I love visiting Mill Grove, it is a place which inspires me to see what church could be like. It is a witnessing, ecclesial community which has been a home for over 1000 children since 1899 and where some who have grown up there still have a permanent home and a wide a variety of others stay on a temporary basis, a school for children with cerebral palsy, a nursery and before and after school club serving excellent food. It is a place where I am now part of the history, recorded in the annual newsletter as I spent two blocks there on placement as part of my ordination training. That many people at Mill Grove support Spurs is a bonus, I would love being there anyway!
Engaging in theological reflection is part of the assessment task for being on placement – there was one theme that challenged me again and again, love. In using the word “love” I am drawing on an understanding of what in Greek is called agape and which is well described by CS Lewis in The Four Loves. The story is told that the apostle John towards the end of his life would always say to people “Little children, love one another” and when challenged about why this was what he always said, he replied that it was what the Lord commanded and if this alone was done that would be enough. It sounds very simple but experience suggests it is hard to do this, Mill Grove was a living example to me of what was possible.
Keith White leads Mill Grove with his wife Ruth following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He articulates his approach to ministry using five headings: security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity believing that the life time work of his family suggests that these are the conditions that children and young people need to thrive. It is hard to see being here, listening to people and reading about the experience of others that these would not be values (theologically and biblically rooted and expounded) that are important for youth ministry more widely. The book in which he articulates this philosophy is called The Growth of Love and it is through reflecting on love that I think I have learnt the most. From my teenage years onward I have largely worshipped within an evangelical environment. The first verse I ever learnt by heart was this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him would not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). That God is love is something I heard a lot about but am not sure when I began to understand what that statement meant in reality.
Love is not always easy, and reflecting on my experience of Mill Grove as a community which is inclusive, accepting and outward looking I was reminded of this story from Sutherland:
So Bipley sat by the grey lake in Wibble Wood and thought and thought. ‘If I keep the tough stuff around my heart, I need never feel hurt again. But then having the tough stuff around my heart means that I can’t feel any of the beautiful things in the world.’ Bipley was very, very stuck. It felt like he was sitting next to the biggest problem of his life.
Mill Grove is a place for Bipley to go for help with the problem. My experience in ministry thus far suggests that churches need creative strategies to help Bipleys out and my experience of Mill Grove suggests that part of the solution is feelings of security, belonging and significance in a boundaried environment as these help build the resilience needed to be willing to be hurt (again). Without love at the core it is difficult to keep on being vulnerable and creating an opportunities for people to grow and experience healing. And the love at the centre of Mill Grove is the love of God who first loved us (1 John 4.19). I want to be part of a church where Bipleys are welcome and find acceptance and healing and encounter a God who is love.
In recent years there have been two main sources for my thinking about love in my ministry. The first is a quotation from Paulo Freire, seen as a guru in my youth work world, who writes “It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving up …We must dare, in the full sense of the word, to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous, mawkish, or unscientific, if not antiscientific.” The other main source is from John’s Gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-5). This verse has challenged me for over 25 years since hearing that the most effective witness a YFC team were doing in a difficult area was the quality of their relationships with one another. Since then I have tried to prioritize that dimension of my ministry although it is still a challenging goal.
Freire, P. Teachers as Cultural Workers. (Cambridge MA: Westview Press, 2005) p.5.
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960).
Sunderland, M. Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children. (Bicester: Speechmark, 2001) p.11.
White, K. The Growth of Love. (Abdingdon: BRF, 2008)