‘Do they take sugar?’ (Frances Shoesmith)

Frances ShoesmithFrances Shoesmith asks, 'Do they take sugar?'

I've been brought up short several times in the past couple of months as I've presumed to speak for the members of our fresh expression instead of allowing them to express themselves.

The most stark example happened some weeks ago when a trainee minister from another diocese came to visit our mid-week drop-in. She'd been given the task of 'assessing' a fresh expression, and had chosen us as we are geographically close, even though our contexts are very different: we're a deprived outer estate; she'd come from a leafy rural village. She had a clipboard and lots of questions and, having arrived before the 'official' start of our session, took the opportunity to ask me and the other leaders various pre-prepared questions. Once our members started to arrive she chatted with them, but a little later was getting ready to leave and pulled me to one side to ask me a few more questions.

Her last question was: 'What are the pros and cons of your work?' to which I struggled for an answer. What are the 'cons' of living alongside people who, because they are not only aware of their material and physical needs, but are also (very refreshingly!) aware of their spiritual needs, are more ready than many in wealthier communities to welcome God into their lives and see him begin to transform every aspect of their situation?

How can it be a 'con' to see people who feel they're 'not good enough to come to church' growing in faith, and, through membership of our fresh expression, start to see the reality of belonging to the local Christian community?

To see marriages that were headed for the rocks being rejuvenated?

To support a single mother who is thinking of walking out on her young children, as she turns around and begins enjoying motherhood again?

To rejoice when a family get the loan sharks off their backs and become officially 'economically active' for the first time in years?

Her last question was: 'What are the pros and cons of your work?' to which I struggled for an answer

As I struggled to know how to answer her question, I decided to ask our members: 'What difference does Chill Out make to you?' (Chill Out is the name of our fresh expression – coined by one of our founder members, because 'This is a great place to come and chill out'.) Without hesitation, one woman spoke up: 'If it wasn't for Chill Out, I'd have been dead years ago'. She's not joking – as a recovering addict she's all too aware of her mortality and of the new life God has given her.

In a less striking example, as we went through a process of discerning our values and vision, it was the members rather than the leaders who had the clearest picture of what our fresh expression provides and how it might develop in the future.

I like to think that I'm reasonably good at being a cross-cultural missionary, from my university-educated, middle class upbringing, into this very different culture. But instances like this show me how far I still have to go.

When will I stop thinking of us as 'leaders' and 'members' and realise that we're all sinners becoming saints, journeying together, from different starting points, at different speeds, but all heading towards the same place, or rather, person?

I'm grateful to God for these lessons in humility and reality and look forward (I think!) to the next lesson. Lord, let me never stop learning, and let me always be willing to learn from those the world brands as foolish, but in whom you see wisdom and truth.

St Luke’s in the High Street – Nov14

St Luke's in the High Street is a ground breaking mission initiative, which is reaching out as a transforming presence for the people of Walthamstow. Over the seven years it has been ministering on the High Stit has become a popular draw and support to both the stall holders and passers-by at the weekly Sunday Farmers' Markets. The prayerful down to earth, practical and innovative approach of its leadership team mean it now sustains not only an effective presence for Christ in the midst of the community, but also a way into Christian faith and discipleship for a number of local people. It is a pioneering model that could easily be taken up and adapted to other similar contexts nationwide.

Bishop Peter Hill, Area Bishop of Barking

St Luke’s in the High Street – Aug13

Frances Shoesmith, Pioneer Team Vicar in the Parish of Walthamstow team ministry, oversees St Luke's in the High Street. She tells how a brand new 'Time Team' is their latest step in responding to what God is doing on Walthamstow High Street.

When I first arrived here in February 2011, it was a time of great change. Our Parish Evangelist moved to a new town and our pioneer ordinand's placement finished, so there were only about eight of us actively involved in St Luke's.

My licensing service took place in the local shopping mall because we don't have a church building. St Luke's has for some time felt called to focus on the local high street and its people. It was a gradual process but, by 2007, the St Luke's community had completely moved out of the church building and were meeting every Sunday in a high street café. The building itself was made redundant and is currently rented by a Pentecostal church. For a while we rented a house to use as a community house, but eventually we just went back to meeting midweek in members' homes.

St Luke's in the High Street - farmers' marketThe Farmers' Market in the high street has been running for almost six years and our community stall is there every week. We serve hot and cold drinks and homemade cakes, and provide a place for customers to sit, chat, have lunch and watch the world go by. We're always looking for ways to improve how the stall operates and one major change we put in place is to have a Team Leader on duty each Sunday. They are in charge from the market's 'Set Up' to 'Pack Down' and this is a great help to me because I manage the Farmers' Market on alternate Sundays and it's difficult to be responsible for running the stall at the same time.

We have a brilliant team of volunteers who enable us to run the stall come rain, come shine. Some are from St Luke's and some from other churches in the Walthamstow team ministry; it's one of the ways in which being part of a team of churches makes St Luke's in the High Street possible.

St Luke's doesn't profit financially from the stall. Once we have covered the cost of our supplies, any excess takings are donated to local charity, Worth Unlimited. In Lent 2011, we decided to stop charging for hot drinks but we still invited donations. Our takings went up; we discovered that people would rather give than pay!

But the free drinks also started drawing the men and women who hang around the town square, many of whom are dealing with various issues, including loneliness, mental health problems, addictions, long-term employment or family breakdown.

St Luke's in the High Street - teamOn Sunday mornings we have Breakfast, Bible and Chat in a local café. There used to be four to 10 of us there but, one Sunday, we offered to buy breakfast for one of the guys from the Town Square and it snowballed. We now often have around 25 people attending. Some pay, some get paid for. The wallet we keep donations in has never emptied in over a year and we take that as a sign we should keep going with this ministry. We're fairly firm about what they can order, making it clear that we're there for breakfast – not to feed them for the week.

The traditional-style café has tables and chairs fixed to the floor in fours. A St Luke's regular sits at each table and the others are expected to join in the Bible study. Some just eat; some want to share the stuff that's been going on for them that week while others get stuck into the Bible notes and even take them home to read. We tried using commercial study notes but they weren't at the right level for our people so now we write our own. We're working our way through St Luke's gospel, looking at about 10 verses a week with a couple of comments or questions at the bottom of an A4 sheet. We make sure the print size is larger than average because many of our visitors don't have suitable reading glasses.

Some at Breakfast, Bible and Chat are de-churched, some are non-churched. We also welcome Eastern Orthodox and Muslims too. Whatever an individual's background, we start from where they're at with the questions they're asking and take it from there. On one occasion, my husband used ketchup and vinegar bottles with a menu card in between them to demonstrate the Trinity and the effect of sin! Some of our visitors come for a little while and then disappear but others have been coming for over a year. If they simply come for the food, generally they soon get fed up when we insist they read the Bible with us.

St Luke's in the High Street - homeThe most encouraging thing is that many now come to our other activities. We have a monthly Second Breakfast, on the second Saturday of the month, and a Last Supper – on the last Wednesday – both of which take place in members' homes. These times revolve around food and being together. On other Wednesdays we meet for Bible Study, or to share communion, or to hear from a guest speaker from a local organisation. At our recent annual meeting, we elected one person from our 'fringe' to our Leadership Team (District Council) and another to our PCC.

We are a growing, but very fluid, community because the people coming in are quite broken. It really has been a case of 'seeing what God is doing and joining in' because we never planned to draw in the Town Square community; it just happened as a result of offering free drinks.

As a pioneer leader new to the area and the diocese, it's taken a while to build up the right support network for me and for St Luke's. I now have a small mentoring group – me, plus a Church Army church planter and one of the diocesan mission advisers. We also have an advisory group within the Parish – the Team Rector, the PCC co-chair, plus our Reader, Churchwarden and I. St Luke's would no longer have been in existence if it wasn't for being part of a Team Ministry. Two years ago when we were tiny, I don't think we would have survived alone. Having the right sort of support is absolutely vital.

St Luke's in the High Street - signMany St Luke's people also benefit from the joint parish Sunday evening service, a space to receive and be refreshed after lots of giving out on a Sunday morning. I believe that makes us a real example of the mixed economy at work, a fresh expression co-dependent with the Team Ministry.

But what of Time Team? It was an idea of mine to encourage lay leadership, an idea which we developed over a few months through a series of open meetings. We then invited people to volunteer, subsequently holding a commissioning event at the end of June in a local community hall. The team is made up of seven existing St Luke's regulars plus someone who has transferred from another church in the Parish. The idea is that we will be mutually responsible for running our activities – both existing ones and some new ones soon – and for providing pastoral care.

'Time' refers to people committing to one year, with the option to renew or leave after that time – or for new individuals to join. We didn't want people put off at being asked to sign their lives away.

It's also the start of us doing some succession planning. I'm not intending to go anywhere anytime soon, but it's important that St Luke's works towards being sustainable. As a District Church, our elected Leadership Team continues to be responsible for decisions and finances.

I suppose Time Team is instead of a planting team. If we were a church plant, a team would have been gathered and sent. But we evolved out of an Inherited Mode church, so we needed a different way of building a group to plant and sustain this fresh expression, a way for those who’ve been with us along the journey to make a commitment to being part of the vision and the future.