From a ‘merging church’ to an emerging church

You’ve got to have sympathy for Ghandi when it was, as he observed, the genuine lack of love and compassion amongst Christians which sent him packing in other directions. I’d love to be able to say that I can’t understand what he was on about – but that’d be a lie! Since, these days, it’s always helpful to declare your hand at the outset, I’m Northern Irish (and therefore white/middle class and educated) and was, like a renowned Christian Ulsterman before me, a ‘reluctant convert’. Reluctant because I just couldn’t bear playing ball with church as I understood it, for reasons that Ghandi stated. So I guess you either let that stall you or you try and do something about it. I opted for the latter.

After some years of formally studying theology I found myself on a journey to a ‘merging church’. This was at a time when I was in some discussion with a couple of guys in NZ about upping sticks and going to play down there. Things fell through and Steve Chalke put a partnership between a large (in terms of building but tiny congregation) inner-city London church and Oasis (a Christian charity focussed on social engagement) on my radar. On June 8th 2003 the 2 joined up and now, having merged, we like to think we are ’emerging’.

A potted history shows Christ Church and Upton Chapel as having a significant history in social engagement. Originally led by Rowland Hill, it became the birthplace of the Bible Society, Shaftesbury Society, Ragged School Movement and several other significant initiatives. In fact, William Wilberforce and his crew made it their central London base from which they put an end to slavery in the British Empire. Interestingly, the landmark spire a couple of minutes walk south of the London Eye was donated by Abraham Lincoln’s family to thank the church for their support and inspiration in the battle for the emancipation of the slaves in America.

That was then. When we moved in it was a very small, predominantly black group of people, trying their best to be faithful. All that happened was a Sunday morning service with the rest of the building being sub-let out to various groups and most notably the globally renowned ‘Cornish Society’!

We’ve put a team in who are responsible for the growth of this thing and we’ve added the name ‘The Centre’ as it will function as the physical hub of a steadily growing virtual network. Essentially our DNA is about making the message of Jesus accessible to everyone by stimulating debate, resourcing experimentation and modelling innovation in expressions of Christian faith and church for the 21st century.

Stripping things right back, we aim to be:

24/7 – providing a welcome to everyone whatever their situation, whatever the time, night or day.

Holistic – offering support and inspiration to the whole person and the whole community.

Global – serving as the hub for the whole network as it grows around the UK and the world.

In particular, I am involved in the explorational side of the project. There was no Sunday night service and so, having a blank sheet of paper, myself and a group of 6 others began something! We’re just not sure what! The evening is called headspace because that’s often something you need if you live, work or just exist in London. It kicks off at 7 with a café stylee affair in the central part of the church. This is then broken into with a call to worship. For about 50 minutes we move through to the auditorium where we are encouraged to participate in and lead each other in some structured worship. The final part of the evening sees everyone moving next door to the pub where the conversations continue.

headspace has five core principles or values that form the ethos of the community. They are transparency; connections; reflection and dialogue; recreation and love and life. These principles are to be demonstrated by all to all whether inside or outside the community. One-on-one spiritual direction provided initially by the headspace leadership team is encouraged within the community as we try and think through what discipleship might look like in a 21st C urban world. We are also in the process of setting up a network of small semi-autonomous groups called sub-spaces which we hope will be micro-missional communities plugging into through the website (which is about to undergo a major rebuild) enabling stories to be shared and resources pooled.

We literally have nothing in terms of financial or material resources but have realised that it’s possible to build a community without the flash and savvy gadgetry you’d associate with a bigger inner city church. Despite the fact that Steve Jobs or Bill Gates weren’t around at the time, it wasn’t the lack of ‘Keynote’/’Powerpoint’ or technology that caused Ghandi to reject Christianity – it was the lack of love and community. At the moment we’re carrying out a community audit so that we can take what little we do have and try and meet local needs with it as efficiently and professionally as possible. It’s a process, but then, so was evolution. As a Kiwi friend, Rob Kilpatrick, once warned me, it’s all about people before projects, so we’re continually checking ourselves on this one.

Amongst other things, Si Johnston is responsible for headspace at the centre.