Ten years ago, when we first moved into the Rectory, the garden was a wilderness and the house had the appearance of a dingy parish meeting room. There was much decoration to do and we set to with determination and energy and within 3 weeks had made a real difference. The garden took longer, but after about a year it was possible to see the possibilities at least.
There was a sense in the church that people were tired after 18 months’ without an incumbent, but were ready to move on to something new. One of the things I quickly discovered was that it was easy to introduce new ideas, but much harder to let old practices go. In many ways the garden was a helpful picture: there is a limit to how many new plants you can put in before you have to move or get rid of the old. Another lesson was the importance of digging the ground before planting. To me, this was a picture of the importance of prayer in the life of the church: just as the ground must be dug over and prepared before things can be planted successfully, so the church must pray in order to see new ventures grow successfully and fruitfully.
I started a weekly Sunday afternoon prayer time, which then moved to a Saturday morning. For two or three years or so this was, I believe, an important factor in the church moving forward. After a time the numbers dwindled, and it was relaunched as a monthly prayer breakfast. This continued for another 2 years or so, and then stopped. Digging the ground is hard back-breaking work, and sometimes quite boring, but it has to be done; in the same way prayer for the life of the church can seem hard work or dull, but it must be there. The practice of a regular prayer meeting for the church needs to be revived.
What has happened during the last 10 years? People have come and gone. I reckon that nearly 90 members of the church have joined St John’s in the last 10 years, which balances those who have moved or died (60 have died, and others have moved away or simply stopped coming). Going by the number of newcomers’ cards filled in, we have welcomed more than 160 people in this period, but by no means all of them become regular committed members. Likewise, we have baptised about 420 children (which represents perhaps 200 families), but only about a quarter have maintained regular contact with the church. This gives grounds for both concern – why do we lose three-quarters? – but also hope – this is still a significant area of numerical growth in the church. During the last 10 years about 160 adults and young people have taken part in some form of discipleship course: Alpha and Youth Alpha, Saints at Prayer and Worktalk, and many took part in the ‘Glorious’ day in 2011 when we looked at growing in the Spirit. Average attendance at worship in 2004 was 183 adults and 63 children. This has gone up and down over the years but in 2012 stood at 163 adults and 49 children. In an age when churchgoing generally is declining and patterns of attendance have changed this is an encouraging statistic.
During my time at St John’s I’ve been blessed with three dynamic curates who have all contributed new ideas to the life of the church: Simon Stocks launched the ‘Worktalk’ course in 2005 to help people relate work and faith, and in 2006 ‘Dad’s Together’ for fathers of recently baptised children. Several men became committed church members through that group. Linda Fletcher was very energetic in her leadership of the 750th Anniversary programme, resulting in contact with 1000 households in the parish; she also helped plan and lead the ‘Glorious’ Day in 2011, and did much to encourage the young people, with the formation of the Friday youth group. Sue Thomas has started up a new ‘Life Group’ for people who want to explore the spiritual life in a deeper way.
St. John’s reflects the naturally cautious conservatism of the parish of Old Coulsdon and so some of the early changes I introduced were seen as quite radical: the introduction of the NIV bible and the Common Lectionary at the 8 am service (at least one person appealed to the argument ‘if it’s been good enough for 400 years why change it now?’); and discontinuing the practice of lay communion ministers robing to administer communion (an earlier discussion in the PCC had resulted in one member suffering a fatal heart attack).
In 2004 we launched the present pattern of 9.30 services with ‘Worship Together’ on the 2nd Sunday of the month replacing the old ‘Parade Service’. The Parade had been held at 10 am, in a throw back to the days when Matins was at 11 and the Parade preceded it. This resulted in great confusion for new people and visitors who arrived at 9.30 expecting a service, and then went away. As a form of worship, the Parade Service had run out of steam, and many church members simply didn’t attend any service on that Sunday. So when we introduced ‘Worship Together’ we made sure that it was seen as a service for the whole church, including the uniformed groups as well. It proved very popular with all ages, and was a helpful introduction to the church for those who would not want to come to a service of holy communion. I was not, however, prepared for the outcry from a small number of people about dropping the singing of the National Anthem at every Worship Together. ‘How will the young people learn the National Anthem if we don’t sing it every month?’ Well, I was not brought up to sing it every month, but I managed to learn it easily enough. I was surprised how long that little matter rumbled on for. The world didn’t come to an end, and I didn’t lose much sleep over it.
At the service for my induction and licensing I had requested some more contemporary songs to be sung. I was told that people didn’t know them, so I suggested a group of singers get together to learn them and sing them before the service. The reaction was so positive that the group continued under the name of the Celebration Singers for several years, ably led by Janette Collins, until her retirement. The group was able to introduce a whole new repertoire of more contemporary worship songs which, by and large, were quickly picked up and enjoyed by the congregation. My style of leading worship has always been to use liturgy in a relaxed way that emphasises the joy and gladness of worshipping in God’s presence. Several people commented that this was like a breath of fresh air. After that initial input of new music and a different style, our worship – at the 9.30 parish communion at least – has reached a plateau from which we will only move if we are able to find a regular music leader, and small group of singers and other musicians. When we lost our regular organist in 2008 we relied on CDs as backing tracks, which have allowed us to use some contemporary worship music as well as the traditional hymns, but they are not ideal in helping to give a good lead.
The biggest area of growth in the last few years has been in Messy Church and the Family Service. The seed that grew into Messy Church was planted in September 2006 when we started prayer walking for three months on the Tollers Estate. From that, a small morning meeting in the community room started in 2009 when one or two mums came along with their children to chat with a couple of our church members. In September 2010 the group had outgrown the community room and moved into the church under the name ‘After School Group’. John and Thelma Carrol lead it for that first year and it grew and grew. The following year it was decided to relaunch the group under the banner of ‘Messy Church’ with a dedicated and dynamic leadership group, helped by members of the Mothers’ Union who provide the teas. Now it’s quite common to have 40 or even 50 children plus adults on a Tuesday afternoon.
When I first arrived at St John’s the Family Service drew about a dozen people once a month. I decided to invest my time and energy in that service and made sure I was at every one, along with those who helped – Freddie Loh and John Burchell, and the curates. We saw steady growth at that service so that when we introduced a twice-monthly pattern in 2012 we were regularly having 90 to 100 children and adults every time. What is particularly encouraging is the number of dads that come to the service – more than to our other services. The ethos of the service could be described as ‘having fun in our Father’s presence’. The interactive and informal nature, though still using some liturgical elements, appeals to adults and children alike. For those who have little or no church background, the format and timing of the service make it very popular, and it is a good ‘stepping stone’ into the church for people who have had children baptised.
The introduction of a simple thing like serving refreshments after the Family Service have helped to make it feel like a proper congregation, not just a service that people may or may not come to. Refreshments after every 9.30 service are an idea that we introduced soon after I arrived, and that has certainly helped to make St John’s feel a friendly community to be part of.
Mothers’ Union is another encouraging story: when many MU branches are declining into a group that merely cares for and entertains its own elderly members our branch rediscovered its mission to promote marriage and family life. MU members ran two or three parenting groups, they provide refreshments for our marriage preparation days, they give flowers and gifts to the parents of children being baptised, and they do the teas – no mean feat – for Messy Church. Nicy and Elaine have really led with enthusiasm and commitment, and as a result our MU branch is in good heart.
In 2006 three of our older church members went on a three week short-term placement with Emmanuel International to western Uganda, where they worked with street children in Kasese. As a result of that link we took a group of 10 to Kasese in August 2008, where we linked up with our EI mission partners Alan and Cheryl Parrett. Since then we have maintained the link, and have been able to support the work of Alpha Ministries, working with displaced and orphaned children, and the project working with older children to give them basic training.
Since 2003 the way we communicate has changed dramatically, so now it’s possible to contact the majority of church members by email. Many people who visit St John’s for the first time do so because they have seen the church website, and this has become a much more important way of presenting the church to those outside. I set up a church Facebook page in 2012 on which to show photos of church life. People respond very positively to joyful images of the church community.
As a way of connecting with the community we launched the Prayer Tent at the Village Fair in July 2008. Up
till then we had had a plant
stall, but I felt we should be doing something that only the church could do –
that is to offer to pray with people, and give them a place in which to pray or
express themselves before God. We have
combined children’s activities with a ‘quiet’ prayer corner, and this year we
actually walked around the site chatting to people and offering to prayer with
them.. It’s a way of engaging with the community that demonstrates God’s love,
and it also really encouraged those who were taking part to take a risk for
In a parish and a church the size of ours it’s been good to have a dedicated pastoral team with our two SPAs, Jo and Valerie together with our retired hon. curate Gill, who can bring a ministry of care to the elderly and sick. Though I don’t have so much time to do so, I enjoy visiting people and know that a visit from the rector can be a great encouragement, even if it is brief. A visit from any of our ministry team is significant as it shows we haven’t forgotten people, and they are still connected with the church.
There is still much to do: essential repairs to the church building, a new heating system, a good projection system. I would like to see the wooden chairs along the side aisles replaced with smart folding chairs; I would like to have smart but secure glass doors to replace the rather forbidding solid oak doors at the main entrance so as to give a more welcoming appearance; I would like to smarten up the sanctuary area of the old church.
In the area of worship and music, I would like to see a regular music leader and worship group, or at least some singers, who could lead and develop our sung worship. I feel we need to restart our regular times of prayer for the church.
We have been unable to keep a PCC secretary in post for any length of time for a number of years, and that needs to be addressed. We need dedicated and skilled leaders for our young people’s groups. And we need to turn our finances round by encouraging newer members of the church to consider serious regular in proportion to their incomes giving to the church.
I enjoy being a part of this church community. When I’m away I miss it, though, like any family, there are times that are frustrating and hard.
What keeps me going? Back in 2007 I had a week’s retreat at St Beuno’s in North Wales. This is what I wrote in my diary of that week:
My final reflection was on John 21, focussing on the conversation between Jesus and Peter: “Do you love me?”
How has Peter shown it? He has only recently denied knowing Jesus. I felt that the repeated command, “Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep,” was Jesus giving Peter the way to show he loved him. “You say you love me, so here is the way to do it.” ‘Feed…tend…’ – it is to do with building others up, seeking their welfare. That is the way to love, and to love Jesus.
I remember reflecting on this same passage seven years earlier on the Prayer Mountain near Kitui in Kenya. Then, as now, I felt this was what the Lord was saying to me to do. So now, for the second time, I can go from this retreat and put it into practice.
I believe God has called me to be a shepherd to his people here. I trust that he will equip me for as long as it is right to be here, and that when it is time to move on he will show me that as well.