast.
Now people have begun to gather, to become a new community of faith, and it's been really exciting to see something begin to flourish again in a place where it felt like the tide had gone out but actually the tide is coming in.
Boring Wells is a network of fresh expressions of church in and around Belfast. Each has a very different flavour but all share the same vision and core values. Adrian McCartney explains more.
Genesis 26 tells the story of Isaac who pursued the vision passed to him by his father, Abraham of re-opening old wells and digging new wells, sources of life and prosperity for anyone who chose to live close to them.
The collective vision of Boring Wells is to continue the legacy of faith in the Church of Ireland, to re-open old wells in old places of faith and to open new wells where there are signs that a new community could be expressed. The hope is to bring life and the presence of Christ to local communities who may have difficulty connecting with church.
Our ideas of what the church is like are fairly well culturally shaped and even when we apply scripture to them we tend to default back to something like it has always been. Wells is no different mostly. We are trying to be the family of God. If there is any difference it is that we want to be shaped by the mission and by those whom we engage with rather than predetermining the result.
We originally thought that we were to reopen old wells but then we found that we were re-digging wells where the church had gone a bit dead. Since then the main emphasis has been to try and open up new wells.
I am a Church of Ireland minister but I came out of parish ministry in 2003 when the Bishop of Down and Dromore gave me permission to plant a church in a commuter village on the outskirts of Belfast. We quickly discovered that trying to do that among unchurched people just didn't work in that area.
I had taken a year to recruit a group of people. Initially there were 35 of us who started meeting in a pub in Moneyrea. We organised a Sunday service but not one unchurched person ever came to it! We threw everything at that service; we had projectors and sound and lovely coffee and nice things to eat. We also had lots of visitors from other parishes, saying, 'O we'd love to do this' though there was always the underlying thought, 'This just looks like we are moving the existing church around.'
Then we read the Mission-shaped Church report and we began to consider how we do church and it became something that wasn't quite what the bishop or any of us had expected. Questions like 'when are you going to build the buildings?' became irrelevant. We had to say that we weren't going to be doing it that way any longer. Defining ourselves in a way that can be accommodated within a diocese when we cross parochial boundaries, and even diocesan boundaries, has been an ongoing challenge both for us and the diocesan head office.
Our main problem was, and is, that people find it difficult to recognise anything except the parish. We don't have the equivalent of a Bishop's Mission Order in the Church of Ireland so most people see us as something between a parish and a mission agency. The way we have moved forward is to become a company limited by guarantee with a charitable basis. We have a board of directors and have to submit our audited accounts to the Charity Commission. This allows us to have charity number but it doesn't give us any status within the Church of Ireland even though we would very much like to be part of the diocese. Representation at Synod and financial support are ongoing discussions.
Five wells, our attempts at creating mission shaped communities, go to make up the Boring Wells network. We found that people had a sense of call in different sorts of areas – not geographical as such but among certain groups of people. The wells each decide how they express church individually but we have a general sense of how the whole family of Wells expresses their love of God together. The wells are called Tinys, Resound, Shankill, Elk and Networks.
Within a year of us starting, we set up Tinys. It all happened when we were running that service in the pub; one night we simply came across a crowd of teenagers drinking on the windowsills of a row of shops. In time, we rented one of the retail units as a coffee shop for young people; there was no way those youngsters would or could transfer to the Networks church – then known as Moneyrea Wells. We needed to let them do something to express their experience of Christ where they were in their own way. That was quite a learning curve for the first group of people who had thought that what they were originally offering was a fresh expression of church only to discover that something very different was happening with the people who actually lived in the place.
We released some people to go and make Tinys their spiritual home. The original group of people now call themselves Networks. They have a non-local sense of connecting primarily with their natural contacts in work and through friendships. Members of Networks are now praying about the possibility of gathering somewhere closer to the city.
The bishop gave me an opportunity to work in two inner city parishes part-time. These small congregations are very elderly but we have found that the Networks group (about 30 of them) have been very supportive of those congregations who have actually come to like them.
Resound was originally a small outreach in an interface community comprising two working class estates on opposite side of a main road in Dunmurry on the outskirts of Belfast. There are two large secondary schools, one Catholic and one Protestant, and some community facilities that have been made available to Resound for youth activities. In the summer we have a fortnight of non-stop activities; the first week is aimed at primary school children – this year we had 400 children and young people every day with 73 leaders. In the second week we had over 100 teens daily. The regular Resound meetings, comprising a Sunday night session and drop-in stuff during the week, are organised by the late teens/early 20s.
The Shankill well is all about people serving in the area, a place at the heart of sectarian paramilitarianism. The Summer Madness festival started Streetreach to offer an opportunity of service to the community. Every summer for five years we used to take teams of people to do street cleaning and gardening in different parts of the city. Growing out of that was a group of people who had a strong sense of call to go and serve in Shankill itself. One couple have moved to live there.
Shankill well has a meal together every Monday evening. They are trying to be very simple in what they do, developing friendships from around the area and trying to incarnate the gospel in natural ways.
Elk well meets in my local pub in Dundonald, not far from Stormont. Our team get together on Thursdays to join the weekly quiz night. Friendships have grown and relationships have developed in a away that has allowed for many opportunities to share in prayer and care for this growing group of people.
All of our network team leaders are pioneer types and so are now really struggling with what to do when communities do start to grow. Launching out in mission has an excitement about it. Discipleship and pastoral care are the balance. The challenge for this autumn is come up with a better support system for those who make up the mission teams and the new family members who are becoming part of us. We presently organise a monthly gathering for worship and teaching supported by resources for small groups. None of this is easy and everything always feels quite fragile. As St Paul said, 'I am certain that He who began this good work in you will bring it to completion…' I pray that the Lord will help us to keep going.