This past Friday I journeyed to Kettering to take part in the Greenbelt Festival, a gathering exploring faith, justice and the arts. Having attended two years ago, I was curious how it would compare to my previous experience, especially since its move from Cheltenham Racecourse with its open spaces and built amenities to Boughton House, a large manor house set in a greenfield. The festival was intentionally smaller because of the more constrained space and the need for everything to be in tents. Even as a smaller gathering it was impressive at 10,000 people attending talks, concerts, book readings, worship services, and of course the pub (in a big tent).
Even more than last time, I found myself drawn to the worship services and talks in "The Grove" where much of the focus was on the intersection of faith and ecology. With Forest Church as one of my stops while in the UK, this was a good place to meet leaders in this fresh expression of church. More importantly, in "The Grove" I was able to pray authentically as one who often experiences G-d in nature. I also attended a few talks and worship services with either a social justice or LGBTQ focus.
I followed my heart and sought out experiences rooted in my own personal story. The draw towards these kinds of experiences makes sense as I reflect on fresh expressions. The more I experience (grounded in my reading), the more I am struck by the significance of authenticity in this movement. As I read when I was in Sheffield and emphasized by Jonnie and Mel, fresh expressions have to be indigenized, emerging from and speaking to the context of the people they are for.
This insight has been reinforced in my last few days in Southport. On Tuesday I participated in "The Living Room", a social gathering and prayer time with the hard to house. An extension of a soup kitchen, this gathering is church for those who attend. What they do feels right for who they are.
As Tina, the fresh expressions minister here, shared the success of this ministry, she also shared her disappointment in the lack of traction for the other ministry I was coming to see. After the first couple of go's, people had stopped coming to " Franky's Pizza". She wondered aloud if it was too modelled on the Bread church in Liverpool and not something that was an authentic response to the culture of people right here.
Perhaps. But these things also take time. 340 leaflets handed out door to door by me on Wednesday, we had 4 people come out this evening to make pizza and build community.
Despite that success, I ponder the contrast between "The Living Room" and "Franky's Pizza". One feels more authentic than the other, more natural to its environment. I was struck by this as I took a day trip to Formby Pinewoods yesterday. A protected area for red squirrels, the forest was planted to help stabilize the dunes that run along the coast here. It's a beautiful place with great pines, open fields, sand dunes and the Irish Sea.
It was low tide and I decided to walk out on the tidal flat. I noticed holes in the packed sand as well as small piles of sand like extruded rope. As I walked further I noticed what looked like sand covered straws. It was clear that beneath my feet were various types of sand worms. I thought about how they had evolved in this environment, were natural to it.
As I walked back through the pinewoods and saw some red squirrels, I paused to give thanks but also felt sad because they are a rare sight, being pushed out by the grey squirrels from North America, foolishly introduced to the UK in the 1870s. I couldn't help but think about church history, how the indigenous British church was pushed to the margins by the stronger Roman church. That version is now floundering as the church here experiments with expressions that are rooted in the culture as it is evolving.
As I pray for the return of the red squirrel, I equally pray for the growth of a church that is truly authentic to the present culture and context.