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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Arnold

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Dream of what God could do in our space…


People begin to arrive, it is half an hour before our published start time for church but we recognised long ago that church was never about ticking a box to get to a service it was about becoming a people, used by God in incredible ways. So many of us intentionally arrive to grab a coffee and catch up with whoever happens to be around to hear what they have been doing, share life with one another and pray for one another. Storytelling is the human currency and prayer is the fire for the engine and we intentionally delight in these.

It has been 10 years since we moved onto our site in Karen and the beautiful stroll through the now mature gardens is at once a reminder of the natural beauty of God’s world and the way in which he challenges us to use His resources in creative ways. We have a huge vegetable and fruit patch which not only allows us to give away smoothies to people on site but to feed to local primary schools. This is encamped by a brilliant biking track which kids love to come and hang out on. Each week we see young people turning up to enjoy the space they run around, play games, do movie nights, make great food and enjoy hanging out and their playful squeals serve as a reminder that God loves laughter and joy.

Over the course of the last few years we have been surprised, challenged and sometimes shocked by what we felt God has called us to in this space. Our coffee shop and garden is run exclusively from people who were either forced into prostitution or have fallen foul of the justice system. It has often been a messy road to have them on team with huge trauma and dysfunction being part of their stories but if we weren’t prepared to take a risk on them and to walk with them in their brokenness we could never expect anyone else to. We realised we had to mean it when we said we wanted justice to flow like a river and sometimes that meant getting wet and messy! We now have an associate pastor who used to be a sex worker in our city…some people have frowned at us, others are horrified at it – but were are so delighted because this is a real Jesus, working in real lives showing the power of the cross to change and transform.

We never imagined when we moved onto the site that we would host, amongst other things musicals, a nursery, a training centre for the deaf community, leadership 101, 201, 301 and 401, movie nights, world cup football with Kenya making a surprising run to the quarter finals, an opera evening, a pop up sushi bar, an Afro-beats night, a safe house for ex- offenders, a yoga class, a centre of ethical AI design, a hub for social entrepreneurs, Friday night pizzas, a church planting course for those looking to reach tricky contexts like red-light districts and no go criminal zones, and more.

It wasn’t just random, but it was intentional ways that we chased after to meet with the least, the last and the lost in our community.

We are reminded of this powerfully as at the end of our service a smell began to waft over us, it is freshly made sourdough bread that hangs in the air like your favourite Auntie welcoming you in.

Many of us pause for a long time to simply enjoy the smell and the memories it evokes. For some it would be seen as distracting from the serious event of religious worship but for us it is a joyful moment as it stirs in our senses memories of what God chose to do in our time. The smell of bread lingers and each one of us pictures what is happening in the bakery. 7 years ago our children’s worker announced that actually her heart’s desire wasn’t to be a children’s worker but was to be a baker. And in one voice we all said ‘that sounds right, you are always baking, we have wondered why you still do this’.

She now runs the ‘ad(Venture) Bakehouse’ which combines the most amazing food in the world, all sourced locally, teaching people to bake and gathering people around a common table to share food. Every week some of our societies’ most vulnerable and maligned people are given opportunities to bake and hone their skills and over the years three of our bakers have gone to big professional jobs and one of them runs her own bespoke catering firm. And we host a big family meal once a week where young and old, rich and poor, christian and non-christian gather around a table to do life together. We would carry on doing this anyway, because it’s the way of Jesus, but we are delighted that most weeks some of our new people always want to get more connected to church and just last week one of them became a follower of Jesus. It has been sad to see people walk away from Jesus and not everyone stays but we reflect that we have much less of a big back door than we used to.

But for us this wasn’t about simply doing more and more things – we had an opportunity to welcome in other people and organisations to celebrate the good that they were bringing to the city and to be a light of Jesus to people who might otherwise not encounter him. One year we had a group of muslims passionate about social justice come and lead a session of the implications of modern day slavery…one of them was so struck by the community of people he encountered that he came along to the next Alpha course desperate to see what drove a community like ours to act how it did.

It became clear we need to not simply do church for the found, but church for the lost and we needed creative, engaging and brilliant ways to connect with people in authentic and deeply relational ways.

We have had some failures along the way – Paintballing in the tops of trees is not a good idea, an urban jazz and motorbike festival wasn’t what we had envisaged and the less said about Chris’ idea to do a Christmas musical in July the better. But we have, as a community, decided that if we feel God is saying something to us then we will run after it are not be afraid to take risks or be daring for the sake of the lost. And that if we look silly, if we get things wrong, if we make a mess along the way at least we will have done so in a relentless pursuit of the lost. We intentionally make sure we are in the business of the one and not simply the 99.

But ultimately this has become a place of encounter…a thin place if you will, a temple. Where in very real, authentic, tangible ways people meet with Jesus. We have evolved our space of the years to be a space where people can find and develop a relationship with Jesus in lots of different ways…some people love to come and engage in the musical worship, for others it is walking through the trees and intentionally disconnecting from the world to connect with God, for others it has been the platform to campaign for justice in various ways, for others it has been a chance to do life with a community gathering to eat and pray and befriend one another.

If you talk to people in Karen, Hardy, Langata, Ngong and beyond they will tell you that Renewal is the place they go to gather. There are events for all the family to enjoy throughout the year and great food to be had at our small restaurant. We are now having churches from all over the region visit us and try to figure out how they can be an authentic beacon to the community where they are placed.

It is always hard to pin down cause and effect. But Nairobi is not the same city it once was.

Our prison population has been reduced by almost 90% as we recognised that poverty couldn’t be a crime and instead we used those resources to create opportunities and jobs. And the work of AJAR is almost exclusively about giving people a chance who have become a prisoner in their own world and not a literal prisoner.

Rejesha recently closed down in Nairobi, it didn’t need to continue. Prostitution no longer exists except in a handful of cases with over 39,000 people exiting prostitution in the last decade. It was a combination of incredible opportunities for vulnerable women but also the hearts of men being changed to not see women as commodities to be bargained for on the streets.

Extreme poverty has halved, our roads are hailed as some of the best in the world and we as a team meet regularly with heads of government. They meet with us in our garden and in friendly ways and ask us how to shape the community well and also that we would personally keep them accountable over their use of money. Kenya is no longer seen as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and has become a model for other governments to come and see. Much of this started when the politicians personally decided to give up two thirds of their pay and to see themselves as public servants.

We see across businesses, government, church leaders and parents a new style of leading which is marked by a sense of vulnerability and humility. People are generally much kinder with one another and they value them.

The church across the city has flourished but in ways no one expected. It now sees its role as walking alongside people rather than getting them to do their ministries. We have seen even the most sceptical people drawn back into church and some of the find a home.

It isn’t a utopia we live in. There are arguments and disagreements, wrongs that need righting and pain that comes from living close to one another. But we have realised that when we have the best intentions for each other at heart we can move beyond this and work through it. It is not perfect but there is nowhere else I would rather be and as we close our meeting we are excited to see what God will do next.

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