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Revitalisation of churches: all ideas are good

by
21 July 2023

In a second extract from his new book, Martin Poole suggests that every church can find creative ways of making God known

Duncan Lingard

This photo, taken outside Holkham Church by Duncan Lingard, was one of the winners of a competition organised to celebrate 40 years of the Norfolk Churches Trust’s annual Bike Ride and Walk, an initiative that has introduced thousands of people over the years to the county’s churches

This photo, taken outside Holkham Church by Duncan Lingard, was one of the winners of a competition organised to celebrate 40 years of the Norfolk Chu...

THERE are all sorts of festivals happening in all sorts of places throughout the year, and I believe that it’s possible to shape something appropriate with a Christian heart for all situations. There may not be something as big as a music festival, but there will be local events, such as summer fayres, street parties, or food festivals.

All over the country, there are special events unique to a particular locality that could provide an opportunity for a blessing of some sort: a cheese-rolling day, a scarecrow festival, or a bog-snorkelling event — these all provide an opportunity for some form of creative Christian engagement.

Practically, make sure you have enough people to carry off your idea, as well as a checklist of all the things you will need; but, most of all, make sure that you have a good idea. I am often asked how I come up with ideas; so, here are some tips for concept creation which I hope you will find useful.

Like all the best things in life, this is best done with a small group of people whom you know and trust, but can just as easily be achieved on your own; it’s just more fun in a group.

The first thing to remember is that there are no bad ideas. Edward de Bono has a scheme for creative thinking in which he suggests that people wear imaginary hats in various colours, and the hat that you must banish from the room is the black hat — the judge. This is the voice that says, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work,” or “We can’t afford it,” or “It’s not Christian enough.” Don’t worry about that: you can tease out those issues later. The key to generating good ideas is not to care.

The next thing is to go for quantity, not quality. It’s far better to have 20 crazy, impossible, diverse ideas in five minutes than five “good” ideas in 20 minutes.

It’s often good to start with simple word association. Pick a single word — “surf”, “cheese”, “scarecrow”, “summer”, “God” — and get people to shout out the first word that comes to mind.

Jot these down as a word cloud on a big sheet of paper or flipchart, and, if suggestions begin to flag, pick one of the secondary words and start again with that one. Keep going until you have three or four pages of random words, and then start to review those and see if any of them begin to solidify into a concept.

Invariably, randomly suggested words will provoke discussion and begin to coalesce into more fully formed ideas. You can let these discussions develop once you have a full page of words.

Alternatively, you can let the discussion progress a little, then park it for a fuller discussion later. Sometimes, people will need to give some context to particular words that they blurt out, and this may well become the core of a project.

This kind of idea-generation needs someone to moderate or be the instigator: someone who is prepared to move discussion on quickly when necessary, make suggestions about lines of thought as they arise, and understand when a particular concept could be fruitful for more detailed examination.

As the group begins to home in on a specific idea, then, generally, it is helpful to have one person take ownership of the idea and flesh it out so that the detail has been thought through. Often, this will mean someone going away and writing up the concept a little more fully, and then a second meeting to decide who is going to do what, how, and when, and to allocate responsibilities and tasks so that the idea actually gets done.

Things to consider:

• Cultivate relationships with other organisations that run events which might allow an opportunity for you to create something.
• Seize every opportunity offered to you, no matter how far outside your comfort zone this might be.
• Don’t worry too much about attendance numbers: it’s the quality of involvement that counts.
• Give yourself time to experiment if your artistic idea involves some technical know-how.
• Outdoor activities need to take account of the potential weather, and you should have a reserve plan if it’s terrible.
• Do risk assessments, and make sure you have public-liability insurance.
• Practise having idea sessions; the brain is like a muscle, and it works best when it’s exercised regularly.

THE lack of exposure to Bible stories and the Christian narrative is one of the factors that we must consider when taking events out into public space. Generally, people know the basic story of Christmas, although this is usually learnt through Christmas carols, which are notoriously inaccurate representations of the biblical accounts, but we cannot assume that people know the Easter story, or anything much about Jesus’s life — if they know about Jesus at all.

I was once doing an interview for a local TV channel about Advent, and, halfway through, the interviewer asked if there was anything in the Bible about Jesus. . . Always start from first principles when organising something in public, and make sure you avoid Christian jargon such as “redemption”, “sanctification”, or “sin”; and, if you do want to use words such as “holy”, make sure you know why, and that you’re able to explain it to any enquirers.

Think creatively about your own faith, and come up with ideas of your own to help people to explore Christian faith in new and creative ways. This can be in a church setting or with support from a faith community, or it could have nothing to do with church but everything to do with God, who is much bigger than can be contained within any organisation.

Many people will already have a space available to them for artistic events which is easy to use without the hassle or expense of finding a different venue. These spaces are churches, and they come in an enormous variety of shapes, sizes, and types, with varying degrees of connection to their communities, and different associations with the idea of being public.

Churches and faith groups also often have separate spaces, such as halls, or a relationship with a community hall, and, sometimes, there are associated schools with all the resources that they include, which can be very helpful in terms of facilities such as staging, projectors, PAs, and so on. One of the other advantages of schools is that they also have a built-in audience through the community of families whose children attend.

Many faith groups do amazing things with their buildings, and many ministers, Readers, churchwardens, and congregation members put a lot of time, energy, and creativity into making their particular space relevant to their community. Churches host youth clubs and toddler groups, choir concerts and exhibitions, foodbanks, meals for the homeless, recovery groups, counselling services, bookshops, and post offices. These are important resources for their communities and often act as hubs for a whole network of people who do not attend on Sunday or describe themselves as Christian.


THIS care for the souls of the parish is part of being the Church of England, and creates important connections that are the beating heart of a lively church and an engaged Christian faith. It’s possible to use these buildings in creative ways to open people’s minds and hearts to the possibility of God mediated through art rather than liturgy or worship.

Experiments that we’ve tried using church buildings have included:

• A photographic exhibition of work created by homeless people using disposable cameras.
• “Art from the Edge”: an exhibition of work by those in recovery, subtitled “Artwork by and about people on the margins of society”,
• A jazz eucharist, stretching the understanding of liturgical music into a genre not often represented in church. Similarly, a U2charist using music by the band U2, or a Les Mis Mass based on the songs from the popular musical.
• Various forms of Good Friday meditations using different artistic interpretations of the Stations of the Cross.

I have come to appreciate that a church building can be a marvellous asset, as long as we’re not too precious about it, and find ways for everyone in the community to feel comfortable about coming in.

Some people would describe our work as a “fresh expression”, but the Fresh Expressions movement, and, to a certain extent, the development of pioneer ministry, is mostly about finding new ways to do church. I’m much more interested in helping people to find new ways to believe in God and to love and follow Jesus.

That may involve going to church at some point, but the first order of business should always be to introduce people to God in new and creative ways, and to help them to think about their relationship with the divine, not their understanding of an institution.

My life and my faith have been wonderfully enriched by these artistic collaborations, and I am privileged to have witnessed people expressing their faith in so many creative ways. There are so many memorable artworks, including multiple sets of handmade angel wings, animated cardboard models of the nativity, peephole Advent calendars, promenade-wide labyrinths of light, giant hut-sized angels, miniature handmade dioramas of the crucifixion, guerrilla performance art in an underground carpark, ice churches dropped into a festival field, and 10,000 people joined by ribbons to make a virtual temple.

Being creative has helped me to discover more about our Creator God, and to have the privilege of seeing others realising the truth of Genesis 1.26, “God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature.’”

 

This is an edited extract from Church Beyond Walls: Christian spirituality at large, published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.59). Read a review here

The Revd Martin Poole is the Vicar of St Luke’s, Prestonville, in Brighton.

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