Last Sunday our family went to church. Nothing unusual about that. I do it most weeks. I even stood at the front. Nothing unusual there either. Except that it wasn’t our church. It was another one. We were on holiday and we went to stay with friends who are part of a new church plant in East Anglia. We went to Christ Church South Cambs and we stayed with the Chapman family in Sawston.
Sawston is a village of nine thousand to the south of Cambridge. It’s about a fifteen minute drive to the city centre (though we did this at night). I’m told it’s a ‘blue collar’ village. But this is Cambridge blue collar we’re talking about so it’s probably gingham blue collar! But the houses are cheaper than in some of the more picturesque alternatives in the area and so you get a more normal and representative cross-section of society. From what we saw, though, overwhelmingly the village consists of families. Therefore it came as no surprise to learn that Sawston has two primary school and a secondary school providing education up to sixteen. CCSC meets in this.
Tim, the minister of CCSC, took the opportunity to interview me on the issues of church planting. I’ve known Tim for over ten years. Our families lived next to one another at Oak Hill Theological College when we were Anglican Ordinands. I’m Godfather to his elder son. I remember with great fondness Tim’s propensity to fall asleep in lectures and my unfailing delight at drawing attention to it. In Greek (and every other subject we touched on), we both marvelled at how much cleverer his wife was than both of us. We both had Armed Forces backgrounds. Me with the senior service; the Royal Navy and he was a Pongo. We both left to be involved in Anglican church plants. He went onto the staff at All Saints Little Shelford from which he would launch CCSC a few years’ later. Christ Church Balham happened first, which simply means that CCSC was better planned!
It’s not often I get to go to another church. I tend to refuse those rare requests to speak elsewhere. But it was a real treat. I liked seeing the same gospel convictions played out in another context and I appreciated the chance to reflect on their ministry and compare it with ours. As you might expect, given the nature of contemporary Anglican church planting in schools, there were lots of similarities.
1. A small band of people were preoccupied with setting up church before anyone else got there. One of the challenges of church planting is that church often needs to be unpacked. It either comes out of a cupboards, like it does for us. Or it comes out of the boots of various people’s cars, as it did for them. The music kit, coffee equipment and bookstall spend most of the week in Sawston’s garages. That’s a real hassle. You can say things like ‘it’s good to provide opportunities for service’. And that’s true. But it’s still a hassle. Sometimes you’d just like to walk away and leave things set up for next week. CCSC couldn’t survive without a small group of committed servants who get everything up and running. Their work is unseen but their efforts are not unappreciated.
2. The overwhelming majority of the church was nowhere to be seen with five minutes to go! It was heartening to discover that ours isn’t the only church family with an unhealthy relationship with punctuality. I know it’s hard to get a young family out of the door. That’s often the time when one of them decides to fill their pants during potty training. But we managed it. Every church minister with a young family manages it, mostly! Why can’t every Christian family? If our Christian families don’t manage it then they’re subtly and unwittingly repudiating the doctrine priesthood of all believers. I doubt that they’d realised it. But if we’re not at church with time to spare then we’re assuming that someone else, namely the paid staff and enthusiastic others, will be doing the work of ministry amongst the visitors. That’s hopeless. Ministry time is the time both before and after the formal meeting. That’s the time when we can encourage and be encouraged. If we’re not there then someone else has to do that. We’re rubbish at this. Some families stay afterwards, which is terrific because they get involved in others’ lives, welcome newcomers and befriend those on the fringes. But many of our church family think it’s acceptable to pitch up halfway through the first hymn. We’re clearly not alone in holding to that heresy!
3. This wasn’t a crowd gathering for a show. This was a group of people gathering to hear God’s word and encourage one another in his service. They hadn’t come to be entertained, they’d come to be encouraged and to be encouraging. And it showed in the interaction afterwards. Quality relationships were in evidence everywhere I looked. People were chatting. They had their diaries out making arrangements to meet up in the week. I’m sure that those with young families many are hard pressed and weary. I’m sure that many are over committed with too many activities than is sensible. I’m sure that people struggle to find a window in the diary for a social coffee. But it just seemed as though people knew each other because they were in one another’s homes during the week. Because it wasn’t a group of people gathering for a show it meant that things didn’t need to be polished. That’s not to say that they were rough around the edges. But I think even Tim would admit that he’s not aiming for slick professional presentation. I don’t mean to disparage ‘doing things well’. But ‘doing things well’ isn’t the same as doing things to a professional standard. What we mean by ‘well’ is surely defined by the intention of our gathering. This was God’s people gathering to hear their pastor explore the scriptures as he prayerfully understood them and apply them to those whom God had given him to love. We sang to one another and to God. We sang a kids’ song so that they were included as part of the church family. And we interacted over coffee. This was no show. It was church.
4. Relationships are so much easier to build if you live just round the corner from each other. Sawston is in commuting range of Cambridge, that’s why lots of people go to live there. But its proximity to the city centre means that it’s possible to head into the city for church. And there are lots of great options; Christ Church, St Matthew’s, St Andrew the Great, Cambridge Presbyterian and Eden Baptist to name a few. CCSC just think it’s harder to reach their neighbours with a Cambridge church than it is with a Sawston church. And they’ve got a point. No one in Sawston can be more than five minutes drive away from someone else. That makes it easy to generate a healthy church community life. It also means that you can manifest a genuine Christian presence in the village. That’s got to help your evangelism, hasn’t it?
5. It’s disproportionately exciting to welcome a new family to a small church. I flatter myself to think that we must have looked very attractive. Obviously Rosslyn is; distractingly so in my opinion. But I don’t mean in that sense. I mean a normal looking five member family with primary school aged kids had just walked into church. And Dad was carrying a Bible. If that isn’t good news to a church planter, then I don’t know what is. It must have been so disappointing to discover that there wasn’t a chance that we wouldn’t be back. They hid it well. But one of the thrilling things about running a small church, as most church plants inevitably start out, is that it’s wonderful when God brings someone new through the door. This time last year one family pitched up out of the blue to our Christingle service as a result of fliering the local area. She’s now professing faith and her boys are stuck into Sunday School. That is indescribably wonderful.
6. Welcomers are worth their weight in gold. The ability to walk across a room to an unfamiliar face and be genuinely interested in someone is a rare and precious thing. Though people were hard pressed preoccupied with getting church up and running, there were a handful of people who made the effort to come and say hello. They were terrific. They asked us about us, which was nice. Even after discovering that we weren’t going to be there next week, they asked questions about CCB and showed real interest in what we were doing for the gospel in London! We weren’t the only visitors that Sunday but I’m not aware that anyone ‘got away’ without at least having had the opportunity to engage in conversation with one of the regulars. You can do that in a smaller church. In a larger church you run the risk of discovering that the unfamiliar person sat next to you has been coming to the same church family as you for two years!
It was a real tonic being at CCSC. I left mightily encouraged. And I haven’t even mentioned the sermon, in which God spoke to me about my commitment to evangelism and my commitment to the church. But that’s for another time.