Small village church punches above its weight with parish mission
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
After months of planning and prayer, earlier this month the little village church that I attend opened a ‘Festival’, a nine day outreach to the local community.
Growing populations, declining church attendance.
It’s a small parish (population around 3000, growing rapidly with new housing), with one full time vicar who also looks after two other churches in the benefice. The church is statistically ‘average’ for the C of E: 45 regular worshippers means fewer than 1.5% of the population. Of course there may be the same number living locally who attend church in the bigger urban centres ten miles away. But the fact remains that fewer than one in thirty appear to be living life with any reference to Christian faith.
This is a challenge to our theology, and also to our understanding of the church. Are we deluding ourselves when we speak of the ‘Church of England’, when it appears to be so irrelevant to all but a tiny fraction of its people? What is going on spiritually in the nation, and in the hearts of its inhabitants, when God is ignored or not known? What will the future hold? Can we do anything about it?
Getting the whole church on board
The vicar had been talking about a mission to the village for some years, and praying with a small group of trusted friends in the church who understood and had experienced outreach initiatives in other contexts. But there were potential challenges. This church has only recently over the past few years been exposed to evangelical, bible-based ministry. Would some of the older folk, preferring a more traditional expression of private faith, be nervous about or even resistant to the idea of mission and evangelism? Also, while faithful and hard working members of the congregation could run events, help from the outside would be needed in terms of gifted communicators of the Gospel. And then, what is the Gospel? There might be strong voices, concerned mostly about community relations, who would want to stress the church as glue that holds the village together, and helping the needy in practical ways. They might see talking about Jesus, the Bible and faith as dividing rather than uniting.
Preparation, teaching, prayer
That’s why it was a significant moment when more than a year ago, it was one of the ‘traditional’ 9am communion members who suggested the idea of a ‘Festival sharing faith through fun and friendship’. He and the PCC understood that the future of the church depends on new people finding faith and taking responsibility for the church, and despite financial constraints, backed the project. So, back in early 2016, a retired clergyman living locally with experience of a number of missions began providing training and encouragement. We started a series of regular prayer meetings; the vicar geared the teaching in Sunday services to issues of discipleship and mission. Practical planning began in earnest. A lecturer and team of students from a nearby theological college were booked to help during the week itself. And a leading evangelist, well-known nationally, who happened to be related to a member of the congregation, agreed to speak during the first weekend.
For such a small congregation, the plan to run more than 25 events over a ten day period might seem a bit ambitious. But with a lot of careful and thorough preparation over several months, and hard work from an amazing group of individuals, now enjoying a rest, it all worked: the faith of many in the church has been strengthened, and dozens of people on the fringes, and even those who have never previously darkened the doors, have heard the Gospel and socialized with Christians.
Community building with intentional evangelism
The first weekend set the tone for what was to come. A breakfast in the village hall on the Saturday morning was attended by 70, and rounded up with a talk by the evangelist based on Ecclesiastes 2, asking ‘what’s the point of life?’. A late morning fun run which ended with participants and supporters packed into the church for the prizegiving, followed by hot dogs and chat, also gave an opportunity for a short message on life’s priorities. That evening, after a social time in the pub with beer and curry, the speaker talked about sport as an illustration of human existence, how the hard work and triumphs show one side, but the cheating, corruption and disappointment show another. There is only one way of dealing with the reality of human sin, and the ephemeral nature of victory and pleasure in the face of old age and death.
On the Sunday morning both 9am and 10.30 congregations were more than double the normal size. The earlier service heard a message on salvation by grace and not by works, while the younger crowd were treated to a powerful exposition of the story of the Prodigal Son. The evangelist slipped away at that point, having given five talks in 28 hours. He had preached the message of the cross and resurrection with humour, clarity and urgency to unbelievers, but also he had reminded the Christians there of what we are trying to say and do as we witness to Christ in our locality.
The outreach continued on for the next week with a number of different events around the village. The visiting team of ordinands joined the vicar and the youth worker in school assemblies and special messy church-type events; they gave their testimony at home-based meals and in community cafes. The second Sunday ended the Festival with the Bishop preaching and presiding at Holy Communion, followed by a lunch. Meanwhile members of the congregation have been inviting friends and neighbours who have attended Festival events to follow-up meetings and courses which will begin after Easter.
The C of E and New Testament mission principles
Time will tell whether this mission has been ‘successful’ in terms of increased Sunday attendance. But certainly seed has been sown, the Gospel has been preached in the village, and many contacts have been made and strengthened, through genuine fun and friendship. What is clear is that there is no need for a dichotomy between a Church of England understanding of being responsible for the whole parish in terms of pastoral care and community building, and a New Testament mandate for evangelism, bible-based Christian education and the expectation of supernatural transformation. The village Festival proves not just that it’s possible to do both with very limited resources, but essential. The Church cannot ascribe to itself a role, as some are suggesting, of binding up all the wounds of every person, physical and psychological, or of redefining the task of mission as inclusion based on baptism. But we can worship the One who does meet humanity’s deepest needs, invite others to enter into his Kingdom through repentance and faith, and watch and pray as his Spirit brings change to individuals and communities.