Sanctuary is described as a 'safe place for British Asians or anyone interested in exploring eastern and western spiritualities in Christ.' Leader Pall Singh tells how it has developed since featuring on expressions: the dvd – 1: stories of church for a changing culture.
The story started 11 years ago when we set up a team to organise a place where people of all faiths or none could find unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness. I was already involved with the work of East and West Trust as a director and a group of us started to meet for Sanctuary services in Shirley, Solihull.
We decided on it as a venue because it is outside the main Asian areas of the city and so seen as a safe and secure place for east and west to discover Christ without losing their cultural identity. It has provided the space for people to belong before they believe and realise that Christianity is more than just a 'white man's faith'. Three years ago, Sanctuary moved 'home' to St Martin's Church in Birmingham city centre and its services take place in the Arts Café there.
Since the Fresh Expressions DVD came out, I have done some fine tuning along the way but there hasn't been any radical change as such because Sanctuary has a very clear focus and we have tried to make a strong statement with that. We used to say it was 'for British Asians, their families and friends' but now we describe it as an 'Asian-style' service. That makes it more inclusive in the sense that anyone could say, 'I'd like to go to that'. We didn't want to rule people out just because they were non-Asians.
Of course there is then a slight danger that the many people who are attracted to the eastern spirituality that we present in Christ may, in turn, become the majority and we would lose our focus on who Sanctuary is really for. There are plenty of churches in Birmingham catering for people who aren't British Asians but it's clear that Sanctuary is a fusion of the east and west and a bridge between the two in terms of culture and spirituality and ethnicity. Now we have Asian and non-Asian people attend along with those drawn from the Afro-Caribbean community.
We are confident that a person from another background can come along to Sanctuary to pray and worship with us and feel it's a safe place. I think we have tried to protect that ethos from the start. Interestingly we've found that the people who couldn't cope with Sanctuary were Christians who couldn't get their Sunday morning charismatic 'fix' as our focus was too much on people outside the Church. Sadly, as a result of this situation, some Christians left – with our blessing. For many Christians there was a false assumption that Sanctuary would be a place where people would go temporarily for six months or a year but after that they would 'become like them' and move on to so-called real church. We have tried to be consistent in our calling but it has been difficult and hard at times to keep moving forward.
Some have been with us since the start of the Sanctuary journey and they remain very committed to it. Others have joined us along the way. There are those who have really grown in terms of their faith being deepened, people who previously have had little or no experience of church outside of Sanctuary at all. It may not be a large number but they would never have fitted in a traditional church because spiritually – as well as culturally – it would have put them off. Personally Sanctuary has also become a very special place because my two sisters came along, came to faith and were baptised.
We've had people come to visit us from different places, groups or denominations to see what we do but we make it clear that we are not 'selling' a package as such and it won't work in every context. Some who have come here have been baptised, felt confirmed in the faith and then moved on somewhere else. That's fine too; we are not here to build an empire.
We are in the process of developing more culturally relevant Asian resources in partnership with groups such as South Asian Concern and CMS – particularly focusing on prayer, meditation and building the bridge between east and west. We are trying to explore different avenues because discipleship for us is not just a case of, 'Let's do the Alpha course.'
The idea is that these resources could be given to any British Asian or anyone who would connect with that style. We are in the process of doing another CD and a resource for churches to use called Seasons of the Soul. To help us go deeper in our faith in Birmingham we have a monthly, midweek Sanctuary Family Meeting at which we have a meal, discuss the way forward and study Scripture. This coming weekend at Greenbelt we will also be providing Sanctuary-style worship with the Sanctuary team. We will have a sitar player there and also offer Asian sweets during prayer as a symbolic way of explaining how Jesus brings joy into times of sorrow and pain.
Sanctuary has inspired something of a similar nature in Canada through a group of musicians called Aradhna. One of their members lives in Toronto and the group were looking at what to do there. After a trip to the UK when they came to visit us, they went to see their minister who gave them a copy of the fresh expressions DVD with Sanctuary on it and suggested it might be something they could look at developing. They said, 'But those people are our friends! We've been there…' So the whole thing came together.
I work part-time as Mission Partner with CMS and the other half of my time is spent with an ecumenical, community-based ministry, The Lozells Project. Finance is always a challenge for Sanctuary but it's not just the financial support that's needed by a fresh expression of church; it's also the prayer support. We are so blessed to have CMS Link churches pray for us around the country and they give generously towards our ministry.
In the autumn we will be looking at ways in which we can be even more effective. One of our main challenges is in developing more of a worship group. Somehow we've managed to resist the idea of someone turning up with a guitar to do Matt Redman songs but now we need to establish worship which is appropriate for us.
There is a regular team of five involved in planning Sanctuary, we meet every fortnight but there is also a second 'layer' of people involved as a core group who are very much part of the Sanctuary family. During the service we try to get everyone involved in some way in the different themes.
Another area that we're looking at is leadership and the next generation. It can often be seen that a fresh expression starts with someone who is a visionary, I was that visionary for Sanctuary and now it's a question of passing that baton on to others – not only to the team but also to others who feel they can develop in that for the future. Maybe it will be a mixture of the two; it's good to have someone home-grown from within but we've also got to have people from the outside coming in.
Support from the wider church is vital to us. We get that support from the Diocese of Birmingham, St Martin's, CMS and its link churches and Tom and Judi Walsh of The Navigators UK. On Sunday 30 October at our Diwali celebration, we're also hoping to have the Bishop of Birmingham, Rt Revd David Urquhart, speaking at Sanctuary for the first time.