Brighton is a town I know well; I spent three years at university there enjoying the student lifestyle. Two of my closest friends still live in Brighton and so I am a fairly frequent visitor. I love the arty culture and cool cafés (well compared to Stoke they are!)
Beyond is an Emerging Church/Fresh Expression that tries to connect with the Brighton art scene. They do a monthly ‘event’ (last Sunday of the month) which I have yet to have the chance to go along to. I did,though, have the opportunity to interview Martin Poole (founder of Beyond) and Flo at the ‘Changing Landscapes’ conference in May and caught a flavour of their work.
Beyond started three years ago and grew out of Martin’s frustration with the established Church and his desire to connect with the art culture in Brighton. Every year Brighton hosts the second biggest arts festival in Europe. It is home to a vibrant arts community. Yet if you visited most of the churches in Brighton that artistic context is almost entirely invisible. Martin wanted to start something that would be contextually relevant to the Brighton art scene.
Martin began with the idea of a monthly event- led ‘experience’ and started talking to a broad network of people; some from the Anglican community (which is his denominational home), some outside the Church and some who had been involved with a youth- based Emerging Church in Hove called Eden. As always what is crucial in founding this sort of group is that the key person has good broad network connections. You need someone who already lives beyond any ‘churchy’ clique.
As well has presenting his ideas to this broad based network of friends and interested parties , Martin also presented his ideas to the Brighton and Hove Diocese and through that secured three years’ funding for the project. The money was the crucial factor, but it also linked the project to the mainstream Church and helped fulfil one of Beyond’s objectives, which was to be a resource to the wider Church.
Beyond‘s major ‘success’ in terms of connecting with the art community (and the general public in Brighton) has been the Beach Hut Advent Calendar. Throughout Advent Beyond stages a daily event at 6pm on Brighton beach at which a beach hut is ‘opened’ revealing a relevant art installation. Last year on Christmas Eve there were 350 people on Brighton beach to witness the opening of the last beach hut. This struck me as an impressive way to connect with the people of Brighton.
My close friends in Brighton have no Church connections and were not brought up inthe Church. As I visit Emerging Churches and listened to people speak of events they are running to reach the un-churched I often have these friends in mind as a credibility litmus test – would I be embarrassed to bring my friends along to this event? The Beach Hut Advent Calendar was the first event I could actually imagine inviting them along to!
Martin spoke of Beyond‘s three target groups: the general public, the de-churched, and the committed church -goer. The general public make up about 15% of those who came along. This group tended to simply ‘come across’ Beyond because of the public and visible nature of their events (in a car park, on the beach). Both Martin and Flo felt that they needed to work on a better publicity strategy in terms of reaching this constituency. The ‘de-churched’ are a significant group in Beyond, (about 35%) and have found a home there. I imagine (although this was not said) that they probably make up the core community that is involved in the planning of events and are at the heart of Beyond. The final group, and the largest (about 50%), are the ‘mature Christians’, who come to Beyond as an opportunity to experience something new and different, a new flavour in their usual Christian diet.
As well as the high artistic quality of their events, Flo also suggested that one of the reasons that Beyond was attractive to the de-churched (and potentially attractive to a much larger group of the un-churched) was the open nature of the content. Beyond is a group that offers questions not answers, it does not tell people what to believe.
Martin clearly feels that Beyond is not about getting people back into ‘proper church’, this is not a stepping stone. He sees (as many in the Emerging Church movement do) the beginnings of a new face to Christianity and to what we mean by ‘Church’ .Beyond is part of ‘the Church’, but it is not ‘a church’. Interestingly, at the end of the interview when I asked him what he had personally gained from his involvement in Beyond, he paused, and then said that he had ended up as a Parish Priest because he had become so inspired through doing Beyond that he had rediscovered a love for ministry. Martin clearly affirms both the ‘real Church’ nature of communities like Beyond but at the same time sees the place (and importance of?) the established Church.
Beyond has an ad-hoc collective structure. From those who were initially interested a planning group of around 10 people came together. Martin acknowledged that he was, in a sense, the default leader of the group, but it was primarily a collaborative group. For each event a planning group comes together. That group does not have a fixed membership but emerges from a broader pool of people. Flo clearly felt that this fluid planning group was at the heart of the community side of Beyond. It was the people who were involved in planning Beyond who, it seemed to me, represented the relational aspect of Beyond, but that community happened in an organic way.
It seemed to me, as for many small Emerging Churches, that the fluid and organic nature of the community works well only while the group remains relatively small. If it grew significantly then the small relational network nature of both the structural planning and community coherence would potentially need to change.
We chatted about questions of sustainability, both creative and financial. Martin said that creative ideas were easy, it was the practical implementation that took the time (and sometimes money). Creativity is1% inspiration 99% perspiration! It takes a lot of hard work to put on a good quality art event. For instance, ‘Lent in the Lanes’, a great idea to take people through the Brighton lanes with a individual audio meditation, but then you need to get the equipment, set it up, publicise it etc.
In terms of money, the group’s three year funding is running out and they are looking towards long term sustainability through their own commercial ventures by producing things that are genuinely desired. For instance they are selling Advent Calendars with the Advent Beach Huts on. They hope in this way not to be dependent either on the wider Church or on individual donations. I was very impressed with their clear realisation that there was a need to think of financial sustainability and with their imaginative solutions.
Beyond seemed to me to be doing something that was genuinely different and really was connecting (even in a small way) with the un-churched in Brighton. Key to their success was having people at the core who instinctively knew how to connect with those beyond the Church, because they already inhabited that world. They were also clearly aware of the need to produce high quality events (Martin said ‘ we live or die on the quality of each event’ and Flo, for instance, had an art degree from Oxford University). Too often Churches offer sloppy amateur events with poor publicity which appear cringe worthy to those outside the church community. – if they notice them at all.