Something old… Something new… Something borrowed…

I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘fresh expression of church’. What does it look like…. and what do you feel about it? And what do you imagine when the talk is of ‘fresh expressions of children’s ministry? ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’ claims the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Is he ….or she…right?

Whatever we think about these questions, the opportunity to talk them through and try and tease out some answers was certainly of sufficient interest to attract one our largest gatherings to date of delegates and guests for our November CGMC 24 hour conference at Feldon Lodge to the west of London. It was particularly exciting to have a large contingent from Scotland and Northern Ireland, which added to the buzz of conversation and the rich forum that is CGMC for networking and mutual peer support in what can be a lonely field of ministry – that of the professional children‘s work adviser, trainer, advocate, minister or co-ordinator. We go by many titles!

There’s no doubt there are some very exciting things happening on the fringes of the established church and more than once during the conference we were reminded of how important to God these voices from the margins are. Indeed they may well be prophetic and it was interesting in a Bible study on Luke 18, led for us as part of Joanne Cox’s presentation on the second day, how Jesus tells stories about marginalized individuals or else responds to the insistent voices of those that others want to shut up; while central to this chapter is the story of Jesus welcoming the children…. a scandal that his disciples – then and now – just don’t get!

For many people considering fresh expressions of children’s ministry, their first thought is Messy Church, which has seen phenomenal growth in its seven year existence. It is however important to note that Messy Church is not just children’s ministry; it is most definitely about an inclusive, re-imagining of church for all ages. The trouble is because glue and glitter is involved, it is too easily filed under ‘children’ in many people’s minds.

So it was with Messy Church that we began on our first afternoon, when we heard from Rev. Bridget Shepherd of Emmanuel Church, Croydon and Catherine Duce, an ARCS (Action Research: Church and Society) fieldworker, who shared their findings from a limited but fascinating piece of research into how eight interviewed non-church mums viewed the Messy Church at Emmanuel that they attended with their children. It was an important piece of reflection and, though it was acknowledged that so much more listening needed to be done…..particularly to what the children had to say….., it did throw up some fascinating insights into how a generation that has had no contact with faith and the Church understood what was happening when they met monthly on a Monday after school; what was important about it for them; and their views on how, or even if, God was involved in it all.

If nothing else Messy Church, and fresh expressions like it, are certainly raising important questions for traditional Church about the nature of people’s spirituality today; what it means to be church; how people can be discipled; what it means to lead a church; and the recognition that God is very much at work in our so-called secular society in surprising ways and unexpected places – on those very margins highlighted by Jesus in the Gospels. Some of the key findings of this research are posted on the Messy Church website as a blog, but one element that came out of the interviews that was perhaps significant was that it was often the children who valued Messy Church for what it taught them about faith and God more than their parents; and it was almost as if the children were taking the lead and becoming the evangelists as a result – what was termed ‘the ecclesiological overflow’! Interesting parallels were drawn with how the early church widened its reach through infant baptism, the sanctification of unbelieving spouses and new formulas of catechesis in its desire to be inclusive and embrace a broader theology of grace.

Of course all this opened up lots of fascinating lines of thought for us all. Was Messy Church Church-lite? And if so, is that a good or a bad thing? Is it merely a church for beginners… the shallow end of the swimming pool, as it were? But then again, no one can swim in the deep end all the time….and anyway aren’t we all always merely paddling where God is concerned? Is it ‘real church’ or a ‘stretched notion of church’? Were the interviewed mothers talking about ‘an unknown God’ or ‘an unnamed God’? And much more. But isn’t it exciting that a fresh expression of church where children are as important as any one else opens up this sort of vital debate about how we offer the gospel in the 21st century, how we give people opportunities to respond to our Christian story and what a community of faith with values of hospitality and grace might look like. This is surely one of those voices from the edge that is insisting on being heard –the sort that Jesus valued so highly.

But surely, haven’t we been here before? Or is this really something new that the Spirit of God is saying to the Church? Is there something new under the sun, after all?

It was this that Rev. Piers Lane, Director of Evangelism at Cliff College, addressed in our next session on Day 1. Piers drew parallels with a fresh expression of children’s work that appeared over 200 years ago, pioneered by Christian social reformers like Robert Raikes. He unpacked how the Sunday School movement had grown from its earnest beginnings near the offices of The Gloucester Journal in the 1780s, was variously interpreted, became sidetracked with unhelpful agendas, institutionalised and now, in many peoples’ opinion, has been left stranded as something that no longer works either for the church or the children of our 21st century western world. Parallels and contrasts were drawn between the social environments, the prevailing world views, the state of the Church and the influences on children then and now. Just like Raikes, we in our day are called to be counter-cultural for our times and this will mean finding new ways to work with children and their families that focus on dialogue, relationship-building, the sharing of stories, play, exploration and the offering of safe space.

Many of us recognise what a gift to the church Godly Play has been in this respect, where once again it has been a voice from the edge, grounded in how we welcome and work with children outside ‘proper’ Church, that has been so prophetic. There is no doubt that in so many fresh expressions of church with children and families, this reflective and invitational style of telling our story has been very significant. Yes, we need new wine skins but intriguingly Jesus also reminds us that the old wine is still the best (Luke 5:39); and it could be said that Godly Play is an interesting mix of both old and new!

Joanne Cox is the Evangelism in Contemporary Culture Officer for the Methodist Church and our second day was largely facilitated by her as she helped us dig deeper into what a fresh expression of church really is and how we can pass on the message to a generation that is shaped by Facebook and Twitter. From Luke 18 she drew out some key questions to ask when we are considering fresh expressions of church with children and families: What are we offering? Where is the blessing? How do we help people on a journey? Are we really listening to what people are saying? What is God passionate about? She also touched on ‘success criteria’ when evaluating Fresh Expressions, though that needs to be held in creative tension surely with how God sees ‘success’; arguably three years of being discipled, even by Jesus, failed to produce 12 ‘successful’ disciples! It took a lot longer.

What a full diet of input and discussion we enjoyed these two days. And alongside all this we worshipped, renewed friendships and made new ones, enjoyed late night discussions, networked and encouraged each other in our ministries – just what CGMC is all about! For all of us there was something old and something new to take away; and, as we shared our ideas and news of resources, there will surely also be much that will be borrowed!

These two days happened at a conference centre on the edge of London. And CGMC is a network of those, who work on the edge, and which is called to speak up on behalf of those who are on the margins – and do so with persistence! In the words of one participant whose prayer card I was invited to take away: ‘I’ve felt encouraged to continue my ministry which can often be lonely and isolating. It always invigorates me to share with others who are passionate about children’s ministry’. Amen to that!

A Persistent Fragrance

‘What do you think of when you are asked to imagine a rural setting?’ That was the question put to us as CGMC members as we began our 48 hour conference in Scarborough in the east riding of Yorkshire. ‘And what is it about ministry among children in rural settings that is different – if anything?’ It didn’t take much to get the 17 delegates on this conference talking, particularly as many of us worked with others in our teams in just these circumstances.

Some of the distinguishing features of rural ministry began to emerge, facilitated by Cathy Westby, who used to be a rural children’s work adviser for the Diocese of York, namely: isolation: poor transport links: wealth and deprivation existing side by side; and tensions between tight-knit communities and dispersed schooling for its children.

This part of Yorkshire offered the conference many different insights into what rural means: from coastal isolation to chocolate box villages; from semi-rural parishes on the edge of town to remote churches now far removed from people; from bigger churches filled with commuter Christians to ancient churches who quite deliberately chose to be child-free. Cathy led us into this conference very skilfully using 3-D objects, a quiz, group work and live case studies. And of course, as with the challenge of children’s ministry anywhere, there were as many opportunities as obstacles.

Despite the demands of multi-church benefices or circuits, despite the lack of basic facilities, and despite the unsocial hours of farm work, nevertheless the rural scene does offer some unique possibilities, such as: engagement with a whole community; reaching a higher percentage of all the children in the locality; closer links with the one village school; a strong sense of loyalty to ‘our church’ and the chance to make a greater impact as a key provider of special events in village life. All this gave us a really good foundation for the rest of the conference which was a series of visits to nearby churches and projects where we heard stories from local people and ministers.

Stories such as how God was at work in the four churches looked after by Rev Claire Stainsby around Burniston, which lies north along the coast from Scarborough. What struck most of us was the way in which each church had it own distinctive children’s and family work – sometimes with the children of church families and sometimes for the children on an estate, whose families did not come to church; sometimes in age related groups and sometimes all ages together; sometimes on a Sunday and sometimes midweek…..and in one case not in a building but down on the beach! As in most places there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to children’s ministry.

We admired both Claire’s ability to enable others to get on with this work as well as her energy in keeping such a diverse show on the road. One thread however did emerge from more than one church and that was the commitment and loyalty of just one family who resisted the temptation to move to the ‘greener pastures’ of nearby bigger churches but stayed where they were to grow God’s kingdom.

It was this sort of faith and vision that had turned the field which had been where we were sitting into the new building opened only a year ago: the old church had built a connected new hall but had had the courage to let the traditional chapel become the hall and the new hall, the church. Again here was vision and sacrifice at work for the sake of reaching new children and families.

Later that first morning, Rev. Sam Foster (‘the vicar without a church’), a fresh expressions pioneer minister for Scarborough, shared some of her ideas for reaching out to new families. Again they were not top-down ideas from somewhere else, but ones that made use of what was available and local, and in particular Scarborough beach! Saturday Night Sacred Space, for example, had really taken off in the summer months alongside Summer Soul – a holiday club for all ages. In all that Sam shared, building relationships was key to the success of the ventures, and this released people to take risks and by trial and error sift the God ideas from the good ideas for the sake of the Gospel.

In the afternoon our ‘luxury coach’ took us inland to the village of Pickering. As we stepped into the parish church, we were greeted by a huge image of St. Christopher – one of the many splendid restored medieval paintings, which are among the oldest and finest in the country. We had fun puzzling out the stories from the images painted long ago but whose communication style is in many ways as relevant to children and families today in our image-dominated culture as it was for the people of the 15th century.

Father Anthony Pritchard, the parish priest, introduced us formally to these visual aids before leading a discussion session about the children and family work of his three parishes and four churches. Here again we heard about many living examples of what we had met in theory during our first presentation. And once again we recognised that there are as many possible solutions to effective children’s work rurally as there are places and people to try and attempt them.

Father Pritchard was fairly new in post and was just beginning to make connections with children and families in the parish, in particular by giving up a whole morning to be a classroom assistant at the nearby school, which we thought admirable. Baptism contacts were also very important in this traditional church as well as special eventsaround the village such as the ‘Posada-type’ journey of the baby Jesus from shop window to shop window during Advent. We did however all smile when we heard what happened when he was displayed in a local charity shop. When it was time to collect Jesus and move him on, Father Pritchard discovered that they had sold him by mistake!

Once again it is all about trying different approaches and taking risks. But it is also about being there consistently! This was something we observed when Rachel Prest from the Methodist Church in Slingsby told us of her Adventurers Club. This has been running for years and is now part of the fabric of village life. Here the closeness and intimacy of the rural setting was being used to the advantage of the Gospel and it was bearing fruit. To borrow a phrase from the wine-tasting social that the group enjoyed back at the hotel that evening, it was the ‘persistent fragrance’ of our good news that was making an impact. During the day we had indeed ‘tasted’ a variety of different sorts of children’s work, each shaped appropriately for its setting, and just as wines are distinguished by their different countries of origin, their vintage and types of grape, so the good wine of the gospel needs a range of different wineskins!

Our final morning found the group at The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. It opened in 1996 in a building that had been the Odeon Cinema built in the 1930s and which retains much of its original décor. However its massive auditorium has now been transformed into a theatre in the round as well as a further stage and screen on top of that!

From the enthusiastic Denise, the theatre’s outreach worker, and the informative Gary, the stage manager, we discovered how the theatre worked, were allowed into backstage secrets and even walked among the lighting rigs, balancing precariously on a wire mesh! The theatre has a full programme of activities for children and young people and like the churches takes its ‘message’ out to local villages as well as to the estates on the edge of town. Drama and dance provide many opportunities for growing self-esteem and developing character for all ages. It was a good local example of how an arts-based enterprise sought to connect with a rural and semi- rural constituency and we reflected on what this had to say to the church and how the church might work alongside such secular projects to reach out and nurture faith. The theatre’s extended school programme in holiday time enabled groups of children to put on plays, which was a tremendous boost to them as individuals. This challenges us in the churches to think of similar ways to engage with children and families and help them become the best they can be.

So what does distinguish children’s ministry in rural settings? Over the conference we certainly did appreciate many features of rural life that were very different from those in the city and we came away with new ideas to pass on in our work with our various constituencies. On the other hand it was also clear that when it comes to ministry with children and families, whether in inner-city Leeds, in the suburbs of York or in a village near Filey down the coast, what matters most is listening to what children and young people need, working with what is already there, being open to trying something new and being in it for the long term. These ‘gold standards’ in ministry apply anywhere and are the pre-requisites to producing that ‘persistent fragrance’ that best commends our faith, both in urban or in rural settings.page4image12727040

‘God thinks of us as a perfume that brings Christ to everyone.’ 2 Corinthians 2:15- 16 (CEV)

Peace by Piece

It has been 12 years since the Good Friday Agreement and just over 40 years since ‘the Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, so how are things now and in particular, what is life like for its children and young people, who are the inheritors of the on-going ‘peace process’ as well as of the legacy of sectarianism and the violence that accompanied it? And what are churches and individual Christians doing to make sure that the future is positive for them? This was the quest we were on as CGMC, 22 of whom gathered in Belfast for the second of our two residential conferences this year. Clearly the story was going to be complex and over the 48 hour period we had the privilege of engaging in dialogue with a number of people, each of whom was able to give us another piece of the jigsaw that is Ulster.

Part of our agenda here was to hear something of what it meant to grow up during ‘the Troubles’ and we met many who had: present and former politicians as well as ex- combatants and clergyman, who had all lived through those painful years. Interestingly none really wanted to dwell too long on the past, but was happier telling us what was happening now, both the good and the bad.

On our first afternoon we were introduced to four men from both the loyalist and the republican ‘sides’, who now work together promoting peace and dialogue in south Belfast. They were all concerned to create a shared space and future for their young people and to break down sectarian divisions. However, to our surprise, they also expressed their own dismay that there are now even greater depths of anti-social behaviour between groups than there had been in their time, although now it is also often fuelled by alcohol and other drugs.

This group is funded to put on events, set up peer-mentoring programmes and lobby for changes in how children are taught about their history in schools. There are, it seems, many other similar ‘from the ground up’ projects around the city in areas where there is a catholic and protestant interface. Indeed it is very much out of the work of these grassroots initiatives that the political co-operation of recent years (of which we are more aware) has grown. Tackling a mindset that demonises difference is their big challenge and they were not uncritical of politicians who often still drew on this for their support, as well as of the weakness of the few integrated schools where these things should be addressed.

This focus on the children and youth now rather than on what it had been, was a recurring and necessary aspect of the conference. Rev John Peacock spoke to us briefly about the ecumenical work of Youth Link, which is supported by the four main churches of the province – Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Church of Ireland. He has worked tirelessly for this project during ‘the Troubles’ and into the ‘peace process’, trying to make sure that the church is part of the answer and not the problem. There are a large number of volunteers working with the Youth – 5 to 25 year- olds years – and the aim of Youth Link is peace and reconciliation. Indeed, the Farset International Hotel, where we stayed, was built with peace money, on the peace line, for peace-making and it is now used by many formerly opposing groups, as well as visiting parties like ourselves.

It is generally recognised that, although many children today are growing up knowing only ‘the peace process’, this doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by sectarian thinking. Today this is often played on by former paramilitary groups who, like gangs elsewhere in the UK, still wield much power and influence. Much still needs to be done, especially in the Primary Schools, to help overcome the barriers of prejudice and ignorance that have been handed down. Both the ex-combatants and others we met, recognised that it is often the white working class protestants who are most vulnerable to such negative influences, not only because of low educational aspirations but also because of a lack of self identity among this people group of Northern Ireland, which is in contrast with its catholic counterpart. Justas disputes over poor social conditions had contributed to the beginning of ‘the Troubles’ all those years ago, similar issues related to poverty and unequal access to services are stoking tensions today. In many ways, we were told, ‘the Troubles’ had masked these social dimensions to problems in Northern Ireland and now in the ‘peace’, they had re-emerged. Everyone agreed there was still a lot to do!

However it must be said that despite all this, remarkable changes have taken place. Our hotel was on the Springfield Road that leads down to the City via the Falls Road, which in turn is not that far distant from the parallel Shankill Road – both of which have been infamous in their time and widely known to the watching world. And even though the high fencing and wall remains – designed to prevent stones being thrown between the two sides – these once feared and best avoided roads are now open to all. Peace-building is a slow business, which is perhaps a frustration for many, but there’s no doubt something amazing is happening. Catholics and Protestants do mix: in the integrated schools, increasingly on the sports fields and of course in the halls of Stormont. There is dialogue, even if the old fears and hatreds are still not far below the surface.

Our CGMC group visited Stormont on the Wednesday afternoon and were given a guided tour of the legislative chambers as well as a walk through ‘the corridors of power’ to meet with a Sinn Féin politician. We even sat in the seats where the 107 other MLAs gather on Mondays and Tuesdays and where ‘the theatre of government’ is televised, which, we were assured, is not representative of the more united committee approach that goes on elsewhere in the building.

Jennifer McCann is the republican MLA for west Belfast and her observation on the new joint assembly was that much of the cooperation, however superficial it may be, was inspired by a shared concern for young people and their future. The increasing problem of drugs, which in turn has led to a worrying increase in the number of teenage suicides, is something that both sides were concerned about. Addressing the poverty that lay behind all this was a priority for her and she wasn’t the first to suggest that the churches had a pivotal role to play in this by offering their buildings and their volunteers to help and, even more importantly, by offering a non-judgmental welcome to the young and a visible co- operation between denominations.

The colour of the seats in the legislative chamber is blue, which is inspired by the flower of the flax plant used in the production of linen on which at one time the wealth of Northern Ireland had been built. Six of these flowers together have become a symbol of the 6 counties of this nation and perhaps, just like the poppy, represent a desire to move on from the violent past and the hope of a new prosperity in the future. No one wanted their children and young people to have to experience again what they had gone through in the past 40 years.

Another theme that emerged on our first afternoon and which repeated itself was the need to include children and young people in decision-making about the future of the Province. The four ex-combatants called for it over decisions about how to spend funding and on which projects; the MLA alluded to it; and for the Children’s Commissioner, whom we met on the last day, it was of course foundational to all her work.

Patricia Lewsley had been an MP but since 2007 now holds the post of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People ( Leading a large team, she has been facing up to some of the social issues and problems that effect young people, including exclusion, bullying, poor access to services, criminality and drugs. She is helped by her own ‘parliament’ of 25 young people, who are particularly upset by the bad image they have been given just because of the actions of a tiny minority. This is of course fed by a media who always prefer to print a bad story about this age group rather than celebrate anything good that they do – something that is an issue across the whole of the UK. Patricia’s job is to challenge the politicians to give young people and children a voice and a place in the future of Northern Ireland and to do that she put a particular emphasis on Early Year’s intervention and investment. She commented that many parents were quite literally ‘shut in’ during ‘the Troubles’ and are now at a loss how to let their children out in the current climate of the ’peace process’. She suggested that churches needed an outward- looking mentality to help them and a willingness to open their doors to the community and not just those who believed.

We encountered some commendable examples of doing just this in the work of St. Comgall’s and at the Methodist Church, both serving the large housing estate of Rathcoole, where we visited on our final morning. It was so refreshing and humbling to hear Denise Conville, the ‘full-time volunteer’ worker from St Comgall’s talk about her love for this areaand its children. Her passion is to create for them a safe place here and indeed the 35 or so who come on a Sunday morning don’t want to go home! Her vision is of winning Rathcoole back for the community and out of the control of the rival protestant paramilitary groups, who still wield an unhealthy influence over the estate. She longed to give her children positive role models and the fullness of life that true faith in Christ can bring. Similarly the near-by Methodist Church runs several programmes for young people, mothers and toddlers and a thriving group called ‘Multiples’ for parents of twins – and this is often despite government bureaucracy and lack of recognition of the good that is being done. Here are the small steps towards peace that we will perhaps remember most when we look back on our visit in the months to come.

However such steps as these by Christians are threatened by churches that do not offer a welcoming attitude to young people and children and who aren’t willing to give them a voice or recognise the spiritual gifts they bring to the congregation. This was the area of concern for us in CGMC that we wanted to explore when we visited Edgehill Methodist Training College on the Wednesday morning. Here we were also joined by Dr. Maurice Elliott, the Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, which exists for the whole of Ireland and is based in Dublin. We also welcomed representatives of Scripture Union Northern Ireland and the Catholic Training Board. This is where we were taken by surprise! Most of the group’s experiences of the importance of children‘s ministry within such clergy training elsewhere has been very negative – it usually barely finds a place on the curriculum.

However to our delight Dr. Elliott outlined the changes that have been made at the CofI college since a review in 2005. He described an integrated approach of scripture, theology and practice in the MTh course for all graduates that recognized the need for an all-age profile of the church to be addressed by those destined to be its future leaders. All this is in its early days but it was good to hear that the 3rd year internship (a first curacy, in effect) will include space for reflection alongside the incumbent from the parish, to focus on training that among other things looks at the needs and contributions of children and young people. A similar approach is planned in the training at the Methodist College as outlined by the Director of Studies Rev Janet Unsworth, who had once been part of CGMC and who acknowledged her indebtedness to the group for her awareness and appreciation of ministry not just to, but also very importantly, with and from children.

The new Church of Ireland course has gone for an integrated approach rather than specific add on modules about children and of course there are possible dangers with this, but nevertheless the group left feeling very encouraged and even more determined to use whatever influence it had to promote a similar rethink in other places of ministerial training. Perhaps this might be facilitated by a CGMC sponsored conference in early 2012 in Cambridge – watch this space! Oh, and the home-baked scones at Edgehill were a hit too!

There’s no doubt that this was a rich three days in Belfast and the group is enormously grateful to Peter Hamill and his local colleagues, including the Rev. John McClure (Mr. Fixit!), for putting together the stimulating programme we all enjoyed. Each of us went away with our own memories, insights and encouragements. We are called as Christians to be peace-makers but we were never promised that this would be easy. We are also called as followers of Jesus to welcome children and in particular to make sure we don’t harm these ‘little ones’. Both these challenging callings are being faced by the churches of Northern Ireland. It is a work that needs action both at the highest levels among the politicians as well as in the day to day commitment of volunteer children’s and youth workers on the ground. We met both on our visit. The memories of ‘the Troubles’, like the murals along the Falls and Shankill Roads, are still very fresh and public and they won’t easily – and perhaps should never – fade or be torn down. However new memories also need to be laid down for the sake of the children and young people: memories of former enemies now working as friends; the experience of seeing politicians of opposing views talking together in the same chamber; and the stories of those who had been in jail, now working to release others from prisons of poverty and deprivation.

There have been three waves of peace money to help the ‘peace process’ along but now, as for the rest of us in the UK, new funding is liable to be in short supply and so churches will need to become ever more creative about how they can help the process continue at all levels. God’s people, whatever their denomination or ‘flag’ have a real challenge to think up new ways to reach out. There may be 43 churches on the Shankill Road but, as we learned, these are only reaching 1% of the local population. All of us, whatever road we live on, have this huge task ahead for the sake of the community, the kingdom of God and especially for the sake of those little ones to whom the kingdom belongs. Our time in Belfast reminded us that, as with all God’s work, this can only come, peace by piece.