Community development and church planting

It’s been interesting to see new churches being planted in the Belfast area over the last few years, of all shapes/sizes with various theological emphases (albeit still broadly similar). Any leaders that I have met recently tend to come from creative or graphic-design based backgrounds, and are still working in those high-tech, constantly changing professions. This background also comes through in the style and presentation of those church projects.

Why is it then that Christians from a community development background are not planting churches?

(I make the distinction here from clergy, some of whom I know, who carry out their ministry very much with a CD ethos).

The relationship and congregational aspects of church life seem to me to fit with the strengths of community development principles, and people from this background are perhaps better suited to the rough and tumble of dealing with personalities in church. Furthermore, the CD focus on people rather than buildings and institutions I believe fits in with biblical principles.

I could think of a few possible reasons why they are not planting churches:

  • disillusionment with mainstream church understanding and appreciation of the value of community development
  • a desire to encourage communities to engage with existing denominations, churches and fellowships in their neighbourhood, rather than complicate things with building new ones
  • tiredness! Working with people and communities for limited tangible results in the short term is demanding
  • a constant need to challenge authority!

Thinking out loud here, and with no answers or quick fixes myself. I just sit with church people sometimes and think to’re very enthusiastic and all, I don’t doubt your intentions but…what you want to do achieve might take a loooong time. Perhaps too long for most churches to commit to.




A place worth caring about

I cycle past this stretch of road almost every day. Typical of some of bad planning round these parts. We have some expensively assembled footpaths, trees planted, and benches..all remaining totally unvisited. At the same time these walkways stretch out alongside rows of derelict buildings and vacant business units. There’s another public space round the corner, the junction where Castlereagh road meets Templemore Avenue and the Ravenhill Road…there’s some seating and pretty paving right in the middle of the junction, like a traffic island. And now both these new developments look increasingly sorry for themselves – its not from over-use. There are probably numerous examples near where you live.

Why are so bad here at creating public spaces? Money has been squandered on these projects from Government budgets whose enforced cuts will affect us all.

James Kunstler on delivers a great lecture on suburbia and civic life in cities, pointing out how the US is particularly bad at this, and gives other examples of healthy civic spaces in countries like France. He argues we have created too many public spaces that we don’t think are worth caring.

The New Jersey Turnpike to the Newtownards Road

I was down the Newtownards Road tonight for a community discussion on the history of Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. There were many rich, funny, poignant, and shocking stories shared by those present about the area’s heritage. Van Morrison was mentioned a few times as an East Belfast man who referenced the area in some of his songs. During the evening I kept thinking back to the American singer-songwriters I love, and how they have romanticised their hometowns to such an extent that millions of people travel to these places as a result. How are American artists so much better at this?

Twice in the past 18 months I’ve travelled across the New Jersey Turnpike on the East Coast of the US – referenced in so many popular songs by performers such as Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen. Stopping at a service area it felt like just another road, and a badly pot-holed one too! I think the Newtownards Road could hold just as much mystique if done the right way. Some novelists have managed it with Northern Ireland as a setting, maybe its time for musicians.

There’s a Dr Feelgood video at the top of the page because I watched a brilliant documentary about them on the BBC iPlayer last week called Oil City Confidential. It’s everything a rock documentary should be – fast-paced, gives a social context, doesn’t take its subject matter too seriously. Anyway, the members of the band talk at length about how, inspired by American blues music, they wanted to create a romantic image of their home town Canvey Island as the “Thames Delta” using the oil fields of the estuary as a backdrop. It worked, as fans of the band travelled there from all over the world based on the scene that they created.

What stories and places from where you live would make a great song? Scrabo would be a good one.

Wilco play Belfast for the first time

10 September 2010 at the Open House Festival – does not get much better than this!

  1. Ashes Of American Flags 
  2. Bull Black Nova 
  3. You Are My Face 
  4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart 
  5. One Wing 
  6. A Shot In The Arm 
  7. Country Disappeared 
  8. Impossible Germany 
  9. Why Would You Wanna Live 
  10. I’ll Fight 
  11. Passenger Side 
  12. Handshake Drugs 
  13. At Least That’s What You Said 
  14. Jesus, Etc. 
  15. I’m Always In Love 
  16. Via Chicago 
  17. You Never Know 
  18. Hate It Here 
  19. Walken 
  20. I’m the Man Who Loves You 
  21. Hummingbird 
  22. Encore:
  23. California Stars 
  24. The Late Greats 
  25. Heavy Metal Drummer 
  26. Red-Eyed And Blue 
  27. I Got You (At the End of the Century) 
  28. I’m A Wheel

If they’d chucked in “Misunderstood” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” it would just have been too much for me. Custom House Square has had a hard time this summer with gigs eg. David Guetta, Florence and the (relentless) Machine – so this was a perfect show to end the holidays with!

Recently, someone who read my blog entry on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as album of the decade asked me to contribute to a radio programme on student radio in Washington DC called Re:Stacks, based on people’s experiences of the album. It was all very random but fun, and exciting to hear the finished product here.

Richmond Fontaine in Belfast

Speaking to a friend recently about live music in Belfast and that, even though there are more live bands playing here than ever, there are fewer that I actually want to go and see. The two best gigs I’ve been to this year (Bob Dylan and Wilco) were both in Dublin.


Going to the Empire tomorrow night though, to see Richmond Fontaine in support of their new album We used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River. I’ve followed them since 2004’s Post to Wire and last seen them in 2006 at a half -empty Spring and Airbrake (they also played in 2007 – I had a ticket but forget the show was on).

I still feel that I haven’t given Freeway enough of a listen, but then I think a lot of the best albums are like that. It takes a while for the music and lyrics to enfold. Willy Vlautin’s lyrics do focus on the seedier side of life, but always shot through with underlying hopefulness which surfaces eventually. If this album has a theme, perhaps its about adjusting to city life. The band’s previous albums have been set in small-town America, focussing on the break-ups and mess-ups of ordinary people. 2007’s Thirteen Cities pointed to life outside your hometown, and now Freeway seems to hint that compared to city bright lights, well, things aren’t so bad at home after all. There’s some kind of brokenness anywhere.

This video for “You can move back here” that I’ve only just found, sums up their music and the images they try to create perfectly:

11th, 12th…13th!

_42403482_bonfires_pallclose416x3.jpgSqueezing past shopping trolleys in Connswater on Friday you’d think there was an impending nuclear disaster, so keen were people to get everything in before the 12th holidays. Yet given the decisions by many Belfast traders to remain open this holiday, Tesco’s will only be shut for one day (Monday)!

The 11th July bonfires and 12 July parades have each been bumped forward a day for religious(!) reasons and as I write this some palettes are being transported along our road as final preparations are made for Sunday night. (Xetera – your photos of Belfast life will be sorely missed)

Since moving back over to East Belfast  five years ago I’ve looked forward to attending the big bonfire on the N’ards Road and the expectation that goes with it. I’m no apologist for the anti-social behaviour (I hate that term) and naked sectarianism that too often accompanies the 11th night, but despite its flaws this must surely be one of the few remaining examples of grass-roots community expression in Western Europe.

Last week during the 1 July parade an English friend was amazed at the turn-out along the road, saying that there was nothing like this back in her home town. To me it feels at times like a sad, self-loathing celebration, of a culture and system for which these communities have been despised for following, and yet have failed to benefit from themselves.

It’s a very different atmosphere to the celebrations in Newtownards, where the bonfires were isolated in each of the housing estates so comings and goings were more noticeable, although there have been major strides there with Council-sponsored bonfire management programmes. Community activists deserve huge credit for their attempts to make these celebrations more family-orientated and less damaging to the environment.

I guess there’s a fair bit of cultural tourism to the East Belfast bonfire too, as I always hear a few unusual accents there, and the traffic suggests that some still make an annual trip in from the leafier suburbs. Anyway, here’s hoping that Sunday night is a safe one for all involved as critical eyes will again be focussed on Protestant working-class areas.