I will be 49 soon. The countdown to the big 5-0 begins. Not complaining. I love this stage of my life. But it’s a good time to reflect on the past ten years. It was easily the most momentous decade in our (my wife Jill’s and my) lives. Especially in ministry terms, and especially in how ministry unfolded from the time I was a year away from turning forty until now – a year away from turning fifty. So here’s what could be an open-ended series of blog posts (intermingled with the usual stuff, and hopefully signed off before my fiftieth birthday party!).
I still can’t listen to an Eskimo Joe song without thinking of our time in Sheffield and feeling the odd twinge of loss in my stomach.
We arrived in the UK and were picked up from Manchester Airport in early November 2006 by a young bloke from The Crowded House and immediately felt at home. The winding, mountainous drive through to Sheffield was full of gospel conversation, excitement about the adventure ahead, and a food stop at a “greasy spoon” cafe to quell my increasing motion sickness (an unfortunate, but permanent feature of every car trip in that hilly, winding part of the UK for the next year).
Soon, after meeting the leadership team, various family members of leaders etc, Jill, Sophie and I were ensconced in our new house – an 1890s three floor terrace on a steep street, with attic views to the green hills. Things had been well organised for us, Sophie had a school to start at, and all we had to do was fill the fridge. The house was sparse, but homely and, anyway, as a minimalist who likes things tidy, it was perfect. I still miss that place.
The first thing we noticed on Southview Terrace was the number of taxis parked up the long, hilly, narrow street. I then realised that the entry level job for Pakistani men coming in to the UK is driving a taxi. Our street was an interesting blend of subcontinent, uni student, grisly Sheffieldians, and hipster young couples moving to an affordable part of town just fifteen minutes walk from the city centre. The corner store, Munar’s, was a delight; full of serendipitous finds.
Let me wax lyrical about Sheffield for a minute. Sheffield is a great city, and has been redeveloped beautifully to honour its past as a steel city. It has the highest retention rate of uni students in the UK, meaning many students who come to study at its two universities from all around the country, tend to set up life there afterwards. It’s got everything London has, but in bite sized quantities. Amazing countryside, rolling hillsides strewn with stark white sheep with black faces, and quaint villages, all within fifteen minutes drive. Oh, and it has more trees than any other city in Europe.
Those first few weeks I would walk through the city, to various meetings or catch ups, rugged up against the settling autumn, listening to Eskimo Joe’s two latest albums, – A Song Is A City, and Black Fingernails, Red Wine – on high rotation on my iPod mini (remember them?). Cold weather, urban living, household church planting. What’s not to like? Jill, meanwhile, got some work, helping out a Somali women’s refugee group, so we had a contact among that community too. It was ticking a lot of boxes.
The network had just taken over a church building, which was being used for a weekly Sunday gathering for all of the household groups, as well as providing office space, outreach opportunities and a location for the northern expression of Cornhill Training. At Northern Cornhill sixty young people involved in ministry work from the surrounding cities, Manchester, Leeds, etc, would descend on Sheffield for a full day of training in Biblical Theology, Systematics, topical issues, small group training and networking. Sixty! I could hardly believe that number, coming from Perth where fifteen would be signs of revival. It was fantastic, and brilliantly led and taught by Steve, Tim and an Anglican rector, Melvin. I ended up overseeing a Bible Study training group each Wednesday for it. I loved it.
The fact too that I got to spend time with a couple of key leaders who were becoming conference requirements not just in the UK, but around the globe, was priceless. I could pick their brains all day, on drives, over tea, at meals. I soaked it up. There were books to read, articles to critique, thoughts to grapple with.
There was plenty of time meeting with elders and planters from the various household groups, and sorting out ways to do mission in Sheffield. One group already lived in a difficult estate, the Manor, where they were seeking to plant and do gospel deeds. We found ourselves in a new household group, primarily with uni students but with some married couples.
With several good musicians in our group, (me being one sad exception), our gospel goal was to hang out in the evenings at some of the local pubs, play music, talk with patrons and get involved in the Sheffield music community. A couple of people from our group knew several members from the Arctic Monkeys, at just the time they were racing up the charts. As a morning person in a late night culture, I was often falling asleep while everyone was ready to go out. But since I had no other paid work, the pace of life slowed down considerably. It was a great reflective time.
Other groups were involved in ministry to asylum seekers, or uni students, or, for those further out of town, just getting to know neighbours and helping them where possible. It seemed that everyone had dedicated their lives to making this thing work.
What struck me most was how tight they all were relationally. It really did operate much like a family. And speak like a family: not simply in terms of endearment, but a common language to describe things: they talked constantly about gospelling each other; spoke about the problem of Christians in general being laws unto themselves; about the need for accountability in terms of decisions about jobs they took, places to live, even down to whether they should take on boarders or the pros and cons of buying a car. In other words, all the stuff you decide on individually became something that the group now had, if not a final say in, then at least a valid opinion on. And the language was saturated with the call to do mission and reach people with the gospel. This was thick community. No doubt about that.
And we slotted right in. We were treated as insiders from day one. Steve’s house was always an open house; meetings were held there constantly and there was always someone popping in for some reason. Food and cups of tea just appeared.
As an older man, compared to most of them anyway, and coming from “the Antipodes”, I was something of an oddity to them I admit. To be honest, most of the Christian young men there viewed me as a little bolshie, a little rough around the edges (moi?), and in return I was a little bemused by how tight, how repressed and generally how timid, how – dare I say it – English middle class evangelical, most of the young Christian men were. The women who belonged seemed stronger characters, in general, than the men. Was that an English Christian thing? I wasn’t sure.
What I was sure of was they were all deadly serious about mission. For blokes who were timid, they seemed to have a genuine desire to take risks in order to model Christian community to a watching world, and to share the gospel with people. Most of the leaders worked part time (their wives supplementing the income), giving the rest of their time to leading household communities and being trained in-house.
A constant stream of people flowed through these household networks; Iranian and Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers; working class people from the estates; and naturally enough, given the size of the universities in Sheffield, dozens of students. And at 39 years of age I was at least ten years older than most of those we spent time with. For someone from sleepy old Perth all of this energy and youth was almost too rich a diet. There was a tapestry of church planting and missional community that made my previous expressions of church seem pale and anaemic. Why would anyone ever leave?
But leave they had. That weekend before we arrived, someone had left – in a hurry and with little warning. And not someone on the interested fringe, but an insider; a key leader who had been living at Steve’s home. A lot of people were upset and grieving. It had been a seismic move that few had seen coming. It was at that point I heard the term “He’s a law unto himself” used of an actual individual, rather than of people in general. There were tears and there was grief, as one would expect when a beloved family member leaves the household suddenly and under a cloud.
At that time I didn’t think any more of it, and I never met the bloke, although in a compressed city like Sheffield there is every chance you will bump into your “ex” or your enemy. Who we didn’t seem to bump in to were other church leaders in Sheffield. I think we got to Christmas – some six weeks later – without meeting a single leader from any other Sheffield church. At the time I simply assumed we were too busy to do much networking. My assumptions changed on this somewhat over time.
Well, that was my initial experience. Mine at least. What about Jill’s? My wife is a perceptive lady, much quieter than I, and more inclined to reflect on something long before saying anything. Opposites attract eh? And as usual with Jill, everyone who met her in Sheffield loved her. She is gentle and quiet, but strong. As a psychologist with a psychological nature (not all psychologists do, by the way), many of the younger women, flocked around her sensing something safe about her. They were open and honest with her in a way they didn’t seem to be with others.
In our married life I have tended to be the labrador puppy who trusts anyone and anything, always bounding up to life with a tendency to get a nip on the nose for my troubles. Jill? Well, relationally, she has been a little more doberman, a little aloof and stand-offish until she gets to know people better – friendly, but that doesn’t mean BFF on day one.
So when, two weeks into our trip after hearing a sermon that touched on how younger leaders should not presume to correct the older leadership within the church, Jill told me that we should “Proceed with caution”, I probably didn’t give as much attention to that as I should have.
Not long after that I was probably wishing I had.