Bringing our neighbourhoods into church

Revd Al Barrett is vicar at Hodge Hill Church in Birmingham, and a member of a collective which helps Church Action on Poverty to reflect theologically on our work. We asked him to share a story about how his worship reflects the idea of an ‘outside-in church’.

Outside-In ChurchA while back I a wrote a blog imagining the possibility of a church which was turned inside-out, or, as I put it, transformed from the outside, in. It’s a possibility, in our part of East Birmingham, that we’re discovering first and foremost in our encounters with our neighbours, as we open ourselves to being interrupted and changed by the gifts and the challenges they offer us. But another essential part of an ‘outside-in’ church is the way we do worship when we gather. More specifically: the way we do gathering when we worship.
In Hodge Hill for some years now, we’ve tried very intentionally to open up our gatherings for worship to the encounters, the stories, the joys and the concerns we bring with us into worship from our daily lives in our neighbourhoods. We do this in a number of interconnected ways.

Church in the round

Firstly, we’ve become a church that gathers ‘in the round’. I realise not everyone can do this in all their gatherings for worship. We’re lucky enough to have a flexible space, with movable chairs. But it’s important for us that we gather for worship in a circle (usually in two large concentric circles, to be accurate). It means we can see each other’s faces. It means we can talk to each other, across the circle, as well as to those next to us. It means we can be present to each other, with everything that we bring, with more than just our voices and the backs of our heads!

Gathering questions

Just about the first thing we do when we begin worship, then, is have a conversation together. In twos or threes, where we are (and trying to include anyone in those small groups who’s looking left out), we reflect together on two questions:

  • What are we thankful for?
  • What do we need to bring to God in prayer?

The first time we tried it, there was an uncomfortable silence. We weren’t, at least in our church, used to talking to each other in worship (at least, not being allowed and encouraged to do so!) But slowly, the church began to buzz with conversation.

sometimes, it’s like the floodgates are open, and person after person shares their thanksgivings, or their concerns

The same was true for the next bit: when we’re invited to share any of our reflections with the whole congregation. Often the buzz of conversation in small groups suddenly goes remarkably quiet when we’re invited to tell other people what we’ve been talking about! Sometimes that’s because we’ve been sharing things that are private, raw. Sometimes people freeze when a microphone looks like it’s coming their way. But sometimes, it’s like the floodgates are open, and person after person shares their thanksgivings, or their concerns – people they’ve met, things they’ve witnessed, loved ones who are struggling and troubling situations across the world.
At best (and we’re not always at our best), what is shared in our gathering shapes the rest of our worship: our praise and our penitence, our reflections on the Bible and our intercessions, the way we share communion and the way we’re sent out into the world again. But even when these things that we have shared are not explicitly named again, they are present, held, treasured, offered.

Looking for resurrection

Particularly in the season of Easter, there is a third dimension that connects our neighbourhoods and our worship. In Eastertide especially, we celebrate resurrection – just as, in other seasons of the year, we might name our longing for new birth (Advent) or our rejoicing in glimpses of God’s glory (Epiphany). Often we’ll invite members of our congregation (and, when we’re feeling brave, neighbours beyond the congregation) to share a ‘fifth Gospel’: a glimpse of where they’ve witnessed ‘good news’ in their lives, in the past week, or over a longer time. And at some point in the service, we’ll repeat responses that remind us where to look for such glimpses – as we give thanks to God for what we have seen, and as we re-direct our attention to where the power of resurrection is still at work in the world…

Where the touch of love is felt
Christ is risen!
Where children laugh and play
Christ is risen!
Where the hungry celebrate with feasting
Christ is risen!
Where the voiceless shout and sing
Christ is risen!
Where enemies are reconciled
Christ is risen!
Where neighbourhoods flourish
Christ is risen!

Read more of Al Barrett’s reflections on his own blog ‘This Estate We’re In’