Andy Milne is on a skate journey with God.
'Oh, so you wanna go skating!' The invitation comes from professional skateboarder Mike Vallely in skate DVD, Public Domain.
Soon after the call to his dedicated followers, Vallely jumps up and runs out of his house, propelling himself straight into a boardslide down the handrail next to his door. Vallely continues to career down the street, getting ready to skate some of the most famous spots in New York. We follow him in close-up as he encounters banks, blocks, curbs, rails, steps and even a graveyard.
As he meets each obstacle, Vallely throws out his usual selection of skater specialities – big ollies, fast flat ground tricks and huge bonelesses – in his unmistakable big and bold style.
Well, we may not be in New York, but encountering God can seem like going on a fast, adrenaline-pumped skate journey wherever you are – whether that's the Big Apple, or in my case north Bradford, where young people from Sorted meet three nights a week.
Sorted's journey began six years ago as I got to know young skateboarders in the area. Good skate sessions led to conversations about the good news of the Gospel and God started to work in the relationships that were forming.
Loose connections with both skaters and non-skaters then led us to form small groups that would meet to chat about life or Christianity. These in turn resulted in many young people engaging with God. The small groups later merged into three larger groups, each with a different focus.
Just as a skateboarder senses the moment for a trick as he encounters a street obstacle, so young people often sense the Spirit as they encounter God during Monday's youth congregation when they pray for each other.
After a skate session, skaters like nothing more than to sit back and chat about what just happened. Similarly at Sorted, we like to chat about God encounters – trying to make sense of what they mean in our everyday lives. We do our chatting in small groups with the help of the Bible on Tuesdays.
Skateboarders like to invite skaters from nearby towns and cities to share in huge skate sessions so that the atmosphere is heightened and the tricks flow more freely. Sorted's Friday session brings together many other young people as well as those around earlier in the week, gathering more into the life of the community and often into the life of God.
Church Army evangelist Andy Milne gives the latest news on Sorted in Bradford.
It is a time of real change. We have been fortunate enough to have a guy working with us called Nick Lebey, an evangelist-in-training, but he is now moving on to start another fresh expression of church among young people in London. We will really miss him but fortunately we have got funding for a replacement and we hope to get someone in by September.
Another sign of change is that many people know us as the 'skateboarding church' because when we started off we did a lot of that. These days we hardly do any skateboarding at all – things have moved on in lots of ways.
There are now three Sorteds:
- Sorted 1: This was the original Sorted which is becoming a place for the young people who have grown up through it. It grew out of the work in a secondary school but the young people are now aged 17 to 22. Sorted 1 meets on a Sunday night for a social get-together; Monday night is worship night and Wednesday night for small group Bible discussions. At the moment they are just exploring, and starting to get into, young adult mission.
- Sorted 2: This grew out of a different secondary school to Sorted 1; it has been running for four years and Nick has done a lot of work in that school which has given it a very firm foundation. Sorted 2 meets on Thursday nights in small groups, Friday night is an open night for young people and Sunday night for worship.
- Sorted 3: About 40 younger teenagers from the original secondary school now meet on Friday evenings to hang out together and hear a gospel message. We plan to start a couple of small discipleship groups in the autumn in response to their requests to take this a stage further. It is provisionally called 'Sorted 3' but it could well change its name as things develop.
Last October we formed a new leadership team there, 50% of which was young adults from Sorted 1 and we started again in the very first school we worked in – Immanuel College. Most of the time there will be about four adult leaders and another six aged between 16 and 19.
We're also running a group for young parents because a lot of young adults in this area have children of their own at the age of 18 or 19. The group, called Thrive, is still in its early days but it's driving us to ask the question again, 'How do we do church with the people who have journeyed with us into adulthood?' We feel reasonably confident with what to do with them from the ages of 11-19 but how do we do things equally well for them as young adults?
Two of the parents from this group said they were happy to attend because they knew us, explaining, 'We wouldn't do it if it was somewhere else but we'll do it here'. We have known them for a long time so it's all about relationship and going to where they are 'at' rather than expecting them to come to us. These are young adults who are not only unreached by traditional church but they are, in many instances, not within the scope of local authority services either. They wouldn't necessarily want to get involved in local council parenting groups, for example. They don't feel part of that but they do feel part of Sorted.
In the long-term, we hope and pray there will be a Sorted church community for our young people and adults to take ownership of but we want it to be their mission not ours. We are the enablers rather than the direct evangelists.
There is now so much going on and we thank God for it' but it's true to say that without the support and backing of the Church Army it would have been impossible to sustain.
We have come a long way since Sorted started in 2003 with me as the one salaried employee – though my wife was very much involved as an unpaid person! In 2008 she started working part-time with Sorted and that was a great help.
As Church Army operates mission-based training teams, we became a mission-based training centre in 2009 and we are very fortunate to have benefitted from the enthusiasm and energy of several people since then, including James (Hawksworth) and Damien (Hine) who work with me now. That extra staffing has been crucial in giving us the resources to multi-plant.
I have no plans to move in the immediate future but, eventually, our aim is to try and raise up more young leaders like the ones we see now running Sorted 3. In support of that we are doing lots of training and identifying young people to put into leadership roles sooner rather than later because we try to make it clear that 'we have got to do this together, you have got to be doing things with us'.
The training course we have started is one called Play The Game which we are devising ourselves. Leaders from Sorted 1 and Sorted 2 are coming along to those sessions which take place every few weeks or so, it's very important to provide that mentoring and so identify who has the potential to be leaders.
We have got lots of ideas about what will go into Play The Game, some of it has been taken from other courses so there's a bit of Alpha in there, for instance, but we are looking to tailor it for this context and make a good, Christian discipleship course to help deepen their faith and also provide the practical skills needed in leadership. That means we'll be incorporating things like 'how to do prayer ministry' and 'preaching styles' as well as giving them the tools to be able to cope with day-to-day issues they'll come across. We want to get a good balance between developing character and encouraging gifts and skills.
Finance is another issue we're looking at. Being a Bishop's Mission Order means that we have Church Council rather than a PCC and it is mostly made up of young adults from Sorted 1. We were asked to pay a share to the Diocese and the Council said they were up for it so that's what we're aiming to do.
The vast majority of the young people we're reaching have had very little or no church background. Something that has really helped in developing the work here is to visit local churches periodically, taking two or three of our young people with us. We do a short talk and then they get asked two or three questions by the congregations who love to hear what's going on because they see young people who are coming to faith. In turn, the young adults benefit because they are meeting people who are really interested in them. It's something that encourages dialogue and that can only be a good thing.
Church Army evangelist Captain Andy Milne first launched Sorted in 2004. As a keen skateboarder he got to know the area's young skaters, many of whom went on to become founder members of the youth church in north Bradford. Now skateboarding is just one of many activities they enjoy every week, explains Andy.
We meet on Monday, Tuesday and Friday nights, and we'll see an average of 100 young people during that time. About 25 to 30 get together for the Monday youth congregation from 7.15 to 9pm but they are very active and help set up the equipment and run the whole thing really – including worship, teaching, prayer, and activities in between. The age range is 13 to 20.
On Tuesday night, we meet in a different place – at the Salvation Army – and have five different groups with anything up to 35 people there. Each group is led by two young people. Sometimes there is a discussion around a Bible passage and sometimes they work on a fund raising project but the idea is to try and provide a place where they can really talk about their faith and what they can do with that faith. It's more discipleship focused. When they get involved in leadership it really helps their understanding. If they run it themselves, they really own it and the energy triples.
Fridays will see us have a testimony, short talk for about five minutes and then different activities in the various rooms. Last year we asked the young people what they wanted to do at this session. We have to be facilitators in it – otherwise they are going to get bored. There's quite a wide age range for this one, it's about 11 to 20, and the older teens run it with some adults as well. We can get 40 or 50 people coming to that.
One room is used for things like live music sessions; there is also a café with a tuckshop, and games on offer like softball and table tennis. We have people doing dj-ing with mixing and that sort of stuff. It's amazing when you look back to see how things have grown since were first given use of a portakabin in the grounds of a school. Some of the young people have been coming to us ever since.
What tends to happen is that kids come through their friends or schools to Friday evening sessions because it's very open, accessible to anyone. Then they get to know people and when there is a bit more trust they tend to move into the other two groups.
When we started, one of the ways I was able to build relationships was through the skateboarding but it's quite a small part now. It has been good to see a lot of young people come from very different backgrounds to be part of this and I have been privileged to witness young people having experiences of God on a Monday night, come to faith and develop into leaders and disciples.
Some local churches realised they hadn't got the resources to do something similar themselves but felt they could support something that's Kingdom work by allowing us to use their buildings. They show their support for us in practical ways.
We are in the process of setting up Sorted 2 about a mile-and-a-half up the road because we realised that about 80% of those in Sorted 1 were from the same school of around 1200 pupils. The second school in the area is the sixth largest secondary in the country with about 1800 students but it is currently being extended so will be even bigger. It is multicultural and multiracial.
There was a real sense that God was asking us to go there. Then one lady had a picture of God giving us a key, opening up something that hadn't been open for some time. People were amazed when we were then invited to go in. As a result we started working with youngsters there and developing groups. We now see about 30 young people every week in Sorted 2. It’s a massive thing for us.
In the last year, a Church Army team has been drawn together to oversee the whole thing. People from local churches also act as adult volunteers for each Sorted, and it all makes a tremendous difference because the work through the schools is growing all the time.
Another exciting development for us is to be granted a Bishop's Mission Order. It means we are now seen as being on an equal footing with other churches and it also clarifies what Sorted is all about in this part of Bradford. The BMO was first mentioned about three years ago when it was noted that Sorted is not a seedbed for something else or an extension to another church. It's a church in its own right.
That could clearly be seen earlier this year when six of our teenagers were baptised by the then Bishop of Bradford, Rt Revd David James, in the River Wharfe. A further five then joined them to be confirmed and take Communion by the side of the river in Ilkley. We find that the young people often have an experience of God before they follow him. Rather than a gradual intellectual process, they often have an encounter with God and begin to make sense of it later.
Going back to where it all started, I have now written a book about skateboarding called The Skateboarders Guide to God in which I try to connect the Gospel with skateboarding mentality and language. I hope to get it published so that it may possibly help others along the way.