This article was first published in International Review of Mission, vol. XCII No. 364, 2003 (World Council Council of Churches). It originated as a workshop at the Breklum WCC consultation on mission in secular and postmodern contexts.)

Building Bridges of Hope (BBH) is a project sponsored by the ecumenical Churches’ Commission on Mission, part of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (the official ecumenical body of the four nations that make up these islands). It began in 1994-5 as a result of widespread consultations arising from work on missionary congregations within the World Council of Churches, especially in Germany.

From 1996 BBH brought together around forty local churches across England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – together with partners in other parts in North West Europe. The aim was to discover what could be learned from a range of different mission initiatives, to look at how they could be supported, and to ask how ‘bridges of hope’ in service and witness were being constructed between local congregations and those in plural, secular and diverse societies who are not church members or believers. The point was first to examine what was actually happening, not what people thought was happening or should happen.

We were not necessarily looking for large, successful initiatives. Indeed the emphasis was more on the small, the struggling and the contextual, where most people are with ‘church’. We were purposefully and carefully ‘non-selective’ in this sense. Participating churches and community-based Christian projects therefore came from deliberately different theological backgrounds and traditions, from Roman Catholic and Anglican through to Free Church and Pentecostal. Some were urban, some suburban, and some rural. Varying degrees of ecumenical collaboration (or the lack of it) were present. Different churches worked from different models and understandings of mission.

The role of BBH over four years was then to link these different examples of local mission together, to help them learn from one another, to provide a framework for analysing what they were doing (based on, but not restricted to, qualitative research methods) and eventually to report back to them and to national church leaders on the key findings with a view to asking ‘where do we go together next?’.

What we discovered, importantly but unsurprisingly, was that there is much life and energy for mission at the grassroots, but real difficulty in making it work. National and regional church structures have resources to help local churches, but they seem remote and disconnected to those at the grassroots. Social engagement and action does build effective ‘bridges’ with those outside the church, but it does not necessarily lead to the renewal or growth of the church itself. Indeed, in the absence of other factors, more often it doesn’t. Similarly most believe they should be evangelising their communities. But most also have great problems in doing this. The confident are not always sensitive, and the sensitive wonder whether and where there are forms of witness that liberate rather than dominate.

Some discoveries from this phase of work can be found in a report called God’s Mission and the Local Church at [click on BBH icon and follow links]. BBH identified and summarised seven core findings: that churches which are effective in building bridges in local mission will be – focusing their vision; building local partnerships (in and beyond the church); sharing faith and values; nourishing daily living (with prayer and the Bible); developing shared leadership; becoming communities of learning; being accompanied by a sympathetic but critical ‘co-journeyer’.

None of these findings is revolutionary. Their strength is precisely that they fit with and synthesise much other research, and that they make sense of the perception of those with most experience in local mission. They are, if you like, ‘learning indicators’. How can they be applied? Well the needs in each situation will be different, and the configuration of these indicators will take a different form and outline depending on the context and the resources available. For some the issue will fall more in one or two indicators more than others. But, on the basis of BBH research, which is amongst the most extensive carried out in relation to missional churches in Britain and Ireland, we are saying that an element of all seven will be present in places where ‘church’ is being realised in creative ways that reach out to people and needs beyond the existing Christian community. The key question is how things can be developed and sustained at the appropriate level. There are resources out there for this to happen (we do not need to invent them, though we can improve them). The issue is: ‘how are people best able to identify, access, make use of and deploy the resources they need?

On this basis the next step in Building Bridges of Hope has been to look precisely at how the lessons learned from these forty different situations can be extended and implemented more widely. Acutely conscious that models, experiences and ways of working are not easily or appropriately transferred from one place to another, we decided instead to look for slightly more ambitious examples of churches or initiatives where the kind of lessons being learned in BBH are being applied already in innovative ways – ways that chart a fresh course for the churches in Britain and Ireland. These would be the new ‘test beds’ of feasible change.

Between 2000 and 2001 we set about recruiting a network of some 20+ ‘pilots’ for changing the agenda of church. Again these span England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This time they are places where people are taking conscious risks with something bold and ‘missional’. They are potential or actual examples of success in bridge-building and articulated Christian hope, though not ‘success’. ‘Fruitful faithfulness’ might be a better term. There is a greater emphasis this time on evangelism, recruitment, church-building and on new churches (as well as inherited denominations).

BBH has become more experimental and action-oriented. The key tool at our disposal is accompaniment. The ‘critical friend’ is part encourager, part mentor, and part consultant. Her or his role is to support churches as they transition themselves into missional shape over a period of eighteen months to three years. Lessons are shared among the network of ‘pilots’ as they develop. The first national ‘Future Church’ conference took place in October 2002. Another is planned for next year. We are discussing shared resources for accompaniment with mission and church agencies. Much interest has been sparked by approaches developed at the Alban Institute in the USA and elsewhere.

Among the pilot situations is a ‘church action zone’ in Bradford, where denominational ways of working have been suspended in favour of a bold new attempt by Christians to work together in a majority Muslim context. Then there is the Northumbria Community, developing models of religious life for a confusing, post-modern era. In Scotland the Contextual Bible Study network is discovering and offering fresh ways of living the text in society at large. New churches are being planted and are influencing the business community in Anglia. A Roman Catholic seminary (Wanersh) is re-examining how it forms priests in and for evangelisation. And a denomination, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, is being accompanied as it attempts to reform itself in mission. This is just a brief flavour of what is going on. It is exciting – but then again, the situation of the churches in Britain and Ireland is often parlous. There is much to do and little time to lose. So we should see these pilots for what they are, ‘sparks of the spirit’ not fully-fledged alternatives.

What we are developing though Building Bridges of Hope is part of a ‘living laboratory’ of missional churches. We are engaged first and foremost not in a programme or a package, but in a process and a project. BBH is exploratory rather than prescriptive. It is a zone of experimentation, of research and development rooted in our common commitment to the transformative experience of the risen Christ in our midst. The ‘inherited’ churches have created space for it within one of their ecumenical instruments, but it is not their property. It is seeking to develop a devolved life from the grassroots up. It needs more profile and it needs the synergy and resources of those involved, and of the national churches, as it seeks to link with other, like-minded initiatives. It is willing to die if appropriate new forms can be found. It has a focus and a vision but it is not precious or possessive of it. If part of what it is doing can be franchised, so be it.

In this way Building Bridges of Hope seeks to be an experiment in faith that helps to set the agenda from (rather than for) the post-Christendom churches in Britain and Ireland.

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