Friday, 5 March, 2010

Chris Russell, of St Laurence Reading, shares his view of leading a fresh expression of church.

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Chris Russell: You'll probably know this, but in 1977 when Elvis died, if indeed he did, there were nine known Elvis impersonators throughout the world. By the turn of the millennium this number had grown to 485,000 plus. If these trends continue, by the middle of this century one in every five people will be an Elvis impersonator, overtaking the Chinese as the largest people group on the earth. And certainly more people than count themselves part of the Church. And as we survey the scene and as we are bombarded with figures and with reports of what a desperate state the Church is in, it can be really tempting to try and find that winning formula and to try and do that impersonation of something that has been done so well.

I stand before you briefly to tell the story of St Laurence Reading, for the last nine years, and I really haven't even got any tricks up my sleeve. But I just want to give you five defining moments which have shaped us and which I think has got us to where we are now.

This is St Laurence Reading. It's a barn of a building, medieval, if anyone has a spare £200,000 for the tower if you'd see me later that would be great. There were about twelve members of St Laurence, Reading, in the mid-'90s and so the area dean, who was the vicar of St Mary's and St Laurence, said oh we just need to do something about this. So he called together a deanery working party, and that working party came up with this extraordinary document at the end of the '90s which said that St Laurence should be a church which was focused on non-churched young people and should be missional amongst them. Our God is the God who does wonderful deeds, he breaks through bars of bronze and through doors of iron.

I think we are living in a wonderful time where we have such - permission-givers isn't it Graham, that's what it's called, yup - permission-givers, who just want to see this happen. So if you're fighting structures, do you know they can come on your side - and pray it, and never give up that they will. But for us, what I love about St Laurence is the fact that it's not my idea. I would never feel that comfortable inviting people to be part of something that was my idea. So the fact I'm just custodian of St Laurence Reading for however long, but the vision is on the church.

Second thing. We arrived in 2001 with a team of people from Watford. I'd done a curacy in Deptford and then shared with various people about what I felt really like just the fire in my belly was to do. And everyone said oh you'll just do yourself in. If you and - my wife - Belinda, if you two go somewhere you'll just do yourself in, you need a team of people. So a friend called Mike Pilavachi invited us to Soul Survivor Watford, he said share your vision and take whoever will go with you. And so we did and so we left with about eleven or twelve people. And for us team has been vital to this thing being still in place, it being a shared thing.

Obviously it's changed since the early days when we could all sit round a table, it's been a place of wonderful encouragement, doing this with other people who share this vision, and it's also been utter heartbreak as people decide to leave or you have just fractures in it. But I suppose whatever, a group of people are core to these things happening.

The third thing, I hesitate to show you what St Laurence looks inside, because you'll think we're better than we are. It's a medieval building that we re-ordered and took the pews out and kind of created space in it. That's the north aisle, that's through the rood screen, that's the kitchen which is in the north aisle. Now if you lie on the floor and light lots of candles at night that's what it looks like. And that's the office, that I've been thrown out of. We re-ordered, and as exciting as church buildings apparently can be, it's what it makes possible that we're after.

And so like a community has gathered at St Laurence, about 75 adults now, about 45 children under the age of eleven, you can imagine the sound in that building. It's a nightmare! I mean it's brilliant, but it's like well what do we do now. I get berated the whole time for not putting any separate spaces in the building when we re-ordered it. And about 40 teenagers. Now on the one hand that community of people make possible what we do with young people. So if you're an adult in church, like about 30 adults are involved week by week in working with young people at St Laurence. But there's another kind of 45 who aren't. But that's fine. Now one because we have to pay for it all, we pay parish share, we have a gas bill of £14,000 a year, so in that way we need people even though we never tell them that when they come. So we need people to kind of make possible, to kind of be back and like this is happening, the mission is happening there, but the community of the church, the adults, the children, don't just make possible because they pay for it and pray for it. This is the mission of the church.

Fourth. As young people came to faith, and that took ages, as young people came to faith we were like ok, now what do we do? Like do they just come and join in what we're doing? How's that not imposing a culture on them? And we tied ourselves in so many knots over this one. We went oh no, we don't just want to make them like us, how do we make them more like who they are... and then somebody said this. We were on a weekend away, he said, do you know, I know what's going to happen, when young people come to faith they know how to pray and they know how to worship. And I'm so sorry if you're nodding, I think it's rubbish. It's like saying my kids know what food's best for them, do you know? And so I think actually, what a massive vocation on church is, yeah people have those responses when they come to faith, they know they want to pray and they want to worship, but I think and absolutely essential element of church, a vocation on church, is to teach people how to pray. Is to teach people how to hear God in Scripture. Is to teach people how to meet around the Lord's table and share bread and wine, how to be baptised. Our role essentially is to create a culture, if you like, which enables those things. The church is, if you like, creates the conditions in which these young people can live their Christian lives, and live as disciples of Jesus.

Franchise church planting isn't what we're called to. Franchise, like Subway, like McDonald's, you just get the same wherever. I can't see that that's what our calling is, just to see what's working somewhere else and just go oh this is how you cook the chips here as well. Same uniforms, that kind of stuff. I can't see that franchise churches in 2010 is where it's at. Because I think it's about what's God doing amongst these people in this place. The Spirit always has an address, the Spirit's always doing particular things in particular people, and for us a church we've got to catch up with that, we've got to discern it and we've got to harness it.

Four years ago, when the number of young people who'd come to faith and who were still part of the church was just - you could count it on your one hand - and we were just desperate. And up to then we'd done kind of hit and hope, we tried loads of things but we didn't really know why we tried it. So we called our bishop in and Bishop Stephen Cottrell, who's just a legend, came and said look, why not think about it like this. So we now have a kind of strategy for how we work with young people. So we have contact, where we just make initial contact with young people. There's about 500 young people who are in that. Then we nurture that contact through relationships. That's young people that we see on a week-by-week basis, young people that we know the names of. Then we have commitment, where we encourage and we invite them to commit themselves to follow Jesus. And then we have growth, where we grow discipleship in those young people. Now it's not about being relevant, it's about being authentic. Authentic to our Christian tradition, and what's happened in St Laurence up to now, because we're just part of the life of the church that's existed there from 1196. But it's also about being authentic to these young people and who they are. I really wish there were more young people who had come to faith. But if I'd have bought Hailey here, or Stuey, or Conor, or Kieran, you'd understand why I've given up the numbers game, and I'd settle for being part of the community of Jesus Christ with just one of them.


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