Rob Ryan, an Ordained Pioneer Minister, starts out building a fresh expression of church in Rochester.
On September 6th I was ordained in Rochester Cathedral. I have an elaborate job title of 'Pioneer Curate'. I am the curate on the staff of the cathedral and I am being trained in everything that a Church of England curate needs to be trained in – such as learning how to deacon at the Eucharist, process, preaching, funerals, baptisms and so on. For some Anglicans that would be normal stuff, but coming from my 'low church' background of St. Mark's Gillingham alongside around 14 years of working with Youth for Christ it was quite a culture shock. Despite the shock, this part of my role is very well structured and so ticks along quite nicely.
As an ordained pioneer minister my remit is to connect with people in the community in various locations with the hope that within 4 years, which is the maximum possible length of my curacy, we will have developed a new expression of church, a new missional community. Although this is an exciting opportunity, and one I grabbed with both hands eagerly, none of us really knew how to go about doing this as we were looking to start from scratch. A number of fresh expressions seem to start by using a group of Christians to plant something new in a new area. Although I see merit in that approach I felt God was calling me to do something different in order to reach the unchurched of this area and build some form of fresh expression of church.
I have had a dream for a good few years; a dream of connecting with people who long, maybe are even too scared to dream, of church being a place which really connects with people outside, but also with themselves. People who dream of a church where differences are celebrated, where diversity adds to the community's flavour. They are not worried so much about what people believe, but more concerned about how people believe: how they live out faith, how they are Christ-like. People who don't care so much about worship style, but rather, are interested in something that's authentic and enables them to connect with God where they are emotionally and spiritually.
Such people really do believe Christianity is a journey, and that we can all exist at different points on the road, or even off it, with no fear of condemnation. They long for a community that does not judge a person by how they look, sound or by what they believe. They want to see a community that loves and has people at its heart rather than a programme that must be delivered. They believe a community should be one that meets throughout the week to enjoy relationship with each other and with God, which is not restricted to any one day or meeting. They are willing to pay the cost that comes with developing relationships and want to see this as a place where people belong because they are connected and on the journey, not a place where they can only belong if they turn up at a particular time, day and place. They want to see a community that really believes in mission, that not only welcomes the stranger, but expects and allows the community to change due to what that new person brings with them. They believe church is about participation and engagement of the majority, rather than being consumerist and led by a few specialists. They are tired of being told the same stuff and want to discover together how to live Christian spirituality in their world! They long for their experience of church to inform their experience of the world and vice versa.
Forming a team
I felt strongly that, first, God was calling me to gather a group of people, with the above dream in mind, who wanted to explore their relationship with Jesus Christ and consider how they could authentically live as Christians in a 21st century world. As I prayed I felt God challenging me to put aside all ideas and plans that I had conceived, and to search for interested people where God led. It became clear to me that if I had a blueprint then I would be at risk of merely finding people to fit the gaps in my blueprint. The very thought leaves me feeling uncomfortable as that approach lacks an integrity which is core to building genuine relationships. It seemed right to me that it was more about being open to people that I came into contact with, and listening to their needs, discerning what God might call be to do in response, in loving action. God was calling me to listen and get to know unchurched people, without jumping in too soon with some form of responsive action.
To help with providing some focus, we had already decided that I should concentrate on the Rochester High Street area and on a local leisure centre to spend time on. In the weeks leading up to my ordination I gave this quite a bit of prayerful thought. I believed I was called to be ordained to do this role, to develop something from new from scratch, but was concerned with how this was actually going to work out in practice. My big question was 'what am I going to do all day?' I knew this was going to be an issue for me. My diary with YFC was packed weeks in advance and seeing an empty diary for all the months from September onwards did cause a slight panic.
Prayer, places and presence
Prayer is essential to all of this. Before doing anything I recruited a team of people who were happy to receive my weekly 'diary' via email and pray for whatever I hoped to be doing. Through this email I shared stories, struggles and prayer requests and I am confident that this group of 30 people are regularly praying for me. It's massively encouraging when one of them phones up to ask me how something went or passes on something that they feel God may be saying into a particular situation.
I spent the first four weeks prayerfully walking around the High Street and asking God to make it clear to me where I should 'hang out'. All the time I wore my dog collar on these wanderings. We thought about this a lot and felt that if I was going to build relationships of integrity with people, then the wearing of my 'uniform' helped that. We felt that not to wear my 'uniform' would have been wrong. The collar has certainly given opportunities, as well as attracted antagonism.
I prayed to be led to people and places of peace, to areas where I could interact with people on their terms, conscious that I had no right or purpose to be there, and was in fact a guest in those locations. During these early weeks I visited nearly every shop in the High Street and had a mixed reception. I have got to know some people better than others. After some time I felt strongly that God was saying I should spend time in a local Wetherspoons pub and a local sports centre.
More recently God seems to have pointed me to a newly opened coffee shop as well where I have been welcomed by the owner and can be found during the afternoon. I aim to be a presence in these locations as much as I can and visit them on a near daily basis. On good advice from others, I have also used these locations for any meetings that I have had to have rather than using a room at the cathedral or an office somewhere. This means that I can be a presence in these places in a variety of ways.
I am following the process that is known well to those that have been on Fresh Expression training days. I have started by gaining prayer and support while I look for connections in the community. While making those connections by being present I have been trying to listen to God and follow God's call as he leads me within the community. I am now asking myself 'what does loving service look like here?' As I seek to answer that question and act upon it I believe that we will start to see community developing from which we can start to explore the things of God.
A typical day
So, in short that is what I do with most of my time. A typical day in the life of this pioneer curate starts at 8am with morning prayer in the cathedral. At 8.30 I will venture outside and do a prayer walk around the High Street. This is a good time as people are wandering to work and shops do not really open in Rochester until about 10am. At 9ish I will return to the office to do a variety of things from reading, writing, reflecting and general admin and planning stuff.
Mid morning I will drift back to the cathedral to spend time in prayer before slowly walking along the High Street to Wetherspoons where I am normally seated with a coffee from about 10.45. I sit, I listen and wait to see what happens. After lunch I will then move to the local leisure centre, use the gym, sit in the sauna, which is often a hotbed of discussion, and hang around in the coffee bar area and again wait to see what happens. I then return to the cathedral a couple of times a week to end the day with Choral Evensong. I find topping and tailing my day with the cathedral helps to keep me rooted and feel connected with the wider Christian community.
This connection with the wider Christian community is vital to me. Having a role where I hang out in a pub, a coffee shop and a gym sounds like the ideal job. In many ways for me it is. It is also very lonely and a lot of the time I seriously ask myself and God what I am doing in this place. It's hard to describe what it is like to constantly be returning to the same places over and over again just to 'be' there. A lot of the time I am 'just there'. Days can go by where I do not have a conversation with anyone and sometimes I even wonder if I have become invisible. When everyone else, particularly colleagues at the cathedral, seem to be rushing around you can feel very guilty when your role is to just be in places.
Struggles and doubts
In the earlier days I struggled quite significantly with issues of identity and achievement. To sit day after day in the same place and be on the receiving end of a variety of reactions has been very uncomfortable on occasions. I have had very strong negative reactions along with threats of violence as well as warm welcoming reactions from a variety of people, some who have asked me to pray for situations in their lives. The stress of the day arises from really never knowing what is going to happen and, I guess, fear of missing an opportunity.
Three months into this, my wife asked me 'what have you done today?' A perfectly innocent question asked in many homes at the end of the working day, but one which caused some turmoil for me. I did not know what to answer. I don't know whether this is a man thing – but I needed to feel a sense of achievement at the end of the day. I loved my lists on which I could tick off completed tasks.
I asked the same questions over and over again. What had I done? What was I achieving? What difference was I making? What did I have to show after a day at work? After 3 months of sitting in the same place day after day after day I knew the name of 2 people – and they were both Christians attending church twice a week! That was a time when I seriously wondered whether I had got this all wrong and whether I should have really stayed with YFC.
Because of this feeling of inadequacy and wondering of 'why' there has been a real and strong temptation to try and rush things and force God's hand by setting up stuff, or putting on some event to invite people to. Building community takes time. It is not about planning a worship experience, or putting on some event to invite people to. I'm convinced what is needed is time for people, time to love people, time to serve people. From that time then organic community will develop. It will be very slow, but it will be authentic if we really want to focus on the unchurched.
This waiting and feeling of isolation is really quite key to what God is trying to do through my pioneering ministry. Waiting is a theme that carries through so much of scripture with the wait of Advent, Lent, the 40 years in the desert and, as I write on Ascension day, the wait between Jesus exalted and the church empowered at Pentecost. God works in us in our waiting, and I have needed to learn more about what it is to wait for God. If I was asked to give advice ever I think it would be 'wait… don't succumb to the pressure to produce something too quickly. Wait on God and go with God'.
During my waiting there have been some interesting and exciting moments that I would have missed if I did not take the time to wait.
I remember one Tuesday morning in October which I had planned to use to pray in the cathedral rather than go out. I felt God say that I should go to Wetherspoons although it was only 10.00am. I did and met an older married couple who I have been having conversations with on a weekly basis. This was my first real connection with anyone in the community. This encounter had a profound experience on how I managed my day as until then I had been visiting the pub at lunchtime and later. I now go in the mornings and have found this is the time when people like to chat and have the time to as well.
I visit a local sports centre in the afternoon and have been amazed at some of the conversations that I have had with men in the sauna. One guy asked me to pray for a smoothing out of the relationship between himself and his father. He then told me he had been plucking up the courage to speak to me for 3 weeks. He has since asked to be 'kept informed' of any 'new church' that I may be involved in.
While sat in the pub one morning a man was leaving, noticed me and seemed to aggressively walk towards me. As I braced myself for a torrent of abuse he knelt next to me and cried for nearly 10 minutes. When he was ready to talk we spoke about stuff that was going on in his life and I was able to pray with him.
Being a constant presence in these places is allowing some people to trust me with parts of their lives. It seems that my role here is a 3-fold one of pastor, pioneer and prophet. Pastor as I seek to support and love these people, pioneer as I look to engage in new ways and prophet as I seek to imagine what God's kingdom could look like in this place.
Alongside connecting with the 'unchurched', while waiting I have come into contact with a group of 'de-churched' people; it is probably more accurate to say that they have found me. These people are interested in a relationship with Jesus Christ but have been hurt by or rejected inherited church and most have not attended a church in over a year. I have met or come across these people in a variety of ways and we are now starting to gather monthly to investigate faith. The gathering starts with people sharing how their week has gone. The model revolves around discussing something from the bible (we have started by looking at the names of Jesus in John's Gospel), worship (which individuals/families plan and bring to the gathering), prayer and eating together. It is very early days as we have only had two gatherings but it is an exciting progression.
I have no idea where this is going, and neither (I think) do the people that are part of this. We are simply agreeing to journey together and, again, to wait and see what God does with us. How, or whether, this links with people I meet each day in the community I do not know; I hope so – but that really is not up to me or any of us. We will simply have to wait and see what God does. In time, I am sure this will build a community of unchurched and dechurched people through a truly incarnational form of missional church.
Rob Ryan, Ordained Pioneer Minister, Rochester Cathedral.