Graham Cray on getting started

Monday, 9 April, 2012

Graham Cray discusses starting fresh expressions of church - starting and listening, who will never be reached, listen well, people of peace and listening to God.

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Graham Cray: Fresh expressions can be birthed, they can begin, in a whole variety of different ways. You might become really aware of an age group that's missing in your church, that you don't touch. It might be a geographical area or a social group. Or it might not be a negative, it might be a positive - you get a nudge from God. Talking just recently to someone who's spent some time in a hospital, one of the people in her ward was clearly illiterate, very obese and struggling and suddenly she felt a compassion for people like that that she'd never felt before. And that can be the beginning of a call from God. It might be you simply get a nudge from the Holy Spirit. It might be that you see something you haven't seen before - it's amazing what we don't know about the places where we live and work. Whatever it is as God give you that nudge, as you begin to realise this isn't just an idea you've had it's maybe a gentle pressure from the Holy Spirit to see what you can do, that's the time when you have to stop wondering and start the serious process of listening.

Perhaps the key question any church should ask itself is who would never be reached if we only do this. Who are those for whom Christ died and whom God loves but who have no connection to his people or the story of his son. And once you start to ask that question you need to begin a serious period of listening. Please don't rush the listening. The listening isn't an inconvenient preparation time before you start the real work, the more you listen the more you're likely to hear clearly from God. Ask yourself what is God saying to you about this possible mission. Gather with others in your church who might have the same concern and pray together. Prayer walk, walk through your community or to the places where the people that perhaps you have in mind gather and listen to God as you do so. Get some stats, some census information or whatever else is available about this group or that community or that network. We often think we know our communities and localities far better than we do and of course we don't know what we don't know.

Listen to the things people talk about. I know at least one parish priest who spent early months in the parish, a day or two a week, sitting in local cafés apparently reading the paper but prayerfully listening to the conversations. How do people express their concerns. What are the issues that animate them or concern them. Take time on this. Let a conviction before God about what you're meant to do grow. Please don't rush the listening, but neither use the listening as an excuse to not really do any action. The time will come when the Holy Spirit will prompt you to act but most of us rush into acting too quickly and cut the listening too tight.

As you look and listen, look for gatekeepers. Who are the people who are the entry into a whole network or a group. Some people quote from the Bible and call them people of peace, but who are the ones through whom you get access to others, who when they trust you will help other people to trust you. That's going to be really important. Quite often the first people you come across who engage seriously with you, perhaps in a spiritual conversation they ask you why you're paying so much attention to their community or their group, quite often they may be the person who is the key to a whole wider network of relationships. You're also looking for ways to serve. Fresh expressions take root first of all through practical non-manipulative serving that isn't for any other purpose. We're not serving because we hope that people will become Christians, we're serving because that's what Christians do and if we show them authentic Christianity then they might also want to know more. But we do it because it's what we do, people know when you're doing something really for another motive. At the same time, this isn't a solo effort. Fresh expressions are best birthed with a team, not a solo pioneer. So who's been gathering round you, whose conviction has been growing with yours, who - and it may be people that certainly weren't in the forefront of your mind when you began to ask the questions - who has become a vital partner in the prayer, because there's a very real possibility they'll become vital partners in the mission as well.

The purpose of all of this above all is to listen to God. If mission is seeing what God is doing or hearing what God is saying and joining in, then that's the purpose of this prayer, that's the purpose of the listening and discernment. And of course it's not just for the beginning, it's not you pray when you start and then thank you God very much, it's an ongoing need to listen. Each stage of development you'll need to hear God. Each now pastoral situation you come up to or possible turn in the road you'll need to listen to God. So invest more time than you are comfortable with in the preliminary listening part, but never stop the listening to God throughout the life of your fresh expression.


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