Every July we head off to New Wine in Somerset – a several-thousand-strong national gathering of Christians – for a week of camping, teaching, worship and not enough sleep. We always enjoy it, but this year was especially good due to a wonderfully unexpected element of subversiveness.
Inevitably, a conference that costs from £700 per average-sized family tends to be populated by very nice middle class Christians. Over the last few years, though, this has started to change. In about 2010 a family from St Barnabas, a large church in the leafy suburb of North Finchley, upped sticks and moved onto an impoverished estate in East Finchley called Strawberry Vale. With other volunteers from church, they set about doing what they could to create community among their neighbours on the estate – parent and toddler groups, girls’ groups, boys groups, a football team, giving practical help where it was needed – and behind the scenes, a lot of prayer. They then went on to plant a church, which meets in the estate community centre.
Two years ago, a minibus load of people from this brand new church made a day trip to New Wine. Their vicar reserved them a block of seats in the main worship venue for the evening meeting (putting some noses out of joint, because by mid-week those seats were considered by some people to be ancestral property). The group proceeded to take pictures of each other throughout worship and during the talk they answered their phones, chatted to each other and even heckled the speaker. When the speaker invited anyone to come to the front who wanted to respond to the message and receive prayer, they collectively burst into tears and went forward. Once prayed for they began dancing along to the worship band, who were so encouraged that they played several songs more than they’d planned and it was all a bit of a party.
The following year a whole ‘urban’ venue was set up at New Wine for anyone working or living in inner cities and estates. Strawberry Vale wasn’t the only one – the Message Trust has 30 teams intentionally living in deprived areas. It had much louder worship (the drum set was a bunch of bins turned upside down), and a magazine format rather than a long talk: interviews, drama and audience participation. Nothing went on long enough to get boring and if your phone went off, you probably wouldn’t even hear it. It proved so popular with the nice middle class Christians, who left the main venue in droves and tried to squeeze themselves in, that this year the urban meetings were moved to the second largest venue on site. That’s where I found myself going this year and it has seriously subverted my relationship with God.
It’s the stories of changed lives that got to me. We heard interview after interview with people whose lives were turned around – drug addicts and alcoholics and petty criminals and prostitutes. I lost count. These people talked about ‘finding Jesus’, and it was not through hearing the gospel once in a big arena. It was through Christian neighbours who chose day in and day out to live with them, love them unconditionally and put up with their messes, mistakes and insults. (One woman had her hoover stolen and sold for drug money. She was especially miffed that the thief, a neighbour she knows, only got £30 for it as it was worth a lot more. Anyway she laughed it off, forgave the neighbour, and is still her friend.)
This week I have seen the Christian gospel fleshed out more fully before my eyes than I ever have in my life before. One speaker who has just moved with his pregnant wife onto a deprived estate in Mill Hill East preached about Jesus, friend of sinners and tax collectors, telling the Pharisees to go and find out what mercy looks like (Matthew 9:13). It’s not just receiving mercy from God: it has to be horizontal, not just vertical. It affects, for instance, whose contacts are on your phone. Are they homeless or alcoholic or convicted criminals? These are the people that Jesus wants to be friends with. Even if they break your heart.
I’m not ashamed to tell you that during a time of prayer afterwards I ended up in quite a soggy mess on the floor.