Finding what God is doing and joining in: Interview with James Henley

The Lab has been experimenting with growing community and church in Newport, south Wales, for the last seven years. Helen Harwood met one of its leaders, James Henley, also a first year MA student on the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course.

HH: James, I understand you are a lay pioneer minister and also the project leader at The Lab in Newport. Can you tell me a bit more about that role, how it evolved and what part you play?

JH: The Lab, as it is now, evolved out of a group of students and young people who were looking to do church in a different way. Justin Groves, who is now my boss, began drawing people together to meet on a Sunday night, and I was part of a core group that emerged.

That was about seven years ago, and since then things have developed and evolved. We tried out different venues, and for a while tried out meeting in the upper room of a pub. People have come and gone, and that community has grown to about 20-30 mostly young adults with a few others.

As well as that, about five years ago a group of us were looking for somewhere to live, and had a desire to live somewhere intentionally on mission. We approached the diocese and they offered us an unused vicarage on the Alway estate, which is an area of deprivation on the eastern edge of Newport. The community in Alway has continued to grow as we’ve experimented with rhythms of life and prayer, and developed different initiatives to serve the local community, especially local young people.

Recently things have continued to develop even further. Last September, my wife Amy and I moved across Newport to a new area called Duffryn, in order to try and grow community and church there. The main Duffryn estate is in the top three per cent of deprived areas in Wales. And as well as that we have some other ideas beginning to come together, one around caring for out-of-work young adults in the city centre, and another involving providing opportunities for children from difficult backgrounds to express themselves through music!

So The Lab is evolving more and more into a network of different pioneering communities, initiatives and people all connected together by mutual support and relationships. My role is to try (somehow!) to hold it all together, and release other young missional leaders to run with their ideas and create new things.

Can you fill us in a bit about your background and can I ask about your introduction into mission and pioneering?

For me, the call to pioneering mission came as a result of joining the beginnings of The Lab when I was 18-19. I began to ask myself lots of questions about church and mission, and in particular pushed myself to face up to the reality that a lot of what I’d done, learnt and heard in church didn’t seem to have much connection to the wider culture outside. I became filled with a real passion and desire to create worship that would make sense for young adults with no church background whatsoever. Even if that meant sacrificing some of the elements of worship that I’d really loved from my own church upbringing like singing worship songs together and preaching.

I was given the opportunity to work for The Lab and study for a degree in youth work and theology. The combination of learning and practice helped me to explore more some of the issues and frustration I was working through, and to begin to dream of something more.

How do you see your mission in terms of where you live and the worshipping community/church you are part of?

I love the phrase that originally came from JV Taylor’s book The Go-between God, that mission is “finding what God is doing and joining in”. At the moment for me, mission means becoming part of the Duffryn community and finding ways to sync into rhythm with the needs, hopes and fears of the people who live here. It means looking to find glimpses of hope, of God-at-work, and encouraging and supporting them. Looking to find those in need and finding ways of loving and serving.

For us (Amy and me), I think mission also means being willing to identify our own needs and be willing to find support for us from the local community. We were really challenged by a quote from Angela Shier-Jones, which says, “Pioneering ministry cannot be done to a community by someone who knows what they need, it can only be done with a community by someone who shares their need.” We realised that, as a young couple who were just about to have our first baby, we had a huge need for love and support from people around us who understood because they had also had kids, but we were the first of our friendship group to make the jump.

This led Amy (and our newly-born little girl, Evie) to join a group for mums and young babies, and when the government funding for it was cut and the support workers couldn’t continue, she managed to help enable the group to continue on, but now being run by the group of mums themselves. I’ve realised my own need to connect socially with local guys who have a bit more experience of fatherhood than me, and am planning to join the local football team over the summer as a way of trying to do this.

What would you say were the fruits of your work, and what is it that has been hardest to handle?

In terms of fruits, we’ve seen several young people and young adults make some kind of commitment to faith over the last five years, and seen lots of others grow in confidence and self-esteem which has been amazing to see. We’ve also been recognized by the local community association and given a couple of awards for different projects we’ve initiated.

I think the hardest thing to handle is not really being able to see what is going on in people’s hearts, and whether we’ve made a real, tangible difference. It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed by just how much there is to do, it always seems like there’s something else that needs to be done or another need which needs to be addressed. It can be difficult to see whether we’re making ground at all. But I think to some extent, ministry is about leaving those issues up to God to deal with. As long as we’re earnestly listening to him and the communities we’re a part of, and seeking to live as his people day by day, I think we just have to trust that he’s got the rest covered.

In your application you talked about “…a life committed to prayer and intimacy with him (God). I also feel called to live as a person of peace drawing others into relationship with God, and joining in with what God is doing to transform communities and culture.” How does this connect to what the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course gives?

The CMS Pioneer Course has been amazing in that it is an entire curriculum built around the idea of forming leaders whose identity is found in being God’s people on mission – God’s people of peace. And part of becoming that kind of people is studying culture really carefully, learning how culture works, and learning how to really understand and get inside the communities each of us is involved in serving, so we can see where God is at work and join in.

It’s a really inspiring community to be a part of, made up of people who are all earnestly seeking God’s kingdom in the places where God has put them, and who are all learning and figuring out what that looks like in their contexts. It makes for incredibly engaging, exciting conversations – not just in lectures, but over lunch and during breaks.

How do you see your work developing and continuing into the future?

Hopefully we’ll see forms of church eventually beginning to emerge in Duffryn where we’re living. But it will be a long process. I’m a naturally impatient person, so I’m deliberately trying to slow myself down and take time enjoying what God is beginning to do, rather than impatiently looking ahead to what will become. In terms of The Lab as a whole, our hope is to see little pockets of hope and peace bubbling up all across Newport, where young leaders are being called to innovate new forms of mission and church amongst those on the edges.

And ultimately, I dare to dream that we might see transformation across the whole country of Wales, and the Church in Wales, as we begin to get to grips again with what it means to be God’s people on mission. To see transformed, hopeful communities appearing across the whole of Wales, from the cities and the Valleys in the South, to the coastal towns in the West, to the rural towns and villages of North and mid Wales.

Lastly, James, how can we pray for you? And is there anything else happening you want to tell us about?

Please pray for me, Amy and baby Evie as we try to juggle all of our different commitments and make time for us together as a family. And be praying for The Lab, for God to continue to provide people and resources, for the Alway and Duffryn estates, and our young adult community in the city centre.

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