It’s early on a Monday morning in Stoke-on-Trent. Forty church leaders are gathered for a prayer meeting in an unassuming white building. They represent an eclectic mix of denominational backgrounds; arm-raising and speaking in tongues comfortably cohabit with more contemplative prayer styles as they pray for the transformation of Stoke, once reported to be the worst place in the country to live.
This prayer meeting is not a one-off event. And Stoke isn’t the only place to see a group of leaders meeting regularly to pray for their city. Bluer skies and more striking architecture may provide a more attractive backdrop to the prayer meetings for One Voice York, but the underlying principle is the same, and it’s happening everywhere. These meetings are all in the name of unity. If that word makes you feel slightly queasy as you think of therapeutic hand-holding while singing discordant rounds of ‘Bind Us Together’, then fear not, it’s safe to read on.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Church at large was in a state of disarray. At a national level, it can’t seem to agree with itself. Locally, we have a habit of getting rather territorial and defending the work on ‘our patch’. But beneath this, something else is springing up: more organic than institutional; relational rather than rigorous.
Something is springing up: more organic than institutional; relational rather than rigorous
Roger Sutton, leader of the Gather network and ambassador for the Evangelical Alliance, has travelled up and down the nation uncovering 90 grass roots unity movements, following a hunch from general director Steve Clifford. ‘What we discovered,’ says Sutton, ‘was this incredible thing happening…below the radar. These movements didn’t know anything about each other... It’s not a fashion thing ? it’s not the latest model to do… [Instead] we’re discovering what God has been doing. It’s why I think it’s a move of God…and I don’t use those words lightly. What makes these stand out from what we’ve tended to refer to as unity, has been [rather than a] top-down approach, this is about friendship. The evangelical Church has been used to getting together to do a mission…But people don’t meet together afterwards.’
Unity can seem a bit like green vegetables to children; we know it’s good for us but the benefits elude us, especially first thing on a Monday morning. 'Together we can do far more,’ says David King, leader of Kingdom Voice in Salford, a group of about 40 church leaders who meet monthly to pray for the city. ‘We can do big events. We can sit round the table with the MP or the council, because they know the one place to come if they want to speak to the churches. And from a purely spiritual viewpoint, it makes the Father happy. At a human level, even ? if you’re a father and your kids aren’t talking, it doesn’t make you happy.’
King and his wife grew up on the estate overlooking the old dockyard in Salford. Twenty years ago this site was derelict, an area of mass unemployment attended by high crime rates. In the intervening years King started leading a church, and began meeting to pray with other church leaders. Salford Docks was once the place where Salford interacted with the world; they felt called to pray that this area would again be a place to communicate with the world. The same site of international shipping is now home to Media City UK, the new northern headquarters for the BBC and about 80 other businesses and organisations. Some feel stirred to unite when they see a particular need for change.
This was certainly the case in Stoke, when the Experian report was published in 2001 saying it was the worst place to live in the country. Two church leaders decided to hold a prayer meeting, and 200 other leaders joined them. Robert Mountford, co-leader of the prayer meetings, now called Connect, says ‘The focus was the city, not any church or denomination; it was the city that was in trouble. Very quickly we started using 2 Chronicles 7:14 as the rallying point.’ This verse ends with God’s promise to ‘heal the land’ if God’s people will humble themselves and pray.
Prayer and relationship
Churches Together, a nationwide ecumenical organisation, is already a prominent group in most counties. So what’s different about these unity movements? ‘Very often churches will tend to be part of both,’ says Sutton. ‘There’s a lot of co-existing.’ Elsewhere, one has replaced the other. Paul Barratt, who leads Croydon Churches Forum, says, ‘There are unity movements that start when people agree. But what we’ve said is that relationship is more important than agreeing on doctrine.’
In Croydon, Barratt took a particular approach to this shift from the old Churches Together meetings to a new movement. ‘Our approach was inspired by the London parks; when they re-drew the paths in the parks, they didn’t make any paths for a year, and waited to see where people walked, and made the paths there. So we did the same. Nearly four years ago we killed off the old [and closed the Croydon Churches Together], had a year of nothing, and waited to see what happened.’
This approach has nurtured initiative among the local congregations. ‘We try not to have committees; we just try to let things run with energy,’ says Barratt, ‘and we invest our support where people want to go, where they already feel called and committed.’ This movement is all about getting ‘stuck in’ in the community: following the successful opening of a foodbank by one church last year, another three foodbanks will be opening in the coming months, working in conjunction with each other.
Similarly, there are about 70 different churches involved in running night shelters that rotate around different church buildings through the colder months staffed by volunteers from all churches.
Relationship is more important than agreeing on doctrine
While great things may come from meeting together, the prayerful foundation means it’s not all about objectives. David Casswell, co-leader of One Voice York, says, ‘We don’t really have a long-term vision. It’s just about building relationships. Out of that, some wonderful things have arisen. If we had said, “We’re going to meet in order to fulfil this vision”, we’d always have been testing against some target. Instead we just said, “We want to meet one another, avoid competition and we know it’s a good thing to do.”’
It’s a similar vibe in Stoke. ‘The main focus is leaders coming together to pray together, and focusing upon the bigger vision of the kingdom of God in the city. Out of that comes a whole series of very informal connections, relationships and projects,’ says Lloyd Cooke, co-leader of Connect.
One can imagine that, as a leader, in a moment of weakness, it’s easy to feel something along the lines of ‘my church is bigger, my renovation project more architecturally interesting, my Alpha suppers more nutritionally balanced...’ (or the reverse). It’s also easy to see that this would be disastrous for unity. So how do these gatherings manage to overcome the problem of comparison when church leaders are meeting together on a regular basis?
One Voice York intentionally discourages leaders from sharing their own projects and concerns. They recognise that the shared email list could easily be filled with plugs for speaker events and bake sales. While they encourage accountability and support between leaders, they also feel that the point of coming together is primarily for the city. ‘We try to encourage one another,’ says Casswell, ‘so we’re not concentrating on programmes, but [on] how the Lord can minister to us in order that we can be free to minister others. It’s very freeing.’
Gary Atkins, leader of the church leaders’ group Link Up in Chester, emphasises the importance of friendship between church leaders as a basis for unified churches. ‘[Link Up’s] DNA came from senior leaders being relational ? focusing on reaching the community and reaching the world, rather than all the old mechanics of what we might agree or disagree about.’
But even friends still disagree. ‘We’re not talking about compromise, but a respect for each other in Christ,’ says King. ‘We have to recognise that unity is not uniformity; we don’t have to be the same. The body is made up of different parts. When the different parts work together, you get something beautiful.’
This city or town-wide focus is helpful in envisioning people in the long-term. ‘When you ask the question “What will Southampton look like in 20 years’ time?”, no single church is going to effect that transformation so we’ve got to do it together. It’s not just about the Church either, it’s about…Christians in the cultural spheres ? they’ve got to play their part ? so the vision expands even more,’ says Sutton. King also recognises the need for all churches to contribute: ‘One church has an amazing rehab ministry ? that’s their gifting. Others have another gift, such as preaching. Others work particularly well with professional people. Even on issues of theology, we need to be honest and open, not try to hide stuff away.’
There is of course the danger that if your congregation is spending all their time helping out with a project at the church round the corner, you might start to see a few people seeping from your pews and filling another’s. Atkins believes it’s important to address this openly: ‘When people [members of one congregation] move from church to church, it goes to the heart of this comparison thing and can often cause tension between the leaders. We have a recognition between us that we will talk about this. We work together as a single church, so people will move, and we need to talk about it so it’s not the elephant in the room. When you know that everyone is honouring everyone else, then there’s an openness to talk about those tough things.’
‘Prayer and friendship, out of which comes mission; those three things have been characteristic of all the unity movements that we’ve been finding,’ says Sutton. This is partly because the social aspect of the gospel is one area where we can usually agree. ‘It’s very difficult to argue about how to feed a poor person,’ says Billy Kennedy, chair of Southampton Christian Network. ‘The issues [between churches] tend to be about doctrine and styles of worship. When it comes to providing a house for a 17-year-old who has been kicked out of home, or feeding the elderly, there is only one way to serve a meal.’
In Croydon, they’ve seen the benefit of allowing people to initiate projects, rather than being lead from above; it has allowed people to coalesce around others’ ideas. ‘Because it’s grass roots,’ says Barratt, ‘it’s more acceptable for people. That sense of the laity using their voice, being able to establish something very easily with the right expertise, rather than clergy who don’t necessarily have the right skills.’
Representatives from the Croydon Churches Forum meet with the chief executive of the council three times a year to ask what the biggest local need is at that time, and take steps to meet that need. One of the most striking aspects of this process is the speed with which they are able to bring change through the unified church network.
‘There’s a real problem with housing in Croydon,’ says Barratt. ‘We heard at the beginning of December that there’s a bed and breakfast with 700 people. By Christmas we had held a Christmas party for the hostel; we were able to give them foodbank hampers and had a disco for the kids. Now we’re working with local people to work out if we can release private property, and helping to relocate people to different parts of the country, if they’re keen to do that. We can use the contacts across the churches to see if they can help to relieve the burden.’
The effectiveness of unity was particularly demonstrated in dealing with the repercussions of the riots in London in August 2011. Croydon Churches Forum was asked by the council to chair the first meeting with people who had lost their businesses. ‘We had a very difficult meeting, with police helicopters flying overhead. There was still a lot of open hostility on the streets, but we were able to be the ministers of reconciliation and mediation in that process,’ says Barratt.
For the good of the city
For Atkins, ‘community transformation’ is both about personal transformation ? through people coming to know Jesus ? and social transformation of the community. One example of this was a football youth work project working alongside the community support officers, which saw a decline in antisocial behaviour. ‘It’s not just about churches, but about the whole of the community and society in which we live ? bringing hope, employment rising, crime falling. Our prayer for Business Sunday is not just for businessmen who are Christians, but for businesses to prosper. It’s about a Church without walls; seeing the business park as much a part of our parish.’
Prayer and friendship, out of which comes mission; those three things have been characteristic of all the Unity movement
Building relationships with civic authorities has mutual benefits. The Church has a pretty large force of volunteers to offer. In Croydon, as in York, the council has benefited from being able to communicate easily with a large group of people. Equally, the churches are able to understand better the needs of their locality, and work together to supply them. The approach taken by Croydon Churches Forum is to aim to speak with a prophetic voice in their dealings with the council, to be proactive about doing something to make a difference, and to interact in a non-judgemental way. Barratt says they want the council to ‘feel supported by us, so there’s no polemic, or feeling like we’re combatants, but that we want to bless them as well, not just those with the social need’
We have a tendency to be results obsessed these days (don’t worry, we’re not about to start a church league table) but even local police forces find it difficult to explain the fall in crime rate when people start praying. In the time that the church leaders in Salford have been meeting to pray, among other things for education in the city, the percentage of school pupils getting A-C grade at GCSE has risen from 36% to 90%, which is one of the biggest improvements in the country. Some might say this is coincidence and, as King says, ‘I’m not taking anything away from the work of the teachers, but the churches have got together and prayed for education.’
At the heart of unity is the desire for the Church to honour God collectively, not just as individuals. ‘This is ultimately about the glory of God,’ says Cooke. ‘It’s about transformation, [and that] means aspects of what we’d call revival ? people coming to know Jesus, being healed, experiencing the Holy Spirit. But it’s more than that ? it’s about the transformation of every aspect of city life. So I won’t be happy until we see that business, health, law and order, media, politics and education have all been impacted ? the vision is the glory of God in every aspect of city life.’
For more information on Gather, visit wegather.co.uk