Can you create a church around the hobby of walking?
From an idea developed by a Methodist church in Cumbria, Wood Green Mennonite Church in North London have been doing running their Walking Church for a number of months. I first came across the idea from this piece on the Fresh Expressions website, and was given the chance to experience it at Greenbelt 2012. I was curious to find out what the content of the ‘service’ was, and crucially, did it work.
We met at the ‘eden’ worship venue, hidden around the pack of the paddocks in what is usually the jockeys and stables area. There were about 40 of us and most were aged over 40 too. The 45 minute-long walk was going to be completed in four stages, with three walks joining them, and led by Phil Wood who is the leading of Wood green Walking Church. Home-made Mennonite biscuits were on hand at every stage.
Stage One (at eden): Introduction, and corporate liturgy. It looked like this liturgy could have been standard Mennonite stuff, but I’m not sure. This lasted 3-4 minutes.
Walk One (approx five minutes) through the paddocks, along the main festival concourse (by the g-source tent), past the main stage and stopping just beyond it.
Stage Two: Reading from 1 Samuel 8:6-12 followed by a short reflection (8-10 mins total). The reflection was on the reading. This was one of the low points of Israel’s history with the people demanding a king. The prophet Samuel responded by saying what a king would do for them – demand service from their sons and daughter and “serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.” Phil took this theme and spoke a little about busyness and running in front of things and not slowing down. This thoughtful reflection was followed by a few minutes of silence.
Walk Two (approx 6-8 minutes): Over the walkway across the racecourse and into the camping area and around onto the circular tarmac road. We walked anti-clockwise and stopped by a mound not far from the back of the Big Top.
Stage Three: A prayer-liturgy loosely based on the Beatitudes. This had been written by Phil Wood and demanded responses from the participants. (about 4-5 minutes).
Walk Three (5-6 minutes): further along the tarmac road until we met the crossover path over the racecourse between the two sites of the festival. Back up the tarmac path past the paddocks and medical area to the eden venue.
Stage Four: Final communal prayer and blessing. They then invited everyone to the Chai Chapel for a cup of tea (they usually end up in a cafe or pub afterwards)
It is important to say that this was ‘mini-Walking church’. Their usual routes take about three hours and may have more content. Here are my observations:
- A good church should have relationships as one of its values. Walking allows relationships to happen in natural unforced ways. People often chat more deeply whilst doing something else, whilst walking.
- Walking allowed the content to sink in. I found myself processing and chatting about the previous reflection as we walked to the next one. Discussion and sharing of ideas is a great value to have for a church too. To quote Phil from the FE article,
“Yes, words are important, but mostly peace is in the pace. It’s easier to listen at three miles per hour.”
It is worth noting that the content was all quite churchy – liturgy, prayers, readings, reflections. In the context it worked but afterwards I chatted with Phil Wood and asked him what proportion of people who came were unchurched. He said that like many churches who struggle to overcome tradition and churchiness, they have the same issues, albeit without a building. The church culture in some respects follows them as they walk, although they are a bit freer from them. This is an issue which they are thinking about at the moment. As a result they, of course, would like to attract more unchurched people than they actually do. At the moment most of their attendees come from a churches background, with some coming from the fringe or who currently are without a church. They would like to improve this.
Overall, I liked it and I think the values and format have potential to reach those who wouldn’t want to sit still in a building for an hour.
How could this apply to my setting? My initial, and undigested thoughts come in two parts. First, we do not have many middle-ages or older people in Berrywood church. Our congregation comes mostly from the new build family area at St Crispin’s. However there is also a large retirement village on the site, which at the moment, due to time and manpower constraints, we do not engage with much. Perhaps this might be a way in for them.
An alternative idea is instead of walking church, have strolling church. An hour-long walk and buggy push would get mums out and give them some peace and reflection. Babies and toddlers are usually quite happy when pushed in a stroller or pushchair for an hour or so, and it might give the mums a chance to chat and reflect.