Greg Bartlem shares some answers to prayer at Urban Hope, Coventry.
We are now a recognised Anglican church within the diocese and are 'officially' part of the Coventry North Deanery. Final preparations are also being made for us to be made a Bishop's Mission Order; as part of which my post has also been funded on Common Tenure for five years – with potential of renewing them both.
I was asked to speak to a diocesan synod in May, recognising the decision about my future was going to be taken in June. We tried to make sure that the people who made the decision about long-term funding for us knew the stories, I had not expected that they would fund us and I also recognised that there were a lot of good things they could fund but you can only spend the money once.
The build up to this has been the encouragement of my Archdeacon, Morris Rodham, to tell the story. So I have spent the last couple of years travelling around the diocese, recounting the story of what we do – to churches, deaneries and groups like the Mothers' Union, which have been fantastic.
Lots of things have happened as a result of that, including Shipston-on-Stour deanery sort of 'adopting' us! We also took a group of 35 people to Weston-super-Mare in a trip paid for by St Peter's, Kineton, which is just outside Shipston Deanery but is partnering them with this; interestingly I've found it to be the case that churches in rural areas are looking to partner with urban ones. It's also great to know that a deanery and an individual church are holding regular prayer meetings for us.
I think what helped in all of that for me was having served as Diocesan Youth Officer for six years; the role helped me to develop some really important relationships for our long-term future.
Telling our story over and over again can be frustrating because it can feel like you do one thing and you tell five people about it but it's the key to the survival of the work. You have to have wider ownership because it will never really pay for itself. Everyone, including Archbishops and Bishops, want to hear stories of God at work and how lives are changed as a result. It's a privilege to be able to do that.
Churches give to community projects overseas and sometimes it can feel like an 'easy' way out to give in that way because the projects, issues and people are vital but they are a long way away from that church's context and culture. When something is on your own patch, it's very different – the attitude is much more one of 'we can do things together' and I think that's really mattered. Claverdon parish church, for instance, have real ownership of what we do at Bardsley youth centre and that means such a lot.
It's very much a journey, I still have a huge amount of doubt – partly as to where we are heading and if we can do it. It's important to point out that I feel a failure a lot of the time but that's often because we are working with people that have got a lot of issues and are broken.
What I would like to see in five years' time is to retain people and grow numerically (but I probably need that for my own benefit!) It would be good to incorporate a rhythm of life where we can, to help each other create a centre, a focus, of life that is more healthy, together. Within that rhythm I'd like to highlight the link to Jesus and see more lives being transformed by Him than at the moment – and I would include my own life in that.
We have been very successful in developing two very earthy projects at Bardsley and Coffee Tots; we've also been very successful at engaging people in Jesus talk but the jury's out as to what extent people are being transformed by Jesus. In saying that, it is a journey and we are all on the journey together.
On a personal level, it's really important to be accountable. I meet with the Archdeacon regularly and keeping that going is very important, I recognise that the churches don't always 'get' us but the churches that do 'get' us tend to be the more traditional ones. It has been more of a struggle with the newer churches, some of whom perhaps don't think we are a church.
I was quite protective early on about us getting involved in wider mission issues because I thought we might be stretched too thinly but now we are starting to feel we are part of something bigger. As people are gradually becoming stronger in their faith, then we are introducing them to something beyond us. Before then it felt too fragile. It's very different from church planting when you typically move, with a group of Christians, into a church hall. Admittedly, we did start with a group of people but a lot of them were non-churched or de-churched so it looked like we were further on than we were.
Ordained Pioneer Minister Greg Bartlem gives an update on the ministry of Urban Hope, based in Coventry city centre.
Urban Hope was formed three years ago in response to some existing youth work with disenfranchised teenagers at the cathedral's youth centre, Bardsley House, and our ministry with young parents at Coffee Tots – a café/parenting project.
Over the last two years, we've developed into a community of around 70 people, meeting together as a church on Sunday afternoons and on Thursday lunchtimes in the café – plus weekly communions in the youth centre. Alongside these activities, there are various home-groups and monthly Encounter Evenings for more reflective times of prayer.
What makes Urban Hope different from other churches is that it's specifically aimed at un-churched (and often disadvantaged) young people in their twenties and thirties, giving them the opportunity to help shape this new church. Our gatherings take place around meal tables with an emphasis on hospitality and Bible-based discussion, although reading ages can be quite low and there's lots of time spent together in prayer. Often our discussions are led by the young people themselves which means that no two weeks are ever alike!
Last summer, 65 of us from Urban Hope (including 10 Coffee Tots families) took part in a fantastic, residential weekend at Buckdon Towers in Cambridgeshire, where we used a variety of creative tools as worship opportunities. For example we created a prayer tree by hanging our prayers on clothes pegs in the branches of a large tree in the grounds and prayed around it each morning. We also appreciated a wonderful camp fire and candlelit compline that followed.
At its core Urban Hope Church aims to make Christ's love real to some of the poorest young people in Coventry through practical love and the transformation that can only come from knowing Jesus. Of course it hasn't always been plain sailing. The toughest point in our journey was the loss of Vicky, a 26-year-old mum and active member of the church who passed away suddenly, leaving behind a 2-year-old boy. As a church we found this devastating. Our long-term future is also a challenge as my Pioneer Leader funding is currently scheduled to run out later this year, but we are convinced that God is in this and we remain optimistic about the future.
Goth Church in Coventry began when Diocesan Youth Officer Greg Bartlem and Cathedral Youth Minister Keith Parr started to walk around the city and discovered a group of Gothic young people who met together in one particular area. Greg explains what happened next.
I began to go and join the young people regularly to chat and get to know them better. After a time I invited them to church and other youth activities going on in the area but soon discovered this approach didn't really work because they had no concept of 'church' as such.
We then decided to run a Youth Alpha course (with pizza!) for them at Bardsley House (Cathedral Youth Centre). This was well attended for the first few weeks but it was soon clear that although the newcomers were enjoying the food, they weren't connecting with the course. We were answering questions that they weren't asking and they weren't listening to what the talks were about.
We could see that the young people were responding to the love and respect being shown them and that they wanted to be there. However we also recognised a need to develop something different that fitted the culture of the young people and didn't try to 'shoehorn' them into a familiar shape of church.
So for a while we just offered space and a listening ear, realising that many of the young people were facing difficult situations at home which we began to help them with when we could. It was then that Jill Tucker, an ordinand from a more catholic tradition came to join us, and she noticed that the young people liked writing poetry and having candles and incense around them. She suggested we try the short service of Compline at the end of our meeting times.
This simple form of worship turned out to be far more culturally accessible to these young people and they responded well to it. This time developed into a great space for a new community where they could share and pray for one another. Slowly, after five years of working with this same group, the young people themselves are now the leaders of this Community time and the work has begun to take the shape of a cell church with the cells led by young people who have been discipled there.
The young people that began in the group are now young adults and so the church has developed into a mix of youth cells and young adult cells.
In 2008 we realised that as the age of the original group rose there was a lack of new young people coming to Bardsley House. So together I and the Cathedral Youth Worker decided to go back out into the city to find out where 'a new generation' of young people were gathering.
We asked local police and the City Centre Management Company for their help and they told us that there was an area close to our youth centre where a group were meeting regularly – sometimes in a very anti-social way which had caused problems.
We went to meet them on their own patch, offering cans of Coke and taking away their prayer requests each week. Slowly the conversation developed and we started to discuss issues of God and faith. We did this for 10 months. In the summer of 2009 we hosted a large barbecue; 60 young people came and they enjoyed it so much they asked us to host a party for one of their group.
The party went ahead and we issued an invitation to the youth centre. Twelve months later there were 500 young people on the books, most of whom now attend regularly. Goths no longer make up the majority of the crowd – instead there's an eclectic mix. The centre is open five nights a week and we always end the session with conversation and prayer; about half of the group stays on for that. The diocese is now actively exploring how to recognise this as a fresh expression of church with me having trained to become a Pioneer Minister.
(Images courtesy of CV One)
The development and understanding of what we mean by mixed economy of church is seen perfectly in Coventry cathedral and how it has been dealing with its duty of care and mission in the 21st century.
It does, of course have a pastoral duty to a wide variety of audiences. We could call them those who tend toward inherited expressions. But there will still be many semi-regular visitors to whom a fresh expression is their best route into the Christian paradigm. Two groups, two labels, have found a place in the flock at Coventry through fresh expressions: Goths and Hoodies. The results have defied the preconceptions attached to the demographic labels.
When it became apparent that groups of Goths (young people who listen to heavy metal music and wear dark clothing) were congregating in the city centre for want of anywhere safe to go, the Cathedral moved and found a fertile soil for evangelism.
The context might seem unlikely, but a survey of the Cambridge Gothic community suggested anywhere up to a third of 'Goths' considered themselves in some sense Christian, and as one journalist put it:
…church services are all about a misunderstood man who got nailed to a cross. They are held in a looming, bell-towered, candle-lit edifice in the middle of a graveyard. Indeed if you go catholic, you get to burn incense and drink blood, as well. By contrast, playing a bit of Rasmus looks a bit, well, townie.
At first, the cathedral was providing a place for Goths to hang out in safety; but it was soon observed that many of those taking refuge were also beginning to take an interest in church services and the church building, without really connecting. And so now, Wednesday nights, 7.45pm, they come and gather for the ancient Office of Compline, introduced in this form for their use – candles, prayer, silence, the Peace.
Utterly orthodox in its liturgy and theology, but utterly tailored in its specificity and missional context, the Goth Compline is a nuanced mixed internal economy within an expression of church.
Of more recent advent is work with 'Urban' youth, aka 'Hoodies'. Both are horridly misleading labels in themselves: to identify the young people of inner cities as characteristically angry, violent and antisocial is to misrepresent and disenfranchise them; and to associate those qualities with an item of clothing is even more bizarre and tragicomic. (As the owner of several hooded sweatshirts, perhaps I have an interest here!)
But all labels have a root: in this case, one can specially identify those from deprived inner-city areas, affected by family breakup, poorly financed education, and a fractured, crime-plagued community.
So, it seems to me, there can be nothing more in the spirit of the 2,000-year-old, adaptable Body of Christ than for it to find a place for 'Hoodies', armed with permanent markers, sketching scenes from the Gospel and writing 'Jesus Wept!' on the wall of their place at the Cathedral, before returning to a game of pool or sitting down and talking with their companions in this new community – as, perhaps, the great cathedral bells ring out as they have done in one form or another in this place for nearly a thousand years.
This story, written by Owen Edwards, was originally published in mixed economy, Autumn/Winter 2008/09.