Sustaining community spirituality

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Sustaining community spirituality – a reflection on practice

by Alison Boulton

The parables of the mustard seed and the small amount of yeast are well-known stories that can trip off the tongue when reflecting upon how small incarnational groups might spiritually transform the communities to which they are called. The idea that a small amount of yeast makes a whole batch of flour rise, or that a mustard seed can grow into a huge tree, can be incredibly encouraging when starting to pioneer a small, usually fragile, group in a new context. And yet the reality of making a long-term sustainable difference to the spirituality of a given context feels more complex than simply allowing yeast to do its work or for a tree to grow from a seed.

This article reflects upon my own practice and experience of seeking to develop spiritual sustainability within a local community on a new housing estate over the past 14 years.

Defining sustainability

Sustainability is a difficult concept to pin down. My experience of hearing the term in relation to pioneering is primarily in relation to financial sustainability. In his study on the sustainability of fresh expression of church (FXC), Andy Weir notes the complexity of the term and makes some helpful comments that will help frame this reflection.[1] While Weir’s study is not fully relevant to this paper, as it focuses on the sustainability of FXCs rather than developing spiritual sustainability within a neighbourhood, some comments are helpful in defining what sustainability might look like in this context. Firstly, he notes the dictionary definitions of “sustainable”, which highlight that a characteristic of being sustainable is that something has longevity and does not adversely affect the environment.[2] Not all pioneers are aiming to create something that will last a long time.[3] In my context, however, on a brand-new housing estate, my focus is to develop a spirituality that will last for the lifetime of the housing area.[4] In terms of environmental effects, it is vital that the spirituality enhances individuals and the community as a whole rather than depletes it. The spirituality must not exhaust and condemn but rather affirm and refresh to ensure sustainability.

Secondly, while discussing the “three-self” principles of self-financing, self-governing and self-reproducing (a concept developed in the nineteenth century by missionary strategists Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson),[5] which are often used to assess the sustainability of an FXC, Weir footnotes Moynagh’s work. Moynagh notes that at times a fourth self is added, that of “self-theologising”.[6] This fourth self is helpful in considering spiritual sustainability within a community. Is the local neighbourhood beginning to own the spirituality and develop it themselves?

I will reflect upon my practice through the lens of longevity, enhancing community and owning/developing the spirituality themselves.

Long-term sustainable spiritual impact

Importance of developing or changing an ethos

Pioneering on a new estate offers the opportunity to be part of shaping the ethos of a new neighbourhood. Within my context we use the metaphorical concept of digging blessing into the very foundations of the new area. In reality, that means developing an ethos of blessing within the new community. I have drawn on my experience as a teacher working in a school in special measures where we have been charged with changing the ethos among the pupils and staff. I adopted a “this is the way we do things around here” approach.

We have integrated festivals into the common life of the community in such a way that this is now “the way we do things around here”. Facilitating opportunities to celebrate or engage with activities relating to the major Christian festivals, alongside Pancake Day, St Valentine’s Day and a Christian response to Remembrance Sunday and Halloween, has raised an interest in finding out more about the Christian faith and led to discussions regarding the similarities and differences with people of different faiths. It is now not only an expectation that these festivals will be observed on the estate, but also that others have begun to join in with some of our traditions, such as adding their crafts to our craft bombing of the area overnight with characters from the Nativity just before Christmas. It is my hope that these traditions become an established part of the culture for the long term that will continue beyond my time here. In this way we are seeking to seed long-term sustainable spirituality within this community. These celebrations of key days and festivals offer an opportunity for spiritual encounter. The work of Katie McClymont is helpful here. She does not write from a specifically Christian perspective but advocates for the importance of creating places of spiritual encounter beyond “places of worship” within new estates.[7] We have not created permanent physical spaces for spiritual encounter, although encouraged by the work of McClymont – this is certainly something for us to explore – but we have created a yearly rhythm with times and spaces where spiritual encounter can happen and spiritual sustainability can be built on the estate.

This yearly rhythm offers an opportunity for the neighbourhood to begin basic self-theologising, to engage with spiritual issues, and to question and reflect on their theological understanding and approach. For some that has meant reaching the conclusion that spirituality is not important or should not be central to the life of this community. But for others this has meant valuing the opportunity to engage spiritually and reaching out to connect spiritually at times of personal celebration or lament. I have been asked to explain death to a small child when their rabbit died and to do numerous pet funerals; I have regularly marked the anniversary of a baby’s death by gathering the family and friends at home, praying, lighting a candle and sharing some simple words of comfort and lament. I have also been asked to do baby blessings among friends and family at the local community centre and pray blessing on a new house. While these people are not formally gathering and exploring faith, they are beginning a theological journey of wondering where God is at key times in their lives.

Shaping a spiritually sustainable ethos within the community has also involved weaving the pioneers and church that has emerged into other stakeholders and community members who have a vision to nurture positive community. This means that the local council, housing association and other key stakeholders recognise and even advocate for the importance of the involvement of Christians in local activities and decision-making. An invitation from the council to establish a charitable community association to give the community a voice and manage a new community centre has meant that values that one might describe as “kingdom values”, such as loving our neighbour, prioritising the marginalised, and giving back money to bless the community rather than accumulating reserves, have become central to the way that the trustees of all faiths and none manage the charity.[8] There is also a pattern of partnership working between the pioneers/church and the community association whereby both are valued and respected by the wider community and one another. Although it is too soon to know the long-term sustainability, it was interesting to observe at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that when lockdown struck, members of the local community began to adopt practices that we have modelled, such as starting a picture treasure hunt in windows to amuse children out on a daily walk, and encouraging people to share what they have and name what they need. I hope that this way of working and these values have been embedded within the neighbourhood and in the lives of individuals so that this way of relating to one another will continue long into the future, thus ensuring sustainable kingdom values within the community and a positive and sustainable relationship with future Christians and church on the estate.

I have reflected on whether these community partnerships and adopting of kingdom values enhances or depletes the neighbourhood. I have reached the conclusion that overall, the community is enhanced. The community spirit is often referred to in positive terms. People have commented that previous communities where they have lived were not “like this”. I have witnessed individual people being affirmed and refreshed as they have been served and blessed but also as they have been involved in the serving and blessing. However, there is a note of caution. I have also witnessed a few individuals becoming depleted by doing too much and becoming exhausted and feeling overwhelmed. I am aware that if this way of being is to be sustainable in the long term, we need to ensure that the spirituality of sabbath rest is also embedded into the culture.

Importance of DNA

In order to make an impact, it is important to have a unified vision and posture. For us this has involved identifying the key things that we believe we are called to and articulating this calling as our DNA values. In his study of the changing culture at Barcelona football club, The Barcelona Way, Damian Hughes notes the centrality of identifying and embodying the cultural DNA.[9] Hughes cites Sir Alf Ramsey’s adage that “constant repetition gets the message home”.[10] Our DNA articulates ways of being that bless, love and serve one another within the area. As a Christian group here, we have sought to inhabit and model a way of being. By being, saying and doing the same things repeatedly as a group of Christians within the neighbourhood, we are seeking to make a lasting and sustainable impact upon the spiritual ethos of the community.

We have had some encouraging signs that living out our DNA is making a difference. Early on we saw signs that local people were adopting our language and behaviour. It was interesting to see a Facebook status that stated that someone was “blessing the community by giving away [her] baby clothes”. We have witnessed Individuals embracing the DNA value of “authenticity not perfectionism”, accepting and living in the reality of perceived weaknesses, such as not having a perfect home, family or appearance. The toddler group, made up of people of all faiths and none, is also an interesting example. A local mum, who is not practising any particular faith, recently fed back to me that my being a Christian made a difference to the group. She explained that the group encouraged friendships not cliques, and that it was inclusive, encouraging people to love each other and not to judge each other’s children. This mum is not exploring faith with us formally and has not attended any regular Sunday gathering, yet she was able to articulate the kingdom values that we are modelling. This would indicate some self-theologising and reflection upon the unspoken theological and spiritual values of the group.

Longevity, enhancing community and self-theologising

It is important to note that spiritual sustainability within the community is being nurtured in conjunction with nurturing spiritual sustainability in individuals seeking faith, new disciples and the new community of faith that has emerged. Only time will tell whether long-term spiritual sustainability has been established within the new housing estate where I live, but alongside areas of development and caution, there are some encouraging signs.

Smiling Alison Boulton in red specs

About the author

Alison Boulton works on the CMS pioneer mission undergraduate course one day a week. She is a pioneer Baptist minister living on a new housing estate, co-founded the ecumenical New Housing Hub and is a national Baptist pioneer ambassador. She is undertaking doctoral research with CMS/University of Roehampton.

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[1] Andy Weir, Sustaining young Churches: A qualitative pilot study of fresh expressions of Church in the Church of England (Sheffield: Church Army’s Research Unit, 2016).

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] In Weir’s study, the 12 FXC contexts were split 50/50 in terms of whether long-term sustainability was an aspiration (Weir, Sustaining young Churches, 15).

[4] I am also concerned with developing sustainable spirituality within the new community of faith, but that is not the focus of this article.

[5] Weir, Sustaining young Churches, 18.

[6] Michael Moynagh, Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice (London: SCM, 2012), 405–08.

[7] See Katie McClymont, “Postsecular planning? The idea of municipal spirituality,” Planning Theory & Practice 16, no. 4 (2015): 535–54 and “Spaces of Secular Faith? Shared Assets and Intangible Values in Diverse, Changing Communities,” Implicit Religion 21, no. 2 (2018): 142–64.

[8] The community association charity trustees comprises people practicing Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, alongside those with no particular faith.

[9] Damian Hughes, The Barcelona Way: How to Create a High-Performance Culture (London: Pan Books, 2018).

[10] Ibid., 29.