‘I’ve always believed that the church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation’ – Interview with Penny Stradling

Penny is currently studying for the Pioneer MA course at CMS and has worked for CMS since autumn 2011.

Hi Penny, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, I know your life is very busy. You have lived and worked in Uganda, and been at CMS in the UK office for a number of years. Can you say a bit about the journey that brought you to CMS as a staff member?

I remember sitting in my office as a youth worker and realising it was time to move onto the next thing and finding myself interested in Fresh Expressions. Something about it seemed to resonate with the questions I was asking in youth work, especially in my work with young people who showed no interest in church services! I couldn’t really find anything to move onto as a new job or a way to engage in the UK but had also had a dream of working in Africa for a while. I ended up with Oasis in Uganda and learned firsthand many of the skills involved in crossing cultures and contextualising the gospel. When I saw the role at CMS advertised it was around recruitment of people into mission, including overseas placements, as well as pioneering and fresh expressions. It felt a bit like several stands of my life were coming together. Interestingly, the time I spent in Uganda has probably been some of the most inspiring for anything I will do in the future in the UK. My time there challenged pretty much everything I had ever thought about God, the world and myself.

Penny, I know you grew up in a Christian home, how did you make your Christian faith your own?

My mum has a saying that if Jesus is a natural part of your life at home, when you leave home it would be odd not to have him come along with you. I think I know what she means as I would find it odd not to have continued in the faith I grew up in. I was very lucky to have parents for whom their Christian faith was as much a part of life as anything else and so that became the pattern at home. I guess faith became personal to me as I was encouraged to take on leadership of things, for example Christian Union at school or activities with youth group, I then went on to a GAP year in India before studying theology at university. I saw these university years as a time to really check whether this Christianity thing was worth following or whether it would fall apart at the first serious question. So I studied philosophy, other religions, ethics and biblical studies and as you can probably guess by the fact that I’m here today I found that there was solid ground in the Christian faith and that it could stand up to real life questions.

I am very glad you felt it was! Your CMS Pioneer application form mentions discovering that your frustrations of how the church operates may actually be a gift, can you say a bit more about that?

Hanging out with Jonny Baker at CMS has made me realise that not fitting in is a gift! How I express that gift is by always being the one who asks the awkward questions. I am always slightly frustrated that church does not go far enough to accommodate the people who are trying to get into it and I always find I am the one who advocates for trying to do things differently. I got to ‘play’ a lot with youth work when I worked for a Baptist church, for example removing all the chairs and turning the church into a prayer room and inviting the local youth in. They engaged a lot more with it than the church members and it started me asking questions about how we have constructed ‘church’ and why we are so tied to doing things in a certain way. It seemed obvious that while these young people were happy to spend hours praying in an interactive way they would never want to sit in a service listening to a sermon. If the church in the UK is to survive then I think we have a lots of questions to ask of ourselves about how much we’re prepared to give up for the sake of those who are not members, not sure I’ve got there by any means but all this is certainly making me think.

I know you are involved in a wide variety of work, both where you live in Blackbird Leys (in Oxford) as well as Fresh Expressions. Can you give us a picture of your involvement at different levels and in different places?

I have fingers in many pies! I co-lead a twenties/thirties community in my church, which ranges from 15 to 30 people, and we are looking at how church works for people in generation Y. I co-chair the Fresh Expressions round table on young adults, which is aiming to educate the wider church on issues relating to young adults as well as encouraging young adults as they try things out and tell their stories. I also help with two very different youth groups, one very much a traditional church youth group and the other for older teenagers on my local estate.

Thinking especially about your 20s and 30s work, what would you say were the best bits and where has it been most difficult?

The best bits are when you see the penny drop (no pun intended) and hear people say, “Oh, I see why the church sometimes needs to change.” Or “I see why young adults need to do things differently.”

Sometimes just getting young adults onto the agenda of churches has been the hardest thing.

With regard to your history in youth leadership, are you a youth leader at heart, or is it more complex than that?

At heart I’ve always believed that the church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation and I’m not convinced there is anything better. I’ve seen this globally as well as in the UK and so I want to be part of that transformation. Currently it seems one of the biggest issues is that young adults are leaving the church in droves probably because we need to re-imagine practices and structures that answer the questions they, as a generation, are asking. For now I feel that my best use of time is to engage in that conversation both inside and outside the church.

Penny, what do you think the future holds and how can we pray for you?

Please pray for me finding a work-life balance! It would be nice to have energy to put into to the young adults work as well as my CMS job, and handing in the occasional portfolio would probably be a good idea as well! So many of the things I am involved with are all asking the same question but it can be hard finding enough time and energy for it all.

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