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Sharing Jesus on the margins

Steff Rooney is encouraged at the recent Inhabit Conference

I'm Steff, a 41 year old Christian believing predominately in Baptist principles at heart and feeling compelled to explore innovation inside and outside traditional church structures. I am also studying Theology at Spurgeon's College and exploring further the call I have received.

Inhabit300Sometimes in my faith I have felt I stood out like a sore thumb. I ask questions, actively join in discussions and will often get passionate and want to make change happen and will always help and muck in. I sing loudly, do things slightly differently and have often felt rebellious in my methods. A little like a gangly, uncoordinated flamingo with no sense of balance, I don’t blend into the background well!

Being invited to attend the Inhabit UK conference in Birmingham came out the blue but allowed me to experience an event which would otherwise have passed me by. Billed as a gathering "for the sake of reimagining church and transforming neighbourhoods", I hoped to hear about people doing what I feel called to do, to be inspired to step outside boundaries and to be encouraged by stories from across the country.

Inhabit was founded in 2010 through an energetic partnership between The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology and the Parish Collective in the United States. Through a series of events, both organisations began to entertain a simple hunch: What if God is up to something really big and global but it can only be discovered through the small and local?

Inhabit UK was created because dozens of organisations and movements are converging towards a common heart for neighbourhood renewal. This was the first UK conference, and it was held in partnership with Springdale College at Rowheath Pavillion in Bournville, Birmingham.

Before I attended I expected a larger gathering, yet the approximately 170 people attending over the two days were all of the same focus; to share the good news of Jesus with those on the margins, fringes and perhaps even further removed from church. A comment on the brochure for the conference says: “Movement happens when people who think they are alone find out they actually are not!”

I attended on the Saturday with three Main sessions, a Smart Lab and a Symposium. The Main sessions provided opportunity for speakers to share two very short stories as well as two more detailed keynote speakers. The morning began with Richard Passmore and Paul Tucker sharing their stories of work on the ground in the UK within differing communities where God is answering prayers, changing hearts and turning boundary walls to dust.

In between these speakers Tim Sorens of the Parish Collective talked with passion about us engaging in God’s mission and suggesting that we go through personal formation as we engage in mission therefore: “...we should be rolling up our sleeves and doing.”  Then before the break Kate Coleman spoke persuasively about nurturing a prophetic disposition. Kate also warned against our short sightedness when we seek the practical option while God is doing the miraculous.

The Smart Labs after the break were split into four groups. I attended the Thrive Birmingham session talking about Growing Places of Welcome in local neighbourhoods. Fred Rattley and Sarah Turner shared their work in co-ordinating and supporting the opening of Places of Welcome across Birmingham and into the North East.

Inhabit2We were able to listen to their story as well as reflect on what being made welcome looks like to us and how we can open spaces up to others. They have a growing network of venues which open every week to serve tea and coffee, soup and food or just to provide a warm space for people to come and meet or seek help and support.

This network is open to other faith groups and community projects with very simple guidelines and clear principles. This means that a Place of Welcome in South Birmingham who have contact with a person or family who is being re-housed to another area can give details of a group where they will be just as welcome and supported.

After lunch the second main session took place, with Ann Morisy sharing some insights into working with communities and challenging the reasons behind poverty and housing issues. Christina Rice shared her story of community faith in San Diego, asking us to reflect on how we are being changed by God in our context. This was followed by a symposium where Martin Robinson, Alan Roxburgh and Juliet Kilpin discussed faith in the public square and the opportunities to challenge politics and changing communities from the grass roots up.

The afternoon closed with Martin Robinson sharing reflections on connecting with the community in Bourneville and challenged us to start, or even re-start conversations with the communities we are in. To ask questions, hear the answers and then to act. There was also talk of a network being established somehow to keep conversations going, to support and to communicate within this wider community until the next conference.

The whole day was a blend of styles and tastes, opening with a Northumbrian Community prayer, worship to celebrate and reflect within and a warm atmosphere of openness to questions and exploration of topics. Without doubt it was jam packed and I was slightly overwhelmed with information by the end, but I also felt very blessed. 

What did I get out of the day?

I was in a room full of people who all worked in different ways, with different communities, but also seemed to be working in the same way, for the same purpose. Like sticks of rock coming out of the factory, there are different flavours and colours, but through the middle they all carry the same message: Jesus is King!    

So, was I inspired and encouraged? Yes, not only that Christians in the UK are working in so many different ways and places to demonstrate Christ’s love, but that this is being done across denominations. Work is happening in partnership with other faith groups, across poverty gaps and barriers are being broken down. And me? I’m a flamingo and proud of it!

Steff Rooney is currently studying at Theology at Spurgeon’s College

Baptist Times, 17/10/2014
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