Exeter’s ‘Heineken’ church – five years on

Exeter Network Church made history in November 2009 when the Church of England’s first ever Bishop's Mission Order officially authorised ENC as a new form of church. Jon Soper, one of ENC's leadership team, says it gives them a 'mandate to be missional'.

Exeter Network Church - balloonIt's generally business as usual but, in saying that, I do feel a little bit different because the BMO does explain us to the rest of the Christian community. We are recognised as being part of the Church of England but not within the parish system; and by not being geographically set in one place, we do have a licence to roam, to experiment.

On the day that we became a BMO, the Bishop of Exeter, Rt Revd Michael Langrish, spoke about us being a Heineken church reaching the parts that the others don't necessarily reach. It's certainly a real bonus to have the weight of something bigger than ourselves mandating what we’re doing.

We celebrate our fifth birthday this year, and it will be a real year of change. One of the biggest of those may be to make use of St Matthew's Anglican church and hall in the city.

Currently we meet in a private girls' school but now some things could possibly operate from more of an established regional centre. The Maynard School is in its own grounds so people don't walk past the building. Previously we met on the quay and we built up strong relationships with people coming in from near and far. We need to get back to making those sorts of connections.

Also our core gathering on the second Sunday of the month at the school can involve up to 250 people so the hall gets pretty full. Some people may question us going into what is recognisably a church building. I would say that as we move forward into different premises, we should hold firm to the mission and vision that God has given us wherever we are. Where we go next will be our third place, but we are going to call it a base or a tent – not a home. Having everyone move from one venue to another means that it will be important to keep focused on what God is doing in Exeter.

Exeter Network Church - origamiWe have to look at making it a really great place without becoming vain about it; being streetwise but also gracious and humble and using the buildings as a tool. There is a small congregation at St Matthew's and they are offering a long lease on the church and hall for us to use as we like though we will keep a small area in the church where the congregation will continue to meet for their own services.

We will develop some new things too. One of the most recent initiatives has seen us partner with Christians Against Poverty to open a CAP Centre in Exeter. We’re already seeing God bring some interested people to our door and we want to see change in people’s lives. We have offices in the town but the work also goes on in people’s houses. There are enormous problems of debt and the stories that we hear are heartbreaking.

ENC has become quite a different thing to what it was even a couple of years ago – changing from one size to another means it changes how people connect with each other and to those around them. In our early days, everybody used to pitch in and do everything together; now it's so big that you can't possibly know everyone.

Exeter Network Church - singingWhatever the size of the ENC and its challenges, it's good to celebrate what God has done. Our fifth birthday will see the whole church, about 250 people, go away for a weekend to Fistral Bay, Newquay at the beginning of March. Revd Mark Bailey from Trinity Cheltenham, is our guest speaker, and we will also have worship, surfing, and a party with a band on the Saturday night.

Networking in all sorts of ways is important to ENC; and we have various groups which meet in venues across the city. Some of the networks are more evangelistic while others are created to build up faith; the networks range from a large group for 18 to 25-year-olds called Essence to social activities with Women of a Certain Age!

Exeter Network Church

Exeter Network ChurchJon and Jo Soper tell us the story of Exeter Network Church, in the Church of England Diocese of Exeter. This network church is soon to make history as one of the first fresh expressions of church to become a Church of England Bishop's Mission Order. Jon and Jo explain all.

In August 2004 my wife Jo and I moved to Exeter from London to pursue a clear call from God to start a mission shaped charismatic church. We knew one couple there who knew others who were eager to do something. Our first gathering was a party in a garden and then we found a place to meet in the old dry house on the quay opposite a nightclub. We launched ourselves properly as the Exeter Network Church, (ENC) in January 2005.

Our approach has been to develop an outward focused culture and wean people off dependency on traditional pastoral leadership. We are doing this by encouraging everyone to be in a network. A network is a group of people with a name and a God-purpose and which is radically open to the people they are aiming to connect with. These can be very diverse; one of the first networks to get going is called 'Women Who Work For Themselves' (it does what it says on the tin) who meet once a month in a hotel and who support one another in the businesses in which they are involved. Most in the network are not part of church.

Exeter Network Church - painterMany networks are social networks where you bring friends – salsa, surfing, poker; some are social action networks, such as the team which visits Dartmoor prison once a month; some are age related (children, teenagers, young adults); some are orientated towards discipling Christians, and a few are geographic, such as 'God and Chips', who showed Alpha DVDs in a chip shop during opening hours.

In addition to these, a few times a year we have 'Edge Sunday'. As a church we say we are aiming to be 'strong at the core, blurred at the edge'.  On an 'Edge Sunday' we have no worship gatherings, but instead we go out into Exeter and around, looking to express the love of Jesus in creative ways.

Exeter Network Church - ChristmasAt our last event we held a 'big giveaway' (instead of selling) at the car boot sale, which gave rise to interesting conversations, as well as having a team of people praying for people in the high street, cafes, and another team going to the prison. Some in ENC use 'Edge Sunday' to do their own personal blurred edge activity, like inviting their neighbour round for lunch which they have been meaning to do for months.

Networks and 'Edge Sunday' focus us on being intentional about seeing what the Spirit is doing around us and confidently joining in.

Since November 2007 we have been incorporated into the Diocese of Exeter and are about to be made a Bishop's Mission Order, (BMO). One of the most helpful aspects of the BMO is having a Visitor (ours is the Bishop of Crediton). He supports us, visits us at least twice a year and asks us pertinent questions which help us think through what we are doing.

Our prayer is always that God will raise up a confident, creative, passionate and determined church which will be good news to everyone who encounters it.