Nearing the end of my journey I visited Stephen Sutton at Coulby Baptist Church, he recently posted a youtube video all about the Churches working together with various people talking about “my church” and the things they are involved with, the things they do, the similarities and differences they have and as you watch the clip you realise they are not talking about a congregation but rather the true Church of Teeside which is the united followers of Jesus Christ seeking to live out their faith corporately.
I didn’t really know Stephen but he is a friend of a friend and agreed to meet me when I sent him a random email talking about my desire to learn from other projects in the UK and see what God was doing in our nation, yet what I had not realised that his dad, Roger Sutton, had done something similar several years before seeking out great examples of where Churches were working together collaboratively and gathered his findings into a book which he has since got published.
So, it is with fear and trepidation that I try and write up my conversation with Stephen fearing it will probably sound like a pale imitation of his dads book! I arrived at the Church and there was no one there, I realised too I had no idea what Stephen looked like and so I ended up grinning inanely at all these blokes who walked passed (I’m surprised I didn’t get punched in the head!) before a guy appeared with a bottle of milk and two bags of extra large cookies and introduced himself as Stephen, he let me in and made me a coffee, I did a quick bit of mental maths and realised he had brought ten large cookies for a meeting with just two of us, that meant he was expecting me to eat at least five cookies -I thought I like his style, this is hospitality with style!
I had a whole load of questions planned to ask him, but I was surprised when he began to ask about me and about my tour, and about why I felt called to do it, and what the school of mission was all about, whilst he grinned, nodded and listened. I was struck by the hospitality of the cookies, but also more struck by just how powerful it is when someone listens, especially someone who I had come to see expecting to learn from.
I ended up talking about the talk Jackie gave at the launch of the School of Mission about discovering what God has put inside each of us: the dreams, the passions, the ideas which I believe God wants to birth from us for his glory, normally when I reach this point I get bombarded by the strategy questions, the logistical queries and the finance issues by those listening, but instead Stephen (taking a cookie) said: “I knew this really wise old preacher and he said that he spent the first half of his ministry trying to get his vision into people, and then said he spent the rest of his ministry trying to get Gods vision out of people!” -I cannot tell you how affirming that was that my crazy longing was actually something other Christians resonated with and longed for too.
We were even both having finished our first cookie, would it be greedy to go for a second, and what of the unopened packet, was that just a challenge, I took a second cookie -but was mortified to discover it had stuck itself to the third cookie, what could I do now I’d handled both cookies, and eating three large cookies at a meeting looked greedy!
“So, tell me about Transform Tesside Together?” I asked hoping he would forgive or not have noticed ‘giant cookie gate’ -pointing to a map on the wall Stephen showed me that Teesside, was the conurbation around Middlesbough, by the river Tees, which also includes communities of Billingham, Redcar, Stockton-on-Tees and Thornaby (see I was listening!). Stephen told me about how he had started at this Baptist Church and had worked really, really hard at being the best Church pastor he could be, and occasionally he and other ministers locally would meet up for a sandwich and a pray, which felt a bit token-gesture, and only a few of them gathered, but was okay. Until someone came to talk to them about a leaders prayer meeting in York where around twenty leaders met together each week, early in the morning, to pray for one another and for the city of York, and have been praying together for nearly twenty years. Stephen said that they all felt challenged to commit to one another more and to pray together.
The first thing that happened as they prayed for each other was that God helped evaporate insecurity and ego amongst themselves, bitching and bragging stopped, and the realisation of the negative effect thoughts of empire and entitlement can have on the dream of God becoming a reality amongst us. In prayer, making themselves vulnerable and accountable, relational unity was formed, Pastors and Ministers became friends, they saw each other not as competing players on the pitch, but rather team mates wearing the same football shirt, on one another’s team, and rejoicing in one another’s joys and sharing in one another’s sorrows, a realisation that each had one another’s back, a call to compliment rather than compete with one another. In Teesside they made a covenant with one another “”that we will only speak well of each other with respect and integrity and honestly” an ethos that filtered through from the leaders to their congregations “we are not going to slag off other Churches”.
I thought back to my time in Kingswood, remembering friends like Pastor Benson or Captain Michael from the Salvation Army, and I thanked God for the way they and their Churches were so different from me and mine, and yet had really blessed and encouraged me in my time serving in that community. As I thought of these guys who I have much to thank God for I realised what a powerful gift to give as leaders to one another, as one of the questions that is rarely asked is: “who pastors the pastors?” -I know technically denominations all have someone like an area dean or bishop who has responsibility for this role, but in reality most of us can feel pretty ‘unpastored’. In prayer the ministers of Teesside saw themselves and each other differently, they realised that they needed one another.
Recently I have been reading some of Alan Hirsche’s work where he talks about the difference between community and communitas, a community is a gathering together of people, whereas communitas is more like a battalion of soldiers that are interdependent on one another working together as a team, whereby coming together they become something greater than that which they could ever have been on their own. Perhaps this is why Jesus prayed that his Church would be one, as God is one, where the unity is so close it is impossible to see where one ends and another begins.
This thinking leads us onto thinking differently about the Kingdom of God, not just about our own patch, our own congregation, but seeing the land that God has called us to differently, asking collectively “What does it mean to be a Church in this place and for this time?”, seeing themselves as God’s salt and light to the town, we are God’s given gift. Stephen said he has begun to explain the Kingdom of God like this, “it’s the Kings Dome”, in my head I pictured one of those snow domes filled with figures and lots of falling snow, he went on “under the Dome of the King, is where Jesus is King, and the Kings will is done, he gets what he wants under his dome, now imagine under this dome is the whole of Teeside (or Poole, Kingswood, Bristol or where-ever God has laid on your heart and called you too). What would the fullness of the rule and reign of God look like in our communities? As I thought of this I was reminded of my friend Simon Cartwright and his dissertation for his PHD which was based largely around the call of God to Jeremiah to “Seek the welfare and prosperity, the peace, the shalom, of the city” (Jer,29.7.Amph).
It was around this time that the chief executive of Middlesbough council said of the Churches “‘if you could get yourselves United and organised we could work with you!” which was a challenge the Churches of Teesside rose too, it became clear that the Christian resources where not equally dispersed (as with many areas) the most deprived areas has the smallest and struggling Churches, and so they support one another discovering that they can do more together than on their own, and when people from the various congregations begin to work together they feel part of something larger than themselves, indeed they feel part of the move of God in their area, as they put into practice the call to “seek first the Kingdom of God” -showing the people of Teeside a united Church being the fragrance of Christ, being salt and light, shining out light stars in the universe.
Stephen talked about the message he wants to convey to the people of Teesside “We are your Church and Teeside we want to serve you!”
As I began to hear their exciting projects I began to think back and realised that the most exciting things I have been involved with in my Christian life have been when Churches have intentionally let their walls down to other Christians and learned to serve alongside one another: I remembered my year out in Wakefield where a number of Churches came together and put on a youth alpha (each Church had to bring a leader with their young people for the small group time) and we saw forty five young people come through Alpha; being around at the birth of Bristol Street Pastors coming from all sections of the Christian community and caring for the most vulnerable on the streets of the city; I’m currently sat here typing away on the laptop at 3:30am here in Bournemouth, with ten rough sleepers are asleep in a warm comfy bed having had a hot cooked meal, with breakfast coming in a few hours (and a packed lunch) as we try to serve the homeless and help them find safe and secure accommodation all made possible by armies of volunteers from most of the Bournemouth Churches (and some who have no Church connection too); or down the road in Poole where a local Christian charity working with single mums have organised the local Churches so that each week there is a different messy church happening with free craft and games for the kids and a hot meal for all the family too. A Kingdom mindset changes everything, we eves-drop on the prayer of the Godhead, Jesus talking to the Father about us! “all of them be one, as you and I are one” (Jn.17).
Stephen told me of a mission event that the Churches did collaboratively that summer when they served the council by providing over seven hundred and fifty volunteers, which resulted in fifty two thousand volunteer hours doing jobs such as gardening, cleaning, painting and many other activities, the Church not weak and invisible but a redemptive, transforming revolutionary movement of the people of God living out their faith in obedience within their context seeing something of heaven touching earth, the Church mobilised not hidden away in the dark corners of its buildings wanting to be invisible.
The Kingdom of God and his mission beckoning us all to come and partner with him in seeing Jesus Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.