This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Urban Expression: An interview with Stuart Murray Williams

This is the third in a series of interviews on Anabaptism in the UK. I talked with Stuart Murray Williams, the director of Urban Expression, an Anabaptist-minded church planting network whose members are based in East London, Glasgow and Manchester. Urban Expression is one of the founding members of the Root and Branch network of Anabaptist-minded organizations. Stuart is also the chair of the Anabaptist Network steering group and was my manager when I worked for the Network from 2004 through 2006. Stuart has authored five books on urban church planting.

Tim: What inspired Urban Expression?

Stuart Murray Williams: The Rediscovering Anabaptism: Urban Church Planting video on the Anabaptist Network site does a good job of telling the beginning of our story. Essentially, Urban Expression was inspired by recognizing that in our context the dominant British model was not appropriate; it required too many people and too much money.

So we were looking for an alternative model, a model that was more or less self-funding, feasible with a small number of people and that would not impose suburban models of church on urban communities. So in a sense it was born out of frustration, as I think quite often these things are. The models weren’t working in the context where they needed to work. So [Urban Expression] came out of a course that I was teaching at Spurgeon’s college on church planting and really trying to find an alternative way of working in inner city communities.

Can you say more about how Urban Expression differs from those traditional British models of church planting?

Church planting was pretty high up on the agenda in the 1990’s. Urban Expression began in 1997, when we were already becoming aware of some of the weaknesses in the church planting movement.

One of those weaknesses was that the dominant model was one of one local church with adequate personnel and resources planting a sizable group from its congregation somewhere nearby. It could vary in numbers anywhere from 25 to 30 or even 50 people. Some of the large Anglican churches even planted 100 plus people.

This model resulted in a number of things. It meant that only very large churches could get involved in church planting. And it meant that most of the churches were planted in fairly affluent areas, because that’s where most of these people lived. And thirdly, the model of church that was developed tended to be a replica or clone of the church they’d come from. Because when you took 50 people with you, the DNA is established and you tend to repeat what you’ve done. And so those were the areas that concerned me.

And what we were looking for was a model that was accessible to many more churches, that required fewer people, that wouldn’t require the sort of funding that was normally anticipated and that would be prepared to ask more radical questions about what does church actually looke like in these communities. There was very little church planting being done in the inner city in the 1990’s and so Urban Expression really grew out of a reaction to that. We felt that suburban church planting was alright, but it wasn’t enough. We needed to work in areas of poverty as well.

Can you say a bit about the attention that Urban Expression has received in the last few years?

I guess we started out low-key, high risk, with little finance. Some of the people within institutions that we mentioned this to really weren’t convinced it was viable. And so we didn’t have any institutional support. And in many ways we were happy with that because it allowed us to get on with things without having to keep sponsors happy.

I guess things began to change a couple of years ago. And I think it was partly because when you’ve been around for a few years you become part of the scene. And they take it for granted that you’re there and you pop up in various church planting circle and the urban networks, particularly in Baptist circles. I guess particularly among Baptist churches where we had strong connections, we became known. We’d grown a bit and had teams in various places and then we became aware of a growing interest from theological seminaries, denominational leaders and individuals who wanted to come and see what we were doing.

We began to get inundated with visitors who wanted to come and see what Urban Expression was about. Some of them which were pretty disappointed, I think, because they were expecting some big organization with flashy headquarters and multiple staff, and you know we’re not like that. So we got the impression that Urban Expression was in danger of having major reputation which was way beyond reality.

I think we also have a fairly extensive website which may give people the impression that we are much more than we are. So we’ve always tried to fly under the radar really rather than making a name for ourselves. But we’ve been grappling in the last year and a half to two years with a growing amount of attention.

The ambivalence continues. We’ve produced a little booklet on Urban Expression which was published last month which Juliet Kilpin and I wrote. We’re telling the story, we’re trying to do it very honestly very openly. We’re certainly not claiming Urban Expression is a success story. But even writing a book about it just begins to raise some questions about profile and promotion and so on. So we’re caught in a bit of a tough stick. We want to promote Urban Expression a way of helping Christians get involved in urban mission, but we don’t want to promote it as an organization and draw attention to it itself.

That’s quite an interesting bind. I’m particularly interested in this booklet that you just published.

It’s called Church Planting in the Inner City: The Urban Expression Story.

Along with that response from broader church folks, how have you understood your response from grassroots, as maybe the “blokes in the pub down the street”? How have you listened to it and what response have you heard?

My guess would be that the bloke down the street is blissfully ignorant of Urban Expression. And it should remain so. Urban Expression is basically a support structure for planting local churches. We would hope that the blokes down the street would become aware of the churches that have been planted, and they don’t have any particular reason to know about Urban Expression as a Christian agency that deployed a team to plant the church. So we try to keep one step back from that.

Once the churches are planted, we basically encourage them to separate from Urban Expression to find connections with other churches in their local area, to establish whatever denominational links seem appropriate. We didn’t want to look after churches, we are a mission agency. If we start running churches, we’re going to get distracted from that. We made the decision some time ago to make it clear that once a team has planted we need to let the church become a church in it’s own right.

We wouldn’t expect Joe Public to have any perception of Urban Expression whatsoever, nor would we want them to. We would hope that they would find local churches planted in their communities to be places of good news. That would vary from place to place in terms of what that looks like.

How would you imagine or hope that members of these churches that Urban Expression supports have experienced them in a different way from churches that were planted with a more traditional model that you were referring to earlier?

It’s probably best to look at this question in terms of a case study. Our first team was in Chadwell in East London, and has planted a church called Cable Street Community Church which is deeply rooted in the local community and has, I think, been widely accepted because of its low key and gentle approach. It’s been very involved in local community issues, such as bringing back into use derelict adventure playground, running a motor bike repair club for local kids, been involved in youth work. They just basically got to know the community, and have been basically well accepted there.

It’s a relatively small gathered congregation, but there are probably two or three hundred people in the community who regard it as their church and they’ll come to it certainly more than occasionally. It is the church they identify with it is the place they would turn to if they were in trouble or if they wanted someone to pray with them or whatever.

Now, within a few hundred yards, there is an Anglican church, a building which has been there a long time. But they have been infused with a plant of about a hundred members from large Central London Anglican church. So they have huge resources of people, two full-time staff, lots of money. They are drawing people who have got well paid jobs, and so on. They’re in the same community. They are far more active in sort of overt evangelism, running Alpha courses and so on.

But they have already cause significant problems in the community, by some of their attitudes, by not understanding the community, not taking time to listen to it and learn from it. It just feels like an imposition. And while I’m sure that it will be a place that some people will find a church spiritual home. It just feels like an alien plant. It doesn’t feel like it’s grown out of the community.

That would be the distinction. We work really hard to make churches that are as indigenous as possible.

We would love to see more local people taking up leadership. Indigenous leadership is one of the key difficulties of working communities where many people lack confidence and so that takes time. But the goal is certainly something that is contextual, indigenous, deeply rooted, rather than something that looks like an imposition from outside. Now, there are links between the two churches, they are not in opposition to each other, there are friendly links. There is also a clear recognition from both sides that we are doing something very different.

Now you also raised a really key question for a lot of people doing church planting in terms of indigenous leadership. What are the ways or techniques of Urban Expression church plants that encourage local people to take leadership and build confidence?

I wish we were better at it than we are. I think this is one of the areas of struggle. It is partly to do with the communities where we are planting into, where many people have been disempowered, disenfranchised. Not many people locally have positions of responsibility at work or in the local community. So taking up leadership in a local church is quite a step for them.

I think we’ve recognized that if we want to make any progress at all, we have to take risks, and ask people to exercise leadership who wouldn’t be given those responsibilities in other churches because their understanding of faith, their ethical behavior is not fully clear yet. We would recognize that in some situations, it would mean that the team which provided the initial leadership having to withdraw, having to take a back seat in order for the other people to come through. I think it’s questioning accepted models of leadership as well. The models of church leadership which we often work with are very much framed in a much more suburban, middle class environment. There may be a whole range of expectations there that aren’t helpful in the communities where we are working. Those are the questions, I think, but we are very much at an early stage in it all.

How have the models of the early Anabaptists influenced Urban Expression over the last ten years now?

It’s a good question. I don’t think you’ll find the Anabaptist tradition referred to on the Urban Expression website explicitly. It may be there, I can’t remember, but it’s certainly not prominent. So it not something that we are using as a flag to wave over Urban Expression saying this is Anabaptist. On the other hand, people who become aware of Urban Expression and the way we operate have not infrequently said, this feels very Anabaptist. So it’s sometimes been named by others rather than by us, as being an Anabaptist approach to church planting. And clearly the Anabaptist tradition has deeply influenced me, and I’ve very much influenced the way Urban Expression has developed. So there is a direct link however explicit or implicit it has been. And a number of the other people involved, people like Juliet Kilpin, Karen Stallard and Sue Warburton who have been key leaders of Urban Expression have in various ways over the last few years, identified with the Anabaptist Network and the Anabaptist tradition.

So I think we’ve all been shaped by [Anabaptism] in various ways. In terms of how that works out in practice, would be, I think a very strong emphasis on the church as community, eating together, relationships, a fairly organic and down-to-earth spirituality. There would be an emphasis on the gospel as holistic. So we’ve tried to steer away from a narrow evangelical approach. It’s been a much more incarnational, much more to do with whole life discipleship. Which hasn’t negated sharing the gospel verbally, but it certainly means a much broader framework than that.

I think the whole issue of peace is something which has impacted the community is various ways. Sometimes under the surface, sometimes quite explicitly in terms of relating to other faith communities.

I think the Christocentrism that is at the heart of the Anabaptist tradition has had quite an impact. We talk quite a lot about the centrality of Jesus and what does that mean for the church, what does it mean for discipleship? I think probably the organization is not purpose-driven, or goals-driven, but we are values based, so we are working out of core values, rather than something which is more mechanistic, or goals-oriented.

So it’s a bit vague. Not as if we have an explicit Anabaptist claim to faith, we don’t. And not everybody involved in Urban Expression would regard themselves as Anabaptists, but probably the people at the core, would do.

For more on Urban Expression, see their website. Thanks to my wife Charletta for helping to transcribe this interview.


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