The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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The one about the outsiders who went in

Belview-on-Sea is quite simply a lovely place to live. Its snug harbour is ideal for yachts and small boats, and its broad, cobbled high street offers, alongside the national chains, a range of interesting, independent shops, and intriguing market stalls with curious jams, curious cheeses, and curios from near and far. It is, not surprisingly, an expensive place to live. Still, within the overall town there is an enclave of deep social deprivation that you wouldn’t find unless you were lost, or very definitely looking for it – Farthington.

For some time, a local church, though outside Farthington itself, had been wondering how they might be Good News to that community. The usual tried and trusted initiatives and programmes – mums and toddlers, house-visiting, food-programmes, CAP – didn’t seem to be what they were called to. But pastor and people prayed and pondered on.

Now Farthington had its own small junior school, a school with the enormous challenge of trying to nurture and teach children who were almost all from challenging backgrounds – economic, parental, emotional. Behavioural issues abounded, SATs scores were poor, and because of the behavioural challenges, teachers turned over faster than pancakes in a crêperie. Still, the head was gifted, determined, realistic about the challenges, hopeful about the possibilities.

And then one day some individuals in the church discovered that the school needed people to read with the children. The reality is that when a child has someone to listen to them read, someone to focus just on them, it often has a hugely positive impact not just on their reading but on their whole development. Sadly, the majority of children in the school had no one at home willing or able to listen to them read. Now, the only qualifications required for the role seemed to be an ability to read and the time to listen. So, one, then two, then three, then four then five then six people from the church volunteered. The experience turned out to be not quite what any of them expected.

Penny, the sager side of 75, superbly educated, beautifully spoken, neatly dressed, arrived on her first day to be treated to the sight of a 10-year-old boy brandishing a chair like a cudgel running down the corridor in hot pursuit of a fleeing teacher. The teacher, she learned later, lived to teach another day. And Penny, on that day, calmly walked to the library, sat down and prayed until a child came along to read. Presence, prayer, patience. That was the beginning of the church being Good News to Farthington, not through a programme, but through presence, people who had volunteered to serve Farthington’s children. And the overall church community commissioned them to the task, as they commission everyone to their frontline mission, and prayed for them in it.

Now, the church also had its share of teachers. One of them, Linda, mother to three grown children herself, had wondered whether God was calling her to the school. She explored it but felt that God wasn’t leading her there at that time. And then, a year later, it was clear that he was. And because teachers there turned over faster than pancakes in a crêperie, she didn’t have to wait long for an opening. And when she went, the church community commissioned her to the task.

Linda began with year 5. It was the toughest job she’d ever been in. Most of the usual rules didn’t apply. In most schools in the town, if a child swore they’d be severely reprimanded, if not instantly excluded. In this school, if you excluded a child for swearing you’d have no one left by the end of first break. Besides, the head had decided that she wasn’t going to exclude children if at all possible. Where would the children then go? Linda recalls being at the school gate at the end of a day with one young lad. His father came to collect him.

‘How was school?’ he asked. ‘Effing brilliant,’ the son replied, except in a bluer vernacular. The father just beamed. Linda too.

Linda was soon invited to be part of the management team, not because she was the only teacher who’d been there for longer than it takes to flip three pancakes but because she had the gifting for it. And so she began to help the head shape the school’s strategy, shape the school’s overall culture, not just the culture in her own classroom. And then one day, the school’s finance governor decided to step down. Now finance governors are usually hard to find – you need a specific set of skills, some significant financial qualifications, and a good chunk of time to do the job. Someone solid.

As it turned out, there was someone in Linda’s church, not just someone with the skills and a financial qualification, but someone who had once been the treasurer of a £50 million school trust, and who understood the education system inside out. The school needed someone solid, they got someone stellar. A week after the new finance governor began, the chair of trustees resigned. And the finance governor was elected chair. And once again the church prayed for him in the ministry God had given him in that school.

And so what began with a church wondering about serving a community with a programme has ended up with eight people from the church deeply involved with the community’s children, and their parents, guardians, and carers. They became deeply involved in the staff team, deeply involved in the oversight and strategic direction of the neediest school in the area.

What began as a pondering about serving from the outside has turned into eight people – seven retired, one employed – serving from the inside.

What began as a question about how the church might organise an initiative has turned into a question about how the church community can support the initiative of eight of its people out on their frontline.

Sometimes the answer to a missional challenge is not so much what initiative can a church take, but whose initiative can the church really get behind.

And so the church continues to pray for the eight of their number who are seeking to be channels of grace and truth, hope and healing, better reading and more accurate maths, peace in the corridors, and, one day no doubt, a cornucopia of adverbs for a child to describe a brilliant day at school.

Mark Greene
Mission Champion, LICC


What strikes you about Penny and Linda and the other volunteers in the school?

How might the gathered church get behind your frontline ministry? How might you get behind someone else’s frontline ministry?

‘While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.’

ACTS 13:2–3

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