'Do they take sugar?' (Frances Shoesmith)

Monday, 3 August, 2009

Frances ShoesmithFrances Shoesmith asks, 'Do they take sugar?'

I've been brought up short several times in the past couple of months as I've presumed to speak for the members of our fresh expression instead of allowing them to express themselves.

The most stark example happened some weeks ago when a trainee minister from another diocese came to visit our mid-week drop-in. She'd been given the task of 'assessing' a fresh expression, and had chosen us as we are geographically close, even though our contexts are very different: we're a deprived outer estate; she'd come from a leafy rural village. She had a clipboard and lots of questions and, having arrived before the 'official' start of our session, took the opportunity to ask me and the other leaders various pre-prepared questions. Once our members started to arrive she chatted with them, but a little later was getting ready to leave and pulled me to one side to ask me a few more questions.

Her last question was: 'What are the pros and cons of your work?' to which I struggled for an answer. What are the 'cons' of living alongside people who, because they are not only aware of their material and physical needs, but are also (very refreshingly!) aware of their spiritual needs, are more ready than many in wealthier communities to welcome God into their lives and see him begin to transform every aspect of their situation?

How can it be a 'con' to see people who feel they're 'not good enough to come to church' growing in faith, and, through membership of our fresh expression, start to see the reality of belonging to the local Christian community?

To see marriages that were headed for the rocks being rejuvenated?

To support a single mother who is thinking of walking out on her young children, as she turns around and begins enjoying motherhood again?

To rejoice when a family get the loan sharks off their backs and become officially 'economically active' for the first time in years?

Her last question was: 'What are the pros and cons of your work?' to which I struggled for an answer

As I struggled to know how to answer her question, I decided to ask our members: 'What difference does Chill Out make to you?' (Chill Out is the name of our fresh expression – coined by one of our founder members, because 'This is a great place to come and chill out'.) Without hesitation, one woman spoke up: 'If it wasn't for Chill Out, I'd have been dead years ago'. She's not joking – as a recovering addict she's all too aware of her mortality and of the new life God has given her.

In a less striking example, as we went through a process of discerning our values and vision, it was the members rather than the leaders who had the clearest picture of what our fresh expression provides and how it might develop in the future.

I like to think that I'm reasonably good at being a cross-cultural missionary, from my university-educated, middle class upbringing, into this very different culture. But instances like this show me how far I still have to go.

When will I stop thinking of us as 'leaders' and 'members' and realise that we're all sinners becoming saints, journeying together, from different starting points, at different speeds, but all heading towards the same place, or rather, person?

I'm grateful to God for these lessons in humility and reality and look forward (I think!) to the next lesson. Lord, let me never stop learning, and let me always be willing to learn from those the world brands as foolish, but in whom you see wisdom and truth.

About the author: 

Frances Shoesmith is on a journey, from chemical engineer in the Exxon family, to stipendiary curacy in a Shropshire market town, to self-supporting Pioneer Minister in post-industrial Bootle, Merseyside, and with a growing passion to explore how fresh expressions can help bring the gospel to adults in deprived urban communities.


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