Friday, 5 March, 2010

Elaine Lindridge of Mind the Gap, Gateshead, shares her view of leading a fresh expression of church.

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Elaine Lindridge: Myself and my husband, who's called Stephen – you've already heard from him – started a project in the Gateshead and Jarrow Circuit, in the Methodist Circuit, called Mind the Gap. And you can probably tell from my accent that I'm from up there anyway.

As a project we had two main aims really that we were very aware of right from the beginning; the first was that we wanted to work with the folk who were already in the church who were kind of Generation X age group – those that we felt in particular were in danger of walking away from established church because they were finding it difficult to remain there through feeling sometimes excluded or certainly isolated because there wasn't that many people of their age group in the churches which they were working and worshipping in.

So we thought it would be good to gather those good folk together for support and for discipleship and for alternative worship – it was alternative back in 2001 – and ultimately to help them in their faith so that they could be used to go back into their local church situation and help with renewal in that context  as well.

And our second main aim was missional; we wanted to see people come to hear the good news of Jesus and choose to follow Jesus for themselves. And we wanted to create a kind of atmosphere where that could be – I never say 'easy' but…where that could be a little bit easier to embark on.

So, what was it then? Basically it was a cell church initiative. We were based in cells and essentially those cells were there to develop disciples. As well as meeting in cells for discipleship, there was the corporate gathering for monthly alternative worship; there was also regular faith-finding courses. We just happened to use Alpha; that seemed to work for us and there were seeker events as well which were usually socially based, maybe meeting in a club or something like that – or a family barbecue, somewhere where we could continue to meet together to develop relationships but also where we could quite comfortably invite our not yet Christian friends.

We didn't plant a fresh expression of church, we followed a vision and a few years down the line we heard about Fresh Expressions and we thought, 'Ah, that's what we're doing; that's what we are! 'So, it's kind of just allowing God to lead us into a new area and to trust him that he was going to show us what we were actually doing and what we were about.

Now, what I've just presented there it's kind of not rocket science is it? There wasn't anything that was particularly trendy about what we were doing either; there were no skateboards and we didn't have a fancy coffee maker machine either! But it kind of worked for us and it worked in our context.

I've been asked to share with you some of the highlights from the journey that we had. First of all it was wonderful to see folk coming to Mind the Gap who were already Christians but being renewed in their faith and seeing ways of doing things maybe a little bit differently that worked within their generation and then taking that back into the local context and their local church and doing mission there in a new way. It was fantastic to see that and to see the knock-on effect for some of the local Methodist churches in that area.

For me, personally, the biggest highlight was – and always will be – seeing people like Gary and Norma and Ashley who came from what has to be said quite difficult backgrounds, backgrounds that hadn't really been involved in church or seen any reason to be involved in church before but, somehow, coming to meet Jesus and coming to appreciate his great love for them and deciding they too wanted to follow him in their lives. Biggest highlight ever people, biggest highlight ever.

Another highlight but also a difficult if I'm honest was being with Christians of my generation as they struggled to reconcile the faith that they had in God with what they were experiencing in the inherited church.  I don't say that to insult the inherited church in any way; all I do is to say it to encourage you not to underestimate the very real struggle that some our brothers and sisters in Christ have in remaining in and worshipping in the established church setting.

Some of the lessons learned. I guess, to begin with, one of the main lessons that was learned quite early on was how important it is to have support; particularly support from those who are in authority over you in some way, particularly if that's in a denominational setting. Do you know I can stand here and say I worked with two fantastic Superintendents who were great; they just really helped me with what I was doing and helped us as a fresh expression of church. They didn't always agree, they didn't always like what we were doing but goodness they supported us because they saw the reality of the mission working in an area that wasn't being reached. But also Connexional help as well; I was very grateful that we received not only funding from the Connexion but also that we received mentoring help as well from Graham Horsley who used to regularly traipse up from London to come and share with us and help us to think about some of the issues we were facing and think about how we were doing things and why we were doing things in a certain way.

One of the other lessons learned is to do with focus. At the time of leading Mind the Gap I was also ministering in another Methodist Church where we were meeting in dilapidated premises so I was the project manager for a £1m rebuild, trying to manage a church that was displaced into three different areas for about a year whilst running a fresh expression of church as well. So my second point is 'keep your focus'. That's a lesson learned, keep your focus in what you're doing. It's so difficult not to be distracted when things come at you from all sides; it's so difficult not to resort back into doing things in the way you've always done it because actually that's a little bit easier than to keep on trying in a new way. If I can be very honest with you, there were times I struggled with guilt as well, a guilt whenever one area of work was being left undone because I was focusing on another area of work. Again I was so grateful to my team and to my Superintendents who really helped me to see priorities and not to worry too much about what wasn't being done and to praise God for what was being done.

If I can offer a little piece of advice here. If you are thinking of embarking on a fresh expression or if you are in a position to support somebody who's working on a fresh expression, particularly if it's a bigger kind of project, please, please try and release those folk to work in that area and don't expect them and don't expect yourselves just to be able to do it on top of everything else that you're doing.

We said earlier on about death and resurrection and sometimes we've got to let certain jobs, certain roles, certain works to die off in order to create the time and the resources that's needed to work in new areas so don't do it on top of everything else. I was very blessed that at least some of my workload was alleviated by the staff team who lifted some work off me so that I could focus more on the fresh expression of church. Mind the Gap. Protect your fresh expression workers.

And the third lesson that I learned was the importance of growing local, indigenous leaders and mentoring them; growing leaders from grass roots up who were not necessarily people who had gone off to college and been trained and been sent but people who lived there and worked there. And I'll come on to that more in a minute.

So, where's Mind the Gap now? Well, I'm not actually working with Mind the Gap hands on now. I left Mind the Gap last year. The year before that I helped to lead Mind the Gap through a kind of major transition. Many of the people who were involved in Mind the Gap were also still involved with a local Methodist Church, one of two churches in particular. And these two churches, after this period of time, were now growing. They were seeing new people coming to faith; they were doing more with discipleship and they were working with new forms of worship as well.

And so some of the Mind the Gap folk were actually doing too much, nothing new there. They were working with Mind the Gap but they were going into their local church and they were trying to help them transition, help them to be renewed as well by taking the things they were learning from Mind the Gap and implementing them in their local church. And it was working really well for the local church; it wasn't working so well for the people who were working in two different areas. And it was great to see them be encouraged more and more into missional activities in their local church but it was having a detrimental effect upon Mind the Gap.

And at one point I did wonder whether Mind the Gap had served its purpose, maybe that's what it was intended to do and it was time to move on. And we encouraged those people particularly to think about not where they liked best or where they felt most comfortable but where was their missional focus most? Was it in the local church or was it in Mind the Gap? And we freely released those people to go back to their local church, knowing full well that we would be left with very few people. However, we were left with a handful of people who belonged to no other church and saw Mind the Gap as their spiritual church.

Ad so in 2009 Mind the Gap became more formally recognised as a church. However, as one of the new members of that church said, 'Mind the Gap is not a real church you know, it's not a real church.' And I said, 'What do you mean, it's not a real church?' 'Well, it's more like a community.'

Mind the Gap still has the same values; it hasn't changed in the slightest. It has a very strong mission imperative. They wouldn't see it like that, they would say, 'Well, we just want to tell people about Jesus.' It has no premises of its own to worry about, it shares those premises with another Methodist church and its leadership is totally lay and indigenous. Before I left I spent some time mentoring some local leaders and one in particular, who just happens to be called Stephen as well to confuse you,…three years ago Stephen became my assistant leader, two years ago we co-led Mind the Gap together, one year ago he led Mind the Gap and I became his assistant leader . And that paved the way then for me to move on without leaving that very small church without any real leadership. It led to a much easier transition. There is presbyteral oversight; it's from a great guy who is then there to support the lay leaders when requested.

Those years with Mind the Gap were exciting and they weren't always easy as you can guess. In fact there was one year when so much went wrong I really thought everything was going to implode, including myself if I'm honest. And I wish I could tell you that there's a church called Mind the Gap in Gateshead that's got over a hundred new believers. But there isn't. But there is a small church there with a handful of really good folk who take very seriously discipleship and their commitment to discipling one another. They take very seriously mission and evangelism and to be honest I have never met a church with a stronger mission imperative. There is a church there that is fluid and changes regularly, depending on its context but its values and beliefs are not changing. It's a handful of believers but they are lay led and they are discovering what it means to be church in that setting and in that culture and context.

As I say, establishing a fresh expression of church, leading a fresh expression of church, has not been the easiest of journeys but would I do it again? You bet I would.


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