Over the last few weeks we have heard testimony of the ups and downs of Church planting in Luton. I just want to give testimony to what it means for a family to hear, trust and follow God. Through the years our family have discovered the faithfulness and steadfast love of God through the many and varied situations we have found ourselves in. God has shown that He is faithful in all of His ways. From the provision of money to ensure the house we brought had safe lighting and hot water, schooling and the provision of accessible and affordable music services to ensure that our children were able to develop and grow beyond what we could ask or imagine.
When God asks you to do something he does provide the resources and abilities for you to complete what he initiates. We took a risk with God as we moved from a quiet Cambridge village with excellent schooling and a fantastic network of friends. Our children (triplet boys aged 10 and a daughter six) were catapulted into the centre of Luton, they had to be educated in the problems of prejudice, poverty, foster care and drugs. They wanted to be able to walk to school and have their own bedrooms, God granted their desires. He put us next to a park, so they could play. We had an open home and many children found fun, food and shelter within its walls.
Creatively and musically they flourished. Far from ’nothing good comes out of Luton’ Luton blessed us. They had opportunities that we could never have imagined. Through the highs and lows (including muggers who gave things back!!) as a family we looked to God and he never let us down.
All four of our children are now involved in Churches in London, Southampton and Wales. They help and inspire others in worship, youth work and support church planting. They did not see many of their friends become Christians (The boys married the girls that did!), but their friends still value their relationships and knowing our family. The seeds continue to grow.
‘Train your children in the ways that they should go’ As parents we made loads of mistakes but we endeavoured to keep our eyes and ears on God and follow him. Our children are trying to do the same and we are thankful that we followed His call.
Here is my story from 2005/6, when I was a member of Hope Church for 9 months. This is where I met Jesus and was baptised on the 10th September 2006.
When I met Yvette, the beautiful British lady, as I always saw her, at Central Baptist Church, I tried to refuse her invitation to Hope Church and convinced her (myself…), that I was a catholic and happy with that. However, I felt that I really needed to go to Hope Church, to a living church, where people talk to each other. (In Hungary I attended church, but no one ever talked to me). So, finally I accepted Yvette’s invitation.
Liz picked us up at the chaplaincy and on our way to Hope Church she asked me if I read the Bible every day and I said I did not. On the following Monday I went to a book shop and I bought a Bible (I often had no money for food, but still, I WANTED a Bible!). In my university hall room I had been reading my Bible for months… when one day I told God that He could come and do whatever He wanted to do in my life. He did so. I started to go to Ben’s cell group and my faith grew. In those days I had been in a relationship, used dirty words, had low self-esteem, and struggled with insomnia. By the time I moved back to Hungary, God healed and changed me from these problems and sins.
3 months later I went back to Luton, where pastor Tony baptised me in Simon’s outdoor pool. A Hungarian girl attended the ceremony and said that this experience convinced her that she needed to be baptised too (she was catholic as well), so she did so in Hungary.
Your examples, deeds and hard work for Christ at Hope Church echoes forever, I am the living example for that.
Christianity is an historical religion, which means that God reveals himself in history. The Bible does contain wisdom and teaching from and about God but is mostly a history book telling the story of God’s involvement in the world He created.
God is still at work in his creation today. It is therefore very appropriate to look back at his involvement in Hope Church, 5 years after we moved into our second phase – worshipping in Hope Church Centre. Looking back an identifying his involvement with us and what we can learn about him through it.
Over this series of blogs I will share different thoughts of God’s role in our journey.
My first thought is that Hope Church was God’s initiative not man’s.
God spoke to me supernaturally, totally unexpectedly about starting a church in Luton. This would have been around 2001. I was in a meeting of church leaders from across the country when someone started praying for me that the church I was leading was too small a thing and that I needed to move to start a new church. I felt the presence of God very powerfully. Then out of the blue the person prophesied it should be in Luton, my hometown which I had left decades previously, but which he had no idea of.
Over the coming months God spoke in different ways to confirm the call. One time he brought to mind a time just after I became a Christian when I was walking around the streets of Stopsley praying for the churches and my friends, none of who knew Christ, that links would be made. Then as I recalled the incident I felt God say I was going to be the answer to my own prayers. It was another powerful moment.
It took my wife, Anne, a while to be convinced but she eventually came to the conclusion that she had been called to be my wife and that I had clearly been called to start a church in Luton. She therefore didn’t need her own call but should rely on mine.
We therefore declared that we would move to start a new church in Luton. The only condition was that God would supply others to join us. We knew we couldn’t do it on our own.
God answered our prayers for people to come with us. We asked very few, allowing God to be our recruiting officer. He called numbers of people, all willing to move in answer to God’s call. Some knew us from the church we lead in St. Neots; others were finishing University and wanted to get jobs where they could be part of a new church plant and hearing of what we were doing got jobs in Luton; others came from other contexts wanting to be part of a church plant.
Reasonably quickly a team was assembled made up of people willing to move to Luton to start a new church. God’s initiative, God’s church.
Over a period of around a year we got to know each other better, started to imagine what the new church would look like as well as gathering some people who were already living in Luton who had heard of what we were planning to do.
Over this time, we came up with the name Hope Church, Hope being an antidote to the despair which we recognised as an issue in Luton.
We built up to a public launch of Hope Church which was to meet at Luton 6th Form College in September 2002. We got articles published in the local newspapers, delivered leaflets to homes and tried to get the word out as much as possible. Our first meeting was encouragingly large, in addition to our core there were well wishes and many visitors. A great start.
Our second meeting was even more memorable! It was held the following Tuesday, again at the college, this time with a healing evangelist from India, Ram Babu. This meeting caught the imagination of the local press, front page in one newspapers, and interviews on local radio prior to the event. As a consequence, massive crowds turned up, causing total chaos. As the college said they let out their facilities to a small church group and never imagined that we would fill their large hall and cause such traffic chaos. Some were healed, suddenly people knew about Hope Church.
Over the next year or so we grew quickly.
During this first year God established the foundations.
We were visited by two prophets, Kim McCaffrey from Coventry and Kerry Southey an Australian based in South Africa. They both brought prophetic input which helped shape us as a church. Key words included.
Hope for now as well as the future – something that built on what we already felt and has been a key aspect of us as a church.
Church planting – We have planted a church in Dunstable / South Beds, helped establish a region of churches around Oxfordshire, as well as plants in Valencia, Spain and Dublin. Not all our planting has been successful – we tried and failed to establish something in Hitchin. Over a number of years and with different leaders nothing really took root. This was difficult and painful. Somethings just don’t happen as you would like.
International gateway – people coming from other nations changed and returned. This has been remarkable. We have had people join us from China, Hungary, many African nations and India. They have met with God and then returned changed to their home nations. Most we are still in touch with.
Increasingly we have become a more diverse church, in the early days it was hard for those from different nations to feel at home, they felt a minority. Over time this has changed, and is no longer an issue. We owe so much to those early pioneers from other nations who stuck with us.
We have also seen original members move away to serve God in leadership in other parts of this nation and oversees. Original members of the planting team are now in leadership in churches in Harpenden, Southampton and Vancouver, Canada.
God gave the growth but……..
We grew rapidly, but the core struggled. Some had personal challenges in their lives, for other Hope Church was not what they had expected, others it was Luton that was not as they expected. Some left, others were unable to carry weight in the church for a while. We were growing but sometimes it felt as if we would collapse under the weight of the growth. My prayer and the prayer of others was for reinforcements.
It seemed as if God answered our prayers when Kim Mc Caffrey, the prophet from Coventry mentioned previously, felt God was calling him to move to Luton. It felt right, he joined our staff team and brought a number of other families with him from his previous church in Coventry.
However, it didn’t work out. Tensions developed, relationships broke down. It was very painful for many people, not least myself. I felt terrible, questioned my ability to lead a church. I felt I had let people down. Eventually Kim and the others who came with him left, this time to join a church in Leamington Spa in the Midlands.
This whole episode set us back as a church and set me back as a leader.
Recovery – purchase of building – God’s provision.
It took a while to recover. Part of the recovery was to establish a formal eldership of myself and Wayne Parsons. This was September 2009. Just about the first thing we did as elders was look round the Polish Social Club on Villa Road which had recently been put on the market as a previous sale had fallen through.
It quickly became clear that whilst we could not afford it God was calling us to buy it. However through the provision of God, as had been prophesied soon after we started, we were able to buy it and eventually moved in 5 years ago.
The Miracle of the purchase included.
Available at half the price it had previously been sold due to credit crunch meaning developers didn’t want it.
We raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from members.
Got a mortgage when they were hard to get. I still find it hard to believe a bank offered us the money. A private individual, not even part of the church, leant us the final £50,000 we were short!
We were totally naïve about the size of the refurbishment task. It took a year, much longer than we ever imagined and then only because God provided a team of volunteers, some giving 2 days a week throughout that time and others giving up most Saturdays. It was tough, but we got there.
Grants (money of the wicked as Kerry prophesied) we received that enabled us to furnish the kitchen, buy new chairs, upgrade the heating, purchase signs and many other things.
What an experience, what a joy when we held our first worship meeting in the Hope Church Centre in April 2011, 5 years ago.
The last 5 years worshipping in Hope Church Centre has been transforming, we are a very different church now than 5 years ago.
At one leaders meeting we were asked the question, if the church were a ship what type of ship would we be? A cruise liner, a battleship, a submarine? The answer we came up with was a flotilla of small ships. That is what we have become, lots of small ships, heading in the same direction, seeking to achieve the same thing.
There was also a picture given which described the leadership fort being burnt down replaced by a castle that couldn’t be burnt down. That has happened, we now have strong and established eldership and staff teams.
We have become very multi-cultural, not just in the congregation but increasingly in leadership. A few Sundays ago I suddenly realised I was the only white person bringing any leadership to that meeting, and I brought the notices.
We are established and respected in community. Our Open House drop in; our High Town community worker; our work with other both churches across the town and in the local High Town area; as well as in so many other ways, have produced this. It was because of this involvement that Luke and I received an Invite to Downing Street to help David Cameron celebrate Easter!
It feels like Hope Church is becoming something like the church God painted in my imagination many years ago.
We are helping people move from despair to hope.
People from different cultures are becoming friends and learning from each other, producing something of Kingdom of God culture.
We are involved and serving the community, not just gathering Christians but allowing many others to “touch the hem of Jesus garment”.
What are the major lessons I have learnt through God’s involvement in Hope Church?
Most of the time things take longer than you would like, but they do happen.
There are both birth pains and growth pains. It hurts when people leave. We get it wrong, I get it wrong. When I do, when we do, people get hurt. Forgiveness and humility are therefore essential. Not knowing everyone as we could when we were smaller is also difficult. We also hurt with those who hurt.
However, through it all I have learnt that God is amazingly faithful.
This blog is based on a sermon from 17th April 2016 which you can hear here:
In the years prior to going to university I had been to church a handful of times and hated it. It never dawned on me that church had anything to offer. Whilst at University I began to argue with Christians and eventually came to the conclusion that they were right and I was wrong. I was convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be as declared by his rising from the dead. Soon afterwards I was also persuaded that church was also part of the package and that I should get involved, even at the cost of playing rugby on a Sunday morning.
It took me a long while to feel at home in church culture but I persevered. The experience left me feeling that church should not just be for those brought up in it, but for those coming in from the outside like myself. When I felt called into church leadership over 20 years ago this was the biggest thing on my agenda.
Through different things that I read recently I have been reminded that this is still the case.
Christianity has now become a foreign language for very large numbers of the population and what goes on in church seems strange, if not alien. Until about 1960, what went on in church would have some resonance across the culture as a whole. We now have the third and fourth generation growing up since then for whom it is simply outside their world view. Failures that tend to be blamed on schools or parents simply reflect a rapid and massive change in the general culture. From the Times Monday 1 October 2012
I have also been impacted by a book, Clusters: Creative Mid-sized Missional Communities by Bob Hopkins. He said that across the UK as a whole around 20% of the population could be described as churched, either regular attendees or part of the fringe; a further 40% could be described as dechurched, meaning they used to go to church in the past but no longer attended. Half of these would be open to return if invited but for the other half their experience of church had left them closed to any thought of returning. The final 40% were totally unchurched, they had little or no experience of church, just like I had been in my youth.
In summary Hopkins broke down the population of the UK as –
20% open dechurched
20% closed dechurched
Hopkins makes the point that amongst younger people the percentage unchurched goes up considerably. In a multi-cultural, multi-faith town like Luton the percentage of unchurched would certainly be above the national average. The point Hopkins makes is that there are very few churches making any sort of impact amongst unchurched people. This means the church in the UK is relevant for less than half the population and unless things changed the percentage being reached will keep reducing.
I am now even more determined than ever to do all I can to help us communicate with the high percentage of people for whom Christianity is a foreign language and church feels alien. I want us to explore what it means for us to reach out relevantly to all the population of Luton, including the unchurched.
Questions to be considered.
In what ways have you found that Christianity is a foreign language to people you are in contact with?
How can we help people penetrate the alien culture of church?
Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, Luke 15v1-7, how does that apply in our situation?