Community development as a basis for becoming church | Sue Steer [ANVIL vol 35 issue 3]

The story of an ecumenical pioneer in a new housing context

By Sue Steer

I have been a pioneer community worker in a new housing context in Leicestershire for the last three years. Lubbesthorpe used to be a tiny Leicestershire village made up of tenanted farmland and a handful of cottages. There are currently around 350 houses and a new primary school has just opened. Over the next 20 years it will become a town of 4,250 houses, three schools, shops, community facilities and parks.

Churches Together in Leicestershire (CTiL) had already spent around five years developing a partnership with the local council to help healthy community form when I arrived. My task was primarily identified as building community when residents started to move in. The creation of a Christian community was seen as secondary to this main task. I chose to work with the fresh expressions model of listening, loving, serving, growing community, exploring discipleship and then seeing church taking shape. [1] In this article I will reflect on the experience in light of following this fresh expressions journey. At each stage I will highlight a pivotal point that was key to the process.

Listening, loving and serving

The first 18 months of this journey felt quite nomadic. The story of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–9) pitching a tent frequented my thoughts, along with that of the disciples being sent out to find people of peace (Luke 10:1–12), to take nothing with them and stay when welcomed or shake the dust of their feet if not. There was very little (physically) to go to in the first instance; only the foundations of 12 houses had been laid. I had use of a desk in the council and, while it was useful for building relationships, I spent more time in the surrounding community visiting tenanted farmers and two existing residents who would have the new development being built in their back gardens. I also sought out key players in the development and learned about the history of the area. I spent time with local community organisations, on-site builders, sales teams and the developer. The first two years of my role have unashamedly been about building community for all faiths and none.

Defining expectations

Early on I was keen to see the expectations of the denominations involved (Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and the URC) laid out, and this was helped by drawing up measure packages with the denominational representatives. This resulted in the pioneer community worker’s impact statement:

We are inspired to join in a story with our stories, creating a flourishing community that is cultivated by participation, hospitality, active learning and engagement.

Defining expectations was key to ensuring I was working with the support and understanding of the denominations. While the denominational representatives have changed, these key measures of participation, hospitality, active learning and engagement have been retained throughout and continue to be core to how we operate with the community.

Growing community

It was April 2017 when the first residents moved in. I knocked on doors and welcomed everyone who arrived. (We now have a team who welcome people, and it continues to be hugely appreciated.) The risk however seemed to me that people just moved into the new housing estate and carried on their lives beyond the new community rather than interacting with the people they were living among. While many people want to be part of the community, they need a reason to interact.

I previously lived in a new housing estate where no community existed. Having the community development role here meant early on we had a “village feel”, which hasn’t been something we’ve experienced before.

Jo, Lubbesthorpe local resident

Once we had created spaces and events where people could interact, which were initially always outdoors, neighbours became friends and community began to flourish beyond the events. Looking back, I think we engendered that spirit of community right from the beginning, and it has stuck. Early on we seemed to move from the fresh expressions aspects of listening and loving and serving to building community. It wasn’t always plain sailing, and we always seemed to be in a state of flux and change due to the rapid growth of this new community. Finding indigenous leaders that would commit was central to this early stage. Some early leaders, who were very active at the start, moved from the centre to the fringe. The quieter ones have now begun to come to the front. This is not uncommon in community development but is a challenge to negotiate. In the book Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Christine Brooks Nolf tells of her community development experience with Mika Community Development Corporation and how heeding her mentor’s advice led to committed and longlasting volunteers.

Ron Bueno advised me to pay attention to the quiet, faithful neighbours who kept showing up but did not have much to say. His experience had been that the first wave of neighbours to jump in are loud and have lots of ideas. They are quick to share their thoughts and ideas, but they tend to disengage once they begin to understand that we will all have to work together over a long period of time in order to act on their ideas or bring about lasting change. In contrast the neighbours who have been patiently observing and at times timidly participating will eventually rise up. [2]

This takes time and patience. It is about growing relationships, which doesn’t happen overnight.

Acceptance of the role by the developer

A pivotal point was the estate developer, Mather Jamie, accepting me and my role in building community. Prior to my arrival, CTiL had done a great job of developing the relationships with the council but hadn’t realised the importance of the relationship with the developer/ landowner.

Martin Ward, a director at Mather Jamie, commented:

From past experiences on other large residential urban extensions where far too late in the project the idea of creating a community using faith was unsuccessful, I was extremely wary of what was being imposed upon the landowner by Churches Together and the district council. What became very clear early on was that by promoting and working really hard to create a sense of community, as opposed to pushing one variation or another of the Christian faith, a high percentage of the new residents bought into the community ethos. They almost have a yearning for being part of a community, which is really difficult to create in a new development, in the middle of a muddy field, and which they did not expect to find at New Lubbesthorpe from the outset. From this, I am encouraging landowners and promoters to follow the CTiL model and aim to create a sense of place and community at the very outset on new major residential schemes.

This foundational relational work with the developer and new residents was vital and has really paid off in the longer term. I believe being humble and respecting the back stories of people who have had poor experiences of working with churches and Christians should be acknowledged and respected. The church is no longer the institutional powerhouse it once was and is often eyed with suspicion, but neither is it irrelevant, as some would believe. Breaking down preconceptions and earning the right to speak takes time but pays out dividends in terms of developing healthy community.

Exploring discipleship

CTiL had been praying for Lubbesthorpe as a community since the development was just an idea. An ecumenical prayer group had been meeting termly for years when I arrived. This continued for around 18 months, after which it morphed into a rhythm of prayer within the community.

In May 2018 three of us began to meet weekly, to pray and eat together in The Hub – our community building, provided as part of the estate development. Our little kitchen offered very little in the way of cooking facilities so we learned to be creative in our meal planning! Over the next few months we grew to around 12 regulars; we ate and prayed together, explored different community issues, celebrated festivals or just chatted depending on who came. Fundamentally we were “exploring discipleship” and we continue to work out what that means as our rhythm changes. Prayer now happens weekly with a fortnightly “going deeper” session. We have just held our first “Mossy Church”, which is a mash of Messy and Forest Church for young families, and some of us “Mindfully Meander” once of month on a Sunday morning.

The arrival of the Hub

When The Hub arrived in February 2018, it made a huge difference to the growth of community. We expected a grubby site cabin but were gifted a posh Portakabin. This was another pivotal point for the community; people often associate community with a place, and The Hub became that place – and continues to be. We are currently open five mornings a week, when people can drop in to ask questions about community, meet friends (the coffee machine is always on!) and talk about ideas they’ve had. We have endeavoured to make it a creative space so that anyone feels at home there and can write ideas on our Ideas Tree. Afternoons and evenings are given over to community groups, many of which have been birthed in the morning drop-ins. I started some groups and others are resident initiatives.

Beyond The Hub, there are walking and running groups as well as a football team and social groups between neighbours. One young dad who attends our Little Lubbers Baby and Toddler Group commented, “If the churches hadn’t done all of this, we wouldn’t have such a great community.” Within the last few weeks, this dad and his wife have just started to explore what faith means to them.

Church taking shape

We know The Hub is to be moved in the next couple of months to the first village square, which is under development. I’m reminded yet again that it is a tent rather than a permanent home. While it is a smallish space and is far from what we would traditionally see as a church building (it probably has a slightly larger footprint than a large four-bedroomed house), the articulation of church as a living room with God as the host resonates. Steve Collins explores this in his chapter in Future Present. [3] Rather than God acting as king in his throne room or lawyer in the school room, which is what Collins suggests church has been in the past, it should be a place for interaction, social networking and sharing with sofas and chairs and tables rather than pews in lines where people just watch and listen.

Hospitality and welcome are key for us. I’ve also come to see that the small space means we don’t focus on one building – we have little choice but to become the guest and go into other community spaces for larger activities and continue to meet outdoors, and, of course, in homes. We have early partnerships developing with the outdoor space maintainer and the school, which have huge potential.

While we may not be knocking on doors welcoming new residents for the rest of the life of this development, we can continue to be a welcoming presence at The Hub and through friendships and partnerships. If we are to keep up with developing this community, partnership is the only way forward. We must travel lightly and sometimes be prepared to give away to see further growth. New Lubbesthorpe as a fledgling village/town is still at its very early stages and we are still laying foundations, but I think that is the place where we should be, seeking to be in step with the Spirit as she leads, seeking to be a community-based church that is relevant for this new place as it grows and changes.

Defining who we are

At the moment, a key pivotal point is defining who we are. As the community grows, it is important that we can articulate who we are among the other community groups that are arriving. Within the last month, CTiL has agreed that we can move to become an independent community development charity and raise up residents to lead this. Our funding streams are diversifying with denominational funding decreasing. In line with this, the denomination representatives’ involvement will decrease. Our aim continues to be to see our community flourish while finding innovative and contextual ways of being missional and being church. The founding story of being a Churches Together initiative will remain. Other funding is coming in via donations, Hub hire and hospitality, grants and external partnerships.

Conclusion

The fresh expressions journey has been helpful in attending to the primary task of building community and in recognising when people are exploring discipleship and when church is taking shape. For our community it has been important to recognise and embrace these key pivotal points, which have enabled us to grow. Our journey has been one of listening and responding to the growing community and to the Holy Spirit. Building community has been the place where relationships have grown and flourished and where friendships have sparked to life.

Listening to what the community wants, whether it be a walking group or a community meal, assured the developer and the community that we really were in the business of growing community for the people moving in, not setting our own agenda. The arrival of The Hub has given us visibility and people know when and where to find us. It has become a creative space for everyone to use, resulting in a connected and entrepreneurial community. Exploring discipleship is the place where faith was brought into the open by the community rather than being the first thing on the agenda. Church taking shape is where we have begun to see some clarity and where those on a faith journey are beginning to define who we are. Churches Together are beginning to let go of their overseeing role to allow the residents in Lubbesthorpe to fully take on the mantle of helping our community flourish and seeing church take shape. We are far from being sorted but that’s OK; why would we think we had the final deal when we likely have around 10,000 people still to move in?

Sue Steer is a Baptist minister working for Churches Together in Leicestershire. Funded regionally by Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and URC denominations, Sue has been employed since September 2016 as the pioneer community worker in New Lubbesthorpe. Prior to this role she started a community centre from scratch at a Baptist church, which included ministries in dementia and mental health, a foodbank and community partnerships.

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Notes

[1] Michael Moynagh, Church in Life: Innovation, Mission and Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press: 2017), 45.
[2] Wayne Gordon and John M. Perkins, Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 158
[3] Steve Collins, “Open House: Reimagining church spaces” in Future Present: Embodying a Better World Now, ed. Jonny Baker et al. (Sheffield: Proost Publications, 2018), 51–67.–59.

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