The God of Loose Ends

January 8, 2020

Happy New Year!

Time again to take the good cheer and warm feeling of Christmas celebration and channel it into purposeful resolution to impact the world for the glory of God and the good of humanity.

First Semester as a Postgraduate Student

A brief update on this last (first!) semester as a postgraduate student.

I’m studying Data Analytics & Society, or Geographic Data Science, or the Geodemographics of British Streets, depending which of the labels you find most helpful. Think of it as the overlap between Human Geography and Computer Science.

The course is a four-year integrated MSc and PhD. Whereas the more traditional post-graduate route might involve spending a structured year doing various specified courses towards first completing a Masters and after that embarking on three years of self-directed study towards a PhD thesis (call this the 1+3 sequential model); in this integrated model you begin the PhD thesis and the Masters simultaneously but stretch the Masters over two years (occupying in theory two thirds of your time the first year, and one third the second) and the PhD over four years (call this the 2+2 simultaneous model).

I’m one of five students at the University of Liverpool doing the course, which is funded through a Centre for Doctoral Training between Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Over this first year, each university hosts all the students at all those universities for a week’s intensive learning week. We all began in mid-September with a week in Leeds learning about Agent-Based Modelling and how to program in Python. It was a great chance to get to know the others on the course, as with everyone from all the universities there for the whole week we would spend the evenings going out somewhere to eat.

This first term has involved two other taught courses: Qualitative Research Methods and Social Survey Analysis. And perhaps more importantly I have begun reading around the topic of geodemographics, which will be the focus of my PhD.

What is Geodemographics?

Probably the best way of explaining the essence of geodemographics is to show you an example. Clicking on the image takes you to an interactive version of the 2011 ‘Output Area Classification’ – a UK geodemographic built with data from the 2011 UK census as part of a PhD project in a similar vein to that which I now found myself doing.

Geodemographics Image -- Click to follow link to interactive version

The essence of a geodemographic classification is that it takes large social statistical datasets (in this case, for the UK), and uses clustering algorithms to categorise the component small areas into groups and sub-groups, which can then be described and helpfully visualized with the sort of colour-coded map that we all love.

Geodemographics Image -- Click to follow link to interactive version

It’s a tool that is useful for any activity that involves engaging with people in specific places. Supermarkets and other retail outlets use it to work out where they might most profitably locate new outlets; insurance companies use it to assess the risk (and premium) of a person from a particular area (and hence our car insurance increased massively on moving from Cambridge to Liverpool); government services use it to work out which areas are most deprived and how to invest resources; churches can use it to see what type of community their building and their members’ homes are placed in, and thus learn what the local needs are.

Trying To Start A Church

Speaking of church, we also need to update you on that front.

This July, after a year of gathering with a few others each week in our home, we started meeting publicly in a meeting room at the Liverpool Central Library. It’s a place we often go with our kids: there’s a fantastic kid’s section (where we have successfully connected with several other people with young children), a rooftop view of the whole city, and convenient parking right next to it. The Library said the Meeting Room was only available once a month, but that seemed fine: we would have a monthly ‘big church’ meeting, and during the other weeks we could still meet casually at the library for informal prayer on the roof-top and inductive bible-study in the kids’ section.

We still didn’t have a very large group, but it seemed like it would be helpful to get out of our house – sometimes it’s easier to invite people to a public event than into your home (though indeed sometimes the reverse is true; it depends on the relationship, and the person and where they live).

We printed several hundred simple gospel wristbands and a roller banner, and bought three large thermos flasks, some microphones and a portable amp. All the equipment you need to start a church for less than a hundred pounds!

We didn’t go for a big launch, thinking it would be helpful to have worked out how the new arrangement worked in practice before we had too many new people coming to join us, but that first Sunday – in God’s providence – it so happened that both my parents and Taryn’s mum were visiting us, and so were able to worship with us as we launched out publicly as Covenant Family: ‘a new international family church’.

Covenant Family's first public worship gathering

But having had our first monthly meeting at the Library, and started going along in the other weeks for informal prayer and bible-study, we discovered that we were not the only little group of Christians to have had the bright idea of using the site as a venue for a prospective new church. A family from Ghana, who were missionaries in Italy for a number of years before recently moving to Liverpool, were already meeting there each week as Lifegate Chapel.

It was raining that morning, which meant that our default plan of praying on the rooftop courtyard wouldn’t work. So we asked if we could join the other family’s worship service – ‘Of course!’, and we were warmly welcomed in to their gathering. That week I met again with George their pastor, and we agreed that for the next few months we would join together, taking turns to lead the service, and exploring whether our two small pioneering groups might perhaps join together longer-term.

Failing To Start A Church

However, after three months of experimental partnership, George said to me that he felt our visions were different and that while he was open to us continuing to join them as we had been, he didn’t see it as an option for us to work together in planting one church.

So we had to step back and go back to the drawing board. We had wanted to see ‘a new international family church’ in the Central Library – and we had discovered that there already was one, just not ours! There was also the added complication of me now being a full-time student trying to get to grips with academia. And perhaps with three small children we could do with a little more structure to help shape our missional efforts. Our ‘not very large group’ had actually lost rather than gained a member since we had started meeting in the Library, which left just one other couple apart from our family, and although they were committed to joining us on a Sunday morning, they were equally committed to another more established church which meets later on Sunday afternoons.

We were forced to conclude that our efforts in this season to establish a new church were not getting anywhere.

And so we’ve decided to join our friends Sam and Jenni Tomlin, who lead the Salvation Army church fifteen minutes walk away from our house. We’ve actually been meeting with them regularly over the last two years – they also have small kids just a little younger than ours, and have just moved into a large old house that they hope will become a hub for community and discipleship! After ‘trying it out’ for three weeks, we were welcomed in as members, and already Taryn has been able to help lead worship, I’ve been able to start recording their sermons and putting them online (– listen to this message for a flavour of the church’s vision to save souls, grow saints and serve suffering humanity–), and we’ve both been added to their preaching rota.

The God of Loose Ends

This Christmas I have been struck with how the God of the Bible is the God of Loose Ends. Jesus is born – and suddenly various words from Scripture that had lain dormant for centuries come alive with astonishingly vivid prophetic resonance: ‘the virgin will be with child’, ‘out of Egypt I called my son’, and also ‘a voice is heard in Ramah’. But there were also many promises that – all through Jesus’ life – remained as yet apparently unfulfilled. Jesus ties up some loose ends, but he’s not afraid to add a few new loose ends too!

Still, it is not for us to know times and seasons, but simply to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses in whatever situations we find ourselves, until that day when every eye will see Him, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

To the glory of God,

Peter & Taryn, w/ Isaac, Anu and Paul

PS. Many of you will have prayed for my sister when she was hit by a truck while cycling in London the day before we moved to Liverpool. Well, not only did she fully recover, but she’s had her first baby: Zoe Grace, born on Monday, at “7 lb something”. Praise God for the new arrival to our clan!