Emma Major is Licensed Lay Minister at St Nicolas, Earley. She tells how three friends from local Berkshire churches started Oakwood.
I became a Licensed Lay Minister (our local equivalent of a Reader) four years ago and, right from the start, have been pioneering. I'm not what you might call a 'standard' Licensed Lay Minister (LLM)!
I have been at St Nicolas for 11 years and I had my calling while I was there; they supported me brilliantly through my training which was in the evening and at weekends though the Oxford Ministry Course. I was previously a civil engineer, running Government workshops, but I have always been interested in pioneering.
Oakwood Forest Church all started when three of us were talking at a joint churches' event about how close many of us feel to God when we're in the countryside; how he feels less removed from our prayers and he seems more alive in our hearts.
The general thought was, 'If we could worship outside, that would be amazing'.
In the summer of 2013 we were in the Maiden Erlegh Nature Reserve when this seed of an idea grew a shoot of a plan. The reserve is a lovely green space, which includes eight medieval oaks, in the middle of a 1970s urban area.
We decided that we could meet together in the reserve to worship God differently; meeting people where they are already finding the source of their belonging. That became Oakwood Forest Church (OFC) and, over the last 18 months, we have met every month to walk, explore and pray together at the reserve. We have grown in number to 30 adults and 20 children who attend at least four times a year.
It's important to say that, while we love the creation all around us, we are not worshipping it – we are worshipping God as the creator. We are very Christ-centred in our programming at Forest Church; always coming back to Scripture and prayer. We generally pick up a Bible passage that relates to the season and take it in turns to plan our time together. It's particularly encouraging when young people and teenagers are asking if they can lead sessions or elements of response which we describe as 'Mossy Church', a title I know others are also using.
We started out by putting details on Facebook of what we were planning to do and we got 20 people coming along. Then others started to ask us questions about Forest Church as we were walking around and some dog walkers joined in! There has been quite a mix of people coming along; we've had people who have been separated from God for so long but said, 'This is church for us, we don't want to go into a church building'. Others have wanted to go into a church building again and some have said they want to do both. All of them, whether they've had experience of church or not, don't see Oakwood as 'just' an event – they all recognise it as being far more than that.
Facebook and all the social media give us the opportunity to keep on connecting, we are 'meeting' every week in that way and, as a result, prayer for each other – and the Oakwood community – has grown out of it.
This spring, four of us who feel called to lead OFC over the next few years, got together to pray, plan and prune. We reflected on what had been going well and made changes necessary for the ongoing growth and strengthening of this fresh expression of church. We decided to reduce our meetings to five times a year, linked to Christian festivals at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Summer and Harvest, in order to ensure the sustainability and depth of our services. We also made the decision to hire the Rangers' Interpretation Centre at the nature reserve in order to make OFC more accessible and allow us to have a fixed base to worship and share a meal together.
Everybody loved it from the moment we started to use the centre because it felt like a home or us. Personally, I have developed a debilitating illness so I can't walk too far any more but knowing that I can stay at the centre and pray – while others are responding more physically – is broadening the accessibility of Forest Church.
Word is beginning to spread about what is going on here and we have people from other churches, schools and individuals nervous of the institutional church, asking what it's all about.
We are so blessed because we have such support. Our local Churches Together love it and The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, has said that he trusts us in our planning for this while our priest at St Nicolas', Neil Warwick, tells us, 'Just go for it!' I feel so lucky to be part of this and to be alongside people as they come to faith through Oakwood Forest Church.
I'll be part of the team involved in the Thames Valley mission shaped ministry course, starting this month, and I'm looking forward to reflecting on what is happening here as part of that. During the summer, Oakwood Forest Church will be providing prayer stations at local church and community fairs. We trust God to lead us as we continue to grow and evolve.