Being a community for the community (Mark Berry)

Tuesday, 10 May, 2011

Mark BerryMark Berry discusses being a community for the community.

Building relationships with different organisations, associated groups and denominational structures can be a challenge at the best of times - whether you are working within a traditional or fresh expression of church.

At safespace, general relationships with our own diocese have been difficult though, thankfully, we have good relations with the bishop, the rural dean and some of the newer staff. We also constantly seek dialogue in order to develop communication, but it isn't easy. We are currently talking with the diocese about mission as community/cultural transformation - not just increasing the size of congregations - and helping shape a conversation about rhythm and rule, connecting spirituality and mission.

One of our main challenges has been centred on finding a workable common language and evaluation criteria. With CMS, these things come more naturally because of the shape and values of the organisation itself. CMS has been a big part of the foundation story of safespace and of the ongoing exploration. It has acted as a sounding board, a critical friend and a resource for mission thinking for us. I suppose the best tool we have for building relationships is generosity; supporting projects and initiatives with which we do not always feel totally comfortable or connected. There also has to be a willingness on our part to try to put aside our own 'baggage' to listen to what is happening elsewhere.

A new development for us is to welcome Abbot Stuart Burns as our monastic visitor. We have begun to explore the possibility of an urban 'Abbey' as a community house, a hub for mission, a studio for creative spirituality and ongoing prayer, a home of radical hospitality and as a resource for mission in Telford and the Lichfield Diocese. As we move forward, exploring new-monasticism and particularly looking at an 'Abbey', we felt we needed to:

  • Hear and learn from the wisdom of the traditional monastic communities and heritage;
  • Get beyond the romanticism and simple practises to deeper understand the values and rhythms of community life and spirituality;
  • Engage with as much connectivity and wisdom as possible if we are not going to either just be 'the latest gimmick' or be constantly reinventing the wheel.
Evaluation cannot be quantitative so it must be qualitative and, most importantly, narrative - telling and sharing stories rather than ticking boxes or filling in numbers

Stuart is also a man of great love and we all need to be surrounded by love and parenting as we make mistakes and do stupid things! We also recognise a language in the values of the monastic communities which feels more apposite and natural to us and is beginning to be helpful in developing wider relationships.

Some people have referred to safespace as a glorified house group. I have no real problem with that as it stands, but the question is, what is the 'glorified' bit? For us we would say it is a deeper reality of communion and mission. We are not simply a Bible study, prayer or small group which is intended to support the existence of a larger group, nor a subdivision of a church; we are a vocational and intentional community of mission.

Our whole focus is on deepening our relationship with each other, with God and with Telford (warts and all). Yes, we do a lot more than your average home group, but it's not all about 'doing' - we are a community which exists for the community.

Interestingly, Willow Creek discussed some of these themes in their 'reveal' report and in some of their resultant re-strategising and developing Table Communities which were:

...designed to be the catalyst for all that God is seeking to do in neighbourhoods and beyond. The Table became the vehicle for doing church in the community rather than bringing the community into a church building ... it was a radical concept because in our society sharing a meal has become a lost art ... part of the table experience is about intentionally creating an environment - a sacred space.

They identify seven shifts in small group ministry, from:

  1. A program to an environment
  2. Having meetings to building community
  3. Small groups as a church system that delivers church programs to groups practising a lifestyle
  4. Content to process
  5. An optional ministry to an essential practise of the church
  6. Training leaders to training groups
  7. An institutional approach to an incarnational approach

Walter Brueggemann writes that:

Ministry cannot be about maintenance, but it is about gathering, about embrace, about welcoming home all sorts of and conditions of people; home is a place for mother tongue, of basic soul food, of old stories told and treasured, of being at ease, known by name, belonging without qualifying for membership.

So when we do gather we seek to have a very real sense of intimacy, a radical hospitality and a deepening and broadening spirituality - all of which helps to re-focus away from simply gathering to us, to serving and transforming the place in which God has put us.

Our thinking on leadership and evaluation in, and for, mission has shifted as we have journeyed together. Leadership becomes a community activity, where all are involved and everyone's gifts are vital, and evaluation cannot be quantitative so it must be qualitative and, most importantly, narrative - telling and sharing stories rather than ticking boxes or filling in numbers.

About the author: 

Mark Berry is Pioneer Leader of safespace, Telford.


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