Church of the Poor? Being with people


20161119_110731At our ‘Church of the Poor?’ conference on 19 November 2016, Clare McBeath shared this story of being minister at a church in an inner-city community facing high levels of deprivation. 


In 2000 I was a student minister, working alongside the more experienced minister of a tiny Baptist church in Openshaw, East Manchester. When I went there it was the 17th most deprived ward in the country on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation.

Life expectancy for men was less than 10 years below the national average. 0.01% of young people went to university – and that was the Anglican vicar’s daughter. The community was nearly all white working-class, although the factories and industries around which Openshaw had been built had long since closed, leading to long-term unemployment. Around half the houses were derelict and boarded up, and you could buy a two-up-two-down for £1,500.

However, the year of 1997 heralded preparations for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and accompanying  regeneration – so to quote Tony Blair’s election song, “things could only get better”.

This was not a typical student placement, and the  idea was always that we would move into Openshaw. We wanted to model a different kind of ministry  – not that of senior and associate, but a co-ministry build around a kind of intentional community of two families sharing cars, children and kitchen equipment.

Great fans of liberation theology, we set out to become a Baptist version of a Base Christian Community: reading the Bible and seeking to live as disciples of Jesus in our own context.

And we got involved in regeneration – the credit union, Beacons for a Brighter Future, school governors, NHS boards. The old boarded-up houses, along with our church building, were demolished, leaving us as a church homeless but with dreams of rebuilding.

Early on we realised that most of the materials written for churches were pretty useless in our context. The classic was a book of liturgical ideas that suggested we took our congregation out through the lichgate and down the lane. And we looked out of the door and across the razor wire fences to see the back alleyway with its burned-out wheelie bins and boarded-up houses, and realised this just wasn’t working.

So we started writing and then publishing our own, and embarked on a journey that led us away from being a traditional church to being more of a missional community.

What has changed?

So what has changed in 16 years, and what have we learned along the way?

The most dramatic difference is that the community is no longer mostly white working-class. It is now a vibrant, multicultural community, as many people seeking sanctuary and economic migrants have arrived, bringing their aspirations and dreams of a new life. The community is no longer fairly static – people are continually arriving, finding their feet, and then moving on to be with family or their own communities elsewhere.

Regeneration delivered a new shopping centre with a Morrisons, BrightHouse, B & M Bargains and the inevitable betting shop. After the economic crash of 2007, finally new houses are starting to be built on land that was cleared.

Openshaw Baptist Tabernacle doesn’t look anything like a church. We mostly meet over a weekly community meal and a fortnightly Saturday evening meal or Sunday morning breakfast, where we bring and share food, read the Bible, talk about how it relates to our daily lives, do craft activities, pray, break bread and share wine together.

We don’t sing hymns, we don’t take up an offering, we don’t have a sermon or a Sunday school, and we certainly don’t have rotas or many formal meetings. We are still involved in a healthy living project at the local children’s centre, but this is now entirely run by local volunteers.

And I guess the other thing that has changed is that we no longer have grants, which enabled the two of us as ministers to be paid (albeit part-time). The two of us now work in Baptist roles elsewhere – for me this is as Co-Principal of Northern Baptist College.

But our tiny missional community survives and thrives on this very different way of being church together.

For many years we have journeyed with our local URC congregation. A couple of years ago their minister retired, leaving them rather bereft and struggling to work out what the future might look like, and struggling to keep various projects and traditional Sunday worship going. So we started to talk about joining with them more intentionally.

We explored the idea of coming together into a local ecumenical project and then ruled it out as none of us have the time or energy to put into creating complex structures. So we just journey together.

We were fortunate in being able to have a Baptist ministerial student work with us part-time for two years – with a remit of helping us work out together what the future would look like without paid ministry. She particularly worked at empowering the congregation to lead their own worship through things such as a café and messy church styles – basically we have breakfast together and a couple of the congregation provide a theme, a Bible reading and a couple of activities, and we talk and pray together.

I think it is fair to say, at first it wasn’t easy and some just wanted to invite different people in to lead worship and preach. But it wasn’t working as we have had three new families join the church in the last two years, two of them asylum-seeking families – which has been a huge blessing, but has also rocked the sense of identity the church had.

We can no longer be a cosy little club, many of whom who have known each other for 40 years. We are no longer a mainly older-age community. Within the two churches we now span ages from 2 to 92, including five children and three teenagers, across about 30 people if all of us are there.

At first there was quite a lot of resistance and reluctance for the congregation to get involved in leading this new café/messy style church. A breakthrough came when our student minister asked the teenagers to plan and lead a café-style Easter Sunday service – which they did confidently and inclusively, getting others involved in reading and acting.

For those who had been a bit reluctant to get involved, this marked a turning point – if the teenagers can do this, so can we. And we haven’t looked back. So a couple of weeks ago we baptised one new member of the congregation, and welcomed two others into membership.

And two of the newest members of our community, Venicia from Nigeria and Justine from Congo, led our café-style church, reading the Bible and relating it powerfully and movingly to their own journeys of faith.

And I remember sitting there as I gradually realised that this was it, the idea of a base Christian community in action, leading themselves and journeying together.

Theological reflection

But I think the biggest thing that has changed is me, and my own understanding.

Initially I moved into Openshaw to lead a church. We spoke of being an incarnational community, but we had a particular model of community engagement that came from a very middle-class perspective. We knew all the demographics and statistics and the agencies who worked there.

Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martin in the Fields and a well known academic, broadcaster and theologian, speaks about the ‘four windows of social engagement’:

  • working for – agencies running projects within a community
  • being for – advocating, campaigning
  • working with – agencies and local people around the table
  • being with – living in relationship

I don’t think I’d ever seen myself or church as operating from the first of these models of working for a community. But I do think, looking back, I’d seen myself as ‘being for’ (advocating and campaigning) and as ‘working with’.

The big shift I’ve had to make is to move from seeing myself as someone who has moved in to help a community. The reality is I am part of the community. Economically I am now tied to the community – affording to live elsewhere is pretty much out of the question. Socially, I now make up one of the single parent households that churches so like to call “broken families”. My friends are my neighbours and folk from church who have journeyed with me through some difficult times. My children, now teenagers have grown up here complete with Manchurian accent and don’t really know anything else.

I think I now see myself and church as ‘being with’, as people living in relationship. Church is not so much about doing as being, we just are.

And in the ‘just are’, we are sharing our lives together at a deep relational level – a level that can break down many of the invisible boundaries that keep us apart. Age, gender, sexuality, race and culture.

Much of that has to do with the fact that many of our gatherings take place around food, many are in people’s homes.

But as I reflect, there is something deeply incarnational in the ‘being with’. For most of Jesus’ life he was ‘just with’ – to the extent that the Bible tells us very little of those 30 years. And in the 3 years that we do know about and call his ministry, most of that, it seems to me, was about just ‘being with’. Just ‘being with’ people eating and sharing meals, conversations and life together.

So in order to become a church of the poor. ‘what might we need to do?’ is the wrong question.

It is more about who we might need to be.

churchofthepoorClare McBeath is Co-Principal of Northern Baptist College and is working to cretae a new Centre for Theology and Justice.

Click here to read our Church of the Poor? call to action.

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