I made it to Cliff College, which is a small Christian college tucked away in the beautiful Peak District in northern England. Even on the drive out to Cliff the countryside was amazing. I got checked in and learned that the students were away this week on mission. So, I pretty much had the place to myself. It was nice and quiet, but I did get to meet some of the faculty and staff that work here.
The next day I met with one of the tutors, who had a very different view of emerging churches than anyone I have run into yet. He was very critical of the way they have been put into practice, and it was actually somewhat refreshing to get a different view. He had his own thoughts about how the church needs to respond to the present situation and had a very strong, interesting Titanic analogy for mainline churches in England.
After meeting with him (and having some of my perceptions on the emerging scene shaken slightly) I traveled back to Stockport to interview Lou, the leader of c3. I find it interesting that the leaders of these churches do not really care how they are titled. They all believe they have just found how to reach certain people and praise God in their own unique way. Whatever shape or title is given to that is secondary.
The next day I met briefly with another professor here at Cliff. He gave me a few more names of people I should check out, and said that he would talk to me more extensively later (he is very busy at the moment), and finally introduced me to one of the staff here. I had already met Matt before, but I got to talk to him a lot more this time. Eventually, he invited me to stay at his house in Sheffield for however long I wanted, especially since Cliff was so empty. I took him up on the offer for at least a couple of nights and went back home with him. It actually worked out great, because I had an appointment in Sheffield the next day.
I made my way into Sheffield the next day and found a little building that houses the Church Army and the Sheffield Center. I do not know much about the Church Army, but I think it is some sort of training/college program for training ministers. I do know that the Sheffield Center is one of the main research centers in England that is researching churches in the emerging/fresh expressions scene. They have a regular publication and have popped up in many different books I have read.
I met with two members of the seven member team and interviewed them. It was very interesting to hear their views on the whole “movement” in churches in England, rather than focusing on a specific church.
I have been slowly gaining more and more interest in trying to distinguish between the terms emerging, fresh expressions, mission-shaped, etc. Something of a definition usually comes up in a chapter in a book or in an interview I have, but there are always contradictions. I am continually trying to make sense of what is actually happening in churches and which gatherings I could label emerging, much less church. But that has just made this trip even more interesting.
One other interesting thing about the Sheffield Center is that they operate independently. They are not sponsored by the Fresh Expressions initiative of the Methodist and Anglican churches, and they actually provide a pretty strong critique of much of what they do. It is impossible to find an unbiased viewpoint in anyone I meet with, but both the people at Cliff and the Sheffield Center have provided a nice contrast to the views of the practitioners I have been communicating with up to this point.
I spent a lot of time with Matt and his wife this week and spent the night at their house almost every night. It has been great to be around people more consistently and to really interact with them. I have gotten to do a lot of fun stuff with Matt. For example, we played some touch rugby this past weekend, we got to see the new Transformers movie (and before anyone in America did), and we spent some time relaxing in the park and throwing around a Frisbee. I am very grateful for his hospitality and friendship.
I also got to attend the church he goes to, which I would consider in some ways in line with the ethos of other emerging churches. It was a house group that gathers weekly for singing, prayer, discussion/teaching, and sharing life and food together. It is very much community based and is set up as a network of churches that sometimes come together and have some interesting overlap in leaders and meetings. This was an unexpected experience, but very helpful in continuing to paint the picture of the emerging church scene across England.
After the gathering, several people from the church, including me, had the opportunity to drive out to the open countryside for a nice walk. It was really beautiful with rolling hills, sharp cliffs, and green valley. We walked up to the top of a cliff and watched the sun set and climbers making their way up the rock face. It is times like this, and weeks like this, that I am very grateful to be here and excited that I got this opportunity. Unfortunately, the battery in my camera died, but I have no doubt that this trip will be imbedded in my memory for a good long time.
Back to Cliff
Throughout this week I came back up to Cliff periodically with Matt, but next week I think I will be spending quite a bit more time there. The students are supposed to be coming back for their final week and I look forward to meeting many of them. I also look forward to traveling to Manchester some, and talking to many more church leaders.