Empowerment and fresh expressions of church | Matt Davis and Ed Hodge [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

At The Lab we have been on a journey with empowerment. We are a fresh expression of church in Newport.

Portraits of the authors
Edward Hodge is a hub leader with the Lab, community worker and contemplative chap, qualified youth worker and graduate of CYM. Lover of Pie. Matthew Davis is a former Lab hub leader and current ordinand for the Church in Wales. Passionate about seeing the church develop in new ways with people who are on the margins.

Fresh Expressions of church have been established in the UK for years, including things like Messy Churches or youth congregations that meet in the park. Some, like us at The Lab, have a focus on connecting with those who are disengaged with church and on the margins of society. As a Christian community we wanted to, as Michael Moynagh puts it, “follow the ascended Lord not only to the edge of the church but to the people on the edge of society”. [1]

The youth work disciplines of empowerment, learning, equality and participation have been really important in helping us to pursue this desire among young people. For us, empowerment is a key part to what growing new forms of church looks like. The purpose of youth work, as agreed by the sector, is “to redress all forms of inequality and to ensure equal opportunity for all young people to fulfil their potential as empowered individuals and members of groups and communities”. [2] Our journey with empowerment and ecclesiology has been challenging – and in this piece we hope to tell the story of how these values and visions have worked together for us in Newport.

Getting started

“Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in,” says Rowan Williams. [3] This idea has been the basis of many missional and pioneering projects – especially for those who would in some ways consider themselves “new monastic”. And so it was for us. This radical idea laid the groundwork for a group of young people in Newport who set up an evening service in a pub.

As The Lab grew and we explored the scriptures together, some of our members decided to try a more committed form of community loving. They looked at what other new monastic communities were doing (both here and abroad) – and convinced the Bishop of Monmouth (Dominic Walker) to lend them an empty vicarage. The group moved in to the house, incidentally located on the east side of Newport; and like many areas in South Wales, it is post-industrial, characterised by strong family ties, matriarchal structures and mixed levels of deprivation. [4]

Frontier Youth Trust and the work of people like Shane Claiborne inspired us. Our new tag line became “missional living” – with the aim to be a worshipping, praying and socially involved community living together in this house. We set up a youth work apprenticeship, giving more young adults opportunity to spend a year with us to learn about youth work and “give a year for God”. We recruited a group of university students and young professionals who brought a lot of energy, ideas and get-up-and-go that quickly got the project going. But the challenge of being incomers into this community meant that this first group was beset by a lack of understanding about the local culture and easily fell into the trap of needing to solve everyone’s problems.

Learning to do empowerment

Empowerment was an important value for the leaders of the early Lab – but a lack of understanding and a desire to help people out of immediate situations meant we still had a lot to learn. On the surface we talked a lot with young people about what to do and what they would like to see in the community, but there was little deeper development or ownership.

The work of Kristen Zimmerman gave us a guide to improving how we involved young people and the local community within our structures. [5] Zimmerman explains that young people start by being clients until they are invited to participate in occasional decision-making facilitated by adults. Youth involvement is next, where young people can have regular input into programme decision making. Eventually this births youth-driven projects where young people have substantive meaningful roles in leadership positions. The pinnacle of youth empowerment for Zimmerman is youth-run organisations where young people run a majority of the staff positions and manage day-to-day operations – even including major roles such as executive director. So we set out to rethink our approach, attempting to realise the higher levels of what Zimmerman describes within a young people’s Fresh Expression of church.

The first challenge for us was letting go of our own agendas. We had to hold in tension the fact that we are interested in forming new forms of church that are actively seeking to disciple young people in the ways of the gospel with our deep belief that the community in which we were located needed to have a much larger voice in what we were doing. We started by evaluating how we treated young people (both in and outside of the organisation) and set about listening to the community (which is the first step of the Fresh Expressions growth process). [6] It became apparent that we were struggling to include young people and the community in our decision-making structures. Those students living in our house and our city-centre church members had a bigger role in the running and processes, as well as our theology and ecclesiology, than people connecting with us from the local community. Most significantly this meant there was a separation of the worshipping life of The Lab with the on-the-ground activity.

Identifying this problem was our first big success on the way to better empowerment. We had already developed deep relationships with some of the young people, extending well beyond the casual contact we were having at youth club. So we took the risk of inviting those showing an interest in volunteering to join our gap-year programme – deliberately furthering what Zimmerman describes as youth driven, having young people starting to take those serious leadership roles. [7] This meant we had young people from the local estate living in the community house. This was the first time any had lived in close community away from the family home, and for many it was their first experience of having a job. These were young people for whom growing up had had its challenges; most had struggled in school, and the middle-class student paradigm of the shared house was completely alien. Overnight, it changed the dynamic of the work of The Lab.

Dave was our first local apprentice. We met him through our work in the school and youth club. Through this he had gained an idea of the direction we were heading and that we existed to “help people”. He knew we were Christians whose aim was to develop new forms of church for people in the community who were not engaging with the traditional church. Dave was open to faith and would say he was a Christian (though in my opinion this was not particularly well practised in day-to-day life). He enthusiastically attended our Sunday gatherings, and took part in helping develop the spiritual practices we have in the community house.

There was trepidation in taking on Dave as an apprentice – partly because he was not academically gifted, partly because he came from a challenging home situation. We didn’t know how he would fit in. But Dave was representative of the local demographic, and we were all ready to take the leap. Our trepidation was misplaced – he was fantastic! Dave brought a level of insight that we could never hope to achieve as incomers. He was immediately in conversations about direction, better seeing how we could help address issues that were affecting the people around him and himself. He had a role in encouraging others take action, and to provide spaces for gathering like-minded locals to talk about issues. From his role he enabled others to start courses to gain qualifications. And more generally, he was able also to input into the wider focus of what we were doing as an organisation.

Despite this positive shift, one of the main areas where we struggled was allowing empowerment in the forming of theology. We were quite good at allowing people to influence style, and we would work together to form accessible and engaging worship services or Bible studies. But there would be a level of gatekeeping when it came to belief – about what was right or wrong. This was almost certainly a hangover from our conservative evangelical heritage. As a result there was a glass ceiling on the level of empowerment available to the apprentices within our existing structure. Our offer to them was an invitation to join our faith practices and try out our new ideas for developing faith in the urban context. We were not expecting good middle-class Christians, although we did have an idea of where we wanted them to end up. I hesitate to be overly critical of these aims. They were rooted in good intentions and within the framework of being able to empower the apprentices to engage with a system in the church that they could not otherwise interact with in a meaningful way.

However, our commitment to empowerment led to a dawning realisation that we had no choice but to also equip these individuals with the tools to interpret the faith independently, and so to be empowered to make decisions on these matters themselves. One of the key principles of empowerment is to enable young people to address issues that affect them, especially those that can cause harm to them. [8] If the faith that we hold is to be taken seriously – that true life is to be found in Jesus – then the methods that are available to interact with the tradition and the church need to be able to meet people where they are. We believe that people should be empowered to discover ways to uncover where God is leading them theologically and ecclesiologically. In fact, Bevans describes a method of engaging new cultures with the Christian message. The outsiders (in this case the Lab team) must “let go” of their power and control of the message; while the insiders, the community and young people, must be empowered to “speak out” confidently about their culture and where the gospel and faith intersect with it. Only from this point then can true dialogue come about. [9]

Spreading ourselves too thin

At the same time as we began to bring indigenous people into the team, we were also offered more opportunities in the community, in the diocese, and in the Methodist circuit. We took on local roles including school governors and community councillors, and were also offered houses in other areas of Newport to expand the work.

We have often felt that a big part of the community work process we have had in The Lab revolves around place holding: taking on roles and new opportunities with the understanding that we are creating a space for someone in the community (such as a local apprentice or parent) to step into. This method has sometimes enabled us to be a kind of “positive disruptor” in our communities. This has manifested itself in many different ways, but one that stands out is as a community councillor. We were told by our local council we weren’t big enough to warrant our own Christmas event, but leveraging this role within the community enabled us to facilitate a full-day festival complete with Santa’s grotto, attended by over 100 locals. From now on it’s the role of the community council to hold events for the community. Sadly, what often happened was that this “place-holding” process led to the Lab leaders accumulating roles that ultimately hindered our core vision of building relationships with those in the communities. This meant that we had access to more and more positions of influence and opportunity – but were struggling to spend time with enough people to fill those spaces. This came with an added temptation that the roles gave us inroads into communities and fortified our position as part of the community. As a result we fostered a strong sense of presence, one that was particularly visible to the church and other institutions to which we are accountable (and ultimately depend on for funding). And having this presence created a sense of security and sustainability to a project, and a fa├žade of success.

More than anything, however, this approach drifted into an accumulation of power, with the unintended consequence of working against our desire to foster empowerment. If we are to learn anything from Paulo Freire, it is that working with communities should always be deeply rooted in dialogue. He describes the essence of dialogue as “the word” and that “within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if sacrificed even in part the others immediately suffer”. By holding onto these roles, without the clear route for local takeover, we are at risk of essentially handing the church institution a monopoly over the word and fencing the community off from both reflection and action. We ended up pushing those we are supposed to be alongside out of the conversation. [10] In many ways our position of power over these opportunities mirrors our power over the theological gift. In both cases we started with good intentions but quickly discovered that our processes did not take us far enough – we had not been prepared to “let go” of control and dialogue more. Ultimately we believe this hindered our attempt to contextualise the faith with those in the communities of which we lived.

One approach that really spoke to us on this issue is Roger Schroeder on “entering someone else’s garden”. [11] He suggests that mission is like visiting another garden, not to compare its beauty and variety with one’s own, but to respect what is going on in other cultures; and although we “may want to give advice for growing… it is probably best that one waits until asked”. [12] We must remember we are a “guest or stranger” in the other garden, and therefore tread lightly on what is going on so we do not destroy unwittingly something that gives life. Schroeder reminds us to be respectful of “tastes and talents”, and only in time, after growing relationships, “perhaps… teach a bit”.

For us, we embrace what is in the context to be able to see what God sees, allowing God to speak through the culture. A great example of this was Ian, who joined us as a volunteer after leaving the sixth form where we worked. He joined us for one of our regular vision and planning days, and we asked him: what does hope and transformation look like in Alway? We were met with confusion and a blank stare. “There is no hope!” After some digging, it transpired that the language we used made it sound like we wanted to destroy what made Alway, Alway. In a sense, calling their flowers weeds. Schroeder says that where we recognise the “seeds of the word” the culture needs not just to be understood, but embraced. He warns that we must remember the gospel always has a counter-cultural edge, and that truth can be found in places beyond our church.

Investing in what we already have

Let us return to the Rowan Williams quote, “Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in.” [13] At The Lab we have done a pretty good job of joining in, getting involved in our communities, doing projects and generally looking busy. But for us, this misses out a big part of the idea: the part where we find out what God is doing. I believe we got so caught up in the fast pace of Christian ministry that we neglected to slow down and listen to what God is saying to us – not only through the church, Scripture and traditions, but also through the communities and people around us. It didn’t take much slowing down to realise that we had recruited people from the community to help us but continued to put our narrow view of church onto them. Mainly, we think, because challenging your employer is harder than we anticipated. You don’t bite the hand that feeds!

Empowerment, at its heart, is giving young people a voice that is heard. [14] We could not pretend that we are empowering people unless we give more over to the community – including who holds power. Jemima was the next person to join The Lab from the community as an apprentice. She already had strong ties with the church through a matriarchal grandmother who made sure that all her grandchildren were baptised and confirmed. There is a cultural expectation in our community to celebrate most of the major life events in the church. But there is also a deep mistrust of the church: a fear of the unknown together with perceived (and sometimes actual) judgement from attendees, as well as historic abuses. This cultural Christianity gives a helpful starting point for discussions of faith, and an opening to spirituality. We worked with Jemima throughout her youth and were enthusiastic about her participation and empowerment as she began helping organise and run activities. When she joined as an apprentice, she challenged us by asking how much time she would have to do new things. This took us by surprise – but we took a risk and it worked out. Jemima developed some amazing ideas, including a bike project and some challenges around the language we use in church. She translated out liturgies into words that break down the mystery or irrelevancy as well as clearly explaining what’s going on. To truly have any impact we must be in dialogue. As Bevans points out, “without dialogue, without a willingness to ‘let go’ before one ‘speaks out’, mission is simply not possible”. [15]

Waffle On! was one of our shared answers to this: we wanted to do something together that explored life through a Christian spiritual lens, drawing on our own knowledge, the Bible and tradition. What it looked like was each time we met we would cook waffles and we would “waffle on”! The hosting and topics were chosen by the group (although the leaders offered some input), and it became a gathering of all sorts of people. Both Christians and non-Christians joined us, and everyone was able to give input and discussion starters. The nature of how we operated was very much down to the “insider” instead of the normal – up until then – “outsider”. This helped give a sense of belonging, and was an important step of giving up power and allowing space in the community.

Jemima, Ian and Dave all attended and were part of the set-up team for Waffle On! It was an incredibly important step for us, coming after the genesis of our “letting go and speaking out” vision. Then two things happened that we didn’t expect.

First we realised people were dipping in and out of each session but not staying for the whole thing. In the church we’re used to 90-minute Bible studies, so we found this jarring. But it transpired that just snippets of the session was enough to allow people to continue conversations with other community members outside of the event. We came to the view that maybe this was beneficial. It sparked conversation, which could lead to discussions of a deeper nature than took place at Waffle On! We may have been talking about mental health issues and God – and it would take the young people on to subjects like suicide, life’s purpose or life after death questions.

Second, the amount of ownership we saw from indigenous leaders was amazing. They were volunteering to set up, buying materials, contributing to subjects and gathering people to come. Eventually they took charge and developed ideas from what we had worked through together. It raised some important session topics that we hadn’t put on the table: like, Who is God? Is it worth believing? Why this Christian God? Does prayer work? This model of leading shifted our thinking from standard apologetics to listening to people of all backgrounds share their experience.

Where now?

We for a long time have held the ethos of discipleship through belonging and being part of, rather than having to sign up wholesale to our beliefs and practices. One example is Tyrone. He had been around The Lab for a considerable time and he had begun to volunteer for some of our events and youth activities. He is also Jemima’s partner. He comes from non-religious background but has been willing to engage, help run and take part in our community discussions on faith. He has also taken part in some of our wider community activities such as Big House. Big House is one of the main Christian services we do. It is based around the main Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter as well as secular times, including summer activities. These services are structured a little like a fair where people come and go as they please, joining in with as little or as much as they want. Depending on the season each service is quite different, but we usually have songs, stories, crafts, games and refreshments. This Halloween, Tyrone volunteered to organise a reflection on light and darkness for Big House. He formulated an idea of what the reflection could look like, did some research based on his experience and got input from other Lab members. His idea was to create a beautifully decorated gravestone where people young and old would be invited to write prayers and memories for those who have passed away and place or pin them on the grave and spend a moment praying or remembering the person.

Organising the central reflection of Big House is something that one of our senior leadership with a religious background usually does. So there was some worry about the suitability of Tyrone’s idea and leadership. The worry was mainly pastoral about how the subject and activity was going to be handled, and exactly what it was going to look like. But on reflection, a lot of the concerns were around our own sensibilities and how our middle-class selves perceived it. It turned out that it was an incredibly effective and well-received part of the night enabling people to write some poignant and touching tributes and prayers to people they had lost. The majority commented that it was a thoughtful thing to do and meant a lot.

Bringing Dave, Jemima and Tyrone into the Lab team puts us in new territory. They are not signing up to the local church and not necessary engaging wholesale with some of the practices that we had developed for the people in their communities – rather, we are going to a new place together. The identity we find forming is not one that even speaks the church’s language. The faith that is formed is empowering because it gives these local individuals a voice. It allows the relationship between God and humanity to be built on what is helpful, not that which hinders. And it provides a flourishing of faith rooted in the local culture and context. That is not to say everything goes unchallenged: we work together.

The biggest challenge we face is, from our perspective, Tyrone could almost be a practising Christian but with none of the language. He does not know or use any of the poetic church-culture language riddled with double meanings and confusion, drenched in images that have no meaning no matter how beautiful they may be. Or as it is put in Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered,

In working with young people… do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have even been before. [16]


When The Lab began, as a youth work project empowerment was a key element of practice. Our ideas and methods were formed by the youth and community work sector – inspired by writers such as Zimmerman and Hart. Hart’s ladder of participation gave us the language and tools to move from manipulation to participation. As our story has developed, we have also taken inspiration from Asset Based Community Development (or ABCD): building on unrecognised strengths and hidden micro-assets rather than meeting needs with outside resource. For us, this journey has been an invitation for the church to become co-creators in a shared future with the community, seeing all as equal partners.

We have learned that empowerment is important and takes us in new directions but we still have a way to go in terms of co-creating theology. For us, the challenge is that there is still a huge divide between the language of the church and the language that is used in communities. We still see the need to translate the language of the church to community and the language of community for the church. We have not found a way together, to create a language that is accessible to both – if such a language is even possible. To be willing to explore such a place is risky, in the most fantastic way! It involves making sacrifices.

We can begin to form ideas around life and death, grief, community, love and sexuality and all that other stuff that shapes our daily lives that is informed not only by the church but the people it is there to serve. The gravestone is just one example of how people that have come up through community and dialogued with us can understand grief and how to help those around them wrestle with it better than we ever could with our polished, middle-class, inaccessible symbolism. Now comes the excitement that comes from letting go of the place we have created as translators between church and community to enable a new language to come out of the two, coming together to create a language that cares about Jesus but also a language that cares about people as much as Jesus did.

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[1] Michael Moynagh with Philip Harrold, Church for Every Context : An Introduction to Theology and Practice (London: SCM Press, 2012), 193.
[2] Kerry Young, The Art of Youth Work (Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing, 1999), 17.
[3] Kirsteen Kim, Joining in with the Spirit : Connecting World Church and Local Mission (London: SCM Press, 2012), 1.
[4] “Community Well-being Profile,” last modified May 2017.
[5] Youth Speak Out Coalition and Kristen Zimmerman, "Making Space, Making Change: Models for Youth-Led Social Change Organizations,” Children, Youth and Environments 17, no. 2 (2007): 301. Moynagh with Harrold, Church for Every Context, 208.
[7] Youth Speak Out Coalition and Zimmerman, “Making Space, Making Change,” 301.
[8] Young, The Art of Youth Work, 17.
[9] Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 388.
[10] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 68.
[11] Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 387.
[12] Stephen B.Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 33–34.
[13] Kim, Joining in with the Spirit, 1.
[14] Young, The Art of Youth Work, 18.
[15] Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 350.
[16] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London: SCM Press, 2001), xix.

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