Ash Barker welcomed me at the door of the Newbigin House in Birmingham, England. As I entered this enormous house, Anji, his wife, handed me a large mug of coffee. I walked into a huge living room and was greeted by two alpacas, three lizards, seven adults sipping coffee and a half a dozen kids playing hide-and-seek behind the furniture. It was a happening scene!
Ash, Anji and their kids are originally from Australia, but they had been living in the largest slum in Bangkok, Thailand for over a decade. They were working with their neighbors to create innovative ways to enable those in the slum to become much more self-reliant and create a better way of life for their kids. Their ministry is called Urban Neighbors of Hope.
Two years ago, Anji and Ash moved to Birmingham, England to join a large company of compassionate and creative Christians in Britain who are devoting their lives to making a difference in urban neighborhoods where families often struggle to make ends meet. Their experience in Bangkok has proved invaluable in Birmingham. In the remainder of this post, I’m going to give you a quick tour of the different ways Christians in the UK are seeking to be good news in their neighborhoods.
New Wine Urban Forum
I’ve added a video clip below that was taken at one of the two events I spoke at two weeks ago. I learned a ton from what these followers of Jesus are doing in the UK. The event I spoke at, the New Wine Urban Forum, was made up of a remarkable group of primarily charismatic Anglican Christians, as well as those from other traditions.
I discovered that many of my new friends, like Ash and Anji, had relocated into neighborhoods where people struggle to find work and safe housing, and often even have a hard time looking after their own kids. This was a learning time for me. Let me share a couple of examples I found.
Sam and his family are among the many followers of Christ living in a low-income community. Essentially, Sam works with a lot of at-risk teens. In fact, he and his wife often have living with them two or three teens who previously struggled to make good life choices. Sam shared the story of one young man (we will call him Todd) who had finally landed a job after three months of searching. Two weeks later, Sam connected with Todd, only to learn that he failed to show up the second week on the job.
Sam explained that working with teens that come from this neighborhood always seems to be about starting over. Then Sam added “that the funds that the local counsel provided for him to do street work this year had just cut his income by 40%.” However, Sam made it clear that none of these setbacks was ever going to stop him from working with these lads he really cares about.
What I found surprising at this Urban Forum was how many of those who attended are investing their lives in the lives of their neighbors. Most of them are doing it with no compensation at all.
In my presentation address, I shared how little of this level of investment exists in neighborhoods in the US. However, I hastened to add that many American Christians attend commuter churches. As a consequence, they often seem to have little investment in the neighborhoods where their churches are located.
New Parish Conference
The second conference I spoke at was the New Parish Conference, led by two of my good amigos from Seattle–Dwight Friesen and Paul Sparks. The focus of that conference, like the focus of their book, called followers of Christ to be a faithful presence in their neighborhoods.
Again, I discovered people from all different kinds of churches who carve out time every week to be with their neighbors. For example, one family regularly invites a refugee family from Syria over to dinner to help them settle in to their new community. Others set up gathering centers for lonely seniors. And still others plan neighborhood parties.
Not far from where the New Parish Conference was held, three young leaders from an Anglican Church were hosting a new form of church plant in the UK called “messy church.” A man named Ben was one of the leaders who hosted this very informal gathering for people and kids who would never feel comfortable in a regular Baptist or Anglican Church.
This messy church meets in an activity room in an ancient Anglican church at two in the afternoon, well after the traditional service ends. As I slipped in the back while they met that weekend, I saw a host of young families with their kids and some kids that came on their own.
These 7-to-12-year-old kids seemed to be having a “crafty” good time. Several parents also seemed to be very involved in three different craft projects around a big table. This gathering lived up to its name since the kids seemed to be having a messy good time.
Ben shared a story about Jesus enjoying kids. Then the whole crew had a yummy afternoon brunch with hot cocoa. Their entire time together took little more than an hour.
Refocusing for Church Unity
From the so-called emerging churches of the late 1980s to New Expressions that are still going strong not only in the UK but the US as well, churches in Britain have been very busy planting a broad range of churches. In fact, I urge serious church planters to check out the innovative edge of what God is stirring up in the UK these days. I think you will be surprised by what you learn. One site that showcases this is the journalofmissionalpractice.com.
The last workshop I attended at the New Parish Conference focused on the now divided British society, which includes many churchgoers, that has resulted from the recent national vote for Britain to leave the European union (i.e., Brexit). This national vote has proven to be very divisive.
A Pentecostal Bishop named Mike Royal led this workshop with great care. He invited a room full of forty Christians who were seriously divided by the Brexit vote. Mike started the session by asking them to share some of the struggles they were having relating to family and friends because of their differences. I could actually feel the tension beginning to rise as they candidly shared their feelings.
Mike then shifted the focus of the conversation by asking them to talk about the struggles poorer neighborhoods were having in Birmingham. By the end of the workshop, Mike had masterfully enabled this group to shift their focus to what united them—how to better serve their neighbors—instead of focusing on issues that divided them.
Back to the Start
Join me as we head back to the Newbigin House, where Ash invites me into his office to tell me about the new educational venture he is creating for young leaders: Urban Changemakers. He is fashioning a year-long course to enable young leaders to create new social enterprises that will make a lasting difference in the lives of those at the margins. In my post next month, I’ll give you a chance to meet Ash and hear about his intriguing proposal.
I would especially value your feedback and pushback to my blog post. Most of all, I would like to hear about the innovative things God is stirring up in your life and community. Please share with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As you watched the intro to anticipating new opportunities in tomorrow’s world, what new possibilities stirred in your imaginations? I believe we are living in a world changing at warp speed. In my next post for the beginning of the New Year I will offer a beginning forecast of new opportunities and challenges that could be awaiting us in 2017-2027. Be ready to imagine and create new possibilities for your lives and neighborhoods that bring a bit of hope in turbulent times.
Wishing you a blessed Advent & a joyous Christmas! I am looking forward to learning about your creative possibilities for the coming decade that reflect something of the compassion and creativity of the servant Jesus.
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