The word ‘unprecedented’ has, in these past couple of years, become a term that we have got used to hearing. The term has often been used by politicians to describe experiences resulting from the effects of the COVID pandemic. The experience of lockdown brought many challenges but primarily to health and wellbeing. The lockdown restrictions that governments implemented as a result of the pandemic presented a restricted but renewed focus on the local natural environment. Responding to this new scenario has, as we will see, brought new opportunities for pioneering.
On top of these societal pressures comes a period of traumatic change within the church of Scotland. The Assembly Trustees have set out a vision for a reduced but hopefully a rejuvenated church. This involves closures of buildings, uniting of congregations & amalgamation of presbyteries. It’s easier at present to see the reduction than the reorientation. It’s sobering stuff but the radical regrouping invites those involved in the church to get back to asking first order questions.
What and who is the church for?
It is clear that we can no longer simply try and improve the model of church as exists. We need rather to start with the God of Mission and God’s desire to share love and life with all that has been created.
Where might this lead us?
- To look with fresh eyes at places for signs of the kingdom where God is already at work
- To be a mission shaped church rather than a church which tries to do mission.
- To consider new starting places for the gospel whether that be in care homes, pubs, work places, beaches etc…
Asking such big questions is the natural territory of pioneers but having the patience & the compassion to sit, wait and discern the appropriate response will take time and needs to be done in community.
What is emerging?
As a result of the pandemic and the accompanying restrictions four new pioneering initiatives have come to the fore. Forest church, Renew26 wellbeing cafes, ACORN & Growing Young.
The Forest Church movement https://www.facebook.com/groups/forestchurch is growing in Scotland. Embryonic groups are now to be found in Penicuik, Craigsbank, Musselburgh, Duddington, Linlithgow…
In these places there are gatherings of people who feel closer to God in the outdoors. Research has shown that in the general population people’s greatest sense of spiritual or mystical experience has been mediated through music or through nature.
Activities such as working in allotments and community healing projects; local litter picks and foraging for fruit sit alongside psalm writing reflective walks and contemplative labyrinths. There is a reconnection with nature and the whole person rather than faith being simply cerebral and building based.
The series of national lockdowns in response to the COVID pandemic put great pressures on many people’s metal wellbeing. One initiative that emerged in response to this is the Renew Wellbeing Café. https://www.renewwellbeing.org.uk/
This project offers companionship through crafts and other hobbies alongside an invitation to participate in a daily pattern of prayer. Started by a Baptist minister in the midlands renew wellbeing cafés are being set up in Bearsden, Stirling, Glencorse & elsewhere.
At a time of crisis many people have reduced the scope of their activities. Gathering together in big groups was no longer possible. Small groups have become more important and have re-emerged as key places for discipleship.
One example of this is the ACORN project https://www.facebook.com/groups/933478613810194 Introduced by Michael Harvey this is a simple way of injecting or reinjecting spiritual vitality into Christian fellowship. Focussed prayer and belief that God is already at work lie at the heart of this simple yet profound call to missional prayer. There are ACORN groups across the country with a cluster in the Inverness area.
Learning together as groups of churches is not new but dates back to New Testament times. It speaks of a reaction against the excessive individualism of contemporary society but also affirms the widespread appreciation that the interdependent working of the Trinity as community exemplifies the way of being for the Christian church.
Growing Young https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/growingyoung is a learning community model promoted by Fuller Seminary. Currently there are 22 churches engaged in this process from across Scotland reflecting on how they can change to become inter-generational communities where young people are cherished and supported. Minecraft Church, Young People Mentorship and Wild Swimming are some of the new initiatives that have arisen in conversation from these gatherings.
The Challenges of these times…
To have the gift of ‘Not fitting in’ (Jonny Baker) can sound profound and can be prophetic. Yet pioneering at any time can be a lonely and challenging affair. When there is so much uncertainty around and the culture in the church struggles to get beyond self-criticism Pioneers cannot expect the church to be grateful for their efforts and will need to settle for affirmation that is close to home.
Despite the obvious challenges the national church has of late adopted the Five marks of Mission as a framework for the way that church needs to be. These are to help guide the church to set a new course for the future. These marks include activities with which pioneers will be familiar: proclamation and engagement with the culture; nurturing discipleship and building community; concern for social justice and a re-evaluation of the relation with the earth. These five points provide great opportunities for discussion about mission and can quite easily be linked to the four examples highlighted earlier.
Pioneering is about helping a new, life-giving culture emerge alongside and within inherited patterns. It is really hard to help bring new projects to birth whilst at the same time aware that in other situations communities need help ‘to die with dignity’. May God grant us the compassion when asked to sit with the weary & the dying but to grant us also the discernment and the courage ‘to go for it’ when the right time to pioneer arises. And arise it shall because we worship a God whose love is new every morning.
Revd Peter J Wood
Pioneer & New Housing Co-ordinator for Lothian Presbytery
7 February 2022