Listening for the long haul
Bestwood Park was one of the first UK churches to take part in Partnership for Missional Church. It left them equipped to engage with the local community…
Chris Easton, lay pioneer minister at Bestwood Park church, an Anglican-Methodist church on a large outer estate in Nottingham, shares the long-term impact of participating in the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) journey.
By Chris Easton
I joined the church 10 years ago, when they were exploring being involved in PMC. It wasn’t always easy as one of the first churches in the UK to participate, but it has left us equipped to engage with our community, and we’re still using those principles.
There are 25,000 people living on three estates here: Bestwood Park, Top Valley and Bestwood estate. These communities are all in the bottom 10 per cent on the index of multiple deprivation, with issues typical on outer estates and a lack of hope.
The PMC journey centres around spiritual practices and for me, coming in and trying to do pioneering mission work, it helped to focus on what we were trying to do in being more missional and more engaged with the community.
Transformation through listening
The practice of “Dwelling in the Word” (an approach to reading a passage from the Bible to help us listen to one another and to God) was quite transformational. It was empowering people to feel that they’ve got a voice. It got everyone engaged with God’s Word, and then everyone listening to each other and trying to discern what God might be saying through each other.
The spiritual practices also encouraged us as a church to talk about God more, to ask God, “Where are you at work?” In our services, we have times to share where we have seen God at work. It builds up people in their Christian faith to recognise that God is at work and to have greater expectation that God is going to do more.
PMC really helped me to think about how we want to be a church where people get involved in worship. Our services are very interactive, even our prayers. We ask, “What are we going to pray for today?” and we pray about it.
As a church we’ve been growing. When I started, it was a small elderly congregation, whereas now we’re about 75 adults and 40 children and young people. We’ve grown in different ways and part of it is learning from these spiritual practices.
People of peace
Another key element of PMC is to do things in partnership, with “people of peace”. We’ve come across people in our community who we partner with – continuing long after we finished the PMC journey.
A few years ago we heard about people being isolated, and felt God was prompting us. We held a community meeting and asked, “What are your experiences?” Everyone said this is a massive issue. We looked at models for social eating, for people to eat together. And then we asked, “Where should we do it?” The community said, “Let’s do it at your church.” So in June 2017, we launched Bestop Kitchen, a weekly social eating event. It grew from the first week – when we were overwhelmed by 50 people – to gathering 80 or 90 people every week.
During the pandemic we have delivered meals to vulnerable adults – between March 2020 and May 2021, we delivered 9,800 meals. We also delivered food parcels, in partnership with our local primary schools. They knew families who were struggling, so we supplied food parcels to the school and they got them out. We had local police helping deliver the meals, local organisations, the local churches, so it was real partnership.
People have come to Bestop Kitchen and just felt valued, loved and supported. And even with the food deliveries, people have felt cared for. The meals come in a brown paper bag and one recipient described it as her “weekly hug in a bag”.
Asking what God wants
We’re more prayerful. We try to turn our attention to God, listen to God, hear what he is saying. Our church leadership teams are brilliant and we spend probably a third of our meetings in prayer – that changes the dynamic. We’re asking not what we think, but what does God want for us in this?
Three years ago we were struggling to fit everyone in to our building for Sunday services. The building was originally built in the 1960s, and the plan was to build a church on the land in front, but it never happened. And so we discerned that we could start exploring making the church bigger. We went down one way of doing it, we prayed about it. We got architectural students involved helping design the project. It was amazing. We got our amazing plan, which we all felt was right, and we felt this could be quite exciting. It was going to cost a couple of million pounds, which seemed impossible.
Then we were praying about it, and in January of last year the council came to us and said, “Actually, the building next door has become available. Would the church be interested?” And this building is more than we could wish for and it’s a fraction of the price. When we brought the idea to the church leadership team, they all felt this is God. It was a real sense of this is God, there wasn’t “I think this”. There was a sense that this is God’s doing, because we’ve had this expectancy that God is going to work, we’re going to see things happen, see answers to prayer. God had something else in store, we were just faithful and it came one step at a time, God was taking us on this journey. And we’re hoping to get the keys in September.
Reflecting our community
Our leadership team is really diverse – that’s something we’ve worked on, moving towards being a more diverse church and more intercultural. Our community was changing and our church was growing. And we needed to evolve because our leadership needed to represent that.
I don’t think that because we’ve done PMC we’ve become more diverse – but because of the impact of PMC, of us listening to God and how he’s shaped us, more local families have come to join us. We actively looked at how to encourage them to become part of our church council, leadership teams, youth work and so on.
Recently a woman whose family joined the church said that when she came through the doors, there were people who looked like her – as soon as she came through the door there was somebody at the front saying welcome to church and preaching that Sunday and that had an impact.
Continuing to listen
Over the past 18 months, we’ve been encouraging the church to look for opportunities to listen to people. It might be just smiling at someone on the street, saying hello, or it might be a bit deeper, listening and offering to pray with someone.
One man, who has been coming for a little while, gets buses everywhere and just asks God, “Who do you want me to encourage today?” One day he was at a bus stop and there was a woman who looked quite sad. He said, “Are you all right?” She burst into tears. She had lost her husband the week before. This man listened to her and said, “I’m really sorry. I’ll be praying for you, that you know that God is with you in your pain.” He wouldn’t describe himself as the most eloquent of people, but that’s God using him. He shared that story, and he said, “Chris, that’s God using me isn’t it?”
It’s been amazing. There’s a phrase, right the start of the PMC journey: “Be detectives of divinity”. It’s just asking God, “Where are you at work, what are you doing?” And really listening to our communities, trying to serve the need and partnering with others. We’re trying our best to listen. We probably do it quite badly, but we’re just trying to listen.