Journeying to faith with young people

Revd Nicholas Lebey, Tolworth, Hook and Surbiton Team Ministry

I am originally from Ghana. I came to Belfast as a missionary and later moved to train with the Church Army in Sheffield. During my training, I started a project in Bradford in 2009. I was working under a Church Army Commissioned Evangelist as a sort of Apprentice. During this time, I was given the task of pioneering a youth congregation. After my training, Church Army suggested I take this type of youth church plant model o different contexts and see what God will do? The Chief Executive Mark Russell, suggested Liverpool, Birmingham and London. After praying we thought that London was the place.

Fresh Expressions – A church by young people, for young people

I came to Thamesmead within the Woolwich Area in 2013. The aim was to plant a new church with young people who had no former connection with the church. We thought that it wouldn’t make sense to start something where they are invited to hear the Gospel and preaching because they have no connection. So, we created multiple points of contact as a way of reaching out to them.

I went around the local churches and formed a team of 14 volunteers. I trained with them for six months. We then launched a Friday night youth club where the emphasis was on relationship building, getting young people off the streets and into a place where they can belong, play games and connect with their friends. A place where we can have a relationship with them, but also provide a mentoring, with a little Christian input. They would meet for about two hours and within that time I would do a short talk that we called the “God Slot” some of them called it “Assembly”. During this time, I knew that people would respond. When they started saying that they wanted to talk more about Christianity and learn more about God, we  developed another night where the focus was about exploring the Christian faith and discipleship. The vision has always been creating a new church with the young people and for them.

I have a strong belief that we don’t do things for people, we do it with them. We had this mantra ‘By Young People For Young People’. As young people responded on Tuesday, one of the things I did with them was Youth Alpha and they became excited. I then began to do weekends away. We went to Selsey for three days and we would pray, study the Bible, have fun and explore. A lot of them hadn’t been outside of London. As relationships deepened, we began to see a community emerge. It came from the young people themselves. We had gone to Soul Survivor summer camp in Shepton Mallett, Somerset and that time, I sensed that we were ready to start a youth congregation and the young people said yes. We then developed a third evening. We had the Friday night Youth club, Tuesday night discipleship Christian enquiry group and out of that we launched a youth congregation which met on Sunday evening. We called this the Sorted model and it was based on the model I used in Bradford.

I also worked mainly with two secondary schools. One was Roman Catholic and the other a State school. I ran football clubs and lunch clubs. I also partnered with XLP youth charity on our estate in Abbey Wood.

Why Young People?

I have always had a passion to see young people come to faith. This was something that was birthed in me back in Ghana. During my teenage years there was a man in my church who used to go around the neighbourhood reaching out to young people and I would go with him. When I came to this country, beginning in Belfast, I was part of the youth team at the church where I did my gap year, so I have always had that sense of journeying with young people, helping them find faith, grow in it and become followers of Jesus.

God’s Call: The Missionary, the Confirmation Service, the Attacker and the Archdeacon

For many years I thought I was an evangelist and that was what I was called to do. I was brought up in a very remote village in Ghana. I grew up with my grandmother for the first 12 years of my life. My parents were not around. I remember there was a missionary who came to our village and planted a church. I used to go there to play with the instruments. One day he came to my house and in front of my grandmother said that this little boy will one day become a priest. I didn’t know what he meant. Over the years my grandmother used to remind me of what the missionary had said. Growing up, it had always been at the back of my mind. Everywhere I have been whether in South Africa where I did my training or Belfast people kept coming to me and saying that they sensed a calling on my life. It became very clear in Belfast. I wasn’t brought up in the Anglican Church. In order to join the Church Army, I had to be confirmed. At my confirmation service in Willowfield Parish Church, Belfast, the vicar walked up to me and said, “while I was praying for you, I had a vision of you wearing a dog collar and I think God might be calling you to ordained ministry.” I said okay and that was it.

Whilst I was working in youth ministry at Abbey Wood in 2015, I was violently attacked by a group of young people one day at the youth club. The police wanted to arrest them. I told them not to. I advised that we worked towards community resolution. In the end we resolved it so that nobody would get arrested. I was there to serve the young people and the last thing I would have wanted was for them to get arrested. The police went to them and told them what I had said. They told them that they mustn’t do it again. The following week, I was walking on the estate trying to reconnect and rebuild relationships and a group of young people approached me and one of them said to me, “Nicholas, I think you should become a Priest.” This came from one of the young people who had attacked me! Within that same month the Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Venerable Alastair Cutting had already approached me and told me about going forward for ordination so I was praying about it and that was the same week the group of young people had said to me we think you should become a Priest. I thought it was strange. Everywhere I went people were telling me about ordination. It was as if God was trying to get my attention through various people around me.

Now that I’m ordained

I am passionate about seeing people coming to faith, I am passionate about mission and evangelism. I have always said to God, if you are going to send me to a parish, send me to a place that is outward looking in mission and enriching people in the community. Teenagers are absent from our churches and I want to be a part of a church that has a bias towards young people and those on the margins. Whether these are young people, or adults. I want to see the church more mission-focused in how we engage.

Living Water – a reflection on Ordination

Revd Helga Zunde-Baker, All Saints Hackbridge and Beddington Corner

Southwark Cathedral was busy with the hum of people arriving, professional cameras set up, and clergy milling about. Hitching up my new cassock and surplice in what I hoped was a dignified fashion, I was half-running, half-jogging with a fellow ordinand, to urgently fetch water for the queue of thirsty ordinands in the retrochoir. We hastened to the cafe, trying not to trip. The cafe has a jug of tap water freely available. A big glass jug. With quite a wide lip. The (glass) bottle I was holding had a rather tall and narrow opening. Both of us were shaking. Ten minutes to go! No pressure! Wobble. Wobble. Trying to keep still enough to get the water in the bottle and not on ourselves, not to drop the fragile vessels. Having carefully filled up one bottle we both realised there was no time left – so (after asking permission) we took a second jug, and legged it back.

These are the sorts of things you never see. The livestream (and then the beautifully-edited video) are seamless, elegant, polished. Life isn’t like that. I rather suspect our ministry won’t be like that.

Saturday 26th June is a day I’m sure none of us ordinands will ever forget. It takes many years to get to that point. Careful discernment. Prayer. Study. Time with a vocations adviser, maybe the Bishop’s Certificate, time with a Director of Ordinands, a Bishop’s Advisory Panel (a series of selection interviews rather prosaically called a “BAP”). Then several more years of academic study, college residential trips, church placements, pastoral placements, “formation”. Throughout the process ordinands are encouraged to practise theological reflection – a way of learning to see God at work in our day-to-day experience. That begins with the process of discernment – carefully testing and examining whether a tentatively-affirmed vocation might be real, and continues throughout our discipleship.

Behind the beauty of the Cathedral building, the newly-minted splendour of the robes, and our carefully-polished shoes, the reason we’re all doing this is of course that, in our own way, we each heard Christ’s call – our “vocation” – our calling. Yes all this pomp and ceremony is right and justified. Calling to ordained ministry is a big deal. As it says in the service itself, “you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.“ And it is right also to want to give God of our best in all things.

Yet of course Jesus doesn’t just call to us in moments of glamour and beauty. Whilst we may discern the holy, the transcendent, the numinous in the ethereal beauty of a well-sung choral anthem line, or a hand-crafted silk stole, Jesus still calls us in the humble, everyday places, too. He met the Samaritan woman at the well after all.

[John 4.13]

In the silence, our only obligation is to God.

Christopher Gaul, St Peter, Brockley

Just over a year ago my wife and I were blessed to have our first child, a healthy, incredibly gorgeous baby boy. When a wonderful life experience occurs like; seeing a sunset; falling in love; holding one’s baby for the first time or; being moved by a symphony, adjectives can quickly run out or fall short and our language can often feel poverty stricken, unable to fully capture and express the full beauty of what was experienced to another person. Despite the moment occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, it was still the most life changing most of my existence thus far, still precious, beautiful, soul-defining and, full of purpose and promise.

My recent experience of ordination as a deacon into the Church of England possesses many parallels with the joy of having my first child. Firstly, despite attending classes explaining what it means to be hold such a responsibility, speaking to others currently in the role, reading wonderful books by erudite scholars giving the theory and their experiences – nothing fully prepares you for the moment when it is your turn to step forward and change your life forever.

Another parallel was the level of care and guidance (and good humour) provided by those running the show, in this instance Southwark Diocese, who despite the restrictions ensured the entire experience was still incredibly beautiful, significant and, life-giving. From the moment myself and the other ordinands arrived at Southwark Cathedral for the rehearsal, there was an air of palpable excitement and anticipation, not least because of the forthcoming ensuing three-day retreat in the peaceful grounds of Wychcroft Retreat Centre – and the promise of an exceptional sausage roll from the Cathedral café!

After arriving at Wychcroft we made the most of the opportunity to meet each other before almost two days of silence was to begin. I had previously undertaken a semi-silent retreat in my first year of training whereby one could converse at meal times, but this was my first silent retreat proper and so I was a little unprepared for what I was about to experience when the treadmill finally stopped.

The retreat was an opportunity to stop, to rest, to undertake a sort of fast of most interactions, to cease ones’ manic production and consumption, to see and reflect upon God, ourselves, our faith, and our vocations, it was a moment of extended Sabbath. Silence, solitude, and stillness are three of the foundational pillars of the Sabbath, and it is rare that we have such an opportunity to see what would happen when one simply stopped.

I can think of no finer preparation for the moment of ordination than to strip away all else in order to listen to and hear what God is saying, to abstain from the time and life-sucking vortex of our mobile phones, in the company of others travelling along similar life paths. In the silence, the pandemic was forgotten for a time. In the silence, whilst unconnected by speech we were connected through the Spirit. In the silence, our only obligation is to God.

Arriving at Southwark Cathedral felt like the moment one arrives at the church before your wedding. Your nearest and dearest are there, waiting, excited and proud. I was both nervous, excited and at the same time absolutely resolute in that this was the moment I was to be forever marked and changed, a moment I had been looking forward to for a long time. It is about now that my words feel poverty stricken, unable to fully capture and express the full beauty of the experience, but what I can say is that it was simultaneously life-changing and utterly peaceful. And in the time since ordination, much like having a baby, the work is only now, truly beginning – but what an honour it is to be able to do so within a loving family, God’s family.