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.