By the Rev. Jack Shepherd, Missional Priest & Joshua Centre Associate
As many of you will know, over the last few months I have started a church-planting role in the Parish of Upholland and Dalton, in the context of our multi-phased national lockdowns! Several people have suggested to me that this must be quite difficult, and they were not entirely wrong! We have all experienced challenges, albeit in different ways, and they have been discouraging at times. However, through this situation I have found some surprising opportunities to help people encounter God. Like the Apostle Paul, who also experienced a form of ‘lockdown’ (when he was in prison!), I have also found that God’s word is more powerful than our limited circumstances – it is never ‘locked down’ (2 Timothy 2:9) – it is always active, and always powerful. Our job is just to speak it out, in whatever ways are available to us, and release its power into the world.
As I have sought to do this, one thing I have discovered is the necessity of communicating a long-term vision, as ‘without vision the people perish’ (Proverbs 29.18), and developing a short-term plan, as ‘the plans of the diligent lead to profit’ (Proverbs 21.5). In the Diocese of Liverpool, our long-term vision is to be ‘a ‘bigger church making a bigger difference, with more people knowing Jesus and more justice in the world’, but in order for this to happen we have to make plans to deliver that vision in our local contexts – this is what I have set out to do in my Parish.
I started by communicating a more local version of the diocesan vision to our mission planning group. I told them of my hope to see all 42,000 people in our Parish becoming disciples of Jesus (‘more people knowing Jesus’), and I kept on saying that. I have kept talking about these 42,000 people as keeping our ‘eye on the ball’ is one of the ways we can shift from operating with a ‘survival’ mindset, and move to more of a ‘revival’ mind-set. The two are vastly different.
I developed an initial three-month plan for my own work, with seven clear action points, to earth this local version of the Diocesan vision in practical reality. This helped me start to focus on what I was trying to achieve, and helped me to set some things in motion which would help us to get there. For example, I planned to hold a service at Christmas services that was as accessible to local people as possible, to build more and stronger relationships with more them, which might eventually result in people starting to follow Jesus.
On the 20th December, we held a Frozen-themed carol service at St Michael’s in Dalton, and when we turned the church building into a winter wonderland with decorations and costumes, largely made possible because of the support of a friend who used to run her own children’s party business. The service was enjoyed by about forty people – many of them were not previously churchgoers – who had heard about the event through our social media channels and our work with the local primary school.
We shared with them that, in the plot of Frozen, it was through Elsa’s sacrificial love for her sister that Anna was saved from certain death, and hope was then restored to the kingdom of Arundel. We then shared that, in Jesus’ life story, it was through His sacrificial love for his human brothers and sisters we have all been saved, and hope has been restored for the ultimate future of our currently broken world. The friend of mine, who made the transformation of the church building possible, has since been part of our online Alpha Course, and has reflected to me that this is what she thinks church ‘should really feel like’. Also, the guests who came to the service all said they would like to be invited to similar events in the future. This is all very encouraging, and sets the stage for future outreach and discipleship work amongst these people.
Another action point in my three month plan was to build friendships in the local community, regardless of their present levels of interest in Jesus. I soon became a ‘local action group’ leader for a charity that focuses on community engagement, and some members of the local community suggested to me that we should go carol-singing outside care homes in the week before Christmas. Sadly, this wasn’t able to happen because the weather was so bad, but it still taught me that, by building friendships and connections in the local community, we often find what Jesus calls ‘people of peace’ (Luke 10:6), who are open to exploring spiritual things, and who may even be gatekeepers into a wider community of people whom we otherwise may not have had any access to.
A final action point in my three month plan was to start mentoring people who showed the potential to develop as leaders and to root the work in prayer. I started online prayer meetings, which included a variety of styles of prayer, and brought together members of churches from the local area and around the country. At the lowest attended of these prayer meetings in January, I was very encouraged that the two people whom I have been mentoring on a regular basis took part. This broader experience of the local church ended up inspiring one of these emerging leaders with a picture of how a new church plant for young adults fits into the wider Diocesan vision.
When I was waiting to meet this person for a walk around the university, the idea came to me that people from churches all around the country could publish reflections for us online, during each day of Advent, which would highlight the urgency of church planting. One lady responded to one of these reflections by asking their carer to drive her to the church pond, where they would place a stone for passers-by to see on which she had painted the word ‘gratitude’. This small act was a sign of new life, of new thinking, of new ideas and of new hope.
Like that lady, I am so grateful to God. I am grateful that he can use even the most challenging situations for good (Romans 8:28). I am grateful for the beauty of unity in the church (Psalm 133). I am grateful that Jesus has promised to build his church, that even the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), and that he involves us in doing this (1 Peter 2:5). My prayer for the months ahead, as lockdown starts to lift again, is that many more people will be inspired by the Lord’s vision for their friends, neighbours and contacts, and that they will start making their own plans to join Him in reaching them.