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.




Ch _ _ ch – what’s missing? U R ..etc.

Listening to Nicky Campbell on Five Live this morning just before 7am, Stuart Elliott the former Hull City player and NI international was being interviewed about his decision to quit football and become a Pastor.

It’s quite well known over here that Stuart Elliott is very open about his Christian faith, yet as he explained his reasons for becoming a Minister, and gave his opinion on a few different issues including why the Pope’s beliefs are not shared by him it became more and more cringeworthy to me. I felt a bit ashamed of myself.

Stuart wasn’t expressing views that surprised me. In fact, I agreed with most of it – but listening to him felt embarrassing. Perhaps it was the starkness of what he was talking about – no embellishments, no illustrations, just a simple articulation of what he believed.

I wouldn’t say it offended me, but definitely stirred a strong reaction, maybe almost the sort of reaction someone strongly opposed to Christianity might have, which shocked me a bit.

Over the years I’ve developed a nostalgic affinity with the old road signs, smart-alec slogans, sandwich boards, and megaphone men that are still around – rather than regarding them as constant reminders of why I am here and what I must do.

Perhaps the reality of the gospel and the Kingdom of God is closer to us than any billboard or radio soundbite.

Maybe it is so much under the skin of those who believe, or believe there is something else…a desire so close to us that it makes traditional gospel methods at times seem alien and intrusive.

I’m thankful for men like Stuart Elliott who stand up for their beliefs in the way they do, but also the anytime/anywhere nature of the Holy spirit, reminding us that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

I hope being embarrassed at the radio this morning was positive thing. A reminder that the gospel message is relevant and speaks to a deeper longing.

At the mercy of the next big thing

In November Belfast is hosting a major Christian conference featuring evangelical flavour of the month Mark Driscoll. His reputation as the “cussing Pastor” in the US has caused controversy when in fact he is no more radical than any of the old Baptist pastors that used to do the rounds when I was growing up. Take this sermon excerpt about the “Twilight” novels for example, the sort of patronising, artless, diatribe reminiscent of this guy. I could go on but would only risk becoming more grace-less.

The point I wanted to make was about the evangelical church’s depressing trend of trumpeting one man (I think Mrs Meyer’s position seems safe!) after another as the next big thing whose books/DVDs/CDs we should be fawning over because it is revolutionary or radical, when the reality is that they are just rehashing the same tired theology only adding an “-al” at the end or using fancy graphic design. I’m no theologian but initially I was encouraged by the seemingly new approaches promised by “transformational” or “missional” churches/conferences but realise now that most of it is  just the same – a subtle re-branding exercise to make us as Christians feel a bit less guilty about the way we’ve kept going about our business. Just a bit arrogant at times too.

Worryingly this approach often rides roughshod over local stories of faith that have developed painfully through years of work, especially in the field of community engagement. I was reading earlier today about this event – Be Part of a Transformational Church – being held in Northern Ireland this week. I can only hope that local pioneering projects in this area of work are involved in it but I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t.

The Papal visit has been making the headlines this week. At least the Catholic church is consistent with its idol. When the cussing one is no longer in vogue there’ll soon be another vintage Pastor reinventing the wheel.

Ever wanted to punch a “worship leader”?

These dudes are far too smug. Why does church make me hate music I used to love?

Scary Bible verses

I get weekly emails from Evangelical Alliance called “Friday Night Theology.” Sometimes I find them really interesting, other times less so but thats how it goes with these things. It was great this week as they posted the ten scariest Bible verses according to the ever-excellent Ship of Fools website.

Having been brought up on the gory imagery of nightmare hymns like “there is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” I find some of these suitably grisly in a nostalgic way:

1. The ban on women teaching in church (1 Timothy 2:12)
2. Samuel’s instruction to ‘totally destroy’ the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3)
3. Moses’ command ‘Do not allow a sorceress to live.’ (Exodus 22:18)
4. The ending of Psalm 137 ‘Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks’
5. The gang rape and murder of a concubine (Judges 19:25-28)
6. The condemnation of homosexuality (Romans 1:27)
7. Jephthah’s vow which led to his daughter being sacrificed (Judges 11)
8. God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2)
9. The instruction that wives submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)
10. The instruction that slaves submit to their masters (1 Peter 2:18)

Phew  – where to start??

Lock up your parents!

I flick across the Christian channels on Sky regularly and the past weekend God TV has been broadcasting live coverage of a Christian music festival in Ballymena called Fuel. I didn’t know any of the bands or speakers, but was amazed at how, in such a short space of time, events like this with exclusively American acts can now be staged in Northern Ireland. Even more significant is how this style of music and event has mainstreamed into Evangelical church culture here.

Anyone remember this?

awakebanner.jpgIt took place way back in August 1998, and as a Baptist teenager I was risking my YF good standing by going to it. Tony Campolo was the speaker, and there was a mix of American and local musical talent. At the time it seemed like a really huge event, but compared to 2009’s Fuel  – pretty small scale.

To me the biggest contrast between the two events was that Awake felt like a genuinely subversive happening – from having Campolo as a speaker, bringing over All Star United (a new and then unknown American band) as the headline act, holding it in a prominent public space (Laganside), and the preceding public parade starting out from City Hall. Fuel 09 in contrast, tucked away in Ballymena, looked like something you could go to with your parents!

Jesus on the mainline (and in The Wire)

A good churchman is always up in everybody’s sh*t

There are many memorable quotes from The Wire, but I was thinking about this one today. These were the words of “the deacon,” a character who first appears in season three, played by Melvin Williams (a fascinating character in his own right). He’s the only religious figure to appear in a consistently positive light, in fact one of the few characters in the whole show to do this!

(there are no spoilers in this article by the way)

mobs_melvinjpgI was looking for signs of Christian truth in this show, and I think this relatively minor character (he’s left out of HBO’s principal cast list) is one of the best examples. The quote at the top highlights the deacon’s role perfectly – subverting the sad stereotype of Christians as nosy busybodies by playing a vital role in creating community cohesion. True salt and light – a living commodity to help things work better in the broken down communities of inner-city Baltimore.

He helps a teacher in a local school to find a job for her friend, an ex-drug dealer fresh out of prison – Dennis “Cutty” Wise. When Cutty is tempted back onto the street the deacon encourages him to put his boxing skills to good use by setting up a gym for local street corner kids. When Cutty struggles with red tape and health and safety regulations with the gym, the deacon puts him in touch with the correct council officials to help him through.

When a senior police chief’s experiment to relocate and isolate drug dealers to one area of the city threatens to create a public health disaster, the deacon encourages him to brings local health NGOs to distribute necessary medical supplies, turning the whole thing into innovative social research.

In the next season the deacon persuades the newly-retired police chief (Bunny Colvin) to work for the local school as an educator in a pilot programme working with at-risk young people. He also gets Cutty a job as truant officer, enabling him to recruit more young people for his gym.

The deacon’s links with city hall, the schools, the police, academics and the streets, are crucial to the development of many of the series’ character and plot developments. And where can Cutty, Colvin, or anyone else find the deacon to seek his advice? He’s to be found down the pool hall, hustling away.

Perhaps most significantly the deacon is a layman, not a Minister or Reverend. Plenty more stuff to unpack from this series I think.