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Starting your own faith community- what I learned from ecofaith Feb 2016
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If you’re part of the church, but feel a growing discontentment at the way things are done most Sundays, why not create a community which better reflects the insights about God which you think are important, in a way which helps embed those insights into your daily living?
The Uniting Church is increasingly open to exploring new forms of church, or expressions of faith. It’s a good time to be having a go in the UC, but this document should help whatever denomination you are part of, and if you have no church connection at the moment.
By the time you finish the questions in this document, you'll be about ready to start.
In 2005 and 2008 I started two experimental faith communities, exploring the connections between the ecos, or earth, and our faith. Eco-faith. We learned a lot, through mistakes and successes, which I’m trying to capture in this short document. A small group in Adelaide continues to gather regularly 10 years later, and Bellingen does so sporadically when I put energy into it.
These few pages try to distil some ideas to encourage you to start your own series of gatherings, to see whether there are enough people like you to form a community to explore your faith together.
If you want more information, I’m compiling some links at the end of this page including a book and short video telling the story of the Adelaide community’s first years, which are good sources of inspiration if you’re still sitting on the fence. There are the websites of both groups, and a comprehensive collection of the reports to presbytery and our funding body relating to the Bellingen ecofaith community, which will give more information about our trials and triumphs if you’ve decided to go ahead. I’m also happy to talk more. Contact me here
Identify and channel the discontent
I was doing a PhD in cosmology, evolution and ecology, and finding increasingly that what was said about God, and humanity at worship each Sunday made little sense. I didn’t care so much about the style of the songs, it was that their words were, well, wrong. They were mostly embedded in a literalist view of Genesis, and a thoroughly human centred world-view. But I was seeing God as the God of all life: which was itself ancient and constantly evolving. A God who was no more male than female, who was here in Australia loving creation, and humanity, long before Jesus or even Moses was ever born. The Uniting Church has gone on to affirm that last point in our revised preamble, but that insight hasn’t permeated much of our worship yet.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with evolution, or anything above. The point is that the Adelaide ecofaith community grew out of discontent, which I had to identify and refine. When I was briefly involved with Forge, people seemed discontented with the form of worship, and so set off for pubs and coffee shops to tell the same message in a new format. I thought the form and message needed review in the light of what we were learning from the sciences.
So take time to acknowledge, identify and refine your discontent with the message and/or medium which typifies your Sunday worship community. If there isn’t any, stay put!
What is your discontent with the message, the style, and the way things are done?
Create something which addresses the discontent
So, what would worship look like if it acknowledged God as the ancient God of all life and so on. How would it be crafted to help the participants engage with those insights about God?
There are a few issues: the space you use. The content. The style. The underpinning “vibe”
God is the of all Life. God is everywhere. In God all things live and move and have our being. God was amongst all life, so we needed to gather there.
So ecofaith Adelaide met in the Botanic Gardens, and then Botanic Park, and ecofaith Bellingen met alongside a creek in a park on the edge of town.
This was still a compromise: all of these were still human modified environments. But to meet on Sunday morning in a truly wild place means a lot of travel (wasting fuel) and a lot more difficulty telling people where you are.
What space do you need to meet in, to convey some of the key insights about God/church/community/humanity/earth/whatever? To address your discontent?
What’s the perfect space? What’s the closest you can get to that?
In Adelaide, I was just finishing my PhD, so I had a heap of content. One of my questions was, “Can this academic work actually resource the worship life of a community?”
But this is the age of Google. Whatever it is you’re wanting to say about God, the church etc, someone has probably already said something close, which you can read or play to your gathering. We sometimes took an ipad with a little speaker to the park to watch other people’s reflections.
An advantage of this method for our gatherings was that people feel really comfortable dissecting and disagreeing with the content in discussion, since nobody present is the author.
Where will you get your content, and do you want people to accept it, or engage with it?
As time went by, I found it increasingly important to hold the space for people to engage with issues, to share their own journey without being “corrected” by others, and to work out for themselves how their faith was going to interact with their relationship with God and Earth.
Most of my formative, challenging and supportive moments as a Christian have been through bible study groups, not on Sunday morning gatherings, so ecofaith had a blend of both.
I also kept reflections brief, and made sure that even if people agreed with none of it, there was plenty else to engage with on the morning. People from narrow church backgrounds found it liberating not just to be able to offer their opinions, but to be able to disagree out loud with the minister.
Both the Adelaide and Bellingen communities were very diverse theologically, and in terms of “green” behaviour, and maintaining that diversity was part of the vibe. Not everyone likes that of course, some want right doctrine, and some want right behaviour (in our case, around sustainable living). There are plenty of existing communities for them to gather.
That’s another thing: even if your identity is to maintain diversity, that means some people won’t want a bar of what you’re doing. We never had to put it to someone that they might want to go elsewhere, but one person did leave because we didn’t enforce strict sustainable living standards. Our basic rule was, “all people of good will are welcome, humans included.”
That was another part of the vibe: graciously receiving gifts. When I bought food for the group I did my best to get local organic produce, but if someone showed up with a packet of Tim Tams they were graciously received. I did think from time to time of starting some guidelines for our morning tea, so that as a group we strove for ethical sustainable food, but it never felt right.
What vibe are you after? Are you ready to defend it? What are your basic ground rules? How much are you willing to let newcomers shape it in the future?
All of that was folded into a format of short contemplative opportunities, readings, a short reflection, sometimes a chant (Adelaide) or song (Bellingen).
Chants because they are easy. I’m talking Taize kind of chanting, not Om. And songs because a singer/songwriter couple joined us in Bellingen.
We met in a circle, because the idea was to hold a space, to be able to see each other, and to make it easy for people to share their insights.
What format will best suit your location, content and vibe?
So, so much flexibility! What do you do when only two people show up because it’s raining, and they are both newcomers? Or when someone breaks down when sharing because of some tragedy that week? Or when a rugby game starts up 50m away? Or you lose one of the visiting kids because you’ve moved to the late afternoon and got dark? (true story)
I don’t like flexibility. I like planning. I learned to suck it up. You probably will to. You will probably miss the regular predictability of regular Sunday worship from time to time.
Do you cry if you have a party and only one person comes, or do you love the deep conversation you get to have because it’s just the two of you? I do both, the former on the inside. After years I did less of the crying on the inside, and learned to trust that whoever and how many came, flexibility allowed for some amazing transformative encounters with each other and God.
I’d suggest resisting apologizing for low numbers if you get them sometimes. As a visiting preacher it’s kind of deflating when people welcome you and apologise for the low attendance in the same breath. I suspect it’s the same for other visitors- they didn’t know what to expect anyway. Explain maybe, don’t apologise.
If you’ve started with a small team, you could brainstorm how to do things differently depending on numbers. If you’re alone, play make believe. Imagine the event unfolding with 20 people, and with 2.
Are you ready(ish) to deal with unpredictable numbers, and unpredictable people? What’s your plan if you have a really “out there” visitor?
Is this a Christian community you’re making, or a community where Christians and others have the chance to articulate their faith to each other? Are “spiritual” people welcome?
Are you going to engage with the teachings and life of Jesus, or insist that people believe certain things about his divine nature?
Or will you decide when you see who comes? How will you word your publicity?
Just do it! Experiment
If you’re in a small group, you know that at least a couple of other people are on the same page (If you’re alone, you don’t even know that). But will anyone else come? Or will you be left crying, alone, at your own party?
You won’t know until you put it out there.
And once you’ve answered the green questions, you will have done some great thinking and planning, so even if nobody shows up, you’ve grown, and got some resources together for later.
If there’s a group of you, you’re about to gather for the kind of worship/discussion/reflection that you really want to participate in, so that’s going to be great anyway.
On that, I really don’t think you should start a faith community trying to guess the needs of the local community, and putting something on “for them.” It’s kind of fake, and if nobody comes, you’re left going through the motions as a small group. But if you start with something meaningful to you and invite others to join you, then even if nobody does, you’re still going to grow through it.
In Adelaide, I decided on a six-week experiment (from November to Christmas), every week (so that people would know it was on, and get to know each other faster). I chose Sunday because culturally I think if people are going to do something “religious” Sunday feels like the day for it. Though every day has its problems. For me, it was a clash with Scot’s regular service. We did experiment with different times over the years, but Sunday mornings usually came out on top.
And I was aiming for new people mostly, to start a new community, not to create an event which church people would pop in to as well. Though I think the latter is a totally legitimate strategy too.
When are the people you want to invite most likely to be able to come. What best suits you? Is there overlap?
Six weeks gave me enough time to see whether anyone would come without locking me into months of disappointment if they didn’t. I’ve read (somewhere in ages past) that 6 weeks is about the right length of time to ask people to commit to something without them feeling locked in.
It also gave people enough time to get used to the content, vibe, and structure, but not so long that it felt too fixed. Then in week six I asked whether people wanted to regroup the next year, and invited nay who wanted to, to help plan and revise the structure.
How long are you willing to commit if nobody comes, and how long do you need to give people a sense of what you’re on about?
Making sure somebody comes.
You can’t. But it’s good if they don’t come because they don’t want to, not because they don’t know about it:
Free little notices are great, but they have a very limited audience. In Bellingen’s small local paper I paid for an advertisement the same week I submitted a story about the group. I probably didn’t need to pay: every now and then we did something interesting enough to put a story in the paper, like baptising kids at the river, or in the high school community garden for example.
(TAKE PICTURES!!! The paper loves them (of closeups of people), they are good for posters and websites, and reports to presbytery if you make them. I wish I’d taken a photo every week, as a record of who was there.) Compare this text only document to the picture filled story of the Adelaide community, for example.
Whatever your community is going to be about, there is surely something about it which is interesting enough for a newspaper article. I scored an interview in the Adelaide Advertiser which helped enormously in the first few weeks. The challenge was, I still wasn’t sure exactly what the group was going to be about. Maybe it would end up being a multi faith community which included Christians. Hence Eco-faith, not eco-church. It was more important to me to make sure people knew we would have an evolutionary worldview than to get creationists there, but I did want them to be welcome.
It’s always hard to communicate in few words, so the advertising evolved constantly.
one up as Scots Church Adelaide since I was a deacon there and this was part of their ministry. Once we had photos, I added photos so people could see the vibe of the group. I was the minister at Bellingen Uniting as well as the ecofaith community, even though they weren’t linked, and had a big sign there pointing down to the park, also with pictures. Only one sign was ever vandalized. At Scots I had a metal sign fixed to a fence, at Bellingen a handmade one, and then a printed one on canvas. I’m not artistic but can lay out something decent to be printed. I’ll put templates on the website if you want them.
The signs lasted far longer than newspaper advertising.
Permission for signs? At Scots I never asked local council, and in two years they never pulled me up on it. In Bellingen, I did enquire, and they didn’t want to know about it as long as it was “temporary.” So I tied it to star pickets. For two years.
I also took some old bottleshop A-frames (with permission) and printed signs onto the back of their corflute gin advertisements. I could pop these up near the park. We also used long yellow banners that just said “ecofaith” to hang near us in the park.
We had an extrovert in Bellingen who was happy to go into shops asking if they could put up an A4 sign about the group. Thank God for diversity.
I didn’t want to persuade people to come, I just wanted to make sure that if someone out there would be into ecofaith, that they knew about it.
A local Christian radio station in Adelaide asked me in for an interview. They ambushed me about evolution and abortion (something I’d worked on for the Synod bioethics committee in Qld). The work experience student was so horrified about the interview he came along to offer his support, and stayed. Worth it!
Tip: If you have any kind of online presence, assume radio people have read it, and looked for the most controversial thing they can find to talk about.
This didn’t really exist in Adelaide, but by the time of Bellingen, people wanted to know where our facebook page was. These days you’ve probably already created one, haven’t you!
We ended up in quite a mess: some people needed to be texted, some emailed, and some facebooked to tell them of changes to events, or send reminders. You can buy cross platform stuff for that now. It's probably worth it. OR, do what I never did and set up one of those old prayer chain kind of things, where you contact 2 people, who contact 2 people etc. If those people are reliable!
Does someone in your posse get into social media? Use them to publicise things, BUT make sure you all agree before hand what sort of things should be publicized? Strictly community specific things, for example, or campaigns of possible interest? Make sure you don’t end up with someone who rants about their favourite hobby horse in your name. People can join other FB groups, twitter streams etc for that.
Are you confident that you’ve given yourselves enough time to tell people about your start date, but not so much time that they forget again?
What is your business card size invitation, your A4 size invitation, and your most interesting story for the media (if they won’t do something beforehand, they might at least do a story about your first day).
I’m an ordained minister, which means I have various accountability mechanisms, and insurance safety, built in when I do something as part of my ministry. If you aren’t, you will either have to take a risk, or find a body (I’d suggest a presbytery) willing to provide some cover. Others go for congregations, but I’d suggest not…
There are pros and cons, but the disadvantage of a congregation covering you, is that it will need to make sense to them, and not be seen as a threat to their numbers. Anecdotally, that seems uncommon, but if you’re lucky, or you’ve actually been launched as a congregational initiative- great!
Presbyteries might be less engaged with the community, but in the current context pretty much everyone is open to supporting something which looks like a possible future form of church, so there should be someone who will support it. And I found a lot of support at presbytery, from office bearers and individual members.
Neither ecofaith community ever became a formal faith community. Bellingen got close then the core leadership moved away all around the same time, and my ministry went on to focus on other things, although we still meet occasionally. In Adelaide the group still meets but as something much more like a fellowship group in the park, and has no ministerial or leadership ties to the Uniting Church.
In both cases, people weren’t particularly interested in belonging to the UCA specifically, or participating in presbytery meetings, though I think there would have been advantages in it, not least being able to bring insights form the community back to the wider church.
Will you value connection to the wider church, and if so, what mechanism will you use to sustain that?
The r word. The Adelaide and Bellingen communities had funding, in that I made from ½ to 1 day of my time available (probably 2 days at Scots initially). But they were both parts of my ministry, not the whole of it (and in Bellingen I was only 0.6 in the first place). Participants provided resources in terms of common food, and taking turns in leadership as time went on, but we were very light on for money especially. Most people were single parents, unemployed, or retired. We had no building to maintain at least.
How many resources do you have?
Talking to others, and on my own experience, I reckon 2 days a week of dedicate time is a good minimum. Initially that will go into the thinking outlined above, then planning the gatherings for the experiment and advertising, then in running the experiment and being in contact with people as it goes. Then, if you continue, in working out the ongoing nature of the group and all the stuff that goes into maintaining a faith community. Actually, if you want to build it into a sizeable community, I reckon 3 days (not necessarily all the same person). People have short attention spans, and you need to keep reminding the broader community that you are there- keep advertising and sending stories to the paper.
Ok, so you know what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, and so does everyone else. Great! God bless and let me know how it goes. Contact me here.
Jason John is a Uniting Church deacon currently in ministry with Uniting Earth, part of the NSWACT Synod. As part of earlier ministries, he started the very short lived “Ecopilly” group at Indooroopilly Uniting Church, then the Adelaide ecofaith community, and finally ecofaith Bellingen. More about Jason
The book about the Adelaide ecofaith community's first two years, including the format used and content.
The four minute video interviewing members of the community about why they come.
A summary of reports regarding the Bellingen Ecofaith Community is coming soon. If you want it now email me (below).
Videos about the Bellingen Community are collected here as is a collection of videos you could use for reflections. See also the UnitingEarth channel
You can also visit the Adelaide or Bellingen web sites to find out more about them (the Adelaide one is more historical, the group doesn't maintain it)
There's a collection of posters and brochures for ecofaith bellingen, which you could adapt, in this dropbox folder. There are jpgs of the images, and files for Word, Publisher and Photoshop, depending on the material being produced.