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London: What does it take to set up a new congregation?

The Revd Simon Rowbory looks back on the four months in which John Keble church in suburban North-West London set up its family-friendly congregation

At John Keble Church I was appointed in September 2016 as the new priest-in-charge with the church keen to start a new worshipping community to appeal to people who would never dream of coming along to a more traditional time of worship. In January 2017 we launched Discover, our family-friendly and accessible worshipping community.

Our new worshipping community is open to all and has a special focus on being understandable and accessible to the many families who live in the area that have no church background.

Planning

We started in the September by at first spending time together in prayer and dreaming what could be, moving from what was a completely blank slate to a clear vision and values.

Part of this was making sure that we understood our area, digging into statistics to make sure we weren’t making any assumptions, connecting with the natural places where community gathered and the community leaders.

We wanted to have a handle on the needs, aspirations, frustrations and dreams of the people we encountered. At the same time as this we were making sure that the new initiative had the full support of the PCC and other stakeholders and that a core team was starting to form – based on those who came to pray and who were excited by the idea.

Timing

The first big decision we had to make was when we hoped to launch. It was a hard call to make because at that point we didn’t have all the information we needed and couldn’t predict how things would progress.

We decided to start Discover in January, which gave us a four month preparation period in total. This is fairly short. The advantage to this was that we kept a sense of momentum. At the same time having more time to connect with our area might have enabled us to make a stronger start.

One thing I would not recommend is starting on a bank holiday weekend in winter, even if other events are a good springboard! In the end the decision about when to start was based on the sense of urgency (or impatience) about the contex. We decided to go publicly quickly.

Venue

Because we were starting a new worshipping community within the structures of an existing one we didn’t need to spend so much time thinking about the venue. What we did have to decide was whether to start off in a smaller space and then fill it as we grew, or to start in the larger space as a statement of intent.

On the first meeting we started in a smaller space and looking around it was easy to be encouraged by the number of people there. On the second week we tried out the larger space for comparison, and it was a lot more daunting.

Music

We knew that we would have to arrange for music at Discover. At first we hoped that musicians within the existing church with the right skills would come forward and join the planting team.

As the weeks went by this did not materialise, and we started to say that we would just worship as we were with what God has given us, even if that meant singing a capella without instruments.

Then we asked a passing contact if they would be interested in helping and they were, after that some musicians from a neighbouring church offered help. In the end we ended up with a lot more musicians than we imagined.

Children

We decided that we would like the children to be part of the service and then after some time to leave for their own activities.

For the all-age part of the service we got a lion mascot costume for £50 – Leo the lion helps us to explore the theme of the day in a fun way. He also puts in appearances at local schools to let people know about Discover.

We had to get people ready to run children’s activities for their own part of the service.

Energy

The greatest single absorber of energy – and subsequently blockage – is myself, the plant leader. It is difficult to keep the determination going that something will arise from nothing, especially when experiencing setbacks, discouragements and the obvious limitation of our skills.

Looking at the weakness and fragility of the situation can be demoralising. Even worse than the threat of failure is the danger of success, placing identity in the mini-victories and using these for my own reputation and affirmation. Yet we know that God is pleased to use weak and sinful people for the praise of his glory. The weaker the servant, the more glory is given to God as he shines through all the more.

After all, the ultimate display of weakness, Jesus on the cross, was the occasion for God to be most made known and glorfied. So to avoid the sapping of energy I have to fix my eyes firmly on Jesus and his glory and not my own weakness or self-glorification.


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