Alistair Birkett is a farmer and lay pioneer leading fresh expressions of church in the Scottish Borders.
Day by day my time is largely spent developing fresh expressions of church whilst running Norham West Mains farm near Berwick upon Tweed. The fresh expressions of church, which are collectively known as Gateways, meet in various different contexts around a monthly cycle.
I am married to Ruth and we have two sons (Sam 23, and Jonah 19). It was after a change in Ruth's family farming business that we moved to the Scottish Borders 10 years ago. I had trained at Moorlands Theological College from 1995-98 and was then involved in leading a community church Cheshire, but we then felt the call to move to this area. Ruth's family had farmed up here for many years and, at the age of 38, I started running this 550-acre arable farm. Our aim was always to make it work alongside some sort of ministry.
Norham West Mains is a reasonably large arable farm, and I use a local agricultural contractor to ease the workload and allow me to develop Gateways.
We had some difficult times when we first came to the Borders, both personally and in trying to discern what we should be doing in ministry – and where. I was working with a local evangelical church for around eight months and I began to feel that I needed to re assess my involvement there. This time then prompted us to ask a lot of questions about what it means to be church in our modern world, and how to minister effectively.
A few years before that the local Church of Scotland minister retired and a locum minister was appointed to serve the rural Parish of Hutton, Fishwick and Paxton. Bill Landale is a visionary guy who has a real understanding of the inherited church model but was exploring the question, 'What else do we do?' He put together a working group to look at future plans because they were down to about 15 people attending and realised that if they didn't engage with the under 50s, the church in this area was completely bust!
Facing up to what was a clear missional challenge, that working group carried out an extensive community survey which showed that people in the parish were interested in spiritual things but were not sure about exploring those things within a traditional church model. Those results formed the basis of the Gateways project, starting in January 2011.
Another turning point in the journey came when I attended the North East mission shaped ministry course at Berwick upon Tweed. Sessions also took place with a course based in Tyneside. We knew that Fresh Expressions had been running the mission shaped intro course for a few years, so I took four people along to msm, thinking 'it will be good for them'. I'm sure it was good for them but, in fact, it was I who fell in love with the course! The teaching really helped me in the early days of Gateways because, in our community, we were growing increasingly concerned with inherited, attractional models of church. For years it seemed that I'd been trying to do what we did better instead of asking, 'How do we completely re-form this?'
My role, as project leader, was not to get bums on seats in the local parish church, but was to form a team which would seek to reach families and young people in particular – people who had no formal contact with church at all. The cultural gulf is massive between what happens in a traditional service in the Scottish Borders and a family with kids in their teens!
The Church of Scotland graciously granted us a three year funding package via their Emerging Ministries Fund, and we were tasked to listen, get involved in the community, and begin the journey that has now been going on for over four years. As the work has developed, we have sought to create a fresh expression of church embracing a mixed economy way of working. When we first began Gateways, we were encouraged by the Church of Scotland to be experimental; some things have worked, some have failed but being given permission to fail in an environment of mission is liberating.
There are about 550 people in the parish in total. In terms of population, we live in the 'big village' of Paxton where there is a village hall and a parish church but there is no school and no shop. The smaller of Hutton has a village hall and a church but no other community facility. Fishwick is a hamlet. A new estate has recently been built in Paxton, and although the development only amounts to only around 30 homes, the impact is large in such a dispersed rural area.
We are seeing our Gateways communities develop in different ways with a number of elements, a number of expressions of church life. During 2015 we will see funding from the Church of Scotland Go For It fund tailing off, so we're looking at different grant-making bodies However, we don't want to get into the fundraising trap of trying to find the money to simply exist. Our longer term aim is to be sustainable on a local level, and progress towards this has thus far been very encouraging.
The Church of Scotland has been very, very helpful and we still have a close relationship both with the local church, the regional Presbytery, and the team at Go For It. For instance, I recently gave a presentation about Gateways to the local Presbytery which was attended by John Chalmers, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and we're hoping that Gateways will continue to have a close relationship with the Church of Scotland.
Gateways has become constituted as its own church through OSCR (Office of Scottish Charity Regulator) and the key to what we do is serving and developing and growing our different gatherings of people. Gateways started as a 'bolt-on' ministry to the local parish church but, as things moved on, we believed it important to take a step forward as a church in our own right. The Rural Ministries organisation, which also gives us some funding, helped us with the basic framework of a constitution and we then drew on The Church of Scotland statement of belief before taking it to the Scottish charity regulator.
There is no formal link to the Church of Scotland in terms of constitution but four of our five trustees are elders of the local parish church!
We like to run with ideas that we can get people to facilitate. so our young people, for example, suggested that we get involved in Comic Relief. We started by asking the question, 'Would Jesus wear a red nose?' That prompted great discussions and the young people then went on to organise and run coffee morning for Comic Relief. Looking back at the very different areas of Christian ministry I've known, Gateways is the smallest, most fledgling thing I've been involved in, but probably the most exciting!
In our small, rural parish we very much see Gateways as being the local church with two congregations. My wife and I also worship in traditional, inherited church – not only because we believe that's the right thing to do, but also because it reflects a genuine sense of mixed economy in our ministry.
Our monthly Gateways Gatherings take place at 3.30pm on a Sunday afternoon and is aimed at families with young children, food is always a really important element, we always eat together, read Scripture, pray, worship, and have some sort of craft activity linked to the theme. The Gatherings alternate between Hutton and Paxton village halls.
Gateways Fellowship is an opportunity to further the discipleship journey. It began in January 2015 at Paxton village hall and it takes place monthly, at 11.15am on Sunday. Although still focussed around the family, the Fellowship is aimed less at younger children. In terms of style, it's like café church but instead of serving lattes and flat whites, we serve steak sandwiches! The format includes more teaching, questioning and small group discussions.
I'm excited to see that the people coming along to Gateways Gatherings are predominately unchurched, I'd say around 60%. The remainder are de-churched or those fed up with the way church has been, as well as those who are genuinely embracing mixed economy and are also involved in other church contexts. So far, with the Fellowship, I'd say it's attracting more of the de-churched because it's the most 'church-like' thing that we do. Not everybody that goes to the Gathering would go to the Fellowship.
We also have a fortnightly Discipleship Group in people's homes. We have developed a core team from a discipleship group of 10-12 people; all of whom help to share the load and widen the vision. If everyone comes to the Discipleship Group, we have about 15 people in total and around 6 of them would say that for them the Tuesday Discipleship group is their church.
Developing indigenous leadership takes time but, as we continue in the fifth year of Gateways, we have got to get beyond the stage of, 'If Ali and Ruth don't do it, it won't happen'. Our core team are fantastic, but we haven't made a big thing of who they are and we haven't used a Sunday gathering to introduce them to everyone else; we've deliberately kept it all very low key. I believe that's the right policy because, as has been said to me, 'In many other churches we wouldn't be allowed to give the hymn books out, never mind be on the leadership team!'
We are regularly forced to reflect theologically, dynamically, on what's happening here. People ask us what Gateways will look like in future. I don't know but we've got to the point of knowing what we wouldn't want to look like! The aim is to be fleet footed and be flexible enough to go in different directions, according to where the Holy Spirit guides us – and all of this is to happen under our three values of hope, creativity and inclusivity.
Word is spreading about Gateways, and I am increasingly being asked to lead infant dedication services and wedding ceremonies. That, in a way, I see as a real sign that we are becoming the church in the village.
I'm not an ordained Church of Scotland minister, but I worked with Bill Landale, as the local minister to do an infant baptism recently; we both just commit to making it work. When there was a baptism in the River Tweed, we both went out and took a shoulder each – again we were committed to working together for the kingdom!
There are always challenges and ours centre on developing local leadership and our long term financial sustainability. I'm only contracted part-time to lead Gateways and on occasion it all seems too much, but God has blessed us, and brought the Core Team together; all of this is nothing to do with our own abilities or strengths, it's all to do with him. I try to keep that in the front of my mind whether sowing seeds of faith or grain.