Matthew Firth and Andy Dykes tell how a dual ministry in Cumbria is affecting the lives of growing numbers of young adults.
Matthew Firth: I am chaplain to the University of Cumbria and minister of The Way church for young adults aged 18 to 30. I work full-time in this dual role, half with the university and half with the Diocese of Carlisle. They had worked together to form the job description identifying these two distinct parts of my ministry and – as a far as I'm aware – it is a unique appointment in the way it is framed.
My role with the University involves the pastoral care of students and staff; I also oversee chapel worship and provide opportunities for people to explore the Christian faith. The diocesan job focuses on the planting and growing of this new church in Carlisle with the aim of reaching out to people in what’s known as the missing generation, the 18-30s.
I'm now coming up to two years in the role. The first year was a learning curve of finding out how the University works, getting to know what had previously taken place through the chaplaincy and looking at how things might develop – and also appointing an intern. Andy took on that internship in September 2013 and a lot of the work has taken off since then, including that of our fresh expression, called The Way. That had started to take shape about a year ago and we are still in the very early stages but there are now signs of things moving forward.
Within the field of university chaplaincy, I find that some chaplains want to reach out evangelistically but a lot don't – some because they feel a bit hampered, maybe because of a strong secular atmosphere in their universities, but others because they feel that chaplaincy is, first and foremost, about pastoral care.
It's up to individual chaplains to say that, for them, it's also about personal evangelism. For me, it was a different situation because my role was set up with a clear evangelistic aspect – it's something that I not only believe in but it was also written into my contract of employment within the dual role.
There are two very distinct roles but one person was appointed for both and it was made clear right from the start that I would be looking at ways in which we can do chaplaincy in a pioneering way.
Looking ahead, we're very much hoping that Andy's role will be able to transition into a role for a Young Adults Missioner when the internship comes to an end.
We're so grateful for all that we've seen God doing here so far, especially with the Student Dinners project. Originally started by a local YWAM team, I got involved when they decided to pass on that mission work to us as a chaplaincy team. The dinners, where food is available for £1, attract about 50-60 students each week.
Very early on out of that we did a Student Alpha Course that attracted a little group of students who said, 'What are we doing next?' They started to meet at my house and now we have The Way on Wednesday, after the dinners, so that people can get together and have the chance to learn and discuss together.
There's now a whole network of friendship and relationship where we can share life with young adults and have lots of one-to-one meet ups. I can't report major conversions but we have seen signs of God moving in people’s lives and what we have experienced is a sense in which there is a lot of digging of the ground and getting people on the journey and on the road to discipleship.
From September, we're also planning to get together on Sunday evenings to learn and worship as a church.
Andy Dykes: I was previously working for a church in Montreal but I had been thinking that church planting was what I was called to. The opportunity in Carlisle to do work with something in its infancy was appealing. I really liked the thought of being involved right at the start of its formation. There are lots of opportunities to get stuck in and see how things progress and lots of opportunities too to be creative.
We have got some kind of solid base of students but now we're looking at the whole issue of sustainability and how this work expands to include non-students. So far our involvement with non-students has been almost coincidental. I have been trying to get to know these young adults and develop something but of course I’m employed by the University so there's a balance to be had there.
I'm trying to raise funding at the moment so that I can stay on in a new role where I can be be more intentional with non-students. I guess the plan would be to piggy back more and more on a base of student work because I feel like there is a bit of community there.
As we've been thinking about how to reach out more widely, we also have to not lose sight of our student base. It's a bit of a balancing act. A significant thing is to continue to build contact with first year students coming in because otherwise, if we neglect that, we would be on the back foot and trying to play catch-up all the time. It's vital to establish relationships with new people but keep on looking to develop and deepen those already there.
We've been looking at the possibility of getting some kind of city centre venue, maybe a café, to give us a bit of stability outside the university. Financially, and in terms of turnover of people, it may offer wider scope as we develop the work.
Matthew Firth: One of the real challengesis to know how to take these 18-30s from not having any relationship with Jesus or the church to being convinced by the gospel and saying, 'Yes, I'm a Christian'. The Student Dinners have worked really well, and they're still at the core of what we do, but we now need to see the next stage with increasing numbers of people translating their experience into an ongoing relationship with Jesus.
There's a real mixture of people in our community. Some come from church families and know the 'language' to it all; others have very little understanding and background, with only a basic knowledge about some of the stories in the Bible.
A big challenge is to walk the tightrope that this dual role creates in that we are doing this in collaboration with the chaplaincy of the University of Cumbria. It's a Church of England foundation university but, like most public institutions, a secular approach has to be wisely worked with and navigated. We also have to be aware that a specifically evangelistic element is a new thing within the chaplaincy, so questions about that have to be creatively navigated too.
Another challenge is how this sort of ministry is perceived by the wider church. As with all fresh expressions work, you tend to get a dynamic where other local churches and ministers may not recognise what you are doing as church. I think it's important to keep remembering that the church is not the kingdom; it's the vehicle of the kingdom.
What I also have to keep in mind is that half of my role is paid for by Carlisle Deanery through the giving of local church members. I make sure that I offer plenty of opportunity for others to explore, and see what I'm doing in trying to pastor and reach out and share the gospel with 18-30s.