(This article will appear in the next issue of Baptists Together)

Home Mission, Clusters, and Gospel Partnerships 

The idea of Baptist Churches working together in small ‘clusters’ has been around for about 20 years. In some places, it’s remained just that – an idea. In others, there’s been a happy meeting of geography, friendships, and the work of the Spirit, so that networks for mission strategy have begun to emerge.

The West of England Baptist Association has been producing its own series of short videos to promote Home Mission regionally. For the fourth film in the series, we decided to focus on our Cotswolds Cluster and the ways in which they’ve worked together in recent years. As I began to talk to people from this group of lovely churches, dotted across Gloucestershire like a string of pearls, I began to see what a difference this could make.

 

“I don’t think we could have carried on without the help from Minch when it was needed.” Joy Ramsbottom, a member of Stonehouse Baptist Church, was chatting to Liam Eaglestone, minister of nearby Minchinhampton Baptist Church. Cluster meetings brought the two churches together when the smaller church had reached a particularly low ebb, and resulted in a number of people offering different gifts to help out. Minchinhampton released Simon Shepherd to lead the church for two years, supported by a Home Mission grant, and others came to help with areas such as finance. Liam points out that this was just as useful for the larger church, giving individuals opportunities to explore new gifts. Now, Stonehouse has grown in size and confidence to the point where it has called its own student minister. “You haven’t been here for some time, Liam,” says Joy. “You wouldn’t get a seat, now, if you didn’t come early.”

A few minutes’ drive away is Kings Stanley Baptist Church, made ‘famous’ by the documentary Reverse Missionaries. BBC2 constructed a story in which the sleepy church was transformed by a two week visit from Jamaican Pastor Franklin Small. I was told that although the church thoroughly enjoyed Franklin’s visit, and that a few new local connections were made as a result, the church is actually undergoing a process of transformation that is more long term, and is a result of the support of the local Baptist network.

I visited Kings Stanley during their monthly soup lunch, when 30 – 40 locals turn up for a wonderful selection of home made soups and puddings. Four years ago, though, this church whose history goes back before the English Civil War, reluctantly voted to close.

Matt Frost, minister of Cirencester Baptist Church, remembered hearing that this decision had been made.  “My response to that, along with three other Baptist churches in the area, was to ask the question, ‘is there something we can do to help’ – and that started a process.” Eventually this led to Matt sitting down with one of his members, Nigel Price, for a cup of coffee, and saying “Nigel, I’ve got this mad idea about you taking a lead at Kings Stanley” to which Nigel replied, “I’ve got the same idea”. The church has released Nigel to act as lay pastor for a five year period, with an accountability group from three other cluster churches to support him in the role. Kings Stanley is seeing growth and focusing on mission; in addition to re-starting their popular soup lunch, the church is now going into a local school to present Open the Book. The Sunday congregation has grown from around 8 to around 28, and for the first time in many years, there are children taking part in family services.

This isn’t, however, simply a story about saving churches from closure. Farmhill Baptist Church in Stroud has closed. The deacons of nearby Stroud Baptist Church are acting as trustees for the now ‘empty’ building. So it’s a little surprising to hear that there have been eight baptisms in the last two years.

Dave Guy, a member of Stroud Baptist Church, had been a volunteer with Mara, a charity providing street level support to people with addictions, for some years, but he wanted to take this further and find a way to provide community based rehabilitation. When the church closed, WEBA acquired Woodside House, a property on the same piece of land. “I became aware that the house was available” said Dave, “so I ran my idea past Alisdair Longwill, the Regional Minister.” The Ebenezer Project now houses five students on a 10 module programme – studying gardening, photography, and carpentry alongside relapse prevention, occupational health, and re-integration. The students also meet in the church on Thursday nights for a series of three courses: J John 10, Alpha, and Freedom in Christ. These courses are open to local churches and the community, and about 17 people have found faith in Christ, leading to the 8 baptisms I mentioned. One of the students met us at the door, beaming with excitement. During her time at Ebenezer, she’s been baptized and then married, and now she and her new husband are about to move into a flat nearby.

Like Stonehouse and Kings Stanley, the Ebenezer project has been supported by the local network. Stroud Baptist Church provides its office; Chalford and Minchinhampton Baptist Churches have provided financial support and also volunteers. Dave Guy has also been grateful for continued support from Regional Minister Alisdair Longwill.

Those are just three of many stories of collaboration that I heard around the Cotswolds Cluster. I could have talked about Wotton-under-Edge Baptist Church, who were in a similar position to Kings Stanley 30 years ago, and are now thriving. I could have mentioned the collaboration in youth work that’s happening through PSALMS, and the members at Minchinhampton who are now feeling God’s call to local outreach in the Farmhill area.

It’s difficult to pin down how this network mentality came about; an enthusiastic volunteer who promoted cluster meetings; ministers who developed close personal connections; perhaps the geography of this particular cluster just works well. What is clear is the difference a shared strategic approach has made to the gospel witness in this area.

I said at the beginning that we were making a video to promote Home Mission, the Baptist family purse which funds the National Resource, 13 Regional Associations, and grants for mission around the country. So how does a film about local churches working together promote a National fund?

Home Mission is funded by gifts from churches– and as they give, they too become partners in this network, trusting that God will work through the money they give. It’s been difficult for some of our churches to maintain Home Mission giving over the last year, while others have faithfully given the recommended 5% or more, but it’s this shared purse that enables mission to be strategic, making the most of local opportunities through grants and the support of regional teams. Home Mission giving empowers each local network. Paul must have been aware of something similar when wrote to the church at Phillipi, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1: 4b-5, NIV).

 

The WEBA Cotswolds video will be available early in the 2014 at www.webassoc.org.uk. You can give to Home Mission, and also find out about your Regional Association via the Baptists Together website, www.baptist.org.uk.

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