It’s been almost two years since Mark Berry made headlines by moving to Telford to pioneer new kinds of Christian community.
“Embarrassing”, is Mark Berry’s reply when he’s asked how it felt to be the subject of news stories in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and on BBC Today. As a former theatre lighting designer, it’s understandable that he’d be more comfortable outside the spotlight. Yet, in talking to Mark, it becomes clear that being comfortable is not what he’s about.
Mark acknowledges the “surprising whirlwind” of publicity surrounding his appointment to Telford two years ago had its upside: “People recognized me or had heard about me. They’d say, ‘So you’re the missionary?’ It gave me a chance to explain who I am and why I was in Telford. And it opened doors that would have been harder to get through otherwise.”
Yet Mark, who is supported by CMS and the Diocese of Lichfield, disliked the way the media kept referring to the Shropshire city as “godless Telford” due to its dwindling church attendance.
“It’s rubbish. Just because traditional forms of church aren’t connecting with a lot of people here doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in Telford.”
Over the past two years, Mark has made it his business to build relationships with people in Telford. He now leads safe space, a core group of seven people who are wholly committed to helping people in Telford seek God.
The ways in which this is done may seem unconventional. Mark points out that safe space is not a church plant: “We aren’t looking to grow in numbers or attract people to us, but to go and share our lives with the wider community of Telford.”
Many of the people Mark encounters consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. But a large number have never considered spiritual matters at all.
“It’s not like it used to be,” says Mark, “where you made a conscious decision about whether or not you believed. These days you literally don’t even have to think about spiritual things if you don’t want to.”
Rather than trying to draw people into a church via cutting edge programmes or trendy worship, Mark creates “safe spaces” within the Telford community where people can confront doubts, share stories and explore spirituality. Each week safe space gatherings take place at a pub, in Mark’s home and at the local college.
Mark says that creating safe space isn’t just about hosting events. “We aren’t just talking about physical spaces,” he clarifies, “but interpersonal space. This space between me and the person I’m listening to has to allow people to be themselves.”
The son of a vicar, Mark likens this to his father’s collar. “When he wore the collar it was a sign – people felt they could open up and share their life with him. I don’t wear a collar, but I’m up front about who I am. I don’t get to know people and then look for a way to share Christ with them. I want to be real.”
Mark spends much of his time simply listening to people, at weekly “safe space” events and in the course of his daily life. “The guys at the football club, for instance, know who I am and feel like they can talk to me. I was at a pub with one guy who said, ‘I’ve never really thought of spiritual things before, but I was at a funeral recently and I thought of some things you talk about and now I can’t stop thinking [about spiritual things].’”
Recently, while leading a spirituality workshop at the local college, Mark says, “There was one guy there who had only come at his girlfriend’s insistence. He was full of bravado. Then as we got into the exercise I looked over and saw him crying. Later I asked him, ‘Are you all right?’ He replied that for the first 20 seconds of the exercise he’d just wanted to laugh. Then he started thinking, asking questions about who he was and where he came from. Being a completely new thing for him, it shook him up.”
Mark sees much of what he does as helping people think differently: “I’m like a walking permission slip that lets people break free from cultural constraints and think about things they’ve never considered before.”
Still on a journey
For Mark, mission isn’t something to be done out of a sense of duty, but out of genuine love for people. Nor is mission an activity reserved for certain times and places. Rather, it’s a way of living.
“It’s funny,” he says, “People who’ve heard about what we’re doing sometimes want to visit us because they think it will be really flashy or something, but really, we’re just people living ordinary lives, trying to figure out what it means to be like Christ.”
Mark feels that the safe space community is on a journey. As for future plans, there’s talk of creating a house of hospitality, a visible safe space in the crux of the Telford community.
“There are many things we’d like to do, and it can be tough to wait,” says Mark. “At the same time we don’t want to rush in with all our plans. We want to trust God and be part of what he wants to do in Telford.”
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