Ben Dyer tells of the development of a missional community of young adults in Ormskirk.
It is almost two-and-a-half years since my wife, Bethany, and I made the move from York to Ormskirk. I had been part of the leadership team of a church plant from St Michael le Belfrey called Conversations; this was aimed at 18-30s and we met in a bar each week. When that came to an end after five years, I told God, 'I'm never doing church leadership again. It is far too hard work and stressful'. That was in February 2012 but by April/May I felt that God wanted me to be in church leadership again!
After various conversations, we came to Ormskirk Deanery where they wanted 'something for young adults'. I subsequently had a formal interview with the Deanery and they offered me the job with a five-year contract.
Why Red Church? In some Bibles, the words of Jesus are written in red, which stands for what Jesus said. Red is symbolic of the blood of Jesus, which stands for what Jesus did. Lastly, red is short for redemption, which stands for what it means to us. People often ask why we are called 'Red Church' and in our answer we can often tell people the good news of Jesus through just explaining our name. I joke with people that it's also because we are all supporters of Manchester United! However, this is a dangerous thing to say in an area where most football fans would say they follow Liverpool or Everton.
I started here in January 2013 and, for the first three months; I basically tried to evaluate the situation. As part of that, I met every single vicar in the Deanery and lots of people in the diocese, including young adults in churches – and not in churches – to see what was going on. Then I presented a vision and a strategy to the Deanery with what I felt God was saying about how we connect with young adults in the area, help them come to know Jesus, and love the church.
There are 18 churches in the Deanery and it is predominantly rural but then we also have a few densely populated urban areas. In York there had been many young adults who were very gifted, very mature in their faith and keen to get involved in things. I came with the same expectations to Ormskirk but soon realised that this was a very different place.
I have found a lot of people who go through youth groups at church but seem to fall off the radar somewhere between 16 and 18. Even if they are living in their home town and have grown up in the church – and actually quite like God, and call themselves a Christian – they haven't managed to engage with church.
The original plan was that we would get together 15-20 young adults in some sort of gathering and attract other people to that. The only problem was that in six months we only managed to find two other people willing to be part of Red Church. So, we then formed a group of the four of us and we'd meet once a week in our house to read the Bible and pray a bit. There were hardly any young adults in local churches. In terms of disillusioned 18-30s, in all 18 churches, I'd say there was under 20 young adults committed to church.
After losing hope, more people started coming along to our house! In June 2013, we had four and by August we had twelve. Sometimes it would be people I came across who were disillusioned with church. One young woman invited a friend who had never been to church at all; she in turn brought along someone else who had no church background either! Some of the people had been in church all their lives but still didn't find themselves loving church.
It was very relaxed, we often watched a Nooma DVD, we'd chat what it was about, find out what was happening in people's lives and pray for each other. It wasn't intense 'Jesus-ness', it was just getting to know each other.
I decided it would be good to do an Alpha course and, because we had outgrown our living room, we decided to move it to a public venue. In September 2013 we set it up in a local bar and ran an Alpha. In my opinion it didn't go very well. We ran the course until Christmas but had a drop-off in terms of attendance every week.
At the same time, we launched a football team which trains at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. Our football team plays in the South Manchester and Cheshire Christian Football League and 90% of those involved have no experience of church. Most of the guys who come along have been invited by their friends.
The fact is that, for most people, coming to know Jesus is a long-term thing. The message we want to give is, 'We're not asking you to say "yes" or "no" to the Christian faith within a certain timeframe; you can just belong with us in some sort of community'.
We believe church is fundamentally about relationships. Relationships with others and a relationship with God. How we 'do church'/our strategy is based on the idea that people generally move forward in their journey with God within community rather than outside it. Our church strategy has five levels with each level looking to attract different people and have a different intensity of 'Jesus-ness'. Our five levels are:
- Our lowest level of 'Jesus-ness' is activity-based small groups. We think people generally form friendships and community more naturally and quickly while they are doing something together. We don't shove Jesus down people's throats, we just hang out and become friends. Whether that is through our football team, film club or girls/guys nights – they all bring people together and start friendships.
- Red Group is where we introduce Jesus more intentionally. It's still very social but it all relates to Jesus. Red Group takes place every Tuesday evening at a coffee shop in Ormskirk. We generally play a silly game, show a Nooma DVD, or someone may tell their testimony for 5 or 10 minutes. People can ask questions, we have a chat and leave. We don't tell people you have to believe anything, but we introduce people to the idea of faith gently.
- An Alpha course. That's where we can explore who Jesus is, why he died and what it means for me. We haven't run an Alpha course since 2013 but we plan to run another one soon. My motto is 'Make It Easy for Yourself' (I have to fight against perfectionism) so we are going to use the Alpha Express shortened videos. I feel Alpha is more about the relationships we have with the people and how the discussion groups are led, rather than giving live talks.
- A service where we can encourage and challenge each other, while giving people an opportunity to connect with God. Red Church runs its service every Sunday at 4pm in Ormskirk School, it is not wacky or weird, it has all the main elements of a standard service but in a very contemporary and relaxed way. From 4-4.15 we have drink and doughnuts. At 4.15 we have a game, notices, worship slot, talk and reflection, which is maybe a video or a poem to give people space and time to reflect on the talk or their week.
- Our deepest level of 'Jesus-ness' used to be a mentoring network, but this just changed to small groups because creating a mentoring networks turned out to be a logistical nightmare! We share a meal together, open the Bible, talk about the stuff going on in our life, and pray.
People can plug in to whatever 'level' they want, if people want to come to football for the rest of their life they are very welcome to be part of us at that level. However, the hope is that as people build relationships and hopefully become interested in God they will begin to move through the different levels.
On top of this, we also have a prayer meeting in a coffee shop at the University on a Thursday evening and we are trying to grow leaders from within our ranks through running the Growing Leaders' course. We currently have 8 leaders, all of whom are at different stages on their journey with God, but we are trying to grow and develop.
We have had a lot of encouragement from the Diocese and most people in the Deanery have been happy with how Red Church is developing, I think one of the reasons for that is for the most part we are not 'competing' with any other church. When I moved here I was shocked to find out most of the students from Edge Hill Uni were going to churches in Liverpool because they didn't find a church in Ormskirk where they felt at home – so it has been good to be able to offer them a spiritual 'home' on their doorstep.
I would say one of the challenges, as a lay pioneer minister, is administration of the Sacraments. That is still being worked out but I pray it will be considered by the Church as a whole because if we are a growing, functioning, worshipping, Christian community we must navigate any obstacles in the way of people's walk with God. It is a major issue.
Giving has been part and parcel of what we do right from the start but it is much easier to deal with the finances now because the Deanery has now set up its own charity for Red Church.
I'm fortunate in that I don't feel isolated in my ministry, which pioneers can often feel (although vicars serving in traditional churches can often feel the same). I think Liverpool Diocese has done a great job in terms of general support and creating accountability – and I am now an Associate in The Joshua Centre. They do recognise that pioneers need a lot of support, but I'm of the opinion that if you want/need support, it is also your responsibility to create your own.
I see massive opportunity in working with young adults. They are very open to the idea of spirituality, God and real community – not what they see as 'fake' community – but they are sometimes closed to the idea of traditional church. I meet a lot of young adults who are lonely and are earnestly searching for meaning in their life and I feel the church can offer them both real community and answers to some of their deep questions.
I'm an incredibly excited about continuing to see God work in Ormskirk and the surrounding area and I hope that Red Church will still be helping people discover Jesus and church in 50 years' time.