In May 2018, Barney and Sara Barron moved as a family to Looe in Cornwall, having previously served as pioneer ministers on a council estate near Portsmouth. For 16 years, their context was a deprived community of over 30,000 people; now they found themselves in a small coastal town of 5,000.
What we knew about Looe was based on a short one-hour visit, followed by a week of house hunting. We had, of course, engaged in some online research which offered up some useful insights, but what we were unable to discover online was the heart and culture of the place. We couldn’t yet see what God was doing and why He was calling us to come and be a part of His mission in Looe. Equally, as much as we didn’t know Looe, Looe didn’t know us; we needed to come with humility as guests and receive the hospitality of Looe, not presume to play host. This was mission with the community, not ‘for’ or ‘to’ the community.
We had no five-year plan, or end goal in mind other than to seek to discover how God had been at work in Looe since its inception. It’s hard as activists not to jump straight in as soon as we heard stories of need and opportunity. The temptation to come as saviour was compelling; it would carry a metric of success in the short term, but in the long-term is a strategy that often disempowers rather than builds up community. We found it both humbling and releasing to understand that it’s not about us or our plans, but simply joining God’s story in Looe.
We spent time in local cafés and pubs getting to know the proprietors and some of the locals. We deliberately avoided the temptation to start something new and instead took the time to connect with town councillors, headteachers, police and harbour commissioners. We identified the people in the community who knew the community, and how their influence came not through position, but through relationship and respect.
One issue that came to our attention early on was the lack of provision for young people. Churches Together had already recognised this, but were unsure how to respond. Having sought to discover the needs of young people, rather than provide what we thought they needed, we partnered with the town council and put on a couple of events for young people to have their say. We also listened to other key stakeholders in the town, both secular and Christian, around a vision for a designated centre for young people. The critical point is this was not our project, but a project designed and created by the young people, coming together with several organisations in Looe. We simply facilitated the listening to one another.
Unfortunately, the opening of the centre has been delayed because of COVID-19, so we have had to remain flexible. The town council has done an excellent job of coordinating support for the community, and we have been part of leading a listening service through lockdown. Sara has been taking shopping and speaking regularly to those who are shielding and most vulnerable in our community. These and other activities we are part of are born out of an ongoing strategy of missional listening and reflection. It is not about doing to or for the community it is about doing with the community. Nothing we have done has been our idea; they are born from listening to the community, observing where God is at work and, when invited, joining in.
After two and a half years, we still feel we are at the very beginning of knowing and understanding this community. However, we feel welcomed in and received into the very heart of the town. We have been invited in by various groups and individuals to participate in serving the community. We have taken up some of those invitations. Still, we are very aware that the listening process continues and we are trying to resist becoming so busy we no longer have time to hear the voice of God and feel the heartbeat of the community. We will need to continue to engage with, and listen to, our community whilst being attentive to what the Spirit is doing, appreciating that mission with is a far more incarnational and effectual approach.
This article first appeared in Issue 3 of Mosaic magazine (January-April 2021)