Walking Church on Good Friday

An article written for the diocesan magazine about our Good Friday walk in the woods.


Walking Church

A few years ago I came across an idea for combining walking and church, being pioneered in North London by Wood Green Mennonite Church.The concept is to get into the outdoors to help people engage with God in the fresh air, and the hope was that this form of Church might become attractive to those who don’t like to be sat still in a cold building. It is still a complete service, with liturgy, readings, prayers and a talk but these take place at various stops on the walk, allowing plenty of time in between for worshippers to ponder what had been said, discuss it with others, or simply to catch up! I had the opportunity to try out a shortened version of their Walking Church at the Greenbelt Festival in 2012, a write-up of which can be found in another article on my blog.

As with all good ideas, I started to think as to whether this could be adapted to be useful in our setting.

We are a small church, grown out of relationships in a new-build community. With the exception of one, all of our members have children under five. Walking Church as they ran it simply wasn’t going to work, but a Strolling church, where people were free to bring their pushchairs and move at a toddlers pace, might. Was there a way we could adapt it to fit the needs of adults and pre-schoolers?

Since then we have run a variation of Walking Church on four occasions, the most successful being on Good Friday both in 2013 and 2014. The idea of stopping at various points and reflecting lends itself well to Good Friday, as people have for many years by using the Stations of the Cross. We decided on an hours walk (at toddler pace) in the local woods with six stops. At each we would take one aspect of the easter story, read a passage, share a thought, and say a prayer. The Way of the Cross material in Common Worship’s Lent resources was very useful, as was the use of Resurrection Eggs at each station to engage the children. We rounded it off with a trip to the coffee shop.

In church, it is often a struggle to get toddlers and preschooler to sit down, be quiet and engage with something. Often all little boys want to do is to run and jump and generally make a noise. Having church outside lends itself to this. It really didn’t matter that our boys were running around with dirty sticks or picking up snails. We were in the woods, that is what they are supposed to do! We have also used scavenger hunts, egg hunts, a photo competition (using smart phones), and bubble prayers which they loved too.

This seems to be a form of church that people found it relatively easy to invite others to. On the first Good Friday well we had, many of our regulars came and brought friends. Going for a walk is something that many people do on a Bank Holiday anyway, so going on a nice walk at the same time as marking the season (whilst also avoiding having to sit through a church service) was, apparently, quite appealing. At another of our walks, the husband of a member, who would not usually come near a conventional church service, felt able to cycle round the woods as we were doing our Walking Worship. He joined us in the coffee shop afterwards, so he didn’t feel he was entirely excluded.

If you would like to know more about the original Walking church, check out their website or read this article on the Fresh Expressions website.

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Challenges of Church Planting

Hugo Charteris at Christ Church Newcastle makes some obvious but very real observations about church planting:

Downsides to Church Planting

At Christ Church we are committed to being a church (network of churches) that plant churches. I’m a fan. Yet let’s be honest there are downsides.

1. No people

If you’re used to attending a church of 500, then 100 will feel very small. If 100 is normal, then 20 will feel small. Indeed, you may be wondering, ‘what on earth do we think we’re doing, this doesn’t feel like real church at all’.  I know that feeling well having planted CC Heaton with 13, and CC Fenham with 9.

2. No building

If you’ve got the money then you can buy. Yet typically most new churches will need to rent. Certainly that’s what we’ve done and will need to do in the future. Which means hard work setting things up and down every week.  Yet more significantly it means not having a sense of place or belonging.

3. No money

If you start a new church then invariably money will be an issue. For us it meant that I didn’t take a salary for four years. That’s not an option for others, so each new plant presents a significant challenge. And will continue to do so as we plan for the future.

4. No structures

If you’re someone who likes structure then church planting will probably be difficult for you. No longer can you say, ‘But it’s always been done like this before’, because everything is new and the slate clean. Even the time that you gather is up for grabs.

5. High cost

This is less about money and more about the personal cost. There are friends you’ll no longer see, activities no longer available to you. For a Sunday to run you’ll have to do more than just one task (a good thing!), and some things will just not be as good as they used to be (like the music).

Of course none of the above is bad.  What’s more the nature of Christian discipleship is to ‘deny, take up and follow’. Nevertheless, given you belong to a church that aims to plant churches it’s worth knowing something of the downsides. Yet there are upsides. Which I’ll come to next time.

Some of the practical challenges for us have been getting used to lugging things around in your car every week, wondering whether we can afford to meet on another Sunday of the month (room hire charges), encouraging people to give and lead, challenges over where to meet. Of course, all these are put into perspective when you have a successful service, when someone new turns up and enjoys it, and more importantly when people respond in ways big and small to the gospel.

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photoAnother local minister put me onto this book about Jesus’ greatest commandments, The Art of Neighboring, by American ministers Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. Imagine if a network of churches across the city were engaged in actively pursuing the best for the neighbours on their street, what sort of impact that might have on the city.

It’s a simple book with a straight-forward premise, but one that is useful to remind ourselves of. When asked by one of the teachers of the day which of God’s commandments was the greatest, Jesus gave this answer which silenced them.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40)

The question, “but who is my neighbour?” is a good one. If we are supposed to love our neighbours, who are they? In one sense everyone is our neighbour – people of different nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages. This is true, but sometimes an answer like this is not practically useful to those wanting to live out a life of “loving their neighbours”. If we are to love everyone, where specifically do we start?

This is where Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon’s book, The Art of Neighbouring, can come in useful. Looking at American suburban society in particular (the book is not limited to this setting but is primarily written from this point of view), they saw that, in fact, people often don’t know those who live immediately around them. I think this is true in the UK too, especially in new-build developments which don’t have a lot of history or long-term residents. Their answer to “where do you start?” is to look at other residents of your area.

They begin by asking you to think of the people who live immediately around you. Can you picture them? Beyond that, what kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you know their names? What sort of person are they? What do they like doing or talking about? Do you know what their desires or concerns are? With this in mind, Runyon and Pathak saw the great potential for impacting community cohesion, security, and general welfare of society for the better, simply if Christians took this command seriously with their literal neighbours. The idea is not to set out with a mission to convert them, but simply to share something of God’s kingdom-goodness with the world by creating loving and peaceful communities. Think about it, how much of your town would be impacted if every member of your church made a commitment to get to know, befriend, and be involved in the lives of those who live around them? I also have no doubt that a side-effect of this will be to open up opportunities for people to find out about and discover faith. When people are confronted with God’s goodness, some will respond.

It is an easy read, with that one central point running through it, and full of suggestions of how to out the greatest commandments into practice, but as always, it will need some adjustment to the individual context. It is a simple premise which, if a number of churches in one city commit to, could have a big impact.

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I like…

postman royal mail vanI like being a part of a community where the postman knows exactly where you live, recognises you, and pulls over in his van to give you a parcel that you’ve missed.

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Walking Worship

photo-6Yesterday we had our first experiment of Walking Church, which we titled, Walking Worship (simply because of the alliteration). This was inspired by Wood Green Mennonite Church experiments in London which I came across at the 2012 Greenbelt festival.

Meeting at 10am on a Sunday morning, we undertook an hours walk round a local woods, at toddler pace, with stops in three places. At each stop we paused to hear or reflect on some part of our theme. I’d picked Isaiah 44 as our reading as we were walking around some firs which were grown and felled in rotation to supply the joinery industry. In the passage, the carpenter takes a piece of wood and with some of it he builds a fire to heat himself, he roasts his meat over some of it, and with the rest, if fashions an and bows down to it and cries out for salvation. So we ended up thinking about what man-made things we rely on to save us in certain situations.

So at the first stop we heard the reading. At the second, a brief reflection on it, and at the third stop we joined in prayer. For the children, there was a wood-based scavenger hunt to keep them busy on the way, and the prayers were visualised by blowing large bubbles. After the walk we all decamped to the coffee area of a nearby Garden Centre.

Numbers were small – a few of our regulars had other commitments that morning and perhaps people didn’t feel confident enough in the format to invite friends along, so there were only four families. I was encouraged that the husband of one church member, who would usually not come near a conventional church service, felt able to cycle round the woods as we were doing our Walking Worship and to join us in the coffee shop afterwards, so he didn’t feel he was entirely excluded.

The route itself was a nice one, but the person who scoped out the walk remarked that a circular rather than linear route would have been better. After the final stopping place we found ourselves at our furthest point from the start, so of course we all had to walk back, but generally it was ok.

The content of each stop was squarely aimed at the adults, and this mean the adults felt they got something out of it. The kids were generally happy running around or following the bubbles, and were all pretty well-behaved, but I wonder if something more for them  during the stops might have made more of an impression on them.

I had also hoped that people would naturally think about and discuss the theme or reflection as they walked, allowing time for people to process it. i don’t think this happened (although people did get a good chance to catch up whilst walking which is also valuable). Perhaps if I’d given a question to ponder on each section of the walk, it might have reinforced the theme a little more.

Overall, I was relatively happy although I still need to get feedback from those that came (and from those who opted to be elsewhere). At Christmas I’ve had the idea of doing a walking ‘9 lessons and carols’ around our development, and we’ll have to decide as a core team whether to do another walking church before then.

If anyone else (outside of Wood Green) has done walking church, I’d be interested to hear your experiences.

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New Beginnings in Derby

A couple of friends of mine has just started pioneer mission work in an area of Derby, and this is what they have to say about their new role.

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Northampton Inter-faith study final report

faithFollowing the survey and consultation into the needs of Northampton faith communities, the organisers of the study have released their Final Report which can be read here. My notes on the final consultation meeting can be read here.

As a summary, they agree that there are some faith communities, primarily Muslim and newer Christian groups who have a need for extra provision of places to meet. Most of the requirements are geographically constrained so an all-purpose city-centre location would not suffice.

They recommend the council produce a simplified guide into the planning procedures for places of worship or for adapting existing buildings to meet the need. They also recommend a list of currently available D1 properties – those which are already classed as institutional buildings (in some sense) and would therefore not require the same level of planning regarding change of use and would therefore, in many cases, be more appropriate for ease of conversion.

None of this gets us any closer to the community centre in St. Crispin’s but it may open the way for ease of planning for us in the future.

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