Sam Ward is the national director for the Eden Network. He speaks to Aidan Ashby about community, mission and young people.
What is the name “Eden Network” trying to express? Are you really gardeners?
The Eden Network comes initially from the very first project we planted in Wythenshawe, which was a ‘garden city’. The government had this scheme where they set up ‘slum clearances’ from city or town centres out to suburban areas. They set up these things called garden cities, which were supposed to be a way of transforming the lives of the inner city poor. So they put them into houses which were guaranteed to have a garden and tree-lined roads and it was supposed to make a significant difference. The problem was that they just relocated deprivation. So the first Eden project was planted into Wythenshawe, a garden city.
What drives someone to pull up roots and move into a more deprived area?
Initially, I thought there were a load of people like me that were absolutely passionate for Christ and broken for the poor.
I think these days, more and more people are excited about living in community with other Christians. I think people are excited about generally being ‘on mission’. But usually, most of our guys are activists; they feel a responsibility to take the good news to the poor.
I knew the World Wide Message Tribe as I was growing up. The Message Trust, as it is now known, has been known for inventive, energetic, colourful, fresh and edgy ways of expressing the gospel. I guess some of that rubs off into the work the Eden Network do?
Because we live in communities, we understand what is going on there and what would work. In trying to work out how to be missional, I try and unite two things: the needs of a community and the gifts of the team. If you can make these work together, you get a beautiful thing.
I’ll give you a real-life example: my wife loves to knit. So her gift is knitting and sitting with a small group of women to talk. The need in our community is a safe place for women to come, so these two things unite, and then this little group happens, where she’s able to share the gospel over knitting. Is it cool and amazingly ‘vibey’, like the World Wide Message Tribe? Not necessarily. But it is unique, in that not everyone is doing it.
As regards more ‘vibey’ things, we’ve got stuff coming up. There are some projects in London which are very exciting, they’ve just invented this thing called ‘the coffee box’, which is transforming shipping containers into community coffee shops. We’ve got various little coffee shops that have grown out and developed because they create a third space for community. But all of our teams are thinking of unique ways they can serve their community.
What do you think is key to keeping young people engaged in church?
Relationships are essential. There’s a whole generation growing up of people that are obsessed with worship music, and that’s a frustration for me. So the easy answer would be, just get a good worship band, and that’ll keep young people in church. But the truth is, I think that’s relatively superficial because ‘when the music fades’ and people go home, they may feel like they’ve not connected on a relational level. I think church has to be a place where you’re known and you know people, where you love and are loved, where you forgive and are forgiven, and the body of believers is where that happens best.
We’ve had a number of young people come through our congregation who don’t fit into mainstream church, whose lives are ‘unacceptable’. They find genuine loving relationships among us, regardless of the state of their lives or the decisions that they’re making, and they continue to come to church. The key thing is for us to see them genuinely transformed, not that they stay the same, but that then anything you talk to them about comes from a place of genuine, loving relationship. You can call someone out on the biggest of things, if you genuinely love each other and they’d be okay with it, cos they know you won’t leave them or reject them.
This generation growing up crave the deepest forms of relationships. The majority of the ones they’ve got on social media or even in education can be temporary and superficial. So if the church can be the best at creating these relationships, which we should be, then it should be an attractive place to be. But it takes sacrifice, not on behalf of the young person necessarily, but the rest of the body of believers. Are they going to lower their guards, are they going to give the time and attention to falling deep into genuine relationships? I don’t see it as often as I’d like.
What sort of things are you initiating, with that in mind?
Generally in major cities, we’re seeing this big swing away from smaller, intimate gatherings, towards the big church. I think we’re going to see churches of over 500 and over 1000, in increasing number, to the extent where the small thing dies.
Actually, we’ve lost a few Eden projects where a big church has kicked off in a city and absorbed everyone, just sucked them into something which is highly professional, slick, lighting is great, worship is incredible, and people feel like they hear God really well, but relationships are generally on a minimum.
There’s a girl who leaves my community every Sunday to go worship at a megachurch in town, then she comes to us, midweek, to be loved, nurtured and to be vulnerable. It’s so depressing for us, it’s like, why don’t you just do all of your worship with us? But young people need both.
I’m meeting up with a guy who’s setting up what’s called a resource church. The idea with ‘resource churches’ is that they’re backed by the Church of England and they pump big money and successful church leaders into one place, gather people together, then they’re hoping to be able to resource the small from it.
We’ve got one kicking off in Manchester and I’m meeting with the guy. I want to ask him what his response is to relationship building, the poor, and the local. I want them to think about the local now, not when they get to 1000. What I’m slightly sceptical about is, once you get to 1000, you suddenly really enjoy 1000, then you start creating a vision that says 10,000, rather than releasing those people into community.
We, as a church, were growing quite well at one stage. We were saying if we have 10 more people, we’ll plant, because we’ve got to a size now where we can’t know everybody on the same level. What tends to happen is you work to the lowest common denominator, which is people know each other okay, but they don’t know each other really well. There’s something to cherish about the small, because it’s there that we engage with each other on a much deeper level.
What keeps you and Eden teams going when life gets tough, when it doesn’t look like anything’s happening?
Seasons are up and down with Eden. I have regularly wanted to leave because things have been hard, or I’ve been broken by relationship breakdown, or when a tragedy strikes within a community. The good thing about Eden is that it has a very strong vision, a vision that I continue to believe in. I’m passionate about the transformation of communities, I’m passionate about making the Great Commission known to the poorest in the neighbourhoods.
You can fall back on vision, but ultimately, the greatest times of suffering have been ones when we’ve actually had the greatest times of prayer. We’ve had some really tough experiences in our neighbourhood, where, thankfully, as a group, we chose to dig into God, and we really sensed God speak to us. When you fall back on Christ, He doesn’t let you down.
Sometimes it’s about plodding on in obedience. I think the joy of the Lord is our strength. Joy isn’t some kind of weird happiness, it’s a reflection of all that’s been achieved, by Christ, what you’ve seen happen and a hope for what’s going to be.
What is good news for the poor?
The good news for the poor is that heaven awaits. The good news for the poor is not that the poor will become rich, but that the kingdom of God is for them. The world tells us that the successful inherit, achieve, are deserving, and are hardworking. But to the poor, Christ says “The kingdom is yours”. The kingdom is thoroughly undeserved by all. He says “Everything I have is yours, you are entitled to it”. It’s grace, it’s saying: “You might not deserve anything, but yet you will receive everything”.
How can people interested in urban mission get involved with Eden?
We’re growing rapidly, so we need people that will relocate all the time. That number is ever increasing, I think we’ll plant 12 teams this year around the nation, so if you’re passionate about relocating, then you can come and see us. If you’d like to pray for us, we always appreciate that, if you’d like to come and visit us, you can also do that.
Read more about the Eden Network.