Starting your own faith community- what I learned from ecofaith
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?
Once you have answered the following questions, you’ll be almost 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 blog. A small group in Adelaide continues to gather regularly 10 years later, and Bellingen does so sporadically when I put energy into it.
I”l try to distill 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 http://ecofaith.org/startingcommunity 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 more comprehensive review of the Bellingen community is coming. I’m also happy to talk more.
An updated version of this post, including a pdf version and resources, is now available at http://ecofaith.org/startingcommunity/
Identify and channel the discontent
I was doing a PhD in cosmology, evolution and ecology, and finding increasingly that what the church said about God, and humanity 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.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with that, the point is that the faith communities came out of discontent, which I had to identify and refine. When I was briefly involved with Forge, people seemed dissatisfied 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.
So take time to acknowledge, identify and refine your discontent with regular worship. 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”
So- the God of all life is everywhere- in God all things live and move and have our being. God was amongst all life, so we needed to gather there.
Hence, ecopilly met in the yard outside church, 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?
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. We took an ipad with a little speaker to the park to watch other people’s reflections sometimes. Another advantage is that then people feel really comfortable disagreeing with it, if that’s the vibe you’re after…
Where will you get your content, and do you want people to accept it, or engage with it?
As time went by, I saw it increasingly important to hold the space for people to engage with issues, to share their own insights 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 and most 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.
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 other places for them.
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.
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? 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 the rugby switches match weeks and is playing 50m away. Or you lose one of the visiting kids because you’ve moved to the afternoon and it’s got dark already (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.
If you’ve started with a small team, you could brainstorm how to do things differently depending on numbers. If you’re along, play make believe.
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 by now you’ve already 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.
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 for the content I wanted, and to see whether anyone would come without locking me into months of disappointment if they didn’t. Others suggested that 6 weeks was about the right time to ask people to commit to something without them feeling locked in.
It also gave people a few weeks to get used to the content, vibe, and structure, but not so long that it felt too fixed. Then in week six people could decide whether to keep meeting next year, and those who wanted to help plan or revise the structure could.
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, baptising kids at the river, or in the high school community garden for example. TAKE PICTURES!!!
Whatever you are about to do, it’s interesting! We were lucky enough in Adelaide that I was being interviewed about something else, and was then able to interest the reporter in another story about the new upcoming community. The challenge was, I still wasn’t sure exactly what it was. 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 new we would have an evolutionary worldview than to get creationists there, but I did want them to be welcome.
It’s always shard to communicate in few words, so the advertising evolved constantly.
The single most important tool for letting people know about the communities were big signs. I put 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 can 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. See the resources page for templates 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 didn’t 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 and 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, 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 of some people who needed to be texted, some emailed, and some facebooked to tell them of changes to events, send reminders etc. You can buy cross platform stuff for that now. 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).
Of course, I’m a 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. Unless you’re lucky, in which case you are probably planning this as a congregation, in which case, press on!
Presbyteries might be less engaged, 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.
Neither 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.
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 .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 resources. 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.
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.
Jason John, Uniting Earth Advocate