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‘REBUILD MY CHURCH’

Jesus Shaped People is a steadily growing discipleship ‘movement’ that was birthed in 2007 in the grassroots of a large social housing estate in Bradford. Over the past five years it has become embedded in many other similar communities in West Yorkshire and Birmingham, and is being explored in other Anglican dioceses. It describes itself as a ‘Whole Church Discipleship Adventure’ that can enable churches to refresh their vision and establish clear ministry priorities. During the past few years Jesus Shaped People (JSP) and a group of Anglican Franciscans have been finding new common cause and partnership, through interest from the SSF Brothers’ ‘Mission Group’.

Until recently my knowledge of St Francis was limited to rudimentary memories of stories describing his relationship with the natural world, a holy man with whom the ‘birds and the bees’ had a special relationship.

All this was to be transformed and extended three years ago when I led a pilgrimage tour of Assisi. This grew in April 2016 by a further visit to Assisi, plus a few days at La Verna, the extraordinary mountain retreat established for Franciscans in Francis’ later years. We were fortunate to have Sister Maureen CSF join us, and benefit from her wealth of knowledge and spiritual insight.

Much remains in both locations that enable Francis’ life and mission to be uncovered. Assisi these days is a bustling place of pilgrimage and religious tourism. It is positioned in the stunningly beautiful setting of the slopes of Mt Subasio, and has Francis and Clare written in just about every stone.

In the time of Francis – the late twelfth and early thirteenth century – the higher you lived up the slopes, the posher you were! He was the ‘half-way up’ product of the new growing and prosperous middle class, and his father aspired for him to benefit from this success. Initially Francis longed to be a knight – it was the later period of the Crusades, a war demanded by papal edict, between Christians and Muslims, which had shown earlier signs of success by the West, but by Francis’ time was increasingly disastrous.

Francis’ early efforts as a soldier were unsuccessful and he was captured during a battle between Perugia and Assisi, and held prisoner in nearby Perugia for a year. Imprisonment seems to have been a salutary experience as Francis returned to Assisi with a new perspective on life. His solitary wanderings over the next year or so in the Assisi countryside increasingly motivated him into a life that had a deep concern for the poor, including the many lepers and other destitute people living in the swampy, mosquito infested plain at the foot of the mountain.

One day Francis found himself in a little broken down church called San Damiano, near the foot of the mountain. He sat in the derelict church and reflected deeply on the crucifix that hung at the front of the church. He describes how in that period of contemplation he heard God’s powerful call to ‘Rebuild my church, which is in ruins.’ It was to be the most significant moment of his life, a command that determined his future vision and direction. However, initially he misunderstood and, like so many of us today, became preoccupied with rebuilding the fabric of the tiny church building. Two other churches were similarly repaired before Francis grasped the enormity of what God was asking of him. The church of his day was in desperate need of spiritual and moral transformation. In addition to being pre-occupied with war in the Middle East, it was also a period when the church’s affluence was enabling vast cathedrals and monasteries to be constructed throughout the Western world.

Francis and his followers were to establish a Christian movement that was a huge contrast to this. They recognised that Jesus’ way of life and ministry priorities needed recapturing as the essential foundation on which God’s kingdom must be built. Over the next twenty years, before his early death in 1226, the Franciscan revolution brought great spiritual refreshment and new vision to the church across Europe and beyond, with Francis even daring to cross the Mediterranean to be an agent for bringing peace to the Middle East. The visit established a trust between the Franciscans and the Saracens that continues to lie behind the role of the Franciscans being guardians of Christian holy sites in the Holy Land today.

Jesus Shaped People can have no better model than Francis for keeping our vision refreshed. It is a very great joy therefore that JSP is establishing a growing partnership with Anglican Franciscans in different parts of the country.

Francis would be delighted that JSP is gaining traction in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK – where Franciscan presence is also a priority. Church communities that want to explore adopting JSP usually make contact with a JSP Companion, so that the vision and method of JSP can be explained. Initially this begins with the leadership team of a church, but ownership by the church family is also a vital component, so that there is growing anticipation of transformation in the grass roots of a congregation. At the heart of this is an understanding of discipleship that is based upon a need to recognise Jesus’ ministry priorities, and the intentional adoption of these by a local church.

A date is then set for the launch of a fifteen week JSP programme that enables a congregation to explore five key priorities in the ministry of Jesus, thus beginning a process that leads their church to evaluate its own life, and ensure that what Jesus was about is what his church is about today. It’s a process that gradually becomes embedded in the life of the church, and other resources are steadily growing to ensure churches have plenty to chew on.

We live in days when the call that Francis heard from God to ‘Rebuild my church, which is in ruins’ has great relevance. Francis’ passion to ensure that the example of Jesus was to be the lens through which they understood discipleship is the passion of JSP and the passion of the Franciscan movement. We have much to learn from each other, and much we can do together in transforming the communities that we are called to serve.  We also live in days when the call to ‘rebuild my church, which is in ruins’ is not out of place. And we can be confident that ‘resurrections only happen in graveyards’! We can therefore pray, as did Paul, for a church that was in a fairly ruined state, ‘My little children, for whom I am again in the pains of child birth, until Christ be formed in you.’ (Galatians 4.19) f

Canon Gordon Dey is a retired Anglican priest whose 40-year ministry was spent in large social housing estate communities in east Yorkshire. In addition to overseeing the development of JSP, he regularly leads groups on pilgrimage tours to the Holy Land and other locations. Contact details for more information about Jesus Shaped People: gordondey1@gmail.com  Tel. 01274 674565

www.jesusshapedpeople.org