James Grier explains how the Unlimited youth church begins to be seen in a new light as it becomes a BMO.
I was first appointed by the Diocese of Exeter to pioneer a youth church in the city and advise and encourage other expressions of youth church. Unlimited, which looks to reach young people who have no experience of church at all, tends to reach Sixth Form students – predominantly from Exeter College. It has been a far harder and slower task than I ever envisaged but I have been in post for four-and-a-half years now and it finally feels like we've made some headway.
We were clear from the start that we were not looking for any sort of transfer growth from other youth work in the city or even to reach non-Christian youth with existing church connections. The missional focus was, and is, unchurched youth – though ultimately we are also looking to include people of all ages.
Early in 2009 we started going out on the cathedral green where most Sixth Formers seem to spend their time, get into conversation with them and say, 'We are starting a church. What do you think about church and God?' Prayer is a very important component of what we do and our aim is to offer to pray for everyone we talk to. We ask whether we can pray for them and ask God to tell us about them. We estimate that about 9 out of 10 young people allow us to do this. Anything we sense might be from God is offered lightly and tentatively so that we are not putting anything on people unhelpfully or claiming we get infallible revelation! Nearly all whom we pray for are shocked by the accuracy of God's revelation. It means that the young people know what we're about from the outset; it may have limited the speed of growth of the fresh expression but – on the other hand – we build on relationship and that develops a strong foundation.
Two years ago we began renting an office at the back of Mary Arches church in the city centre to use as a café base. That's where we also have a worship service three Sundays a month now. We had decided that we would only start doing worship when we saw someone come to faith; now we have got two people who have been baptised and two further people also become Christians. Our worship time must be the world's most casual and informal because our aim is always to reach young people that don't do church. It's a 60-minute service, half of which involves eating toasted sandwiches! After that we have a video clip, some songs, an activity, prayer and response.
Our mission statement is 'Unlimited Church – young people encountering the God they've never met and living the difference' but ultimately we need to be church of all ages if we are to be genuinely church rather than some sort of monochrome Christian group. The young people need older people in their lives if we are into discipleship and not just conversion.
In everything we do as a church, we aim to be:
- unlimited by church culture and tradition – where it is unhelpful, unnecessary or inappropriate;
- unlimited in our openness to and love of people – treating them as unique and as God's made them to be;
- unlimited in our faith and expectation of God – living by faith not inhibited by past experience or fears.
Soon we hope to have the freedom of being a Bishop's Mission Order with the continued aim of converting the young people to Christian culture, not church culture. Lots of churches say they want a youth church but what they really mean is a youth congregation. The BMO evolved when our new converts wanted to be baptised. I asked the Bishop, 'How does that work ecclesiastically?' He suggested becoming a BMO which was wonderful – other churches in the area had initially been rather suspicious of our motives; many were also fearful that we would whisk their young people away. They didn't know if we'd parachute in and then disappear without trace as some sort of parachurch organisation or an outreach. The BMO changes that because it establishes the formal structures needed for right leadership and accountability.
Up until now I have been serving as half time team vicar in five parishes as well as spearheading Unlimited. However, from the middle of December I will be going full time in this pioneering role. My prayer is that Unlimited becomes a viable church of people of all ages which exists to reach and disciple youth who've never really had anything to do with church before.
The main challenge has been to develop a team; some started out with us but have moved away or got stuck into established churches. Thankfully others are now coming through. In future, I'd love to see more radical conversions. We have prayed for 400 young people on the streets since we started but we don't see the fruit of that all the time. I don't want to become possessive but it would be great to see more of them. We'd love to see a turning of the tide as more and more young people in Exeter discover God for themselves and are changed by him and the city changed as a result!