A new church community is beginning to form in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Pioneer minister Andy Gray explains more about 'a bunch of like-minded people who are exploring what it means to have a Christian faith'.
I have been here since 2011 as an Ordained Pioneer Minister. Previously I worked full-time as a youth and children's worker for 10 years in a couple of churches, setting up youth churches shaped by the young people, before moving to Scripture Union as primary schools worker in Lancashire. Whilst there we joined another church in the North West, and with keen members we formed a fresh expression of church within a church.
Being pioneering is habit-forming! I'm stipendiary and when I started here, I was told that I had the freedom to 'go and make lots of mistakes' by the bishop at that time. St James Church of England Church, Clitheroe – which supports United Network – had just lost their full-time children's worker so they didn't want to miss out on what had already been happening in terms of community contact with children and families. It was great to use those foundations as the starting point for something new.
I started by looking again at the needs of the area. Clitheroe is a small market town of about 16,000 people and, in many ways, it is self-sufficient because there are many facilities on the doorstep but there are also lots of needs and struggles. More than 10% of the population go to church in one form or another and the good thing is that the churches tend to work together in all sorts of ways – such as debt advice with Christians Against Poverty and a foodbank – to serve the people here.
In fact, so much is provided, we had to ask ourselves the hard question, 'What's the point of having a fresh expression in Clitheroe?'
We decided to look at that by setting a ball rolling and looking to God to find out what He wanted. My initial thought, following good fresh expressions practice, was 'Let's get a nice, strong team together'. We prayed and a couple of people came forward who wanted to be part of something new… but that didn't work out. So in desperation I simply asked God who he wanted. This time we didn't approach it from the standpoint of, 'let's find the best team or the strongest team or the most attractive team'; it was based on being open to God and being ready to respond to who we felt He wanted to be part of this thing. This left us a 'not-sorted-out' type of people, but ones with weaknesses that God seems to use.
The next question was, 'What should we do in this place?'
Our answer was to start meeting together and see what happened, since everything else seemed to be being done in Clitheroe. We wanted to get the DNA right. Part of that involved the decision for us not to be called a 'core team' – we felt that a core team looks inwards; and a launch team tends to blow apart or see themselves as superior (our interpretation at any rate). That left us with being called a DNA team… it seemed appropriate!
As part of embedding our 'DNA', I then had to teach the team what it means to be a fresh expression. I think I was potentially one of the first people to have a mission shaped ministry course as part of my pioneer training so I had a good grounding in it all, as well as a few years of experiencing it.
From that, we began to look at what God had done so far in our area and how we could join in with that. We also looked at what resources we had available and decided on the approach we were going to take. Instead of trying to do lots and lots of things, we decided to do one, 'tiny' thing over and over again until something happens. That turned out to be meeting together and drinking lots of coffee!
We didn't want to meet in a church building so we started to look for somewhere that was easily accessible with a car park, good coffee, and some space to move around a bit. One of the people involved in United Network has the operator's licence for the coffee shop at the site of Clitheroe Castle ruins and she said we could use the Atrium Café for our gatherings.
At that stage there were three families involved in this, including mine. In all, there were six adults and seven children and our first season as a fledgling community was from January to Easter 2012. At the same time as that was happening, me and my wife and our kids and another of the couples with their kids were still doing the children's work at St James – or the 'big church' as I call it, since it is bigger than what we are doing. That meant we still had a lot of links with many families and part of our thinking was about how we could build deeper relationships with these people and allow our DNA to influence theirs.
From that came a request from someone who wanted their son to be involved but knew that traditional kids' groups were not the right place for him; they were not involved in church life at all and it would have been too strange and alien. We then invited them to come and join us at a 'gathering'.
Right from the start we wanted to offer free coffee and food, 'big church' has been very supportive financially, so we were able to offer great hospitality.
Amazingly, we discovered that the castle is sited in a 'hole' in the parish structure and, as a result, United Network does not 'belong' to any parish. The castle used to have a chapel about 500 years ago so we are re-establishing something here from ancient of days.
It has thrown up some interesting challenges as well. The coffee shop is a licensed secular wedding venue so they are not allowed to have an act of worship there. In response I have said that we are not 'doing' worship as such because that requires the two sacraments of baptism and communion – and we are 'just' meeting together as a bunch of like-minded people who are exploring what it means to have a Christian faith.
Reflecting on who found their way into our gatherings, we realised they tended to be people we already knew through other networks in the area. God kept telling us to focus on building community so we put our efforts into that, and somehow people are growing in faith – it must be God. There is no 'big 5-year plan' or strategy; instead we have to trust that God will send the right people at the right time. Some people have come to us and then found their way to 'big church' but that's fine. As far as we're concerned, we have a very missional intent and are not set up as a conduit, we are church in ourselves.
We started to gather on a Sunday afternoon and the mum and her son joined us. We would have been happy to go for any day of the week but that was the best day for the people we wanted to serve. We now meet there on the first and third Sunday of the month when the coffee shop has closed to the public; when there is a fifth Sunday we plan to go out for the day together.
You might also find me in Costa Coffee during the week, buying someone a coffee and having a chat. On the Wednesday following a Sunday gathering, we also have a Going Deeper night. Originally that looked at the DNA and theology of fresh expressions but then we moved on to working out what it means to be a disciple. That ran from Easter to Christmas of 2012. In the meantime, we had another couple join us, then two more teenagers, for the Wednesday night sessions, and it continued to grow. We are now starting another discipleship time on Wednesday mornings which will be run along the lines of a book club rather than a Bible study group which means people study at home, then bring their thoughts with them to a less frequent over coffee chat. Coffee plays a big part in what we do, you might notice!
It's all about allowing time for things to unfold. It took three months for one of the families we know to actually make it to a gathering; now they're regulars. I regularly text the people we're linked with to let them know what's happening when, and they therefore feel very much part of the community before they start connecting with our gatherings. Those who miss the odd get together don't feel as though they have been forgotten or that they have dropped off our radar. We even get apologies when they can' t make it. That list also involves those who want to know more but haven't taken that step yet.
We didn't have a name at all for some while, but that can cause problems when you have to describe what you do to the other churches in the area, or to people who might be interested in getting involved. It was at one of our gatherings in September last year that an 11-year-old said, 'Can we be called United Network?' as we sat and described what we had done so far. I wasn't keen at first… there were still only 17 of us, and that hardly described a network! However I was wrong. Everyone liked the name and it has stuck and, to my mind, there's no doubt that we have grown into a network of people talking about God.
At this stage there are 30 of us who regularly come together (if everyone turned up at once it would be 35) but if we include those who form satellite/ad hoc groups and regular conversations, the figure would be nearer 53, and I don't know them. These are people who our community know. They are encouraged to talk about their faith, and to form new communities themselves where they are, rather than feel under pressure to bring their friends to any of the gatherings. They are supported, and prayed for, and empowered. Though the weakness remains a key part.
Our aim is to reach people who don't yet know Christ so if Christians want to come along, I always ask them to speak to me first. The last thing we'd want is for it to become an 'alternative' church for people already going to other churches or who are disenchanted with church.
Looking at the dynamics of team working, I discovered quite quickly that we are not people who have got everything 'sorted'. I'd read about 'having a team that works' but we don't 'work' in that way. My feeling is that when you begin as a strong team, you have an inbuilt sense of having something to offer others, doing it for them rather than with them. When you come in weakness, you need everyone around you to help. I have seen that so much in the team for United Network; when coming from that point of weakness, we rely on each other so much more and our attitude to others changes too. Perhaps it comes from my own problems with dyslexia of needing people around me? People seem to just want to jump in and help when they see me floundering, and then when it all comes together they say 'we did this' rather than see me as the person who did it – with God of course!
I'm aware that much still focuses on me as a leader. We get together because I have said, 'let's get together'. At the moment my stipend comes out of the curacy budget, so what happens next when the curacy comes to an end in two years' time? At a national level, no-one has really solved the problem of what happens once the Ordained Pioneer Minister is not being paid by the curacy budget?
At the end of summer this year, I said to the whole gathering, 'You shape this; you take ownership and responsibility for this'. In our previous fresh expression of church I brought together all the people who had a connection with what we were doing, three times a year to reflect on what God had done so far with us, and where he might be leading us next. Since it worked well, it seemed reasonable to do it for United Network. We gathered as a community, children and all (the youngest were seven for this meeting) for our first 'What next?' meeting, we looked at how we could theologically reflect on what had already happened and re-establish God's vision for us.
During the meeting I encouraged them to think not about what they liked or didn't like, but rather what had meaning for them. Someone once said, for it to be true, it has to first have meaning. Key to who we are is that we are not a community of worshippers, which emphasises the individual, but rather we are a worshipping community, which emphasises our togetherness in God.
This became very clear recently when one couple asked us if they could renew their baptism vows and marriage vows on the same day. There are no set liturgies for this so we put together two forms of liturgy and set about organising it on the site where the original chapel would have been in the ruined castle. They wanted to be immersed so we bought a 6ft long by 20in deep paddling pool, people brought buckets with them to the ceremony and were running backwards and forwards to fill the pool with freezing cold water. The couple knelt down in it and we poured the water over their heads.
It didn't cause problems with the café and its secular wedding venue licence because we didn't do it in the café; we did it on ground that had never been deconsecrated (to our knowledge at least). It was very special and I would say that was the point where United Network really started to mean something.