County Down, in Northern Ireland, is the setting for a missional community reaching out to people who feel they 'don't fit' into a traditional church context.
A group of friends, including pastors Karen Sethuraman and Gordon McDade, had a vision that was launched in a hotel in the market town of Ballynahinch in October 2010 as Down Community Church or dcc. Karen and Gordon tell of the story so far.
The vision was conceived after many years of effective community outreach by active churches. The challenge came when it consistently proved difficult to integrate our new community contacts into the life of a more traditional model of church. We used to hear the same phrase again and again, 'I don't fit in there', and so we started to ask the searching question, 'What would it be like to plant a church for people who feel they don't fit?' We've been trying to answer that question for the last three years! In the process, we have discovered that there is a vast chasm between church and community when it comes to spiritual transformation and discipleship. We have not taken in any way from the other churches in the community but are seeking to be a different kind of spiritual community with the specific focus of reaching people across the whole community who have no connection with church.
It has been a very steep learning curve for us, not least because we initially failed to appreciate how inaccessible even a contemporary expression of church with songs, prayers and a talk, could be to people with no church background. So began a season of what came to be known as 'unlearning' which proved to be both unsettling and yet creative as we explored relevance and innovation together in the pursuit of meaningful belonging and believing.
Over time, and with many mistakes, a template has evolved within our journey that enables our fledgling community to engage with God and what it means to know and follow Jesus. For us, belonging is paramount and – because we see ourselves as a family and intentionally relational – a domestic motif has emerged to help us define and develop our model of community. Our vision has been galvanised by our values of grace, acceptance, equality, creativity, generosity and risk.
The Sunday morning gathering is known as the Living Room. Set up in café-style, there is endless coffee and extensive use of visual media in seeking to be culturally relevant with a recognition of the power of story and a conversational teaching component which is dialogical and interactive. There are about 50 people connected to dcc currently and attendance can be anywhere from 5 to 30, understandable in a world where commitment in general can be erratic and changeable. We have been constantly challenged by the need to reflect on our use of language and on our understanding and explanation of the gospel.
At the heart of the community are strong friendships based on accepting one another as we are – no matter what. Down Community Church is an open community where you can be yourself and – whether on a journey with God or not – be loved and supported. That support has meant trips to hospitals, courts, pubs, drying-out wards, prisons and homes of all kinds. The good news of Jesus has transcended divisions of class, politics, gender, sexuality, age, culture and ethnicity. Failure is never final in our community.
On alternate Wednesday evenings, we hold the Kitchen; a smaller group in a home with a culture of fun and family and faith. The model is conversational as we discuss and apply bite-size chunks of Bible to increasingly hungry appetites. This is where we are seeing significant spiritual growth in the community.
We are intentionally programme-light in dcc to enable us to engage in community events and so make new connections where we are. We enjoyed learning Irish recently and made some new friends there; it was wonderful to have an Irish carol at our Christmas gathering last year. And we have held our own events, which we call 'gates' – ways – into dcc. These can be curry nights, pub quizzes, sports events; all are organised simply to meet people. We have partnered with other community groups to run a food bank, do a litter lift and reach out to families bereaved by suicide. There is no them and us in dcc, in our community everyone is us.
We have set ourselves up as a limited company with charitable status and have a small board of directors who lead the community. We anticipate that future leadership in dcc will be nurtured from within the community itself. All of us within the current leadership team have other jobs, working in A&E, in coaching and consultancy, even selling beds, to sustain ourselves.
We have experienced some hostility from local churches but enjoy considerable favour from the community, who have strongly encouraged us to stay and value our friendship. We are a different kind of church. We have hundreds of followers on social media and a number of sponsors who give generously to our mission. We have had opportunity to share our story of unlearning and innovation with many organisations and conferences and received such interest and support.
We are excited to link up with the fresh expressions movement and are keen to learn from the journeys of others.