Levi Santana is a pioneer ordinand at St Mellitus College. He also leads a small missional community in High Wycombe called The Valley Network.
I have been in the area for seven years as youth worker at St Birinus and St John's Church, High Wycombe. When I started thinking about getting involved in a fresh expression, the Diocese of Oxford was very keen to see how a local person could start a local ministry via the mixed mode training and stay locally for curacy.
As a result, since starting The Valley, we have had a lot of support from the Deanery which has made our work possible. They give us lots of freedom and even help pay my salary, showing their commitment to pioneer ministry. When I am ordained in 2013, I will also be able to do my curacy here which secures the next four years in the life of the Network.
When I sensed a feeling that God was calling me into pioneer ministry I had to ask myself,
What is God saying? What is the need? What does High Wycombe need as a fresh expression of church?
We decided to focus on people who live in and around the town centre in what is an Urban Priority Area and also students.
We have almost doubled our numbers since Christmas and at the moment we have around 40 people involved in our network which meets in local coffee shops for discussion groups and Bible study, and in a local Anglican church that lets us use their building for worship events. We also meet in homes, and much of our work is based at the local YMCA and University where I am a chaplain.
There is a mix of people, some were already Christians when they joined us and some are completely unchurched (although a number are dechurched).
They come from all backgrounds and nationalities – including white British, Brazilians, and West Indians. I come from a Brazilian background and one thing that's very much on my heart is the international community, I would love to see more racial interaction. I think people from an ethnic background might have felt more comfortable about coming in to the group because I look 'different' and don't fit the traditional image of a church minister. The average age of those coming along is about 25 but we have some older and younger people in the mix – we also have a few people with small children.
It all started because St Birinus and St John's had been involved in the work of the YMCA locally for a number of years. Suddenly the person that led that work left and I found myself in charge. So we went into the YMCA and offered to continue to run the games evening.
We then decided to do something on a Sunday evening and we invited the guys from the YMCA and young adults within the network of the church. It was a hit so we started welcoming people into the church building. By January 2011, we had 25-30 people coming twice a month.
It was trial and error, we didn't know what to do next but then we started to throw some worship into the mix. In the end, we did it for six months and reflected that we were trying to do too much, we couldn't do worship with non- Christians and couldn't disciple Christians by just doing social activities.
We took time to take stock and to pray and decided that we should concentrate on the unchurched and dechurched rather than Christians wanting to do something a little differently.
We started meeting in a local coffee shop, firstly inviting people from the games night. We don't use any set material but I always make it clear that I'm a Christian though people have to be free to share their opinion – whatever it is. We always start with people talking about the lowlight and the highlight of the past week. One of the girls who comes to the group is going through a sex change process so she came in and said,
The highlight of my week is that I'm going to be a boy.
She had a letter for an appointment in London to see a specialist and what struck me was that she felt confident she could share that letter first with us.
I realised then that this community was effective. We had all sorts of plans for events to reach out to students but what God was calling us to do was simply to respect them and value them and give time. As a result we have seen that group develop into a little family.
Alongside our discussion group we also identified a need for us to gather Christians together in a similar sort of setting in order to go deeper into the Bible and mission. We launched a Bible study that starts 90 minutes before the discussion group. The study is basically for Christian students and some of them stay on for the group, some of them don't.
We had also seen the development of a mums and tots cell group. From October this year we are going to open it up to the public and we hope to run it in one of the churches.
Recently we have decided to link up with Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing who are planting the Latimer Minster church in Beaconsfield; this helps to put our network within a wider group of missional communities. When I knew they were moving into the area, we met up to talk about it all because there's no point in us doing something similar or being five miles apart with no relationship. By linking up with Latimer Minster, The Valley Network will use their charity number and bank accounts and public liability insurance – all of which means that we are very independent but also accountable.
It became quite a big thing to explain over and over again what The Valley Network was all about whereas, at Latimer Minster, the church's DNA is missional and it's easier for us to be understood. They will also release things quickly into the mission aspect of the work and I think it will be a good relationship based on friendship, not structure.
We are also still linked with St Birinus and St John's as they have been very supportive of our work over the years and because we are expected to meet traditional criteria and to obey deanery and parish boundaries though, in practice, we don't function in them.
The Valley has no income from any other source other than its members, but we need more resources to fulfil the vision God has given us. For this reason we are trying to find 100 people who will pledge to raise or donate £100 over a year. This will give us £10,000 that we will use to fund our ministry, run our conferences and events, and pay for our running and administration cost.
We have a high number of musicians and artists in the community so we are exploring different styles of worship and recording some of the songs we are writing. Our first CD/EP will be ready soon and our intention is to sell our music to fund some of the work.
From October our hope is to have two Sundays a month where we meet for fellowship for a meal and Communion because I think that's where we truly become a fresh expression of church. At the moment we are clusters of mission but we haven't shared Communion together many times.
There is a lot going on but everything is done very relationally and we have seen a few young people being released into leadership which has been particularly exciting – two of them will give about 20 hours from September!
This autumn will see us host our first Missional Church Conference when we hope to engage local church leaders in conversation about reaching young adults. Debbie Orriss, Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing and Steven Cockram will talk at the October event about how churches can explore different ways of doing things within their contexts. We want to demystify missional communities and fresh expressions to church leaders and to encourage churches not to feel threatened by us because we are not sheep stealing.
It's all very exciting but there are many questions too. How can we honour the opportunities that the Holy Spirit is giving us without spreading ourselves too thinly? What are the real areas of priority and how can we make the most of them?