Where the Kingdom is

Increasingly there is a recognition that we are living through not only an era of change but a change of era. Long before the pandemic there were symptoms of a deep social, political and spiritual malaise. Concern about the poorest communities has led to much talk among the churches of finding ways to ‘reach people on the margins’. But the barrier of middle class church is a reality: most churches have become estranged from poor people. Ironically churches themselves are marginalised, facing a steep trajectory of decline. Church leaders are sensing their usual approach is no longer fit for purpose and some are hearing a call to try new approaches. Here Nick Graves talks about a transformation in church life after he tried a radically new approach. 

My church started to do things differently

I am from Stockton-on-Tees. I grew up in poverty on a council estate in a strict Brethrenesque environment. My parents were part Pentecostal by background and had a literalist biblical approach. We weren’t allowed to watch TV or listen to music. Later in life I became part of the leadership of a charismatic Baptist church that reached out to drug addicts and prostitutes, women who were messing about with the occult, at risk of rape, often scared to go home or to the police. It was quite extreme. But they trusted our church.

But then I felt God’s call into full time ministry, to the Baptist Church specifically. So I moved – from working in a factory on Teeside to suburban south west London, to study at Spurgeons Bible College and took on a student pastorate. I experienced a clash of cultures and tried to fit in with my leadership team who were mostly middle class.

But after three or four years as a church leader I felt a growing disquiet that it just wasn’t working. I’m a natural people person, I just go and talk to people, but the church was still in what I would call “attractional mode”, which demands that people come along to church for something. Meanwhile I was meeting all kinds of people in the local area. They didn’t want to come on a Sunday morning and listen to me preaching and mix with people they had no affinity with. I saw that this approach wasn’t working.

I wasn’t trained for this. I sat and prayed and thought about it. I knew there had to be a different way of doing church. I decided to start a meal and that I would invite six people from the neighbourhood. I banned everybody from our congregation from coming.

The six people included an ex nun, a local hairdresser, an unemployed dad. They were just people I met through the neighbourhood. Most were living within a mile of the church.  I said we’re going to do church but nothing like Sunday. We talked and weekly felt like too much so we decided we would meet every two weeks on a Thursday evening. I said to them “I’m not cooking, I’m not serving you, washing up or clearing away. We have to do it together.”

We decided on a roast meal. We set up in the November. Everybody brought stuff. We cooked together, ate together and washed up together. We read a short piece of scripture and I led a discussion. In terms of prayer, it was too big a leap at that stage to ask people to share prayer requests. We had a prayer box with slips of paper. I would encourage them write down a prayer about what mattered to them. We would be quiet, and I’d say we’re going to give these to God.

By Christmas we had twelve people. After Christmas it began to snowball. By February we had 40, by March, 70. I then rescinded the ban and allowed the people of the church to come. It grew to over a hundred. Then more people came. We continued to hold it every two weeks. Many people came to faith, several got baptised.  Our pattern was ‘eat, pray, love’.

In terms of format, we kept it simple.

As it grew, we engineered the space so people had to queue to get their food: conversations happen in a queue. We deliberately broke up family groups so people had to sit with people they didn’t know. So people weren’t sitting with their friends, and we encouraged them to share their faith stories. We got the established church congregation to pray for the prayers in the prayer box.

We eventually had over 150 people. We had a fantastic range of ages, from babies to 92 year olds. It was great with the children serving the older folk. People were coming to faith. We filmed their testimonies; we had a Mexican night; we talked about Baptism. Three were baptised. People were coming up to me after the baptisms crying, and there were wonderful conversations.

But when it got bigger it changed. It began to become more functional and it lost its way. In hindsight I would split it off. When it was smaller, say between six and forty people, we worked through the Beatitudes. But when you have 100 people you can’t do a led discussion. So the structure changed. In the summer before the pandemic, 2019, we lost one of our young people, Kai. He was involved in a gang, and he died. He was stabbed in Purley. This knocked the wind out of our sails. It was exhausting and traumatic. We decided to take a break from the Thursday night meal.

We took a time of reflection and we were disappointed with the lack of impact on the Sunday service, while the “Thursday Tea” was hugely impactful. People called it ‘coming to church’ not ‘Thursday tea’. We examined the impact and found ourselves in a strange place.

Then the pandemic hit.

This is what we learned: that maybe God is calling us onto a different path. Maybe we should stop slogging it out on Sunday. That when we think outside the box, people are drawn to this. So we took a brave decision not to meet on a Sunday but on a Thursday evening. We still do it with food, we are not shackled by traditional expectations. We decided not to call it ‘service’ but now talk about ‘gathering’.

Over the pandemic it has been mostly on zoom. Everyone on the zoom was local, mostly from within one square mile of the church. We have been working out a hybrid approach. But it is always eucharistic when we meet in person.

We encourage people to come to a fun evening but also to ask questions of each other like “How is it going for you? What’s going on in your life?” People share deep things, like a woman lost her 18 week old child. We shared that with her. We share a song of worship, we’d do some ‘dwelling in the Word’, Lectio Divina, then just pray together, for each other and with each other. It is life-giving. Where people can be known. We are now thinking of meeting in people’s homes as well.

We reach a lot of very poor people. We are also running a social supermarket with over 200 people on our books. They are asking questions of us. Transformation doesn’t just take place in people’s hearts, it affects the area. They get jobs. It improves housing. They don’t die alone.

The original vision for this is in the Book of Acts. I have been thinking about the ‘ecclesial minimum’ – what makes a church a church. I think it is worship, word, community, prayer and sacraments. It doesn’t have to be a structure that we call church.

We are focused on the local. Jeremiah’s vision was in my heart. We have a passion to see our community transformed. God gave me a big dream that this was the best place to live, that this is where the Kingdom is.

Nick Graves

Nick Graves is a Baptist minister and has been pastor of Old Lodge Lane Baptist Church in Purley for just over eleven years.  He has been married to Louise for 25 years and has four daughters and one grandson. To find out more about his church and to contact him, please visit www.ollbc.org.uk 

“We’re going to do church, but nothing like Sunday.”