This succinct new Grove booklet offers a helpful introduction to pioneering on new build developments for practitioners and permission-givers. Penny Marsh and Alison Boulton look at how this has become a contemporary issue, give practical suggestions for pioneers and for those who conceive the posts, and offer some helpful principles along the way. Both authors are experienced pioneers who have established community activities and worshipping communities in Royal Docks, London, Kent, and Swindon, whilst Boulton has also had a role as a pioneer-mission enabler across the South West of England with the Baptist Church.
New housing developments (and particularly affordable housing) is at the centre of the government’s economic plan. Official figures show that house building is now at it’s highest level since 2009. Their booklet begins with the assertion that for this work there is no map (although there are an increasing number of practitioners with valuable wisdom to impart). Each housing development is different and the task of the pioneer is about creative, entrepreneurial community building in areas which had no previously existing community.
They quote some very positive findings from some research conducted on Boulton’s work by Angela Parfitt as part of her MA degree. This research concluded that in this instance, the church and the church leader were instrumental in creating community, enabling a feeling of security (the idea that people look out for each other), and in increasing neighbourhood trust. Half of the people involved in the church-led community activities knew many of their neighbours, compares to just 12% of those who didn’t. Three quarters of those who visit have been involved in other community initiatives or problem solving, compared to just over a quarter of those who are not involved with the project. From this we can conclude that in this case, the Christian-led community project made a tangible difference in creating community and in creating social capital within that community. This cannot be generalised without further research of other examples, however it is an encouraging statistic for those seeking to pioneer community and church in new communities. She (Angela) goes on to conclude that the role of the leader and project has been most influential in increasing social capital in the development, which helps reduce isolation and enables residents to access wider society.
All outreach into new developments must be underpinned with missional principles. Marsh and Boulton rightly choose the biblical principles of blessing and incarnation. Incarnation allows the pioneer to engage with the people as one of them, a resident, whilst blessing is an easy concept for Christians and non-Christians to see the value of. They adds to these the fresh-expressions principle of listening, acknowledging that the pioneer is involved in community formation, not transformation, as there was no community there to begin with. How the community develops is an excise in listening to the people and to God. Boulton describes how her theological thoughts of Jesus washing disciples feet on Maundy Thursday culminated in the establishment of monthly pamper evenings for the community.
Another key principle is that of whether to have an agenda. This is one of my five tips for pioneers starting out. It is important to have vision, but development of any pioneering venture is inevitable slower and more chaotic than expected. Have a vision but not having a concrete plan means that the pioneering will be open to the call of God and have the time to follow it through.
Their section on practical suggestions has an emphasis on welcome. A non-threatening church welcome as new residents move in is a tried and tested way of gently giving trust and establishing connections. In some ways, this is akin to the traditional clergy practice of parish visiting. Although most of the development I was working on was completed by the time I moved onto it in 2010, we did partner with local churches and businesses to welcome residents on a new section of the development from the end of 2013. The response, as someone not selling and not pushing anything, but simply as a way of saying ‘welcome’, was generally positive and it gave opportunities for publicise some of our activities and to begin to build relationships. Marsh and Boulton also highlight the benefits of organising community social events to enable people to get to know one another, and of hosting a Facebook page or Twitter stream for the whole community.
Overall this is a useful starter. Much of what Marsh and Boulton suggest is common sense to the thinking pioneer, although there are insights and suggestions that will be new to some. Particularly the section which is a guide for regional ministers who may be conceiving of a pioneer post would be particularly useful to someone coming to think about new housing developments for the first time. As with all Grove booklets, this does not offer a complete coverage of the subject, but is a valuable place to start.
Penny Marsh and Alison Boulton, Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas: Personal Reflections and a Practical Care, (Cambridge: Grove, 2016). Available from grovebooks.co.uk. £3.95.