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09
Jan

(Note for long time readers of this blog, no, shoes. Not boots)

As part of our diocesan ‘preparing the ground for growth’ programme, our church has decided to concentrate primarily on our welcome. We are recruiting a team of welcomers, whose role is to be subtly different from that of sides people, and we shall ‘train’ them. The vicar doesn’t think we can justify (sadly) asking them to engage with the whole of Bob Jackson’s most excellent book ‘Everybody Welcome’ (which in any case is aimed at the whole congregation, title as imperative verb, not simply as noun adjective), so I must condense/re-write/write a single afternoon session.

There are a number of things I will include, and ideas I will modify. One of them is to not have scary role play but to encourage thinking about the people who might walk in with different needs, expectations, anxieties, hopes, and encourage the welcomers-to-be to ‘walk in their shoes’ (let’s face it, that metre or two over the threshold may well feel like a mile).

One option is to go to the charity shop and buy some shoes. However, it may be a fairly limited range. But *cough* many years ago! when I was teaching English abroad, I had a carefully prepared set of photographs (actually, the hair/style gives it away as being prepared in 1991…) which I used often. The kids had their favourite characters who they often chose for different scenarios (and it was always fascinating to hear stereotypes from different cultures). I found when I moved that I still have a stack of them, surrounded by a perished rubber band.

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I suspect I may have seen somewhere online photos of shoes, which may have triggered the connection (I certainly saw a haunting collection of images – have lost the link) of refugees’ footwear which touched my heart just before Christmas, so it’s not an original idea.

Instead of role play, then, instead of faces (which was an option), I’d like to collect some photos of shoes. A lovely range of all sorts. No criteria, just that they’re shoes, not with feet, with minimum of background distraction, preferably perhaps taken from the front-ish on, so it looks like they’re coming in. I want to use them to encourage thinking about who the person wearing these may be and what they might be looking for coming into our church for the first time. But I expect they’d make a nice collection for other activities once collated and lodged as a set.

Anyone feel like sending me some shoes? :-)

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Not quite on the back of a fag packet, though I think in all honesty it began on a paper napkin…

Some [long] time ago I said something about my Es. And I was encouraged to sketch them out for @vicarvernon.

I can’t even remember why I was doing it at the time, though I do remember that having carefully lettered ‘Entrance’ on our new external sandwich board, the Vicar remarked to me that he kept reading it as

tr.v. en·tranced, en·tranc·ing, en·tranc·es

1. To put into a trance.

2. To fill with delight, wonder, or enchantment

and I thought, what a lovely word for a service. Not a seekers’ service which is dumbed down and entry level and patronising, and not at all either reflective of what actually goes on in church or reflective of the great and mysterious beauty that can/could/should* come with it.

I would have done these many times in my old job, tried to help people shuffle out the mass of ideas, of priorities, of competing stuff into buckets to work with. And as I worked in my dissertation at Cambridge with various threes – believe, belong, behave; live as Christian, think as Christian, live in the Church; and with for example Ann Morisey’s domains, I found myself putting together a non-linear way of accessing and growing, of approaching and discipling which can be entered almost anywhere and worked around. And around.

the EsOn reflection, I think they’re pretty self-explanatory. One should be able to meet us at any place on here, and we might want to focus our development or prayer or priorities on one section at a time for a while, or on something from each in turn.

Essentially (see what I did there?!) it’s possible to say that lots of the things that might fall in one box would also fall in another, I just choose to place them termporarily or nominally where they are.

We want to welcome people in. We want our Entrance to entrance (our lobby, believe me is far from entrancing right now, major priority). We want there to be a warmth and a light and a grace that meets you wherever you are, hesitant in the doorway, anxious at the gate, expectant at the threshold. We want you to meet not just with us but with a living God and a living faith, one which attracts and infects, enlightens and encourages (believe me, I have many Es, let me know when you get fed up of them!); transcends and transports. We may be good at what we do, if you don’t mind the slightly solemn formality, but it’s quality. We might want to work on the provision of a wider range of services (though we are happy to engage in discussion about shopping and choice and to what extent the body of Christ in this place should worship together). We might want to extend our healing Eucharist or prayer meeting to offer a service which is sensory overload, so the beauty and liminality hang and envelop you. Some of us might think that Compline can be as compelling as water-soluble pen on pebbles in bowls.

We want to offer and meet in genuine Encounter. We know that people are still drawn to our buildings, and at certain times to the deeper yearning of what they stand for. But we also know that many are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, feel uninformed and uncertain. How do we provide points of information, points of open questioning, points of signposts or of quiet encounter? What do people want to know, to ask, to accuse? How do we offer a truth which is for all, to all in a way that they can experience and explore (see, plenty of ‘em) this as fits their circumstance and need?

We want to Enrich those teetering on the edge, and grow those already within. Discipling is about deepening the relationship, from wherever you are. That might be in getting to much more personal grips with scripture – either to revisit or to read for the first time. That might be in getting together with others of similar interests, to share an afternoon or an evening in fellowship based around something ostensibly non-religious – baking, beer, knitting. It might be in sharing thoughts and feelings around ‘non-religious’ books and then realising that over safe ground you have begun a conversation much more theological. How are people empowered to understand how they will flourish in their faith? And how will they then propagate that?

Church is not just about ‘in here’. It’s also about ‘out there’. But both out there and in here, there are always things to be done, things to join in with, things to share. There are ways to take on a more involved role when you have been around for a little while and through study groups have gained in confidence and want to offer some of your confidence back in the service of God. There are always little projects ongoing which you can be a part of without any commitment to the Church itself, if you are a little new and a little tentative. You can serve the missio dei in many ways while you are yourself drawing nearer, perhaps because of it. Perhaps you even come across us in the first place by seeing a friend knit a small hat, ask why, and do a few for us, then come along and ask what else we do and why…and then you might see an invitation for one of our candlelit services and think that might be a perfect way to spend that particular evening…

There is something for everyone, and somewhere to start for everyone. There is also something to work on for those of us wanting to maximise each and every possibility for people to meet with the living, all-merciful and entrancing God, to throw open as many doors as possible for the barriers to be broken down and the boundaries to be fluid.

wpid-Photo-Nov-17-2012-1058-AM

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It’s not about bums on seats. It’s not about the figures that get entered into the register. It’s not about ‘beating’ last year. But it is about giving thanks for a church which was considerably fuller over the last week than the same service set last year. In some cases by more than double. Christmas Day morning was less, but then we’ve lost a couple of long-standing families retiring away which made a dent on the hard core for that service. But a massive gain overall. How? And, will it last? And, should it matter?

“Not as bums on seats, but as curious or careworn, being embraced by the simple truth of the grace and mercy of our God” – from the sermon gone into January’s magazine. Mission is only about numbers in the numbers of people being touched by and brought into the presence of God. But those numbers also are fed and sent out – exponential, and are from whom more vocation is sought.

‘Mission’ has been on the agenda a fair bit recently. We mostly recognise we are a large church building with a pretty large parish and a lovely hall and in theory a fair bit of potential. Which we are far from realising. And some have no desire to change. But others, who want to see the church (not building) grow and flourish, recognise we need to work at this. So we’ve been chipping away at some things that might seem common sense. We have a website now (though, mea culpa, it needs updating already). We have a brand. We have non-mouldy ancient things in one of the noticeboards and the hall noticeboard has been euthanased. We have a consistent look to new materials (mostly) and a professional finish (mostly) to stuff we produce. We do posters and cards and newsletters. (the latter is a tentative start, it’s on the top of the current priority list). We have banners slung outside and signs offering welcome. Usually, these days, the outside doors are both open wide.

We have better advertised services and we have a new service. We haven’t got rid of the organ and brought in a band. We have brought in some toys and bags for children and to some grumblement tried to instill that children are welcome. We have a coffee machine that can make proper coffee, although not all coffee-rota-ers risk it. We have a prayer board and a children’s film club in the hall and better relationships with the hall users.

It’s a start. Baby steps. But across the year, we’ve had people come to the Bereavement Service ‘because that lovely invitation came'; to bacon butties at the Great North Run ‘because we saw the banner'; to the Carol Service ‘I wouldn’t have thought about it but then someone put that beautiful card through the door'; to the Crib Service ‘because her cousin [grandson] was baptised here and got the invite but they were busy, but I thought I could bring her [granddaughter]‘ – and took away a baptism application. We gave out lots of messy church invites to parents – and children – who listened to me for 5 mins before the start of the school nativities tell them about what goes on here.

We’ve begun to look seriously at the fundraising required to build a toilet in church, hopefully with a kitchen. We’ve agreed that it’s ‘suicidal’ not to have one. We’ve built an accessible ramp to the main door, and planted up much of the gardens. We’ve cut down four trees and much much ivy/bushes/random vegetation. We’ve designed and just taken delivery of the first of three new roadside signs. We’re no longer invisible. When I asked around in the parish when I arrived, I often heard ‘what church?’ The reality for many, despite being pretty much in your face, is our church was invisible. Yes, it has been costly, both in financial terms and other – mentally and emotionally exhuasting to do all that on top of the ‘normal’ church work.

But isn’t mission the very work we were sent to do – just as much as worship? For much of our parish, the reality is that they no longer knew what we were here for, or even that we were here. We buried a not-even-day-old baby the week before Christmas ‘because you look like a proper church’ and God willing we will baptise his sister at Easter, we now being inextricably linked with their family story. So this week, mid the exhaustion, we allow ourselves a small hope that the eagle eye we have been keeping on the numbers is not for the sake of the numbers themselves, but to see and feel the vibe which results from a fuller church praising God and meeting with him and working with him. People are asking what the next ‘project’ is, after bra collecting and hat knitting and coats collecting. The foodbank box overflows with generosity from those who don’t have masses to start with, but know that God hallows what they have when they offer it back to him.

This year just gone, we have genuinely prepared some ground for growth. We’re enjoying sowing and being ready to sow some seeds. We know we have much work to do. We have a welcome course planned, and a list of people being written to to invite onto a welcome greeters team. We’ve begun to develop our own children’s resources and make them available. We’re ready to try to be proactive about children’s teaching and have plans for school to be in more often. We’re expanding the lunch club for our elderly – though we shall need some help when the chef has her hip done in Feb. We’re choosing materials to be available in church in the afternoons when church will – thank God – be open for a period. We’re ready to expand the newsletter trial to work on reaching much higher % of the parish. We’re working on updating the churchyard guide and the church history booklet in advance of the Open Heritage Weekend.

We’re excited. Tired, but excited. God moves in this place and we want to get the doors open and chase out after the Spirit to go where he wills. Bring it on.

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Evening Prayer, June 23rd

As we heard a little of this morning from Margaret, a few of us spent yesterday at Whitburn Academy with Bishop Mark, Judy Hirst and lots of other clergy and lay people at the diocesan Preparing the Ground for Growth day. It offered a lot of things to think about, a lot of questions to ask ourselves – not just those of us who were there, individually or on behalf of the church, but ourselves, here, as the community of St Mary’s, not least the starter for ten, ‘what are we doing here, or what are we for?’

On my pre-ordination retreat last year, one of the things Bishop Justin asked us to remember was never to forget to be overwhelmed by the love of God. He said it was easy for anyone, but especially clergy, to be trying so hard to be everything everyone wanted them to be, to end up frustrated and demoralised, and forget the key, fundamental and absolutely core and central fact that we – and all of us – are loved by God. God has provided us through Christ a remedy for all, and we all have acceptance through faith. (+Justin may have nicked a bit of that from St Paul).

Don’t ever lose sight of this, he urged. If we lose sight of the preciousness of being loved by God we are under-qualified social workers (occasionally fully qualified) and the church is Rotary with a pointy roof. We are meant to do God, and the temptations are legion to do good as a substitute rather than a consequence of doing God. We are accepted, be overwhelmed.

Why am I telling you this? Well because more…

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