Jon Curtis tells how he is working to pull the strands together of his ministry in Exeter.
This is my home city and it was really important for me, and my wife Beth, to stay in a place that we know really well. The VentureFX aim is to reach those who wouldn't ordinarily dream of setting foot inside a traditional church building. I've always known what it's like to be part of a church, but also know how weird the whole thing can seem; I was brought up an Anglican though I later became a Methodist and trained as a lay preacher.
I was accepted as a VentureFX pioneer minister three years ago at selection conference. I've always been part of the punkrock scene here – as well as the area's political and artistic communities. It was a natural fit for me because music has also played a huge part in life and I still tour with a punk band called The Cut Ups. All my friends are involved somehow and we get together toput on shows, book tours, write and publish ideas and art.
Our particular project in Exeter started in December 2010 so it's a good time to take stock of what has happened since then – and what hasn't happened since then.
At first, we had a year of running discussion groups based around a theological question. We'd call them Average Life Discussions, saying there were so many questions to ask, and so little time to ask them. Those sessions took place every month at The X Centre – a conference venue we hired on the quay. It has all been stimulating and well worth doing but there have been a few failed attempts to try and tie these discussions in with other stuff.
The venue has just been sold so we'll probably have to find somewhere else but we are going to relaunch the discussion groups and see how that works out this time round. The key thing about these discussions, and the reason people tell us they keep coming, is because there is no agenda. Not 'no visible agenda', but actually no agenda. This is not a conversion factory. A guy I know who runs a church had a conversation with a mutual friend. The mutual friend told the church leader that I 'had never forced anything on him', and the leader said 'just wait!' But that's complete rubbish from the church leader! My friend could wait his whole life, and nothing will be forced. There is no agenda. I'm part of a community already, and if anyone ever wants to learn about Jesus, I’m very happy to share what I think I know, but I'm never going to 'reveal' my true colours of evangelism, because I have none!
The idea is that we would form part of a 'collective'. Everyone who's interested, including a core group of about 10 of us, might get involved in:
- discussion groups;
- music promotion;
- food redistribution and social action. I help to run this regional hub for the Devon and Cornwall Food Association with other volunteers. It's a charity aiming to redistribute waste food from manufacturers or wholesalers to those who need it most;
- we're just planning a People's Kitchen too.
To me, the food redistribution is one of the strongest examples of the Methodist Church being right at the heart of a much-needed social concern and it is really brilliant when church members just want to be involved alongside other volunteers (aged from 20 to 30) who they would never otherwise meet. There's a growing mutual respect. There's engagement, and joining in with, rather than observation. When someone just wants to 'look in the window' but does not do anything to help; that's not understanding the spirit of the thing I think. I wouldn't want anyone to think that what we do is just a 'ruse' to get people in; it is not to trap them into the beginnings of a church but it does reflect what it truly means to work together in our differences. The punks that I know, just like many Christians I know, don't find doing something for free very hard to understand because there tends to be no money in punk music; they do it for the love of it. It has been really brilliant to see these parallels!
I have waited longer than I would have done normally to form this 'collective' because I've made a lot of mistakes and false starts. It's ended up that I've been able to see what core themes grew from the things I was linked to and involved in. This collective is going to have lots of 'spider legs' to it; everything we do is going to be part of that. If a group does emerge, which meets for Communion or prayer or whatever, it will have a shared status with any of the other groups forming part of the collective.
I don't even think of myselfbeing a pioneer, but if anyone is interested, there are several hundreds of people I know in various ways across the city. Maybe there will be a possible cell church grouping but maybe there won't. It's just as important to be involved with the greater number who want to give their time and energy and commitment to something that makes the world a bit easier.
We have set up a management group made up of:
- three lay people from the Exeter (Coast and Country) Circuit;
- two Circuit Ministers and VentureFX Coordinator Ian Bell;
- Ian Adams as my independent mentor, supporting me rather than the scheme. This group meets five to six times a year.
I'm still part of a local church on a Sunday morning and I have some really good friends who understand the different worlds I'm involved in. The support of Methodists locally and nationally in this scheme is amazing, and gives a really great impression to people who previous thought nothing good of the church.