Gold on Tour

Sharing the stories of Fresh Expressions is what we do, but sharing good news of Fresh Expressions is what we LOVE to do. When the jungle drums brought news that Wolverhampton Pioneer Ministry (WPM) was awarded a Gold award for their work last November we were rightly made up for them, but also wanted to find out what they’re doing that other Fresh Expressions can learn from.

“For those of us involved in leading WPM, the Gold award from the Christian Funders Forum was a totally unexpected – but very lovely – recognition of the work we do here,” says Deborah Walton, WPM’s leader. “However, for the young people who are part of our community it means much more. Many of them have never received such encouragement or appreciation before, and so this has been a special moment for us as a wider organisation. It is a great confidence boost to people who have received a lot of knock-backs through life.” This sense of community ‘ownership’ of the award has been outworked in several ways. A service of celebration followed by a Ceilidh gave community leaders and members a chance to mark the moment together, but since then – in a creative and contextual plan that perhaps sums up the embedded practice of WPM – the Gold award has gone on tour. “The award is travelling at the moment,” Deborah told us. “Everyone is having a week with it – its currently working its way around a block of flats!”

This tour is not to give everyone their own little moment of glory, but represents the desire at the heart of WPM to ensure that their work has longevity – that there is a legacy which goes beyond this moment and leads to a life-long relationship between young adults and wider structures of church. WPM has now been established for ten years, and this has been an intentional development in its practice. Whilst the Sunday night meeting, ‘Vitalise’, used to see high attendance figures, there was awareness amongst leadership that these young people were mostly drawn from existing church links. “Our mission has always been to those on margins,” says Deborah, “young adults who don’t have support structures in place and who may have had a rough time through life.” Whilst Vitalise numbers have reduced, the community gathering is now comprised significantly of people with no previous church background – and through WPM’s Bluefish Chaplaincy around 400 young adults a week are engaged with and supported.

The challenge that this shift creates is how to embed sustainability into the ministry; young adults grow up, and if they have only ever engaged with one style of church how will they find a longer-term home in the inherited church? WPM are working actively to remove barriers between young adults they work with and wider church experience. “It’s about bridging the gap”, says Deborah, “thinking about discipleship as a life-long journey and building familiarity with inherited church.” Monthly services led by local clergy help build this wider sense of community, and moments to mark belonging within different denominations begin what the team hope will prove to be long-term relationships.

This commitment to long-term discipleship is a distinctive and intentional aspect to WPM’s work, and is perhaps what was recognised through the Gold award. As the trophy continues to tour we are excited to see how things evolve as this pioneering work is sustained and nurtured. The Gold award is a great moment – and we hope that it brings encouragement in every living room its visits – but the work is ongoing and points to a future that will sustain its community members for the long-term. 

Story by Hannah Skinner

Exile and the faithful reimagination of the church

When we are confronted with experiences of complexity we invariably tell stories. When the people of Israel found themselves in exile they did the same. 

The experience of exile, the disorientating loss of all the key symbols of what it meant to be God’s covenant people (land, king, temple), maps onto our own experience in a context of the church at the margins in society. 

“The church is one of those former power brokers who once enjoyed a place of influence at the cultural table but has been chased away…and is now seeking where to belong’ Lee Beach

The Valley of Dry Bones (Eze 37: 1 – 14)

This famous passage in Ezekiel, when read in this way, offers a great deal of insight for pioneering and missional leaders wrestling with the church’s own experience of exile. Here are three tasks for the leaders of the people of God in exile based on this passage:

1.    Give space for lament (vs 1-2)

Ezekiel is taken on an extensive tour of the valley of the dry bones. The symbolic power of this image of destruction is clearly not enough, Ezekiel must be led ‘back and forth among them’ and shown not just their number but their condition (‘very dry’). This intense study of the tragedy and hopelessness of exile is not mere detail. It suggests that lamenting the pain and loss of exile is an important task, one which we much not cut short. As Beach says ‘without the act of truth telling, a legitimate hope can never emerge.’

2.    Be willing to surrender (vs 3)

Ezekiel is then asked a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?’. The answer may seem obvious, but Ezekiel’s reply is more revealing: “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know?’  Gone is any pretence that some strategic alliance, or military miracle can bring back Israel. Instead what is offered is not despair but a surrendered willingness to participate in whatever God’s will might offer by way of renewal. 

In our changing context, trying harder at some of the strategies and forms that have served us well in the past will bring diminishing returns. Leaders must be the first to let down their arms and recognise that renewal begins when we don’t have an easy answer any more – what we must have first of all is rapt attention to God and his will. 

3.    Lead people toward a reimagined home (vs 4 – 14)

The instructions that follow result in a vast resurrected army (vs 10). This may look like a restoration but it is not – it is a resurrection brought about the Spirit and will take Israel to a new place, not a return to the old. Twice the picture is interpreted as a return home (vs 12, 14). However, everything we know about the results of the exile suggest that this is not a nostalgic return to the Israel of old, but instead a radical reimagination of how being the covenant people of God could be faithfully expressed. 

This reimagination was expressed in three main areas with three radical insights: 

  • God’s presence – God presence is not restricted to the temple, He is present where he chooses to reveal himself, often in the most unlikely places. 
  • Holiness – holiness is not simply about observing ritual, it is a thing of the heart expressed throughout the whole life
  • Mission – mission is more than a welcoming of the widow or stranger into our domain, it is an incarnational presence amidst other cultures and faiths.

It is not hard to relate these insights to all that is being explored through Fresh Expressions as its leaders learn to recognise God’s presence beyond the safety of the church and nurture new communities of disciples in faithfully living out the gospel in the midst of a dominant and alien culture. 

The story of exile is a story of God’s people rediscovering itself, finding a way home by the leading of God’s Spirit, reimagining the principles of the covenant in new and radically faithful ways. It is their story and ours as the Spirit leads us in a new movement of reimagination in post-Christendom Britain.  

Paul Bradbury is Pioneer Minister at Poole Missional Communities and has just started a role as Pioneer Hub Co-Ordinator for South at the Church Mission Society.  Paul is the author of Stepping Into Grace exploring the prophet Jonah’s journey into mission.