Stour Valley – A story of mother - daughter church planting in a rural context. Daniel Pulham writes of how the church was planted in 1999 and his involvement as leader.
A story from South Warwickshire. Which is something of a moot point in itself. 10 miles South of Stratford upon Avon, we are the only church in the Southern Counties Baptist Association situated in Warwickshire. The thing is that relationships don’t fit neatly into structures - and relationships are the key to the planting of Stour Valley Baptist Church
Nothing ever happens without a context. The church was planted in February 1999 within the context of extraordinary growth in another rural Baptist Church in Chipping Campden. What had been, a century ago, a power house of rural Baptist church planting had struggled to survive in the 20th. In fact three times it’s membership bravely voted down proposals to close the church.
But by the 1990’s Chipping Campden Baptist Church was seeing a very real renewal. Several other local churches had closed and donated the sale of their buildings to the church and this had, for the first time, made the church financially attractive for a home Mission Grant. Howard Jones was called as minister. The work he did proved to be a great foundation for Phil Deller to build on when he succeeded him in 1996. In fact the church underwent a whole sale re ordering in order to accommodate the growing 150+ congregation.
God and circumstances shaped the next move. Situated in the heart of a prime Cotswold high street, there was no option for further modification to the building. There was also a very real feeling amongst the leadership that the church wasn’t being called to simply grow bigger, but to plant churches in the local area that would help bring renewal elsewhere too.
Shipston lies some 10 miles East of Campden. Even a cursory look at the Church’s demographics showed the largest number of Campden regulars were coming from Shipston. Although the town already had 3 churches (Methodist, Anglican and Catholic) there had been a Baptist Church in the town till the early 70’s. Indeed I still get random letters from long lost graduates of it’s Sunday school – and various other churches tell me they have random bits of Shipston’s old communion ware! This ‘history’ made our relationship with the other churches much easier – we were viewed as making a ‘return’ as opposed to an ‘invasion’! It also continues to humble me; We have been, gone and come back. They have stayed the course.
Plans to plant involved a very careful consideration of what relationship the two churches would have. There was a very strong desire to continue being in relationship – and at least initially to share leadership, membership and finance. Looking back, this created many challenges, not least in terms of holding church meetings that helped both the ‘mother’ church and ‘daughter’ church to develop their respective and God given distinctives. We have since learned that being in relationship doesn’t mean you have to be identical.
But at the time the emphasis was on being together in as many ways as possible. This was to help those who were planted who had loved being part of Campden for many years and to help those at Campden to freely send friends they loved and valued to start a new church. Togetherness and continued relationship were and remain key values for us.
By the very nature of Campden’s geography, it numbers amongst it’s congregation those who can afford to retire to Cotswold charm and comfort – and it’s bank balance reflects this. This in turn made an approach to Home Mission Fund (a fund UK Baptist churches can apply to for funding)quite tricky. On the one hand we were going to be a new church that had huge potential but was not anticipated to be instantly financially sufficient. On the other, we shared what finances we would be receiving with a ‘mother’ church that had a very healthy bank balance. To their credit, Home Mission Fund actually came through for us, but clearly they were far more used to dealing with independent churches and not those seeking to work as closely together as we were.
By the time the church was planted in February of 1999 we numbered 12 children and 38 adults. Meeting as we were in the community lounge of the local High School this made us feel, from the start, quite full and inspired a degree of confidence that this was going to ‘work’.
Speaking for myself, a key ingredient in it ‘working’ was the fact that I had been a deacon at Campen and then, as part of my Ministerial training, was able to lead the church as a student minister. It leant the church a very real sense of continuity and provided a consistency in the teaching and worship.
Although not meeting in an actual church building, we have continued, over the 8 years until now (2007), to ‘do’ church in a very traditional way. Our services, now in the main hall of the school, begin with a short time of all age worship and are usually worship and sermon centric. The great advantage of the school site is that we have great rooms and space for our Junior Church which now numbers up to 45 children. We have also hired the local youth club on the school site for our young people’s Sunday group of up to twenty-four of 12 – 16 year olds.
Being without a building has presented far more challenges in terms of our mid week work. We have been somewhat limited in what we can do and have been forced to be very creative in how we do what we do do – that invariably involves far more work ! When I look back and think what we have done over the past 8 years it exhausts me just thinking about it. Although I became the Church’s full time minister in 2000, it is very much a team effort. Together have seen over 20 people baptised. We have continued in relationship with Campden and an enlarged ‘cluster’ life, including Campden’s second plant in 2005 in Bidford on Avon, together with a thriving ecumenical life in the town itself.
But I am keenly aware that whatever ‘work’ we have done is but a reflection of the real fight going on in the heavenly realms. There have been many times when I have been acutely aware, as a new church, that we are in a spiritual fight. Ground taken has had to be fought for in prayer. There have been very real costs and casualties over the past 8 years and great heartache - as well as the elation seeing people come to faith and grow in faith.
The Future? Well, although our ‘traditional’ model has proved to be a very helpful model of church to reach our rural population, we are currently exploring who we are not reaching. In particular we are beginning to experiment with doing church a little differently on some Sundays and the possibility of doing it in very different ways at other points in the week. We feel called to be a church with many doors – and not one that people walk away from if our Sunday morning ‘door’ doesn’t open to a room they feel comfortable in.
Things to think about....