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Changing Context: An Interview with Karen Webb



Peter McDowell: Karen, you’re very welcome to this conversation. Could you tell a little bit about yourself, who you are, what you are doing and then perhaps why did you apply to do this MA course?

Karen Webb: I am a Church Army evangelist. Church Army are a group of evangelists across the UK and Ireland and I am the lead evangelist in the North Belfast area. I’m married to Tim. He’s a journalist and we have two grown up daughters. I have been working with Church Army for 15 years, though I have only been a commissioned evangelist for the last 7 years. I hadn’t really thought much about further education, although I had done my Church Army training and found I really loved theology, the opportunity to look at it in the modern context and connect it to my own mission context. I was pondering things like: ‘How do we move forward? What does the Church look like moving into the 21st century?’ Questions like these were in my head the day I went to ‘Summer Madness’ and met Stephen, who was there representing Belfast Bible College. I’d known lots of people who’d gone to Belfast Bible College, so I browsed through the literature. When I saw the masters, I thought ‘gosh that sounds really interesting!’

Peter McDowell: Tell us a little bit more about the work you are doing as a Church Army evangelist.

Karen Webb: Church Army covers the area north of Belfast city centre. Our base is on the Shankill Road. Five years ago we decided that we needed to start developing in this area, and we felt really strongly that we should be somewhere that wasn’t a church building. We didn’t want to be associated with one church and one church only. We wanted to be a conduit, someone who could connect the community with the existing churches. We prayed for about a year and then we found the base we are in today. That was just such a blessing. We then began to listen to the local community, to hear what its needs are, as well as spending time with the existing churches, meeting up and just listening to their heart for meeting the needs of their community.

What we then decided to do was to look at practical projects we could do within the community to help meet those needs. We started off simply with working with health professionals to identify families in crisis, and giving them packs that they would need for a new-born. We also looked at a project called Transforming Lives for Good, which is a mentoring program for upper primary school pupils who were really struggling.

We wanted to bring that Christian witness into the schools in a really practical way. We currently have 15 coaches who go in an hour a week and spend it with a child who is struggling, not necessarily academically but emotionally. I am a puppeteer, so we do school assemblies using puppets. Over lockdown, when we weren’t able to go to the schools, we started doing online assemblies. And as well as that, we have been giving a plot of land to start a community garden, which we are hoping to use to engage with some of the primary school kids. We’re trying our best to work between the community and the church, which is why our base is called the Connect base. This is the work that inspired me to get further education. 

Peter McDowell: When it came to choosing the topic of your Masters dissertation you wanted to do something that was related to your work. What did you decide to write about? 

Karen Webb: I really wanted an answer to the question: ‘What is Church?’ but my supervisor wisely said to me the topic was too big. Then I thought: ‘Well, actually, what does Church look like in this area?’ Church isn’t about the buildings, but what is it about? And what can it look like going into the future? One of the things that we’ve struggled with in this area is aging congregations who are very faithful but who don’t have the wherewithal or the facility to really move forward in reaching out to others. On top of that, numbers are reducing in a lot of the churches, and they have little to no contact with the local community.

One of the things I wanted to look at in my dissertation was: ‘What can the Church do in this part of Belfast?’ It’s reflected all across Northern Ireland, people have a real heart for community but they don’t know what to do. I wanted to explore that question, to explore it with people in the churches, with ministers and volunteers who are working in this area. I wanted to see what we can do to bridge that gap.

Peter McDowell: So that’s your research question, now let’s talk methodology. Can you tell me how you went about answering the question? 

Karen Webb: Once I’d established the question, I had to consider what was going to be the best way to get the information. Originally, I thought of a focus group where I could talk to people in the Church. But then Covid-19 hit and the lockdown happened, and suddenly this was no longer an option. Rather than switching to a new methodology entirely, my supervisor and I came up with the idea of questionnaires. Doing it this way actually freed me to speak to more people and get responses from a wider audience. One really interesting result was the discovery that one of the issues with which congregations struggle the most was how to get people into church.

Peter McDowell: I’m sure your supervisor made you do a lot of reading as well, how did you find that side of things? 

Karen Webb: I found it quite helpful. I really enjoyed reading through what different people were saying about the Church. I also discovered there was a lot of information from America and while some of the underlying theological issues are relevant, the more practical, day-to-day, community-based content is not so relevant to us. I also found information from across the UK but again not always specifically helpful for Northern Ireland. I was then able to think more specifically about Northern Ireland with the help of the information from other contexts, what people were doing there and how that relates to Northern Ireland. 

Peter McDowell: Do you think that what you came up with in the end was helpful, practically? 

Karen Webb: I think that it was. One of the interesting things that occurred to me during this whole process is that many churches try to make their services attractive by bringing in more modern stuff. But because no outside people come, in the end all they are doing is modernizing the service for their older congregants who prefer the traditional way. You can have all the bells, and whistles, and neon signs, and still not bring people in because what they need is to be engaging with God on their level. A church that has a projector instead of hymnals is not going to make any difference to them and this came out quite strongly in the data I read and collected. That was quite interesting to me. That means churches should, essentially, continue with their current style of church services, but look at a completely different way to reach, enable, and disciple the community around them. 

As an evangelist I know that everyone has a story to tell, a journey to faith, and these things aren’t usually seen in an ordinary service. I wanted to look at look at some specific recommendations. For example, churches should focus on training their people, training up new volunteers. They should be encouraging them to see the importance and value of their current ministry, helping them to worship in their own way – not trying to make it attractive as an end in itself. Before, I would have been the first to say: ‘well you have to make yourselves more attractive to potential disciples’. But in reality it’s about meeting people where they’re at. 

Peter McDowell: Is your dissertation going to have a lasting impact for you and your work? 

Karen Webb: I have already shared my dissertation with the clergy and the ministry workers in the area and they’ve been quite positive about it. A lot of what I have said in my recommendations has to do with buildings we already have and how we can repurpose them, and many of them seem to be behind that. The workers feel that I have written something that represents where they’re at. It also encourages the clergy to not be afraid to carry on with traditional style services where appropriate and affirms them in that. On a local level a lot of the local leaders are very encouraged and people have said to me that I’ve put into words what they’ve been trying to say all along. That for me is a real positive. 

Peter McDowell: From our side it is lovely to hear that the research our students are doing is not just interesting projects that sit on the shelf once completed but can have some real impact. That encourages us. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.