Am I part of a 'beautiful failure'? (Mark Rodel)

Thursday, 1 December, 2011

Mark RodelMark Rodel asks whether he's part of a beautiful failure.

Two years ago, the St Luke's congregation in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began meeting in Wilmcote House tower block.

With the Bishop's permission, we stopped Sunday services and opened the Sunday Sanctuary. Now I'd say, looking at the terms with which we started out, Sunday Sanctuary has failed. The idea was that if we created something on a Sunday morning within a particular setting, people would come to it. We thought it would be sort of like turning up in their front rooms. It wasn't.

Some have come but there hasn't been a breakthrough in numerical growth. We have interacted with a large number of people since 2009 but we have good strong relationships with a total of just three families.

On the positive side, one of those is a family of eight and we baptised five members of our community on 20 November. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. Six more members of our community were also confirmed at Portsmouth Cathedral on Sunday (27 November). People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

I would describe Sunday Sanctuary as a beautiful failure. We have come to realise, not that it was a bad idea - and we are not to stop doing it - but we were still operating a 'come to us' model even if it was 'come to us in a different place'. If we are going to really make a difference in Somerstown, it's probably going to be one family at a time, building relationships and investing in them from personal resources, energy and enthusiasm. It's risky and costly and it exposes you.

The baptisms and confirmations remind us that we are part of the wider family of the Christian church, so I suppose I use the language of 'failure' provocatively. In terms of 'traditional' success criteria and measured outcomes, we have put them aside at Sunday Sanctuary and instead shared our lives with those who have come along. These are no longer people who have been added to the community (as in 'them' and 'us'); they are us.

It has become clear that it's not a case of 'if we tweak this event, the people will come' - they won't come

It has become clear that it's not a case of 'if we tweak this event, the people will come'. They won't come. We can't yet say if this is a lesson for fresh expressions generally. I suspect the lesson is not to remodel church to make it more attractive or accessible; instead it really is about going to people where they are and sharing life with them.

That asks big questions of us as ministers. I live in a house provided by the diocese; I don't live in the tower block – which we see as our focus. One begins to wonder whether the only authentic way to engage in this sort of ministry is to live the same sort of lives that 'your' people are living.

I would say that fresh expressions of church who sometimes seem to try and achieve something that we know - through experience - simply doesn't work. If we just change church, the people won't come in. Maybe in some places they do but in housing estates, in city centres, in tough environments, people don't go to anything. The only way you make a difference is if they trust you and they will trust you if they have found you to be trustworthy. And that takes time.

What are the resources that sustain you in that highly costly and demanding way of engaging with people? It's about a depth of spirituality. What we need from the church is not hugely effective managers of projects but holy men and women, boys and girls to tell the stories of doubt and question and love and joy and frustration.

At the beginning of this role I thought it would be a Pauline sort of thing with me getting something going and then others would come through from the community to take it on. I was wrong. Now I can see this taking a decade or longer to kind of get to a centre of gravity that might sustain itself. It's going to take years.

In terms of specific needs of our community, text-based materials are not useful at all and we are thinking much more about what we do with our bodies and say with our mouths. There are only just over 20 of us gathering together and our youngest members don't read (yet). They make up a significant minority of our small community so we take their needs seriously and you can't put words in front of them. If they're disengaged, you know straight away because we're all together!

Three years in and I feel like we are just beginning. I'm enormously challenged both by the call to ever more radical discipleship and how that makes sense to me and my family. I'm not prepared to play at being a Christian.

About the author: 

Mark Rodel is City Centre Pioneer Minister for the Diocese of Portsmouth and Associate Priest in the parish of St Luke, Southsea.


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