This blog was published in April 2016
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:
Written by Tony Thompson