Monday, 22 July 2013

A Transforming Community

How a small Christian congregation adapted for a new mission situation.

When I arrived in Sheffield 9 years ago, one of the congregations I was given charge of was a small mission chapel situated in the Rivelin Valley which went by the name of Rivelin Glen. It was an interesting place in a number of ways: the only way to get to it was down a cobbled path; the interior was stark, with pews, a raised dais with a harmonium and a lectern, and a painted bible text on the wall behind the preacher; and the congregation, though small, consisted mainly of young people from the nearby estate. The work was overseen by Connie, a lady then in her 70s from another local congregation, and Phil, a man in his 50s with strong Pentecostal and dispensationalist leanings. An interesting group, to say the least.

Over time the work fluctuated, but the young people kept coming. They saw the chapel as 'theirs', and preferred its aesthetics to those of a nearby 1970s Methodist chapel: 'it feels more like a church', they told me: 'that other place doesn't feel right.' Sadly because of the demographic of the congregation, income was poor and the building was old and badly in need of repair. We eventually reached the point where Rivelin Glen was no longer usable, due to problems with dry rot. But the young people still wanted to meet together.

We tried meeting in homes: Connie's front room had functioned as the church hall for a while, but didn't seem conducive to regular worship. We tried meeting in nearby chapels, but that seemed too far removed from the 'mission field' of this group, who clearly saw the estate on which they lived as where God wanted them to be. Eventually we decided to meet in a Community Room on the estate at Hall Park Head, in the heart of the community, close to the bus terminus.

We've been worshipping there now for about 3½ years. And things have changed. The congregation has changed: only Connie is left from the group I inherited, but others have come in and transformed the dynamic in a wonderful way: those with skills and gifts in technology, in worship leading and in children's work. People who had belonged to other congregations, and those who still worship elsewhere in the city, come to Hall Park in varying numbers to worship and read the Bible together. Their style is very interactive: preachers are never left unchallenged or uninterrupted. And most importantly, their focus is very much outward. In the two hours that they meet together about ½ hour is spent in worship & study: the rest of the time is taken up with what they call the 'Welcome Cafe', a non-threatening space for anyone from the estate to come and share tea and cakes and a chat, with craft activities for the younger children, who seem to really appreciate what we do. There is a hope that in the coming months there may be scope for providing debt counselling services here too.

I've used the word 'we' a lot here: the truth is I stopped being the minister to this congregation about 3 years ago, but have maintained contact with them, and lead worship there regularly. They continue to be an inspiration to me, and I hope and pray that their mission will continue to grow as they reach out with God's love to that estate and the people with whom they share their lives.