I have had an eye opening conversation today, it is one I have had before, but today it struck me as particularly powerful. It centered around how we at North Shore Methodist Church in Blackpool maintain a welcome and an open door, and how we use our sacred space in a way that makes it accessible to people on the fringes of not only the church but also society itself, and of how we might tell our story in such a way as to encourage others.
First of all I must mention that we have a beautiful building, it is Grade II listed with lovely Art Nouveau windows, people come in and draw breath, because the outside of the building does not in any way give a hint to the beauty that lies within, in fact it presents as quite austere. That might all add to the charm, becaue I wonder if that is how many of us experience God, I certainly remember trying to win God’s approcal, or earn my way into the holy presence always feeling that I had fallen short, but when I finally came to the end of myself and cried out for revelation I was met by sheer beauty and grace ( the sad thing is that I forgot that too easily and need constant reminders!)
Secondly I have to say that despite the beauty North Shore Building is somewhat battered and bruised, it is certainly not a polished museum full of precious relics, it gives more of a sense of welcome, care and love, a sanctuary of comfort and welcome in a harsh world. So often people remark that we have something really special, and the truth is we do, and we do make the most of it. It is often bursting at the seams and packed to the rafters with clothes, bedding and more for the Comfort Zone, with room squeezed in for Alcoholics Annonymoys and the Street Angles, Liberty Church and others to store their equipment etc.
North Shore is a busy place, every week we welcome 150- 200 people over a Monday evening and Wednesday morning through the doors, these are vulnerable and sometimes homeless people, people who come for a meal, to a place of warmth and comfort, clothes are available too and a friendly listening ear. Maybe the biggest change came when we opened not just the lounge area but also the Sanctuary to be a space of welcome.
Each week people come, they come not only for food and warmth but also for friendship, and worship, each week people come together in prayer, and once a month we celebrate communion in one of the most moving services I have ever experienced.
The church does more than that of course, we have prayer meetings, fellowship groups, concerts and a number of outside agencies and others who use our building, but I would dare to say that we are all effected by the welcome it seems to offer just by being there.
I would like to say we do nothing special, we are the church that Christ has called, we strive to love and accept those who come to us, and those we are sent to, yet when people come to us, especially visitors fro other churches, or as with today from the DMLN they are surprised and encouraged by what they find, and phrases and labels like pioneering and Fresh Expressions are applied to us.
This leaves us surprised, because we don’t think of ourselves as anything but church doing what church should do, we certainly don’t have any kind of catch phrase or flashy title to put to our work, and our work is firmly grounded and located within the existing church, in the community where we are situated. We believe that the Spirit is working in and through us in this, but also believe that it is the normal Christian life, true Christian Discipleship.
This is lived out in vulnerability and frailty, our finances are stretched, our resources are stretched, our members are stretched sometimes to breaking point, and I think that it because of this and not inspite of it that God works through us, that we serve tose who come to us as equals and value them as our equals, we are not so much doing mission to the poor, but as the poor among the poor.
So when people come considering suicide because they are at the end of their rope there are those among us who can empatise, the same can be said for those struggling with broken relationships, with depression and anxiety. The same can be said for those who may have been rejected from elsewhere because of their sexuality or true gender.
We are open because we have found God to be open with us, we have funny moments when people turn up for a Baptism unannounced, they made enquiries and thought that was enough, or when there are suddenly 3 children to be baptised not one! When wedding parties find they have an extra guest who has actually come for a food bag but has enjoyed the singing. One lady who was homeless would come in and sleep through the morning service on a Sunday because it was warm and dry and she felt safe.
So what was eye opening about my conversation today, well simply that sometimes people come along and mirror to us what God sees, because often in our brokenness and our busyness we fail to see that God is doing something truly wonderful among us, and that is good.