No one expects Miracles in Kingswood.

Sat at my desk with tears streaming down my face having just pressed “send” on my resignation letter my mind wandered back to the start of my journey in Kingswood.

I was a keen, young, fresh-faced and newly married curate seeking my first “vicar” post. I was passionate about mission, outreach, evangelism and had been greatly influenced by an Anglican report “Mission Shaped Church” which had come out when I was at college and also some pioneering ideas I had been part of when I had been in Poole/Bournemouth which had begun to talk about the difference between growing congregation -bums on pews- rather than transformed lives. That mission was more complex than turning up the sound system, updating the ‘play-list’ of the worship-band and turning up the collar of your rugby shirt! Instead we needed to re-evaluate what was counted as “success” which meant exploring how Church could look if it was indigenously and authentically expressed in its local contexts? Which asks: What would my life look like following Jesus in all I say and do? And how are my friends, neighbours, colleagues and family experience the salvation story in a way they can understand and respond too?
The buzzwords surrounding this thinking were fresh expressions of Church and pioneer ministry, but what they really did was give a language and recognition to the journey we had been on, the questions we had been asking and the problems we had seen.

These certainly were the buzzwords I was extolling at my interview for the post of Minister at Large in Kingswood, later to become Pioneer Minister in Kingswood and Hanham. I talked about needing to change the language from seeing people from “in Church” -as in attending a service on Sunday Morning- to being “in Christ”.

The Church used a phrase about “needing someone who was ‘bi-lingual’ meaning that they wanted someone who could speak the Church language and understand the Church culture but also to be able to speak the language of the world. I laughed and said “I’m not sure I can speak the language of the whole world(!), or even speak Bristolian(!), but I am prepared to get out there and try and learn the language!” I went on (perhaps naively, or perhaps filled with faith?) that I believed that people have a deep desire for Christ which they are often unable to articulate, and that Jesus said: “the fields are white unto harvest”. At this someone in my interview panel laughed and said: “no-one expects miracles in Kingswood”, my wife and I exchanged glances because we believe that God is a good of miracles and the supernatural, I noticed the Archdeacon conducting the interview a vein seemed to be throbbing by his temple, he clearly disagreed with the “no-one expects miracles in Kingswood” line as well.

Whilst I was finishing off my curacy in Salisbury many people urged me to link up with a guy called Bidds -Andy Biddlecombe- who was a local Christian with a small group of Christians meeting in his front-room with great hunger and expectancy for God to move in Bristol.

I soon met with Bidds over a coffee, and he told me of a picture he had of a Rooster -which was what he called his group- the Rooster wakes everything up in the morning and he believed God was challenging his Church to “arise from their slumbers” and seize the moment to see the Kingdom of God advanced in Bristol. As I drank my coffee, I did not know whether I was inspired or challenged by this, and I decided probably a bit of both!

Bidds became a good friend, challenging me to keep on believe that God speaks prophetically, heals today, works in peoples lives in the most unlikely way. I needed people of faith around me, because I was also working amongst people with a defeatist attitude which sadly been prevalent in many of the Churches and within myself too in my darker moments. Sometimes it seemed like corks and then catalysts for mission within the community, protecting our hearts from the possibility of hurt and failure -but in doing so we also block ourselves off from the possibility of fruitfulness and a foretaste of heaven.

Often when chatting with my friend Bidds I would realise that I took had allowed jaded cynism into my soul. I recall with immense shame when I heard myself talking to my wonderful intern Sam, who journeyed with us for two years, when I asked him to think about “being more pragmatic and less idealistic” -he looked at me and I realised that this was me in effect saying: “no one expects miracles in Kingswood”, and I repented and Sam laughed graciously at me! I realised afresh the need for expectancy to see God at work amongst us and the eyes of faith to see God’s hand at work amongst us. I remember preaching about the spies going into Canna, many were too scared to believe that with God they could take the city so they spoke of the fearful things they saw “they were giants” rather than Caleb and Joshua who said “that with God this city can be taken and be ours”.

It had been a white-knuckle ride, and I felt battered and bruised by it, but I looking back there were signs of God at work -although if I am honest I would have loved to have seen much more fruit- but yet at times like this we have to leave things in God’s hands and know that even if we haven’t seen the miracles, that does not mean that God has not been working miraculously.

I arrived thinking I had answers, I left with questions, and was broken, yet I had also experienced God in the midst of the brokenness, and discovered what Henri Nowen calls “the wounded healer” that despite the limp that God still works through me, and as I worked out my notice period I wanted to remain hopeful and expectant, knowing that God had not finished with me -or Kingswood- and that there was more to come for us both.


Jackie Pullinger.

Jackie Pullinger graduated from the Royal College aged 22 in 1966 with a burning desire to be a missionary, but she got rejected by every missionary agency she applied to, she was young, female and not a graduate from a Bible college (although she was classically trained in playing the oboe!).

Scripture shows us however that God delights in choosing unlikely people for service, shat-tering stereotypes and upturning prejudice: such as women, gentiles, sinners, broken people and even on one occasion a donkey! The story of Samuel choosing the infant shepherd boy, David, as King for Israel has a stark reminder that “people look at the outward appearance whereas the Lord looks at the heart!” God himself showed up as our Saviour in a town that was so despised that it was said that “nothing good could come from Nazareth”.

Sadly, history has shown our religious institutions sadly are out of step with the Holy Spirit, burning many at the reformation, banning the Wesley brothers from many pulpits, attempt-ing to block the work of the Booths with the founding of the Salvation Army and believing that Jackie Pullinger “was not missionary material”.

I worry that too often we have become opinionated rather than wise, we have conflated our own idea of what we think should happen, with what God is calling. Too often we allow con-fident (rather than wise and spirit-filled) people speak into our lives without adequate dis-cernment? Perhaps there are words we need to shrug from our shoulders, hearing and heeding afresh the call of God on our lives.

Human-beings and institutions filled with human-beings are too often ‘risk-adverse’ yet the call of Christ is to step out of the comfort of the boat onto the waves, we have within us a status quo bias, we fear change -even good change causes stress!

God is a risk-taking God, Jesus’ life I suspect regularly caused his heart to beat faster and his adrenaline levels to rise. Christ took risks on unlikely people, sending out his rather unprom-ising disciples and then the seventy-two “hangers on” to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus restored Simon-Peter to be a leader in his Church he didn’t ask for his CV but only asked one question, the only one that really matters, “Do you love me?”

Jackie Pullinger went to speak to a Vicar friend called Richard Thomson in Shoreditch and he saw and encouraged this call upon her life and suggested that Jackie Pullinger should get on a boat and pray that God would show her where to get off (I wonder whether my faithless desire to be practical would hinder me in ever giving advice as crazy as this? I fear so). This Jackie did, she got on the boat expecting to get off in Africa, but whilst on the boat she had a vivid dream of Hong Kong and felt that God was preparing her heart for Jackie to serve him in there. Jackie got off the boat and managed to be admitted into the country due to one of the police officers being loosely connected with her mother, she only had $10 to her name, but she managed to find a job working in a primary school in the Kowloon walled city. The walled city had become a “no go” area for the police, it was run by the triads and was a massive producer of opium and was a very dangerous place to live and work.

She had a phrase that she would say whenever she was interviewed that “God wants us to have hard-feet and a soft heart but too often we have soft feet and a hard heart”, in other words we choose comfort over Christ and harden our hearts to those he is calling us too.

I wonder what would my response be if God had called me to work within Hong Kong’s Walled city?

Yet Jackie Pullinger settled there, built her life there amongst the people of this area and made friends, she did not see anyone become a Christian for the first seven years she was there, yet she carried on and persisted, and eventually saw the people she served surrender their lives to following Jesus. She founded the society of St Stephen which was a rehabilitation hub and a youth centre to help young people choose and alternative path away from injecting heroin into themselves. Gradually her work began to grow, by 2007 she was housing 200 people at a time within the rehab, as she had no real resources to run a clinic she simply prayed passionately and intensively for each patient who came in (often praying in tongues) and miraculously people were getting clean, and staying clean, so much so that gang-lords were bringing people to Jackie wanting her to help them get drug free so they would be more effective in their fu-ture business, which she refused to do.

Despite no mission agency in the U.K being prepared to take her on, she was awarded an MBE in 1988 in recognition of her work.


The Vision for School of Mission.

“What’s your USP Mase?” my friend asked, I thought he was talking about USB memory sticks before discovering that he meant “Unique selling point”.

This was a strange question as to me the gap between rhetoric “we need to get out there and share our faith” and the reality of people in our communities coming to faith in Christ is huge.

Although new events and courses spring up fairly often it does seem as though (largely and often) the tide is going the wrong way and many congregations age and decline. Yet what I am passionate about isn’t another course or just a day conference, but primarily a community which helps us explore together what God is calling us to do, to work out our unique vocation within the context he has called us to serve.

Too often much of our thinking and formation is very cerible, the imparting of information through academia.

The School of Mission is seeking to pioneer something very different, offering various ways to explore mission and vocation with community in practical informal ways mainly away from the classroom environment (although we might do the occasionally more formal events) -and hoping to upload lots of YouTube clips.

We aim to offer guided retreats, activist pilgrimages, UK based short term mission trips, peer and group mentoring.

We are seeking to be a catalyst for mission access the UK and believe that much of our discipleship work is much deeper than just acquiring knowledge and practical skills but is about God releasing in us all his call, dreams, vision and destinies. We believe that what God has for us to do is actually locked away within us if we have the courage and faith to articulate it and live it out within a supportive community that is rooting for each of us, we hope to have two hubs that people can belong too, a regional hub and a virtual group (through Facebook/WhatsApp etc).

We believe that through this bespoke work with us all, we may see this nation transformed in a loving and bespoke way.

It seems like both a big dream and a small one, transforming this nation through individuals being obidient to their calls backed by a small group of mates sharing their journeys together. It is at its heart what Church is supposed to be, but certainly not like something I have ever experienced as Church. It’s fluid and flexible, inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, a non judgemental Missional support group wanting to see people thrive, not led by a “sorted leader” but sharing together as broken people coming together with the audacity to dream.


Preaching the School of Mission Strap-line on Hanham Mount…

Every Christian… Too often in our Church we say words like “us” but really we mean the leaders, the professionals or the privileged few, “us” often doesn’t really mean “all of us” and “everyone!” Yet this is what I read in scripture, we are all called by God to be his ambassadors, to be salt and light. The great American Church Planter and founder of the Vineyard movement, John Wimber, used to say “everyone gets to play!”.

I remember someone telling me once that they didn’t feel called to mission (how can anyone not feel called to seeing the Kingdom of God come on earth as in heaven?) and I said “if you love Jesus and have a pulse then you are called!”

Yet taking this to it next step, if everyone is called, then everyone of us is also responsible, a country where fewer and fewer people know anything about Jesus is not someone else’s problem, it’s our problem, and our responsibility.

Feeling confident and comfortable. I think most Christians would love to share their faith and talk about Jesus to their mates, but don’t feel like they could bring it up in conversation, or if someone asks them a question wouldn’t know what to say! I often joke that evangelism sends some of us back to the school disco where you really want to ask out this girl/boy but you just don’t know what to say or how to say it!

How do we make talking about Jesus/life/purpose normal and natural?

How do we give people the tools to feel like they can engage well in conversations about faith?

I think we have bought the lie that people aren’t interested in Jesus and the big questions. I think people are cautious about getting a heavy duty sales pitch. Peter says in his epistle “always give an account for the hope that you have, but do so with gentleness and respect”.

Interestingly I think the answer to feeling comfortable and confident in conversations about faith lies in good listening skills, listening (really listening) to the person talking and also listening to the spirit, and as part of this learning to ask good questions, discover where people are coming from and why they are asking the question.

This is why the school of mission is important, I wonder how many of us have ever had any help, training or seen modelled for us how to listen well, or how to ask good/helpful questions? Yet we have all heard many sermons on how we should be sharing our faith and probably feeling more and more guilty and I’ll equipped!

Sharing their faith in Jesus… I remember my first ever sermon which was “we proclaim him admonishing and teaching with all wisdom so we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” and asking what were the two most important words in that verse? Which I said “we” (which we have already coveted!) and “him” it’s all about Jesus!

When my dad left the Church he led in Eastbourne he said something like “whatever we’ve done my prayer has been it has all been about Jesus, what matters is Jesus, whatever the future holds for you (and us) it needs to be all about Jesus!” I want my whole life, actions and words, to continually and constantly point to one thing and one thing only, the person of Jesus Christ.

The reason why we put ‘actions and words’ that way around is too often we have made mission (particularly about evangelism) all about words but if we don’t sort out our lives people say “I can’t hear anything over the noise of your behaviour”.

Yet does this mean we have to reach a state of sinless perfection before we open our mouths and tell our stories of how Jesus met with us? Of course not, yet I fear the charge of hypocrite stops us talking about our faith. Recently I went on a climate change protest and I wrestled with whether I should go as I am not as green as I’d like to be, yet as I met others there I realised that no one is sorted but just being honest, saying what you think, being honest with your struggles and doing what you can was good advice not just for the environmental movement but also for mission as well!

Which ties neatly into our next section “with wisdom, sensitivity and open to and led by the Holy Spirit”.

We probably have all cringed with toe curling embarrassment at someone going off on one completely insensitively which has put people off whatever it is they are trying to get you to do, the adage of a bull in a China shop often feels an apt metaphor!

I think there are two problems with the Church and mission, many within the Church need to learn to “speak up” but some need to “shut up” too, we need the wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent, how to leave people after a conversation feeling blessed rather than “rail-roaded”.

Yet before we feel intimidated let’s remember whose mission we are involved with, God promises to help us and even to “give us the words”, a God who chooses to partner with us and is “making his appeal through us!”. I remember in the early days of Street Pastors in Kingswood i was out and a woman saw my clerical collar and said (in quite an aggressive way): “I’ve had three kids from three different blokes, what does your God think about that!” I gulped and prayed silently asking God to help me and not make anything worse. On her arm she had a tattoo with the name “Gracie” written in a heart, “is that your daughter?” I asked, it was, and I was able to say that the word “grace” meant God’s undeserved love and goodness towards us, able to say that God loved her and her family, and she changed and warmed towards us as she realised that God loved her and her family. A moment later the moment was lost as 5 girls painted blue and dressed as smurfs got out of a stretch limo (evidently on a hen party) and everyone moved inside. It was a brief moment where a little bit of heaven touched earth that I had the privilege of being a tiny part of.


Unexpected Companions: Albert Kestin, the Question Master.

A young missionary called Albert Kestin was walking to Church one Sunday morning in 1900, when he came across a group of young people. At that time there was an expectation that all children would go to Sunday school. Kestin asked them why they weren’t there, to which they replied that they “didn’t like it, sir”.

At this Kestin asked would they go to a group that he ran? He would teach the scriptures and tell them about Jesus, he would make it fun and interesting, and what is more his landlady would provide tea?

Kestin had wanted to be a missionary no doubt with a great ambition of serving in faraway parts of the world, yet God’s call was to stay local and work with young people, which he was very gifted at. Nowadays there is some kudos in being a youth worker, but not then, indeed many would tell him that he was “wasting your time on Sunday school drop-outs”.

Kestin was obedient to the call on his doorstep and gave up the notions of serving on the other side of the world. Instead committing himself to seek to teach these young people in a fun, interactive way that could be applied to their everyday lives. The group grew and thrived and soon many other groups were formed, these groups were not Church based groups but working across Churches even in an interdenominational way. Sadly, even today (especially today?) Christians seem scared to work and serve together.

I would love to have been able to eaves drop on the lessons that Kestin had with the young people, they were clearly lots of fun and very popular, he managed to speak into the culture of the young people in a way they could understand -what of us, do we speak other people’s language or do we expect them to learn ours? Scripture challenges us that “one generation shall tell another the glories of the Lord” but have we learned to speak how the next generation can understand?

We talk of missionaries learning to do cross cultural mission in different countries but often we fail to realise that there is cross cultural mission to be done across generations too.

Thus, Crusaders was born, later to be called Urban Saints, which has reached many young people who previously had no real contact with the Church with the message of Jesus in a way young people can understand and respond too.

Is there anything more important with the work of the Church than to see the next generation rise up and take their place as followers of Jesus, even if they choose to live out their faith differently to us, we need to remember that the gospel is proclaimed afresh (not just again) in every generation.

This story made me ask some questions myself.

In this case the young people had tried Sunday School and not liked it, but for some people they have not rejected Jesus, or indeed Church, they have never experienced it and don’t even know that they would be welcome to come, I remember on one occasion someone asked me “would I be allowed to come to your Church?” The word “allowed” really challenged me, do people know they are wanted and welcome?

My colleague Peter in Kingswood was talking to two local ladies one asked the other “do you go to his Church?” “No” the other replied “because he never asked me?” Some people are waiting to be asked, I often think that often much of our evangelism looks like nervous year nine students asking one another to dance at the school disco, circling one another but never actually quite asking the other to dance! Bishop Lee of Swindon said: “Don’t say someone else’s ‘no’ for them”.
Kestin too knew the difference between style and substance, the young people hadn’t rejected Jesus -just as many young people today haven’t- but not heard about him in a way they could understand and respond too. Too often I hear people say “kids aren’t interested” which often really means “what we do and how we do it isn’t engaging with the young people”.

I noticed too that Kestin didn’t just set up a youth group with no Christian content in a religious building and hope somehow kids get converted by osmosis,, a classic case of adults getting too worried about kids being “in Church” but not worried enough about “knowing Jesus”.

Kestin, I believe started in the right place by asking a question, how often do we not ask questions because we already assume, we know the answer?

Too often in Churches we presume to know what people want, and often questions like “why are there no young families here” are answered by the opinionated people in the room with real grasp of what’s going on, Kestin chose to ask and listen to the right people.

Asking people why they don’t go to something might mean we hear feedback we might not want to hear, and what of us, have we ever given feedback where something awful is declared “lovely” (or we simply not to offend someone, but leaving them unaware of a potential problem?

Kestin, rather like Nehemiah in scripture, heard the problem and volunteered himself to be used by God in its solution, he could have just sympathised with the young people and said some encouraging words about Jesus and felt like he had “done his bit”, instead he grasped the opportunity and invited the young people to study the Bible with him, what of us, do we see the opportunities and grasp them with the boldness of Kestin?

Kestin had the young people in his home, and had his land lady fed them, which would have cost him money, and cost him time and energy too! Are we, am I, prepared to be inconvenienced for the gospel? Do we not seize the opportunities God has placed in front of us because we (wrongly) believe we are too busy? We are often reticent about engaging in things that are time consuming, expensive and require sacrifice -yet, I would suggest that this is because too often we have our priorities wrong and saying “no” to the things the Holy Spirit is calling us to and “yes” to the fruitless clutter Satan wants to fill our diary’s with! Someone once wrote that we miss most opportunities God sends us because they come in overalls and looks like work!

Kestin embodied a great verse that the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”.

Too often we think of the spiritual life of our nation with many thousands of people knowing little or nothing about Jesus as someone eases problem rather than realising that it is ours. We have a personal responsibility to make Jesus known in our day and our land.

We have a world where many are saying “I don’t want to go to Church” and not going but perhaps we can be creative and find different ways of exploring faith with people, asking them the questions of how to explore Jesus with them whilst building relationships rather than trying to get them into a Church building.
Kestin may have lived a long time ago, but the lessons he must teach us are often not grasped by us as Christians.


Meeting a bloke called Dave…

I had been in Poole a couple of months and I was really struggling, work and the parish had been my life, and suddenly with it all gone I felt bereft, in the midst of parish busyness I felt like I had lost myself feeding an insatiable monster with my all my time and energy and yet it was never satisfied. I talked about “finding the disciple behind the dog collar” as it is easy to be a “professional Christian regurgitating all the right answers” but now with it all stripped away I did not know who I was anymore, perhaps it was a time of pruning -quite extreme pruning, cutting back and deep, leaving me feeling naked and cold, and wondering what -if anything- will grow back. I know that I am supposed to say something about trusting the gardener with his pruning, knowing that he knows what he is doing and that ultimately it is for my best, but sometimes what I know in my head or can say from my mouth, feels very different from what is in my heart or that nagging knot within my stomach.

I realised when I stopped and was alone with just God and myself without the distractions that my value and self worth was much more tied up in what I did than I realised. I used to hate it when people asked: “So Andy, what do you do?” I don’t know but I am hoping God will show me!

Now it was just God and me, and whether the relationship continued to grow or went down the pan was my choice, I had no “official role” or “party line” I had returned to the laity as just another ordinary Christian trying to follow Jesus where I was, with what I had. I realised that over the decade in ordained ministry perhaps I had allowed my ego to swell, a sense of entitlement to take root and perhaps an empire to creep in a little, I had gone up a few ladders and progressed reasonably well, but here I was having slid down a snake and back at the bottom, back literally in Poole where much of my early spiritual life had begun.

It was a funny time for relationships too, many of the people I had been friends with had left Poole, those who were left had changed and I myself had changed, it is always difficult going back somewhere as part of me naively believed that I could just slot in where I had left off 13 years ago, but that is not the case. Also, I returned not at my best, I had left to go off to theological college to go and be a Vicar with lots of excitement and anticipation, I feel like I limp back, battle warn and broken by endless cuts and blows from churchy people I had tried to serve and the parish I believed God had called me to had not wanted me and chosen someone else leaving me really confused, “why God, I thought I had heard you so clearly?” I was not the “old mase” laughing in the pub surrounded by a crowd, but a new “jaded mase” fighting back the tears, feeling like an unwanted failure.

At that time I was really grateful for two friends (both called Chris) who took me out for beers even when I was rubbish company and kept inviting me and didn’t try and solve everything, just being mates who kept on hanging out with me.

There were also sadly some clergy I knew in the area, some where lovely and really blessed us as a family, and some sadly were not the friends and allies we had hope they would be, realise when you have nothing much too offer who stands by and encourages and blesses and who are just hollow words and empty rhetoric, you can see peoples true character when you are at your most broken and seeking restoration.

I once heard a talk about “the third day” -there are lots of third days in the Bible -the 3rd day the wine ran out, Lazerous had been dead three days and of course the resurrection happens on the third day- the first day something happens, in my case resigning from my job and moving to Poole, and a third day when salvation and resurrection happens, but what of the middle day, what of “Holy Saturday” when you are waiting for the resurrection and nothing with your human eyes causes you to have any hope, believing that God had called us to Poole, and he still has a plan and purpose.

I was hoping for some form of spiritual epiphany where God would turn up and tell me how much he loved me and answer all these questions and doubts that were plaguing me, but no such lightening bolt has zapped me, and maybe that kind of experience might never happen, -I’ve often found that God speaks to me more like Elijah with that still small voice rather than the noisy theophany, although I do believe that somehow God will direct my steps and use me for his Kingdom purposes, although I do worry that I might not notice his gentle guiding voice saying “this is the way walk in it”.

“God, what do you want me to do?” was my abiding question, which got answered after a couple of months when I went to a prayer meeting in a neighbouring neighbourhood and got chatting with a guy -called Dave who was a retired lecturer from loughborough- who had also recently moved into Poole and felt that God had called him and his wife here to Poole, it turned out he and I lived in the same area (more or less) and we agreed to meet up a couple of days later and just wander around the park and the new housing where we both lived and ask God to bless this area.

Interestingly, as I chatted to my dad, who was a former local minister of a neighbouring parish, he shared how he and a previous vicar had wandered around the area which had no yet been developed and one of their specific prayers was that God would bring Christians into this area, it felt like in a weird way like we were an answer to my dads prayers all those years before.

In many way just meeting one guy, drinking coffee, and praying was a small call from God, and at times as I explored where God was calling I was a bit like Naaman saying to God “prayer walking once a week -I want more than that!” Yet, this is something that God is challenging within me, we are all called to be faithful rather than successful, one quote I had above my desk for a while was from Shane Claiborne which said “everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to do the washing up!” (this got me in trouble with Allana, my wife, when I forget to do the washing up!!

Yet these times of prayer were for me a real blessing and comfort, and excitingly they began to grow, a lady called Jane joined us sometimes and brought a friend, a friend called Alix also joined us and is pioneering a project for a multipurpose community centre, called the powerhouse, to be based in the centre of the part of the redevelopment project that is yet to be built, on the former site of an old power station. Then later a pioneer minister John was employed by the local baptist church to explore doing something new in this area and the area yet to be built.

This small prayer group, which started with just the two of us, has become something of a hub of what appears to be an emerging Christian community, and as we always grab a coffee before hand we have begun to build good relationships with the staff at the cafe and this has become a place where we are known and part of the local community.

As we have prayer walked I have also taken my dog Teddy, who is very friendly -perhaps too friendly!- and leaps up and greets everyone as an old friend, and I have been aware how the dog has opened up so many conversations that would have been forced or just weird without him, and through him we have got to know people and their names.

It feels a little like the people walking around the walls of Jericho awaiting something Gods break through, I am reminded that every move of God we have seen in this country was first birthed by a few faithful saints who prayed -sometimes unseen for years on end- and as we cry out to God for our community, receiving his heart for the people we live amongst the community is changed, and we ourselves are changed too, we become more aware of where we are living and amongst who we are living, our community has faces and names and we become more embedded within it.

Prayer is the only place to start with anything, too often we say to God “here is my idea, please bless it” rather than pouring ourselves out before God, open and vulnerable, and we respond in faithful obedience where he leads, and to keep going.

In past experience we have tried to do prayer walks and have found that by the 3rd week it has fizzled out people have got bored and stopped coming, but here this group has kept one another faithful -iron sharpening iron as one person sharpens another- that mutual accountability helps keep us praying! I believe that we are called to be faithful and keep pressing on into God with the same tenacity that Jacob had when he wrestled with the angel all night long and said: “I will not go until you bless me” -keeping going wrestling with God in prayer knowing that ultimately his desire is always to bless those who seek him.


Coming back to where I started (more or less)…

Returning to Poole was hard as the town itself had changed as had the spiritual temperature, on my last Sunday before going off to theological college -thirteen years ago- I remember the Churches in Poole had hired the Lighthouse Arts Centre (the local theatre) and filled it with Christians from various churches to worship God and to pray for our town, the atmosphere was electric and there was a real expectancy in the air.

At this time many of the local leaders met up each month to pray for the town and for one another. There was joined up youth work, which encouraged Christian young people and there was joined up thinking that thought strategically about reaching the young people that our churches didn’t, including fruitful detached youth work in some of the more challenging areas (as despite the sand, sea and sunsets there is actually a lot of deprivation and poverty within Poole), nearly every secondary school in Poole had regular Christian assemblies and R.E lessons too, and there was a network of Christians in our twenties across local Churches that met up to pray together and be accountable together and many of us have gone on to be involved in some form of paid ministry for the Kingdom of God.

True, there were struggles, gaps and people falling out with each other, it wasn’t perfect, but it felt like the Christian Community in Poole was reasonably healthy.

Yet thirteen years later most of they towns key Christian leaders had retired, most of the collaborative prayer had fizzled out, there was a Churches together group still meeting and there was something called the “evangelical leaders network” that seemed to pray (and talk a lot about gay people!) much of the youth work had retracted and just a couple of larger Churches had youth work -some which was outward looking and others less so; work with the those in the twenties again is concentrated on a few larger churches and sadly there was less work happening in secondary schools and all detached work had ended locally too.

To be fair it is not all doom and gloom, there are some fantastic people have come into the area and some beautiful Kingdom work and some faithful workers who have been called for the long haul who have also been working tirelessly to see Jesus made known.

One of these was a lady called Jackie Leswell, who used to lead the Salvation Army in Parkstone, but now was part of the Vineyard Church, she chaired Churches together in Poole and was involved in many projects, It was so nice to talk to someone who got and understood the weird world of stepping out of a traditional Church leadership structure (especially from a denomination like the Salvation Army or the Church of England) to something new and different, but I believe more fruitful.

I met Jackie for a coffee in the lounge bar, and my dog kept on trying to lick her face, which was a little embarrassing, she told me about how she longs to see individual Christians taking responsibility for seeking to advance the Kingdom of God in our local area, she shared with me a project she was about to launch which is the Poole Town Pastors, which after consultation with the police, youth service and other agencies suggested that teams of trained up local Christians go around the town from 3:00-6:00, in a clearly visible patrol seeking to work with young people hanging around -especially those who might be thought to be committing antisocial behaviour- , the homeless, market stall holders and any who just needed a chat (it is amazing how many lonely older people we get to meet and talk to). With a week of meeting Jackie, I was on the streets of Poole helping with the first week of Poole Town Pastors, (in my previous parish I led Kingswood Street Pastors and also Kingswood School Pastors, and in my curacy we launched Salisbury Street Pastors, both which brought local Christians together from local churches to serve their community in practical ways, and was delighted to be able to continue serving in this kind of way).

It has been said that if you want to know where the Christians are we should look and ask the poor, the hurting, the marginalised and the lonely, here were Christians not just saying the right things in church, but actually living it out on the streets of Poole, our uniforms are not the coolest (they are sky blue hi viz vests with base-ball caps, with the O in Poole has become two ikthus fish) but for me there is something about not being ashamed of being a Christian, and maybe even being willing to sacrifice a bit of my vanity too for the cause of the Kingdom of God.

It was great working alongside Jackie as it is always good to see other Christians at work, especially with evangelism and compassion work, as too often in our Churches we assume that the people in our congregation feel happy to live out and speak up about their faith in normal everyday life, the truth is that most people feel uncomfortable and un-confident, they have either rarely or never seen this modelled well, and very rarely seen their Church leader (who normally is the one pressuring them to share their faith) actually chat to people who would not call themselves Christians. For me I love watching other Christians talk about Jesus and bless people, I know I have a lot still to learn, and I want to be teachable and to learn how to navigate conversations as well as possible. It is wonderful doing this as a team, as conversations often flow in different ways doing it together with other people blesses not just the person we are speaking with but also the other person and us too.

Chatting to various groups can feel a little intimidating, but the more we have done it the easier it becomes, and the more I have chatted with all sorts of people I have found that often -despite appearances and prejudices- that often God is already at work within them and their conversation, and it is great to practically do things that actually bless people, like giving the homeless a hot drink or a foil-blanket, it is good too to remind people that the Church is not dead or hidden inside its buildings but is seeking to be salt and light into our communities, putting a human face on the faceless institution of the Church.