Pastor David Swan tells how a growing community on the south side of Aberdeen is part of the Church of Scotland but is also exploring fresh expressions as part of its ministry.
I was originally a church planter with OMF International (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) in Thailand but then I felt God was calling me into the Church of Scotland. All the way through my training, I knew I wasn't going to be a traditional parish minister and – by the time I came to be interviewed for the position at Cove – I could tell them that they would be employing me as a planter rather than a church minister because my ministry was more apostolic than pastoral. I've been here for eight years now.
In Scotland, at that time, the concept of fresh expressions of church was not one we were overly familiar with though we did have the Church of Scotland's A Church without Walls report and there was increased focus on emerging ministries.
The first three years were quite challenging due to the history of how Cove Church had come into being but it has been a journey of redefining our aspirational values and asking ourselves, 'How do they work out in practice?' A key element of that was always to have 'home churches', bringing them all together on Sunday as a Gathering – which I feel is a good culturally appropriate Scottish way of talking about assembly or ecclesia.
So we now meet together in café style on Sunday mornings at Loirston Annexe in Cove and, during the week, some of us meet in smaller groups in homes in and around the town. In saying that, in Aberdeen there has been resistance to folk meeting in homes due I think to value put on privacy in this part of the world – being a Glaswegian and having worked in Asia that is something I have found hard to comprehend.
However, we now have two of these home churches and people now love and appreciate them for how they follow the model of welcome, worship, word and witness to:
- have fellowship together;
- support and encourage each other to explore what God is saying to us.
Things are changing; we are now becoming a parish grouping with our sister church – South St Nicholas – which means that we 'share' Dan Robertson as our new community minister for Cove and Kincorth. Dan began as Associate Minister for South St Nicholas Church in September 2010 and much has happened in the time that he and his wife Stef have been there.
It is interesting that, as time has gone on, the congregation has changed dramatically in terms of its make-up. Although we are part of wider Presbyterian network, they don't see their primary identity as Presbyterians – however, they would say that being part of the Church of Scotland adds a certain local credibility and gives reassurance to many that we are not a sect!
Some things have developed and then stopped, including a youth and family charitable outreach project called Blue Horizon, which we developed with 2 other partner churches. The project did much to build bridges in the community, and show care and encouragement to teenagers and the parents of teenagers. We are sad to see the project fold this year but we can see a positive legacy of relationship building that we hope we can develop towards more intentional mission. Beyond Blue Horizon we want to continue to bless, encourage and serve the families and young people in Cove and Kincorth.
On Sunday (29th September 2013) we launched a new initiative called engage to seek to bless our community in any way we can think of – we will start by welcoming people to new homes being built in the area and saying thank you to the heroes of our community. From there, we want to expand and share ideas to get out and about and be a blessing to others and worship God not just with words but by kind acts and works of service. engage will run on the last Sunday of every month and will start by meeting together at Loirston Annexe at 10.30am as usual, and then we'll take it for there.
We do have a lot going on at the moment. Our children and youth programme (Blast) meets as part of the Gathering every Sunday while our teen home church gets together every month for fun, food and an open conversation of what it means to follow Jesus as a teenager in today's world.
For the more mature in age, Seniors is a relaxed, friendly group which also meets monthly at Altens Community Centre. We start the afternoon with a catch-up over tea and coffee and have a theme for the day which is usually of a spiritual nature.
The way I describe all of this is that we are on a journey to be what we always said that we were – but we weren't. We want to be a true fresh expression of church but we're not yet.
In the Church of Scotland, we need to have a new 'language' to describe what churches like ours are doing. Some people think we are 'playing at being church' and there can be little recognition of the values involved in being a different form of church. The thinking is along the lines of, 'You are a little, experimental church but eventually you will grow up, become like us and settle down again'.
Here, the normal procedure – after a period of years – would be for us to go for what we call 'full status' but we don't want to do that as an independent church. Instead we will begin as part of a parish grouping and explore how to structure ourselves slightly differently in the way we do things. We do need to have a mechanism where a fresh expression church is recognised within the wider church – as any parish church is recognised by the wider church.
From the end of May to the beginning of July I was on a study leave programme looking at fresh expressions of church in England. During that time – and as part of a reading week in Glasgow and prayer week walking the West Highland Way – I was surprised that God was speaking to me more about discipleship and making disciples the way Jesus did. It should seem obvious that we make disciples the way the master did it – so why don't we?
At Cove, we really want to take on that challenge. What does that look like in this area in the 21st century? It's important to keep on asking those difficult questions.