Helen Shannon is an Ordained Pioneer Minister in the Diocese of London, serving at St Barnabas, Woodside Park. She oversees church@five and has plans for other estates in the area.
Strawberry Vale, East Finchley, is in the top 10% of the most deprived areas in England and I moved here with my husband Mark and family in 2008.
I'd been a young, single mum on one of the estates locally and had gone to church throughout my childhood but no-one had introduced me to Jesus. Then one day I walked into St Barnabas Church (known as St Bs) and I realised straight away that they knew him, they knew who they were worshipping and I came to know him too.
I got involved in children's work and did a lot of children's evangelism, eventually becoming the church's first full-time children's worker. I met and married Mark and, when I gave birth to my second son, we lived off an estate for quite a while but we were in a house on a busy road which had no soul, no heart and no community – I missed that strong sense of belonging! Strawberry Vale is not the estate where I lived in my late-teens and twenties but it's not too far away and I value all that it offers to us as a family.
I realised that it wasn't the case that people didn't believe in God in this environment; it was because they hadn't been introduced to Him – as I had been at St Bs, a New Wine Network Church. At the start I would have said that the gap was geographically too wide for people to come to church at St Barnabas; now I would say that for some the cultural gap is an issue too.
In the early days it was all about seeing what God was already doing here and serving the people; we hadn't decided that a church plant or a congregation plant was what we were going to do. I remembered what a blessing it had been to me to come into a church where I wasn't 'pigeonholed' as a single mum; I wanted that same experience of 'come as you are' for the guys on the estate.
In the end we set up a community congregation called church@five rather than a church plant; this gave me a large amount of freedom as to how it developed. If those who come along end up going to the 'big church' at St Bs, that's fine. It's also fine if they put down their roots with us.
I use the words 'community congregation' because the people here wouldn't have a clue about what 'fresh expression' means. The phrase, fresh expressions, covers a plethora of things and I don't think it would have helped the team either. I also went for community congregation because, from the start, I wanted to be able to replicate what we had done here elsewhere – that whole business of starting with the end in mind.
Encouraging indigenous leadership was also very much part of our thinking when the whole thing got off the ground. We really wanted to be a bridge between the estate and the church so that the people weren't isolated in their faith.
This is also about broadening horizons; one of the things about being in this sort of environment is that people can have very low expectations. We want to demonstrate that all of God's wonderful world and life is fully available to them whereas society would build estates with one road in and one road out to corral the people in there.
Well-meaning people can think there's a real problem communicating the gospel on an estate but I find a latent respect for the church here. The word 'church' is not an issue with people but communicating the gospel in a very real and honest way can be because they want to know, and quite rightly, how the gospel can change lives and make a very real difference day to day.
We have five or our six children at home now, ranging from 8 to 15, and my husband Mark is involved in every way in what we're doing here. He had to leave his work in the City because of chronic back problems but I haven't ever seen him so fruitful in ministry! If I'm out and about at meetings, more often than not he's the one who's around when people knock on the door with their problems or questions.
It all started by gathering people around us from St Bs who had a heart for the same kind of thing, we prayed and ate and talked and began to serve the community. We work with a partner charity called Hope House and started some youth and children's activities in the Green Man Community Centre which is run by the residents.
We joined the Centre's committee and, as we served, we heard God telling us that it wasn't to be just about children or young people; it was to be for the whole community – for us – bringing people together in community is a move of the Kingdom of God and by putting Christians back into the estate we reckoned that the whole place should undergo a shift, a change, after all it only takes a little bit of yeast to make the whole batch of dough rise.
We don't preach the Gospel at these things, instead we work together to see people achieve their goals and visions. It took about two years before the regular gathering together of a worshipping community. We had done Christmas and Easter events but it was always in our minds that the vision was not just for Strawberry Vale but also for neighbouring estates, The Grange and Market Place. But we got to the stage where we had built community, found people of peace, were talking Jesus with those people and had been praying with them. It was then very natural to bring that together in a weekly gathering.
Church@five now meets on a Sunday afternoon at the community centre. We have lots of cups of tea, an informal service around tables with sung worship, share community news, someone prays for our church and community, and then we have the offering because we wanted to build in the value of giving back to God right from the start. We read together from the Bibles, we always put Bibles in people's hands as soon as we can and we give away quite a lot of them, have a short interactive talk and prayer ministry time and drink more tea and then eat together.
We have got quite a lot of people from the estate helping with the midweek kids' work. It's hard going when developing indigenous leadership because some people live quite chaotic lives and to put them into a structure can be difficult.
One of our trainees had found it quite difficult to ask people help at in their midweek group, praying for them was fine but requesting that they might give us a hand was something else. But I told her that it was a very middle class way of thinking about things because most middle class people are working all the hours God sends and are struggling to find the time to do all the things they want to do with their families and everything else. However many of the people we're living alongside are jobless and society says to them they can't do anything.
One of the real issues they face is boredom and a lack of purpose. I encouraged the trainee to think of asking them to help as a fantastic gift, the chance for them to know they are contributing something.
Our team is made up of people who live on the estate, others very committed to the place but don't actually live here and a group who we call our 'scaffold team' – these are good, solid Christians who support the new Christians, encouraging and nurturing their growth. There are also those who come and serve on our teams or who act as Godparents, people who pray regularly for us.
We have already got some indigenous worship leaders, someone else who coordinates prayer and another who's taking a lead with hospitality. We are currently looking at how we might develop a discipleship year for some of the young people on the estate.
When we moved on the estate, we said that unless God moved us on, we would commit ourselves to being here for 10 years. We are still in very early days but we are now looking at how we gather another team to move on to the neighbouring estate at The Grange which is very different to Strawberry Vale. Every estate has got a different history and it's important to take that on board, it's so, so important. So, at the beginning, it's all about listening to people, doing research, and finding out what local people think of that estate, it all takes time.
St Bs has been absolutely brilliant about all of this. If I had done a church plant route I would have had to look to becoming self-financing and self-governing; but this way we can be missionally quick because St Bs is very generous with finances and provide governance/oversight for us. St Bs has always been missional but our experiences on the estates have sharpened that missional focus and helped form new ways of looking at things.
Hopefully this is a model that other big churches could apply, particularly in London where richer areas and poorer areas are cheek by jowl. If they can afford to finance it, they could put people in to live on these sorts of estates on their doorstep; people who will build community around them and look to see what Jesus is doing and then join in with Him.