Off and on through the past year, though far less regularly than I'd hoped, I've been part of a group exploring "Mission Shaped Ministry". The course finished just a week ago, and I've been reflecting on its impact on me and the ministry of the church in my parishes.
At the same time, I've been part of other conversations around the work of our Deanery pioneer minister, - so the mission theme has been bubbling away quite close to the service this week.
We're blessed with a very able pioneer minister working as a curate in a nearby parish, but also giving 50% of his time to developing a Fresh Expression of church in the town at the centre of the deanery.
This neighbouring town* is a wonderful mixture...some very down to earth people born and bred here....some spiritual explorers with alot of energy and commitment to alternative spiritualities...many devotees of Rudolf Steiner....lots of artists, thinkers, askers of Big Questions.
Altogether, it's an extraordinary place where it's never hard to find something interesting and thought-provoking going on, but sadly the Christian presence does not, to my mind, really seem to connect with the essence of the town. We've tended to hide in our churches, or to offer an attractive but specific model of evangelism through "Churches Together" - which has, I think, depended heavily on inviting people to some well-organised events, sometimes with big-name speakers. Of course, this approach does bear some fruit, just as it always has - and there are thriving independent, Baptist and evangelical Anglican churches about the place who are deeply committed to it, and who draw in good numbers through Alpha, "Praise in the Park" and, no doubt, through last year's Deanery mission.
Regular readers in the "glory days" of this blog may not be surprised to hear that this isn't quite where I am. I felt called to these communities for a ministry of incarnation - offering practical support, sharing where I can with the struggles and joys of life on the estates of my parish, above all trying to encourage people who rarely look up, to dare to lift their gaze and notice God at work in and among them every day. I also felt a vague tug - nothing as clear as a call - towards the spiritual explorers of the neighbouring town. I love being with those on the edge, always have.It was, actually, the one thing that made my much-loved title parish frustrating at times - for life was so comfortable and certain for the majority there. I'm famously keen on multi-sensory (aka touchy feely?) worship, on tea-lights, pebbles and plainsong in a darkened church, -so, when it came to the mission last year our contributions in the valley were based on helping to reclaim the community centre FOR the estates community and offering a labyrinth, as a toe in the water experiential prayer opportunity for those who will never engage with the black and white certainties of evangelical Christianity.
No - we didn't,as a result, bring lots of new Christians to baptism but both ventures were valuable in quite different ways, and connections were made on which we continue to build.
You see, for me it's all about community....About affirming the communties that do exist and helping them to see God in one another...About doing all that I can to help build community where there seems to be isolation and struggle (Messy Church is an important part of this)...About remembering again and again that God IS community - the community of the Trinity...into which we are invited. The vacant seat at the table in Rublev's icon.
At the heart of my calling as priest is the need to invite others, wherever and however I can, to experience the hospitality of God - in ways in which that will be recognised and welcomed.
I love inherited church. It has formed me, given me a route to ministry, sustained and supported me through a whole host of life crises (and been noticeably missing at others) - but even at my most optimistic I can't say that I expect it to "work" for a majority today.
So, I also love the climate of exploration and discovery that has emerged in the wake of "Mission Shaped Church" but the thing that really excites me most is the invitation "to find out what God is doing and then join in".
I'm pretty sure that while God is undoubtedly at work in and through God's Church there's an awful lot more to God's mission than our limited, church-shaped imaginations will allow. I wonder what God is REALLY doing among those alternative seekers...and how best I can join in and celebrate.
*our boundaries touch - til I lived here I believed that valley parish was part of hippy dippy Town...now I know better :)