Seeking Gods purpose for us at Jesmond URC – Towards a new vision

REV’D RYAN P SIRMONS, MINISTER 

BURDON TERRACE 

JESMOND 

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE 

NE2 3AE 

www.jesmond-urc.org.uk 

 

                                                                                          30 June 2022

 In this letter: 

  1. Jubilee: toward a vision for our church 
  2. Visioning Day: How we together arrive at that vision 
  3. HeartEdge: A way to live into that vision  Dear Church

The Spirit is clearly at work at Jesmond Church! I am astonished by God’s grace on our church in our first ten months of ministry together; there are so many gifts here given in time, imagination, talent, and treasure. I look forward to what lies ahead.

Please find below some of what I hope to share with you when we meet together.

 1. Jubilee: toward a vision for our church 

Within weeks of arriving 10 months ago, I was asked what my vision was for our church. I said, honestly, that I did not have one. I needed at least a year of journeying with you to begin to understand what that might be.

It’s still too soon to have that vision with focused clarity, if for no other reason than it’s not something I can do on my own. We form it together. An invitation to a visioning day to achieve that is below.

I can, however, share with you what I see up to this point. I did this somewhat with last Sunday’s sermon, ‘A belated invitation to Jubilee.’ I think the Jubilee model provides a way forward for how we can be the thriving, communally-relevant church where people encounter God and go out to share the Good News that you have spoken of in our meetings together over coffee, in hospitals, and meetings.

‘Jubilee’ is what Jesus said he came to bring, ‘the year of the Lord’s favour.’ If we seek to follow Jesus, our discipleship is not only proclaiming, but sharing out, that same Jubilee message:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (St Luke 4.16) 

Maria Harris, a late twentieth-century theologian, laid out a way Christian communities can ‘Proclaim Jubilee.’ It’s not exactly easy; it involves ‘suffering.’ But Christian discipleship was never supposed to be easy—Jesus said that the kingdom of God would be ‘hard’ (Matt 19.23). But compared to the hopelessness of what so much of the world offers, I believe discipleship is at the end easier. We practise a joy that doesn’t last just a day or a season, but is woven throughout life and creation. Jesus said to those who hesitated to take up ministry with him that, ‘my yoke is easy, my burden is light’ (Matt 11.30). He never said there wasn’t a yoke. Discipleship with Jesus means that we carry the burden of discipleship with the grain of the universe.   

As we think of Jubilee as a way to shape our vision, I suggest we spend some time thinking about five themes Harris proposes. ‘These themes,’ she writes, ‘include a political-economic demand, an emphasis in living humanly, a sobering corrective, a creative power, and a religious vocation.’ For the church, she suggests of those themes of Jubilee:

The demand is liberation; the emphasis is connectedness; the corrective is suffering; the power is imagination; and the vocation is tikkun olam—the repair of the world (Harris 4).

I suggest that we pray and interrogate ourselves about these Jubilee themes. Framed by Jesus’ own citation of Scripture from Luke 4 and Isaiah 61, how are we as a church engaged in work that responds to the demands of liberation around us? Do we know what those demands are? In what ways can we thicken the feeling of community connectedness in Jesmond (and be better aware of the demands of liberation)? In addressing suffering, are we aware of the lacrimae rerun, the poet Virgil’s phrase for the ‘tears of things’, that voices an awareness (and experience) of omnipresent pain suffering of the world? Are we creating spaces for a liberated and connected community to raise that awareness, rather than drown it out with noise or modern distractions? Are we open to exercising our collective imagination to address the source of sufferings—and not just the sufferings themselves—through liberating and connecting work and worship? And in so doing, do we feel in our very bones that we are part of tikkun olam, the Hebrew word for repair of the world?

These five themes are, I suggest, the markers of a healthy and engaged church. It’s Jesus-shaped ministry because it’s following in the steps that Jesus himself said he was here to proclaim. And in many ways, we are involved in each of these themes. Yet I believe we all are aware of the ‘tears of things’ enough to know that there is yet more ministry to be done.

The HeartEdge network can also help provide peer-to-peer support, inspiration, framework, and encouragement to help us tackle these challenges and remind us that we are not alone in this. More on how that works below, and why I think we should join this network.

I pray that we can embrace the spirit of Jubilee and imagine how we, too, can continue to grow into a just, joyful, Jubilee, and Jesus-shaped church, together! I am, as I have been these past ten months, astonished by your grace, and grateful to be in this ministry with you.

2. Visioning Day.

Our elders have agreed to hold a ‘visioning day’ in October—final date to be determined—whereby we can spend up to three hours together developing a vision. We’d like everyone who cares for and loves this church community to be part of that. We’ll be inviting an outside minister, trained alongside me by Rev’d Cameron Trimble (my coach and author of Piloting Church), to run the session using a technique called ‘Futures Listening.’ Despite its name, it helps us to discern the very real values we hold now, and invites us to shape how our church can lean into them in concrete and effective ways.

3. HeartEdge.

https://www.heartedge.org

a. What. HeartEdge is ‘an international, ecumenical movement galvanising churches to be at the heart of their communities, while being with those on the edge.’ It embraces the pastoral ministry, while building an aptitude and appetite for translating this into compassionate, cultural and commercial opportunities. The network, which operates around a hub, helps churches to sustain and develop these vital ministries.

b. How. HeartEdge invites churches, particularly smaller congregations, to organise around ‘the four Cs’.:

Commerce: generating finance via enterprise, creatively extending mission.

Culture: art, music, performance re-imagining the Christian narrative for the present time and place.

Compassion: empowering congregations to address social needs.

Congregation: inclusive liturgy, worship, and common life.

Some congregations take on all four at a time, but most focus on one, two, or three at a time, after some period of reflection and study.

c. What happens next.

i. Meetings amongst ourselves: which congregations (including the pastorate and wider URC) in our community are interested in this? (next 1-3 months)

ii. Develop relationships via meetings amongst the community: who else might be ecumenical partners in this work? (Next 3-6 months). We have a long list of people to begin meeting with.

iii. Education opportunities around what HeartEdge is, to help us think how we can take some of this on in our context along with other interested congregations (after 6-9 months, with trainers from HeartEdge). This could include or lead into a ‘HeartEdge Day’ which would showcase a group of speakers and experts locally and outside the area. NB: One was held at Jesmond URC in 2019, but it’s felt that effort got derailed by the pandemic.

An experience of HeartEdge on the ground. 

The elders of St James’s Church, in their interest to learn more, visited Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, as well as Augustine United Church (URC) and the Grassmarket Community on Friday, 27th May.     a. What they learned in Edinburgh. Greyfriars has been at this for twenty transformational years. Some things have worked well, and others have not. Three key things that were evident in the visit were:

i. Follow the Spirit. Lean into that relationship with God and be willing to go with the Spirit to take bold actions such as radical, inclusive welcome of marginalised people, changing spaces to meet the needs of the local community while respecting and honouring tradition, and be willing to back that up with resources of money, people and physical space. Greyfriars is a historic and traditional church. Yet, it’s right on the ground in ministry. In part this is because they are willing to bless and release activities that are no longer serving people in the best ways possible. And most importantly, we should prayerfully craft a vision and be prepared to lean into that vision.

ii. Money. ‘Money follows vision.’ St James’s elders were struck by how forthright the leaders of the churches were about money. They weren’t shy in asking for it, and made it clear that we will need to find a paid person to write grants for us and help us seriously think about money. Their confidence in charging market rates for building use came from their belief in their vision and mission: they needed money to fund those projects and the salaries behind them. While we were there they were engaged in an expensive rebuilding of a community café space as part of the Grassmarket Community. They didn’t seem stressed about money, but at the same time clearly kept a careful eye on how best to deploy their resources.

iii. People. This is in two categories: paid staff and the ‘membership community’.

1. Paid staff. What was striking was how little emphasis there was on Sunday worship. Ministry was going on everywhere! The youth group (shared ministry between Greyfriars and Augustine) was an ‘of course.’ But they didn’t talk that much about their worship services, and we didn’t go into service style all that much (though both churches had long removed their pews for flexible service space, making way for city centre-specific activities that helped fund ministry). Their focus was on people. First, to grow the ministry, they made it clear we must have paid staff engaging in local ministry who are guided by our vision. Volunteers don’t have the time even when they have the passion. This includes having people to write grants to pay staff and develop programmes.  The minister becomes the one who constantly keeps all staff focused on the vision and ministry.

2. Membership community. Their signature ‘Grassmarket Community Project’ worked with people who were homeless or struggling with mental challenges. They had a significant sense of both ownership and hospitality. Monthly members’ meetings determined the direction of the ministry: not the church members (note that there were several non-profits run by the church to manage the different projects). Cultivating this sense of ownership from people will be critical to anything we do. It’s also crucial to know that these members were not expected to be or were members of the church. I’m not sure if any were.

All good blessings.

 Ryan