Bradford is maybe an unlikely place to find real innovation in the church going on, especially when you consider the large areas of deprivation. When I was here, briefly, in the 1990’s for a college mission there was a feeling of almost hopelessness in the parish I visited and a sense of feeling besieged.
In fact there is a lot of innovative work that is coming out of Bradford diocese and not least the Jesus Shaped People initiative. I went to Bradford to meet the vicar who heads the parish where it started, Steve Davie (who is a friend and colleague who was working until recently in Southwark diocese) and his now-retired (though not really!) predecessor Gordon Dey who on reflecting on the Gospels created the framework for Jesus shaped people.
The idea of Jesus shaped people is a simple one (but rarely followed!). what sort of people would the church be if we actively tried to follow the model that Jesus set out.
But before getting to that I need to describe the church and parish out of which it arose.
The parish of St Christopher, Tong, is one of the most deprived parishes in the country. Out of over 12,000 parishes in England it is in the most deprived 1%. Swathes of unemployment and social deprivation (51% of the population have no qualifications, 46% of children live in poverty etc) . It is a large post-war estate with few amenities.
Gordon Dey was vicar for Holmes Wood and Tong for 26 years and was already doing some great social outreach when he started Jesus Shaped People. Given the severe deprivation on the estate they (as have other churches) have been able to apply for funds from various sources to care for the community. One of the first occurred when the homes on the estate were being refurbished. I heard the story that people weren’t told that their houses were being refurbished and that one elderly lady was told to sit outside (in January/ February!) whilst they upgraded her kitchen. Gordon heard about this and got involved and brought her and others into the church.
Out of this came the Good Neighbours project and a five days a week day care centre in the church. The church then provided food and added a grocery shop and a second hand clothes shop, second hand furniture and built up an inventive and other services. The church now has 17 or 18 staff many funded through grants to help in the community.
The question then arises – is the church therefore just a replacement for social services? This got Gordon thinking in terms of discipleship the way Jesus did. He realised that Jesus spent just three years training his disciples so that they could replicate his ministry. Gordon realised that he couldn’t see anyone focus on becoming like Jesus in a focused/ strategic way. Two key images for Gordon from Jesus’s ministry were the call to follow him and the yoking themselves to Jesus and learning from him. These two became key interpretive passages into how one might look at the model Jesus expected his disciples to follow and use.
So, Gordon looked at the core activities that Jesus and identified five core activities, further sub-divided into 3 sub-categories. The five areas are “People Centred”, “Teaching”, “Team building”, “Prayer” and “Prophetic Challenge”. What was interesting in discussion with Steve and Gordon was how they had a different feel to them compared to many places precisely because they arose out of the concerns and needs of a deprived community. So, take “People Centred” – the three sub-categories were “Out on the streets”, “People on the Edge” and “Responding to real needs”. What Gordon identified was that Jesus’s ministry mostly happened outside the religious buildings and amongst people that were excluded or looked down upon. Or take “Prophetic Challenge” – the three here were “Spiritual Confusion”, “Social Injustice” and “Political Abuse” – again you can see the influence of living in an area where social inequality and injustice are rife.
Already these principles are making a difference not only in Tonge parish but elsewhere. In Tonge Gordon said that there were a number of key areas that were effected by the Jesus Shaped People in the church:
- It created conditions where social conditions and social outreach came into a spiritual context
- Sunday morning became more crystallised and focussed
- It helped to connect to people way out of their comfort zone
- It helped the church to become more socially and racially diverse
- It helped to grow their families and under 5 work
What was also fascinating was how it was also beginning to help churches in other deprived areas. One vicar near retirement had seen his ministry and life of his church transformed through Jesus Shaped People – his church had become a place of hope and joy. Another church reflected how they had become united together in their life and mission where before they had been divided.
Has it changed everything? No, it hasn’t but there are the seeds of hope – small steps to see the church engaging in new ways in their community – getting out of the church building and engaging with their community and being a people of hope. Gordon has sought to create a holistic vision of faith – encompassing social and proclamation. He was proud that the church hadn’t retreated behind barbed wire (unlike some other local services) as the local community obviously valued its ministry. Steve realises that there is more to be done to link the two aspects of their work and to build up the people of God there to share the love of Christ more but there are some encouraging steps being made.