Churches, whether established, being planned or dreamed, or planted, or in need of revitalising need to be constantly reforming. When we planted Grace Church I found this a helpful diagram to that end. It summed up the process we started with but which we also hoped to continually take time every year to think through. In many ways it feels more relevant than ever.
It was helpful as we worked hard to learn about the area we were planting into. We spoke to local leaders, spent time in local shops, moved into the area, spent time with people, just hanging out and chatting; learning their stories, the things that mattered to them, their fears.. We also did all the research with could on social trends etc… But being with people was the biggest help. It helped us think about simple things like time of service, background knowledge, and get training in some of the issues we might face.
But then we launched and lots of things that had been hidden under the surface suddenly bobbed to the surface. Some were things in the community and the area, some were things in the launch team and the nascent church. So we had to, in the early months, relearn as a church, about each other, about our community and it’s needs, patterns and norms. The gospel of Jesus Christ remains constant. The teaching of God on what a church is remains constant. But we are called to reform as a result of our relearning.
We’ve revisited that process every so often during the 14 years in which we’ve been planted. For example I had underestimated the importance of our RAF heritage for some in our community, and we’ve needed to adapt to take that into account. We have had to relearn as 3 or 4 new developments of houses have been built, only 10% of which are social housing, which has massively changed the area and the people, and created new opportunities, resentments and tensions. And we’ll have to do so again in coming years with over 2000 new homes due to be built in the next 3 years and a huge new plaza style shopping and leisure development coming too. In many ways the area we planted into is not the area we find ourselves in.
And I’ve been working through the above diagram again post pandemic. Like most churches as we emerge blinking into the light of a new normal the last term has felt fractured and fragile. Over lockdown we had some people move away, some become relationally and physically distant and who have chosen to remain online, but we have also been joined by new families and people. All of the children are now 2 years older, and so are the adults. And yet this last term has felt fractured because absences have been frequent – coughs, colds and COVID have accounted for some of that. So has the right desire to see more of family after 18 months of largely limited opportunities to do so.
And so the run up to Christmas feels like a time of re-learning and reforming as we come together as church again. My hunch is that will last throughout most of 2022. As new relationships take time to grow in light of a relational hesitancy that seems to characterise much of life this side of 2020. I’m taking some time to think about these questions as I relearn. The first is to be asked about the church the other about both church and community:
Who are we as God’s people? Who is present? Who is absent, both in terms of individuals and groups from the community? Who is committed? Who is watching on? Where are people in terms of discipleship? And how have the last two years shaped and moulded them? Do they have gospel capable discipling relationships? What barriers are there to developing those?
Where are we? How is our area different at the start of 2022 compared to the end of 2019? How are current trends, like rising prices, exacerbating the divides, struggles, and tensions that were already there? What is that leading to? Who is being left behind? Where is time spent together in the community? Who is missing and why?
What are peoples hopes and dreams? What are peoples ‘if only’s…’? How does that differ from estate to estate? Whose hopes have been dashed? What does joy look like and where is escapism masquerading as joy? What is it people long for? How has that changed?
Those questions can’t be answered in an office or a meeting. They can only be answered by spending time with people. That’s the challenge as we look to re-engage with our community. As a church we hold to the gospel, but where is it answering the questions and longings our communities are asking? How do we serve them in a way that provokes the question – why do they love me like that?