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Evangelism | Ben Norton [ANVIL vol 33 issue 2]

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Ben Norton
The Rev Ben Norton is the Pioneer Minister for the Church of England in Kingswood Hull. Ben has been ordained as a Pioneer for 10 years and has started and developed numerous emerging Christian communities across the North East. Ben is also Chaplain to the 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. He is the author of Espresso Scriptures, founder of the King City Revs podcast and the YouTube channel Faith Shorts – all creative ways of engaging with faith issues for those doing so for first time.

My name is the Rev Ben Norton and I am a Pioneer Minister for the Church of England in the UK city of culture 2017, Hull. It is my home city and although I haven’t lived here since I was 18 it feels fantastic to be back.  

The context in which I minister is on a new large middle-class housing estate on the north side of the city. There are 3,000 houses now, and there will be double that by the time they finish in 2028. There is no inherited church here at the moment. We sit in the parish of a small nearby village. The diocese decided that there needed to be a fresh way of reaching and connecting with the predominately young professional families living here in Kingswood. So, they employed me as a Pioneer to do just that.

We have been here for 18 months now, listening, making connections and building both trust and relationships. Although I have been ordained as a pioneer for 10 years now there is still so much I am learning when it comes to evangelism and discipleship in a context such as this.

When it comes to evangelism one of the main issues I have found is that there is a tremendous amount of fear around. Although people are open and friendly when it comes to engaging and exploring faith people seem anxious about the prospect.

Through conversations I have had on numerous occasions with people, I have found that they are really open and interested in conversations about faith, more so than I would have thought. But the difficulty arises going any further than just a conversation. I think the fear comes from the fact that they believe that they are going to be judged for what they think or say. That they think that to explore faith it is going to be a one-way conversation. That the person with faith is going to tell them where they have gone wrong and what they must believe and how they must behave.  


Evangelism by Ben Norton
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If we are honest with ourselves would we want to spend any time in a place like that? There is also the factor that they may feel stupid for not knowing enough. As someone put it, imagine exploring the works of Shakespeare for the first time. Now, I know of Shakespeare, I have even read a bit of Shakespeare, in fact I studied it at school so although I wouldn’t say I was an expert I could hold a rough conversation if someone asked me about the subject. But I would be totally lost if I wanted to go along to a group who knew it inside and out, who could quote it verbatim. I would fear I would look stupid, or say something that might offend someone. So, in the same way I can understand why some might feel uneasy about joining a group who are chatting about faith or exploring the bible. In a world where image is everything I wonder if we fully understand how people view us, the church, as well as beginning to understand God.

So, what do we do and where do we go and how do we do it? I believe we have to create the space for trust to be established. People have to trust us before they can begin to trust in the promises of God we know to be true. We have to start with people rather than programmes or services. For us not having a church building is a gift because it forces us to ask that question every time we plan something. “What do we do, and where do we go, and how do we do it?” It makes us focus on what we are trying to do and who we are trying to connect with.

Last summer we ran three months of fun events for young families on a Sunday afternoon from 2-4pm. We went to the beach or the park or other local attractions. They were spaces to get to know people to develop relationships, to build trust. At times, no one came but we made a big deal about telling the local community what we were doing over social media. The reason for this is that when next summer comes around people will have heard and remembered what we did last year and will realise that it was something that can be trusted and come along. Once trust is established it is much easier to ask if someone is interested in coming along to an enquirers course such as Start or Alpha. Or you can ask the question “What would church look like for you and your family?” All of this is hit and miss, sometimes it works and other times it is back to the drawing board. Things work slowly and the Kingdom of God is full of surprises.

Last year we held a Start Course [1] for a few folks that I had met though different situations. We gathered in my front room and after the first nervous week of everyone turning up and working stuff out... “What is this going to be like?” “Who are these people?” “What have I done?”… I explained that we could sit round and eat some good food and drink some good wine and talk about anything that seemed like a stumbling block to them finding faith.

Over the weeks we got to know each other and the conversation flowed, people began to engage and slowly faith began to emerge. At the end of the course everyone seemed genuinely upset that we wouldn’t be meeting again. So, I explained that we could continue to meet but that next week rather than doing the course I would cook us a meal instead. I explained that we could sit round and eat some good food and drink some good wine and talk about anything that seemed like a stumbling block to them finding faith. We could also talk about what they wanted to do next and if they wanted to carry on meeting here at my house.

The Wednesday came and folks started to arrive, it was all very informal and relaxed and people had bought gifts of flowers and wine. Then Kelly and Simon arrived, they had both done Start and were really engaged. Kelly found me in the kitchen and handed me a bottle of wine and then said, “I have baked some bread, I have never baked bread before, but I know that you think bread is Holy so I thought we could share it with our meal.”

It was a moment for me that totally blew me away. In the middle of all of my hopes and dreams, in the middle of me trying to get everything sorted and worrying about saying and doing the right thing for these wonderful people to experience the life changing, life giving God that I know, with all my planning and seeking and making sure it was all right (whatever right is!) - all along God was already here, and it was Kelly, this brand-new Christian who introduced me to Jesus. It was a bit like her saying: “I hope you don’t mind, but I have invited someone else to come to dinner with us, his name is Jesus, have you met him?”  

We had a great meal, with great food and great wine, with real honest and deep conversation and belly shaking laughter and we broke bread and we shared it. It was a lot of fun. It was Holy. It was Eucharist. 

Starting a new Christian community from scratch isn’t easy, but then neither is sustaining an established one! I have found that there are no quick fixes or formulas to follow. But that’s where the joy is, God calls us to travel the road with him. Just as Jesus walked, talked and invited people to come and join him. There were moments of total surprise, of highs and lows, of stories and food. Moments when Jesus revealed Himself to those around Him when they never expected it.  

I would love to be able to say, “This worked really well,” or “Try this in your context.” But the more I do this the more I am convinced that God calls all of us to walk this faith journey into new places, new situations with new people. And in so doing we discover a God who has already gone before us and meets us in people who don’t yet know Him. I am reminded of the Celtic prayer “Christ be in the mouth of each who speaks unto me, and in the Heart of each to whom I speak.”

Revd Ben Norton is the Pioneer Minister for the Church of England in Kingswood Hull.  Ben has been ordained as a Pioneer for 10 years and has started and developed numerous emerging Christian communities across the North East.  Ben is also Chaplain to the 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment.  He is the author of ‘Espresso Scriptures’ founder of the ‘King City Revs’ Podcast and the YouTube Channel ‘Faith Shorts’ all creative ways of engaging with faith issues for those doing so for first time.

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Notes

[1] See http://www.leadingyourchurchintogrowth.org.uk/start/