In late spring 2005. I was approaching the end of my three years at Sheffield University and my thoughts were beginning to turn towards the big question, “What next?” I had spent my time at Sheffield developing an understanding of what is referred to as “postmodernism”, (an increasingly unhelpful term, I feel!), which I first came across during my degree at Cliff College. The changing nature of our culture and its patterns of thought and belief continue to present the church with both challenges and opportunities, and I was keen to take what I was learning and, with the Holy Spirit as my guide, put some of it into practice. As I looked through the job pages of various websites and Christian magazines I saw one or two jobs to apply for, but in particular a Circuit Mission Enablers post in North Kent. The circuit was looking for someone to lead and develop a missional response to the huge influx of new residents as the Thames Gateway development gets underway (35,000 new homes are expected within the circuit boundaries over the next 10 years). Though reluctant at first to go so far south - Kent being uncharted territory for both of us- we put it before the Lord as a family and when invited for interview I ventured down south.
And here we are in 2007, in Kent, initiating a church plant, and slowly trying to make sense of all the “theory” of being a living Christian community. As nearly all those who have been involved in church planting will tell you, it isn’t easy! Trying radically to rethink mission and Christian community so it becomes accessible to the un-churched, and yet remaining thoroughly orthodox is quite a task! Firstly, we all bring a certain amount of baggage with us from previous experiences of worship and church, and then we also have to sift through all that has been written regarding the question of mission in a changing culture over the past twenty years or more, and further discern what is hype and what has the Holy Spirit’s anointing upon it.
However, as “the beacon” (the name we have given ourselves) begins to develop, we are focused on being a strong community, accountable to each other, and challenging each other to authentic discipleship. This normally happens at our home over a hot brew of tea and shared meals together; this will be our normal pattern, loosely modelled on the “cell church” ideals. We are also, in time, set to explore ritual (in its technical sense) and more holistic rhythms of Christian spirituality that may be more accessible to those who are exploring spirituality but feel the traditional church doesn’t offer the space, language, or touch stones which inscribe God into post-Christendom everyday life.
The beacon will be officially launched in the summer when Rachel, our two boys, and I move into a new house on the Bridge development (1,500 new homes in north Dartford). The house will be the hub of our missional activity on the site and will provide the first cell group with a home. During the last year, I have had opportunities to become active in the development of the new community at the Bridge - even before it’s built! I will be an Interim Governor of the new school proposed for the site, and I am liaising with Dartford Borough Council’s assigned community development worker, who has acted as an advocate with the management of some of the business space on the development, and with Wimpey Homes PLC, the main house builders on site. Already, significant doors have opened for us at an early stage; we have been offered the use of space within the new Innovation Centre, (a business start-up centre and home to Costa Coffee - an answer to prayer!) which will allow us to gather as church to celebrate and share testimony and fellowship together. It will also provide us with space to develop “seeker sensitive” worship, which may involve story telling, Christian meditation, and “open mic” conversations around an issue or Biblical passage etc- basically, whatever the Holy Spirit leads us to do as missional worship. This is giving us the freedom to begin exploring as a Christian community, both how to be together as “cell”, but also how to gather in a relevant and missional sense long before the school comes on stream in 2009. (This is the potential meeting place for us as gathered church).
Recently, the BBC Southeast news team interviewed me as part of their “Is the Gateway Godless?” feature. It was an interesting experience, not least because, after being prompted by the interviewer, I spoke about “cell church”. This provoked the response, “Being church in ‘cells’ may have menacing overtones for our viewers. How does ‘cell church’ differ from the ‘cells’ we hear so much of in the news?” He was referring to “terror cells”! This highlights the nature of the interface between our Christian worldview and its use of language and the wider world. Just a simple phrase can be packed full of other unhelpful meanings. We have a long road ahead of us as western churches. Our culture is suspicious and yet seeking and in great need. Our missionary task is becoming one of planting new things that will grow and effectively communicate the good news of Jesus - his life, death and resurrection, together with his now and not yet kingdom - in a rapidly changing world.
Finally, what are some of the key elements that have allowed us in Dartford to begin this journey?
Firstly, the national, district, and circuit levels of church have given permission to go out and create this “fresh expression” of church. This has given us a real freedom to be innovative whilst knowing there is a “strong hand” supporting and encouraging us and providing a sense of accountability and structure.
Secondly, the circuit has been open to taking risks and making huge investments in terms of property, time, and people. The church has often made these kinds of investments in the past, but usually into a tried and tested strategy, building project, or missional programme. Here we are required to invest in something new, and by implication, fragile.
Thirdly, we have sought to work alongside the local council, local community groups, and the developers to make sure we are “listening” to their concerns and offering ourselves as part of the solution or response. We have been warmly received by most of the secular agencies, who have helped open many doors for us. They are scratching their heads when it comes to community development in these new housing areas and if the church wants to have a go then they are more than willing to let it! However, we aim to be sensitive when speaking with developers and other secular agencies, keen to reassure them that we are neither going to “Bible bash” new residents, nor set up some whacky sect!
Lastly, we have asked for and received the support of the wider churches within Dartford, especially those who will soon be our neighbours. Working ecumenically (in a very informal “over a coffee” way) has added weight and significance to “the beacon”, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, without their recognition and support.
We are excited and expectant to see the Lord move in a wonderful and powerful way in the coming years, as this new opportunity for a harvest is realised through partnership with the Holy Spirit who is always at mission!
Contact - Bart Woodhouse: email@example.com