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Covenant and Church for Rough Sleepers 

A new publication seeks to explore what it means to be church in an experimental church plant. Author Dan Pratt and theologian Paul Fiddes explain more in this short interview 

Covenant and Church for Rough  

Dan, what is the book Covenant and Church for Rough Sleepers about?

The book emerged from nearly five years of pioneering a new church among those who do not usually participate in church.

In 2012 I was sent by local Baptist churches to start a church in central Southend-on-Sea, Essex. After 16 months of mission and experimentation there was little to show for our efforts.

At the point of almost giving up, we had a day of prayer and fasting at our 57 West community cafe. During that cold day, twelve rough sleepers saw the lights on, wanted shelter, and ended up joining us to pray and talk about life and faith. From that day we opened the community café for rough sleepers and other low-income households in Southend. A weekly gathered church service emerged with six people being baptised. Our community café opens five times each week with over 6500 visits to our community café in 2016.
During the last three and a half years of being church together I have wrestled with many questions: What does it mean to be church together? What makes us a church and not a project? In a context that experiences brokenness, violence and chaos, how is church outworked? The book Covenant and Church for Rough Sleepers is my journey in conversation with Paul Fiddes’ work, towards answering some of these questions.

Paul, the book converses with your thinking of church being an expression of covenantal relationships, what does this book bring to the conversation?

‘Covenant’ is now a term widely used among Baptists to describe the relating of members to each other in a local church, the associating of churches together, and the binding of associations, churches and colleges into a national union. Use, however, is one thing, and understanding is quite another. Dan puts us in his debt by reflecting on the way that covenant may be seen as the basis for an exciting and experimental church-plant. As we see how the idea of ‘covenant’ makes sense of the complicated and challenging relationships in that context, we can see better how it might throw light on our own situation.

Dan, in the writing of the book and through your conversations with Paul, what impact has there been on your own ministry at 57 West?

The interaction with Paul’s work on Trinitarian theology and Covenant has encouraged a clearer understanding of what it means to be church in this challenging context. Pioneers have occasionally been critiqued for being too experimental at the expense of Scripture and tradition. This research has enabled a more robust theology of ministry and pioneering in my context. This book highlights how the nature of the church of 57 West is both experimental as well as intentionally seeking to be faithful to Scripture and our Baptist tradition.

Paul, what does this book contribute to your own theological work and the Baptist family?

In my own theological work, I have frequently asked what happens when the Trinitarian theology of ‘participating in God’ merges with the ecclesiology of ‘covenant’. One important result is that we can see how there are different kinds of covenant between God and created beings, just as human persons participate in God in different ways and at different depth of commitment. Not all relations are the same, and not all covenants are the same. This is the insight that Dan works out in a creative and sensitive way in his particular context, in forms that I could not have anticipated. Dan draws on a range of Protestant and Catholic theologians in this remarkable piece of practical theology, which develops a Baptist tradition in new ways.

Dan, what are your hopes for the book?

I hope the book will encourage greater conversation about how we re-imagine church for those who are the edge of our churches, and for those who aren’t yet participating in church. This could firstly be how we re-imagine traditional church in having more open boundaries and to explore covenant among those on the edges.  

Secondly, I hope this book will encourage others to explore how exciting and contextually rooted churches can emerge while also remaining faithful to Scripture and our Baptist tradition.

The Revd Dr Dan Pratt is a Baptist minister and founder of 57 West, a new Baptist church ministering with rough sleepers, addicts and low income households in Southend-on-Sea.
Professor Paul Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University

The book Covenant, Church and Rough Sleepers is available for £5 plus postage and packing from larry.kreitzer@regents.ox.ac.uk
57 West can be followed at www.57west.org.uk

Baptist Times, 28/07/2017
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