I've been working in the property business for 25 years but it's only in the past few that I have seen myself partnering in something with deeper significance. My Christian experience has been broad and positive but until recently I couldn't readily connect my day job with my faith. I saw the role of Christian ethics in the work place but I couldn't see how my work connected with God's mission. How was the message of salvation relevant to the world of commercial real estate? If God was calling us to share this salvation story then I needed to find the vision and language to make it relevant to those I worked with and the projects I worked on. To begin with I didn't like using the word 'salvation' and less the phrase, 'being saved', something of a problem when reflecting on the mission of God.
After starting Church Mission Society's Pioneer Training Programme and I recall the moment on day one that I said I couldn't use the word 'saved' when talking of my own Christian experience. For me the word was associated with being saved from this place, then transported at some point in the future to be in heaven – a place very separate from earth. I went on to ask the group if we could find less or even non religious words for our conversations together in order to find words more fitting to those we met in our daily lives. Given all in the group were pioneering a work outside of the church, I felt this would be a helpful challenge to set ourselves.
During my reflections on how the message of salvation was relevant to the world of commercial real estate, I came across an article which posed the question: 'What Kind of World are we Building?' I found the question really helpful. It linked my work in the property world with my desire to partner with God and with others for making a better place. Significantly, the question set an agenda for how I used my time and energies. Immediately, I changed my work pattern to enable me to take on work for councils working to improve their high streets, because this was building a better world.
Alongside a colleague, I went on to open a 'pop-up' shop, called Flashop, in an Oxfordshire market town suffering from an above average number of empty units. This 'pop-up' went on over its first six months to host more than 20 different businesses and enterprises many of which then took on a more permanent arrangement in another shop in the same town. Local people referred to our work as 'revival' as it facilitated the opening of what had been long term empty shops. The council were delighted with this initiative and based their bid to the Department of Communities and Local Government to be 'Great British High Street' around it.
My reflections led me to conclude God is particularly interested in the land and how we shape it. Much of the Old Testament narrative, explores this issue. My conclusion was the relationship with the land wasn't an optional extra for the Israelites or a special interest for those with a 'green' agenda – it was key to their relationship with God. It's key as it connects with the picture of a renewed earth described in the book of Revelation.
My colleague Iain and I have recently started working in a large town with 70 empty town centre shops. Whilst the town is busy its people regularly refer to the blight these clusters empties create for particular parts of the town centre. Partnering with others to facilitate positive use, encouraging creativity and bringing life is very much part of our work. Revival and change is our objective. Could this possibly be part of God's salvation story?
For my work to be regarded as such would be a real privilege. I am not the one to conclude whether it is or not, I shall leave that for others to reflect upon, but I now have the vision and language to enable me to connect my business world with the unfolding story of salvation. Working at the core of society, at that interplay of people and their place, is a tough task but ultimately I know the work is God's not mine. Yes of course we join in, but God's the author, the initiator, the pioneer and we follow.
My hope going forward is that the church community can support our work in the different towns in which my colleagues and I work. Together we can make a huge difference and it would be really exciting for local communities to share the vision of building a better world within their local place.
A fuller version of this article was published in 'Anvil', a Church Mission Society journal bringing together theology and mission.
Neil Wild is a commercial property agent and town centre coordinator; Neil and his colleague Iain Nicholson run Flashop UK, a business offering short term and pop up hire of town centre shops as a tool to improve the high street whilst encouraging creativity and innovation within the small business and social enterprise sector. Neil is also a CMS Pioneer.