By urban, we mean church among the urban poor, whether inner cities or outer estates.
The Lighthouse, on an outer estate in Bristol
It began with the prayers of two women from different churches. They both had a vision for a relaxed environment on the estate, where people could come to eat together and share their lives.
When Jenny Low arrived in 2003 as an assistant minister at the local Anglican church, she joined the women in prayer, along with others on the estate from a range of churches. She opened her house for a regular gathering and the women invited their friends.
The Lighthouse meets for a meal on Friday evenings. The focus is on sharing one another's lives and problems. 12 to 40 men and women, young and old, and children with parents, most of whom would not describe themselves as Christians, come along because they find something special.
Prayer is offered in a room next door, and members have started to ask for more Christian content to the evenings. This content is provided through videos and interactive learning rather than acts of worship.
A new community has formed, giving people space to experience Christian love.
Mission as a primary focus
- Changing the ethos of an established church to be more mission focused - for example, social activities involving the wider community such as drop-ins, children's clubs and a toddler praise party, and moving out of church to a more accessible building for the community.
- Intentional church plants for a specific group such as youth and the elderly, or into an estate or neighbourhood without significant church presence. Those planting in an estate or neighbourhood used quite small planting teams (from one or two people to ten), not infrequently began with a community service project and met in homes, community centres or church buildings.
- Youth and children's initiatives developing into church. Some were school-linked, others centred on youth clubs (including a mobile club on a double decker bus), while others employed a Kidz Klubs model - lively, songs, story, competitions, crafts, games and regular visits to families.
- Mission projects developing into church, sometimes not with that intention. These included a church that met on Sunday mornings in a pub, a weekly meal-based community on a Friday evening (including perhaps a personal story about what God means to me or a J.John video on the ten commandments), and a café church, using multimedia presentations.
Community involvement as a primary focus
These included community projects developing into church such as:
- schools work - eg. summer play schemes and after-school clubs;
- a centre based in an old pub involving drop-ins, clubs, the Essence course, prayer room and a weekly time for reflection;
- a charity shop drop-in, where there was prayer each day and a service once a month;
- a drop-in for female sex workers with befriending on the streets (eg, through hot drinks and sandwiches), a clinic, prayer offered and a Bible study for those interested;
- environmental projects run by a committed team living in a welcoming worshipping community, with daily team prayers, a weekly Bible study and an invitation to local volunteers to join in;
- a Fairtrade café in the city with a prayer room, counselling available, people allowed to be there all day, and street patrols offering help as needed (and an invitation to the café) when the nightclubs open;
- café in a converted post office with children's after-school clubs, crafts, an Alpha course and café church involving activity sheets, DVD (Nooma) discussion, coffee and cakes, and chat.
The general ethos was very much about long term committed loving service, but there were differences in terms of how much leaders felt the need to specifically bring in spiritual content' (p142).
Worship as a primary focus
This was far less common, but included a youth alternative worship event organised on behalf of a diocese.
Things to bear in mind
The things to keep in mind if you are thinking of starting an urban fresh expression: we asked Eleanor Williams, on the basis of her research and her own experience of ministry on an outer estate, to offer some tips. Here are her top ten:
You need to start with a clear sense of call to this work
You need a vision of God and what he can do!
Be prepared to move into the poorer urban areas
Moving into the neighbourhood is what incarnational ministry is all about, but should not be undertaken lightly. It's not without personal and family cost – and this does need to be considered.
Spend time listening
Listen to people and getting to know the context, and allow that to shape the fresh expression. Coming in with set programmes and pre-conceived ideas may not work. Listening will involve building relationships, often through service. It can take a long time to break down barriers and build trust and credibility. Some people I interviewed were prepared to say: 'We're here for as long as it takes.' As part of listening, be willing to learn from what has gone before, what has gone well and the mistakes.
Begin with sufficient resources
Resources of people, finance and time. It is not always possible, but it would be good! Finance is an ever present issue, so look for creative ways of securing funds. Work in partnership with other agencies, grant making bodies, etc. Find out what others are doing and work together where possible. Have the humility to collaborate with those working with more of an inherited model of church, recognising the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Set up accountability and support structures
Build in processes for theological reflection. Pioneers in urban areas need support. They also need the wider church to understand that they may not see quick results in increased numbers attending church services, or have a large enough income to pay their parish share or contribute to their denomination's costs.
Develop mutually enriching relationships with the wider church
These might include other local churches, ecumenical links, larger churches and theological colleges. Links with a larger church in our town led to a home group helping us do repair and maintenance work. Network and learn from others working in similar areas.
Do church simply
Use sustainable, often simpler models of church. You may not have a large team of volunteers to draw on. So don't run yourself into the ground. Think about what is sustainable long term - such as a weekly simple shared meal, a video or podcast between the main courses leading to a discussion, and a candle to focus prayers towards the end. This could be lot easier to keep going than a traditional church service! Events requiring more input can be one-off.
Encourage indigenous leadership
Recognise that people may have more 'in your face' needs, and it is going to take time, support and patience. Commitment may be there in intent but not carry through to sustained action. Value who people are and the gifts they have, rather than expecting them to conform to our stereotyped middle class models of church. Your community's way of being church may be very different to what you expect.
Think about Blessing before Belonging before Believing before Behaving
Blessing may be about serving the community, welcoming local youth whenever they feel like dropping in and coping with behaviour issues. It may be about generosity, offering hospitality, food - not expecting people to be able to pay.
Belonging is about community. Many people have huge needs – not to be underestimated. Seek to form communities which are life-giving places of welcome, suited to where you are. Many urban fresh expressions begin with 'community' rather than attempting to begin with 'worship'.
Belief may be encouraged by exploring creative, multi-sensory and participatory ways of beginning to pray and worship. Published courses, like Essence and Alpha, can be helpful but may need to be adapted.
Be prepared for the unexpected ways in which God may be at work
Those holy moments where there is a sudden glimpse of an encounter with God's Spirit.
- Urban Expression;
- Eleanor Williams, Fresh Expressions in the Urban Context, Lulu, 2007, 978-184799213-0;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 18: Stepping Stones (tough estates), Church Army, 2003;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 39: Hope Among The Hopeless - Connecting with the urban poor, Church Army, 2008.