The Stowe

Wichelstowe is a new housing area on the outskirts of Swindon, Wiltshire. Baptist pioneer minister Ali Boulton describes how The Stowe Church has developed there.

On 17 January 2008, in a Baptist ministers' prayer meeting, I was asked to pray for a yet to be built housing estate. As I bent my head to pray, I had one of those overwhelming encounters with God which left me with a sure sense that God was calling me to move to the estate to holistically serve and bless the community and plant a church.

That was the start of the journey which has resulted in the emergence of a new church and positive engagement in a new community.

It is hard to share everything about the last six-and-a-half years in one article so I have picked out some key events and principles. The first one the importance of 'calling' I have already shared.

The next key principles are prayer, partnership and discernment/preparation. The first step in my journey was to join the ecumenical prayer group which was made up of church leaders of the churches surrounding the planned new estateand the town's chaplain. Prayer for the estate started before I joined the group and I feel that prayer has made a huge difference – prayer and listening to God has unpinned the whole process.

The Stowe - housesPartnership has also been key. My first partnership was with the ecumenical group. We worked together on some foundational elements of the project, if I can call it that, we did not however move forward with a local ecumenical partnership in mind, but rather within a framework of a lead denomination. Personally, I think this has been key in allowing a new missional churches to emerge. Not everyone agrees with me but I hope that other denominations will take the lead in other new housing areas within these light touch partnerships based on relational support and prayer.

As well as specifically Baptist organisations, I also partnered the local housing association and the council. The housing association were keen to work with me as soon as they realisedI was going to move into the area because this demonstrated a level of commitment which interested them. They approached me before I moved in and offered me a grant to be able to deliver some of things I felt God was calling us to do – which was amazing! The relationship with both the housing association and the council has deepened over the years and become a really fruitful partnership. We have partnered many other organisations too – including churches, and charities such as those working with victims of abuse, metal health, and children and families.

This all formed part of the 14-month discernment and preparation leading up to moving into the estate. We also built up a team during this time of three other Christian couples who, alongside my family, were committed to unconditionally loving, blessing and serving the new estate. This included a retired Anglican priest, his wife, and two young couples from different church traditions. We covenanted to one another agreeing to be missional together and not seek to be spiritually fed and also to move onto the estate within two years. Unfortunately this last covenant promise has not been met fully as it has been financially impossible for two couples – however we are all still serving the community alongside each other. During this time of discernment and preparation, I constituted and formed a community group – with the other church leaders as trustees as there were no residents at that point. Also, as Churches Together, we applied for a council grant and planning permission for a portacabin on site, and I worked alongside the West of England Baptist Associationfor some help to buy a house and to apply for a special ministries grant from Baptist Home Mission.

The Stowe - welcome basketAnd so in April 2009, my family and I were the first to move on to the estate with a vision to unconditionally holistically bless the community and to seek to join in with the work of God's Spirit. The importance of living on the estate and being there right from the beginning was really significant, as was the call to bless in all areas of life.

It was the time of the credit crunch and so we lived alone on the estate for a month before the next residents moved in. Also because of the credit crunch, all the social houses filled up first. This was high priority social housing, so there were some quite vulnerable people in the first residents.

For the first year, I visited everyone as they moved in and gave them a welcome basket. It got crazy after a while but I would have liked to do it longer. As I met with each new resident I introduced myself as 'I'm Ali, I'm your neighbour. I'm a Baptist minister but I'm here to serve all faiths and none. Let me know if you have ideas about what we can do together.' My visits and the welcome baskets were unconditional – I told them about me but didn't ask for anything in for in return.

I felt that God had said some specific things to us:

  • first, I felt that God had said not to talk about him. It seemed like a strange missional strategy but more people came and talked to me about faith than ever before in my Christian life, which was amazing! Later, when we had some opposition to the Christian presence in the area, people commented that I had never imposed my faith on anyone. This was important as, by then, people had become Christians and a church for the unchurched had emerged.
  • secondly, I felt that God had said that he would tell us what to do through the community. This became very significant as time went on. I guess we just set about making friends with people. Some people wanted to exchange numbers, meet for coffee and set up a Facebook group. We organised a community fun day alongside the housing association and in response to our neighbours, organised community games.

The Stowe - venueAfter the community day, more people got in touch. Within a few days I was contacted for the first time by someone on the brink of suicide – this has become a key part of my ministry on the estate.

I also had some women come to my door saying, 'We loved the community day; will you organise a Halloween party next?' We struggled with that as none of us believed in celebrating Halloween but God had told us to unconditionally bless the community – all faiths and none – he had also told us that he would tell us what to do through the community. After much prayer, and the verse from Acts 10 telling Peter not to call things unclean which God has made clean, we did the party. One of my teenagers commented, 'Mum thinks she has claimed backed pumpkins for God; he thought he had them already.'

It was at the Halloween party that someone said, 'Do you know what I'd like? Wouldn't it be lovely if you did us a nativity play with all the children?' This ended up as a big outdoor community event. If we had said no to Halloween, I think that would have shut the door. The Halloween party is now an annual event.

We continued to serve the community in response to, and alongside, the people around us. Mostly starting in our house, we set up a toddler group, coffee morning, a toddler lunch club, a youth club, an after school club and amazingly we were asked to start a God club for the kids on a Sunday afternoon. There isn't space to share that whole story!

The Stowe - prayer walkingOur first Easter there, in 2010, was amazing. Some people were chatting about Easter and in response to some comment I made, I was asked if Easter was a 'God thing?' To cut a long story short, we put on some activities on Good Friday morning to explore the Christian story of Easter in the portacabin. We expected a few kids or families but about 50 people with no church background came along. It was a very special time. As a result I invited people to join us on Easter Sunday morning and 35 people joined us.

We thought we would do it again at Pentecost – but God reminded us that he was in control and would tell us what to do through the community. So ten days after Easter, someone said she had enjoyed church on Easter day at our house so much, could she come every week? Of course we didn't have a church but as I tried to think what to say she filled in the blanks! '10.30, your house on Sunday?' 'Sure!' And so the next Sunday, church began. The lady who asked me has never been, but that first Sunday, two families came and we saw our first person become a Christian a couple of weeks later on 24th April. We saw her life transform and she was the first to be baptised. Praise God we have seen others come to faith and be baptized too.

As we continued to work in the community the number of people exploring faith grew and we moved out of my house, first to the new school hall then into the community centre. We became a recognised church called The Stowe and part of the Baptist Union of Great Britain at the start of 2013.

We have continued to seek to unconditionally love and bless the community and we have worked alongside people of all faiths and none to establish a charitable community association and build healthy partnerships between the community and wider bodies such as the council and developers. The line between church and community is very blurred but we believe God is in it all and we have seen him bless this estate. This is very encouraging as the current houses are just the first 875 of 4,500 so we have a long way to go yet.

The Stowe - baptismI'd love to share more with you about how God has worked in the local community – through giving us a word to wash the feet of the community, resulting in regular pamper nights, and another word about an empowerment course. I'd like to tell you more about the people who have come to faith, about healings, and lives that have been changed. I'd love to tell you about our community activities, community trips, church camping weekends, our schools' work and my years as chair of governors in the new school and our new work with children, youth and families. But there isn't space for it all!

One of the greatest blessings is seeing new Christians grasping the vision to love and bless this community, some even taking on leadership.

This is particularly significant now as I've now been appointed the Pioneer Mission Enabler for the Southern Counties Baptist Association (SCBA). I'm supporting communities and projects already taking place in the region,helping people to build on mature church traditions and explore what pioneer mission looks like in their context. I'm working alongside people engaging with existing communities and helping to identifying new housing areas, make connections with other community stakeholders and create partnerships. It's exciting to see opportunities already developing.

It's a half-time role so I'll still be at The Stowe and I see the new job as being very much connected to the practical work on the ground. The words 'teaching hospital' come to mind because when people come to visit to see what we're doing here and join in, God seems to inspire them to go and love and bless their own communities. Also some of the community here are keen to support other churches locally; it's part of them being connected to the wider church.

Of course there are and will continue to be many challenges within the Stowe and SCBA as we seek to pioneer. New churches are fragile – people who explore faith come and go as the parable of the sower tells us. But God has done more than we could have asked or imagined and I look forward to joining in with what he is continuing to do both locally and regionally.


Reside - EllieReside is a Christian project evolving in response to growing housing developments to the south of Loughborough. It is led by Methodist Deacon Ellie Griffin, Reside's full-time paid worker.

The original vision for a worker on the development came from the Loughborough Churches Partnership and is mainly funded by the Anglican and Methodist Church. The rest of Reside's team is made up of volunteers from a range of denominations, most of whom live in the housing developments we serve.

I have been here for just over three-and-a-half years and am based on the Fairmeadows estate but also work on the new Grange Park housing development. Generally I attempt to co-ordinate the various activities of Reside and enthuse people to get involved.

Our vision is to be an evolving Christian network that provides safe and welcoming places, explores the Christian faith, cares for the community and collectively expresses each element of Church.

This is an affluent estate but we are in the parish of the Good Shepherd CofE Church which is based in a far more socially deprived area. In saying that, they still provide part of the funding for Reside and the vicar, Eric Whitley, is on our steering group. In some ways it's quite difficult to be taking support from a church with such limited resources themselves but, as often happens, it's those with less who tend to give more. They saw the vision of what we were trying to do and have gone for it – and we're very grateful for that.

Reside - buildingIt was only 25 years ago that the whole of the Fairmeadows estate was nothing more than a farmer's field. Eventually the community will consist of about 1600 homes. When the original plans for this development (known as Grange Park) were first set in place, the churches in Loughborough saw the need for the potential community to be developed and so looked to appointing a full time worker to live on the estate. I moved here with my family in September 2007.

It wasn't long before Reside was 'born'. We aim to contribute to community by enabling residents to be actively engaged in developing the area in which they live – whether that's through the residents’ association, involvement with schools, Neighbourhood Watch, litter picks or working with children and young people. The opportunities really are endless and the range of skills needed is diverse.

We want to get people excited about getting to know their neighbours and to provide opportunities for building relationships. There aren't many meeting places on the estate and so we are trying to be imaginative in how we address this so that all groups within the community can interact more with each other. Recently we made a trip to see a project near Malton which uses a council-funded facility called the 'Ryepod'. It is a converted mobile home hired out to various organisations for a range of purposes. This is the very beginning of our explorations but we are excited by the possibilities.

Reside - residents' association

In some ways, Loughborough has got quite a lot of pioneering stuff going on from Pioneer Network, New Frontiers International, student work and a huge variety of other churches. In saying that there is still an idea or expectation as to what 'real' church looks like; trying to convince those part of inherited models of church that Reside really is church can be quite difficult. Even if people can cope with Reside not having a building as a base they will still ask, 'why aren't you gathering for worship every week?' It can be so difficult for them to grasp that Reside may never have a big gathering for worship but it's very much church in a different way.

Reside cares about every aspect of community life and the individual lives of the residents who make up this community. This comes from our belief that God cares about every aspect of lives too and that the Christian faith has something to offer in each situation.

So far Reside has been involved in the Haddon Way Residents Association working with them to listen to the community's needs or concerns and hosting Community Fun Days, a Big Tidy Up event and an outdoor Christmas Carol service. We have also hosted Easter Fun Days on the Grange Park housing development two years running giving the families opportunity to meet their neighbours and have fun together.

Reside - Christmas

Through support from SOaR (Schools Outreach and Resources) we have been part of a prayer group for Outwoods Edge Primary School, led assemblies and delivered Easter lessons. Leading on from this we have been invited to lead the school community in celebrating harvest and Christmas and are currently exploring further ways of engaging with the school.

Offering the opportunity to ask questions about God and faith, we ran a six- week exploration course. In small discussion groups we used film clips, news articles and other medium to stir debate offering insight from biblical teaching and Christian thought. Reside has also hosted craft sessions, parties, a police drop-in, quiet space and Open House, all providing a variety of opportunities for residents in the area. All of our activities are provided free of charge as a gift to the community to express God's abundant, no-strings-attached love.

The Residents' Association was one of the first links we made into the community. At first they thought it a bit odd that someone from the church turned up and they wondered what we wanted from them. It was also a little confusing because I didn't 'fit' their idea as to what a church leader looked like! Once they became accustomed to the fact that I was attending as a resident and not just as a church representative, everything was fine.

Reside - police

It was interesting that after a community event run jointly by the Association and Reside, the chairman said to me,

I still don’t know what you're after. The church has bought the house you're living in and they're paying your wages for five years, what are they getting out of it?

It had taken him three years to ask that question directly and it was only because we'd built up such a good working relationship that he felt able to ask it at all. In turn I could tell him there was no catch; that it was all a gift to this community because God loves this area and the people who live here.

Over the next 12 months we hope to:

  • Develop the work we do with the local schools;
  • Explore the possibilities for a mobile meeting place;
  • Provide opportunities for residents to get to know one another;
  • Network those already actively serving this community;
  • Provide opportunities to explore the Christian faith;
  • Grow a number of 'Cell' groups;
  • Plan for long term sustainability of Reside.

Reside - hose

We are very much developing cells at the moment and we're just starting a pilot cell of people who will be leaders in different cell groups. We have got lots of good contacts now on the edges of the community but how can we take it a bit further? I think the cell church model, tweaked to this context, would be a very good model for us. I pray that it will take off and that the trust between groups will become stronger.

The work with the primary school has been awesome because initially it was closed to what we were offering to do. The vicar would go in for standard assemblies at key times of the year though they were a bit worried about taking anything further than that. Slowly they have begun to open up and this Easter we are working with them to host an exhibition of Hope where members of both the school and wider community can creatively offer their Hope for the future.

Again this has all taken time. Thanks to the gradual building up of relationship they invited me to be on their governing body and now they approach us to do things rather than the other way round. It's amazing to think that when I started here there was no link between anyone on the estate or anywhere to go so I used to sit at home praying, then walk around the streets and pray a bit more.

I was pregnant when I took up the post so that did mean I could meet other mums as a way of getting to know people. It also meant that any immediate expectations were lifted as to what I was to 'achieve' in the role; otherwise the aim was that I'd be involved in building a community centre by now because that was one of the points in my job description! The developers of the estate are providing space for a community centre of some description and I'm hoping that Reside and the residents will be able to work together on creating a special space where all sorts of activities can take place.

Reside - craft tableA five-year funding plan was put in place for us so we are now at the stage of looking at how things can be sustained in future. We are already starting to get some income from the local community but it's nowhere near enough for us to be financially sustainable – and that's in an affluent area! How can people hope to achieve that sustainability in poorer areas?

Also, the context has changed so much here in just a few years. Lots more people have moved in, mainly young families, but many head out for work early in the morning in their cars and the estate's almost dead in the daytime. The nearest shop is nearly a mile away and all of this can combine to incredible isolation for those left behind. There are actually quite a few older people here as well and the community – on the surface predominantly white and middle class – is actually quite a diverse one.

In serving them, Reside will never look like a 'normal' church. I think it will always be messy, an evolving network continually listening and continually responding to the needs of the community. I think that's why many traditional churches have come to a halt – because they stopped listening.

The Welcome

After 15 years in the making, The Welcome has become the 'newest' church in Methodism. Its minister, Rev Ben Clowes tells how the project developed in the Alderley Edge and Knutsford Methodist Circuit.

The Welcome - footballCheshire is known to be one of the richest and most exclusive areas of the country but it’s a place of extreme contrasts. Around Knutsford we have the Bentley Garage for Manchester, Premier League footballers in £2m homes, charity shops selling Prada and Gucci – and one of the most deprived wards in the Cheshire East.

In the past, the community at Over Ward, Longridge and Shaw Heath missed out on a lot of support and possible grant aid because many charities only look at postcodes when considering applications. As soon as they saw Knutsford, that was the end of it for them.

It is interesting because The Welcome very much started as one thing and became another. Reaching out to the community has always been important at Knutsford Methodist Church and across the Circuit generally but the story of The Welcome really got going when Sue Jackson arrived as the project's first deacon.

Initially she walked around the estate, talking to people, getting to know them, finding out what was needed. The call was for second hand clothing so Sue started to provide facilities – usually the boot of her car – for people to bring and buy clothes. Moving on from that, we then got a lease on what was originally a doctor’s surgery and that became a Christian place to sell clothing and serve coffee. At that time it was called the Over Ward Project (Longridge and Shaw Heath).

By the time our second deacon, Margaret Fleming, came along, the church began to develop. There had always been a Christian ethos of meeting people where they were but increasingly the people themselves began to ask why the church was doing this.

Welcome - caféAs the church grew, the community named the place. They were very clear they wanted it to be called The Welcome.

Cris Acher was appointed Presbyter and he was here for three years before he moved on to Nexus in Manchester. The church still continued to develop and took on a lay manager who started to make further inroads. In time, less clothing was being sold and more coffee was being served and we started to see the growth of an educational project.

The next stage began with the next Presbyter, Richard Byass, who saw the acquisition of the next door lease so we had a cafe space and sessional space for the community. Last year we had a big funding hole but realised that we were giving out such mixed messages when applying for funding, we were café, business, education – and church. We did get a couple of grants to keep us going but then we got to work with Manchester CiC (Community in Communities) and they set us off on a new way of doing things.

By that stage the church had been meeting for 8 to 10 yrs and the questions were starting to be asked by the community as to why we were not being officially recognised as a church. What was the problem? We should be recognised formally, etc.

Welcome - eatingIt was suggested that the best thing to do was to separate the two elements of the centre – the business side of it and the church. A new not-for-profit company called The Welcome CIC (Community Interest Company) will run the now refurbished community centre and the café (probably as the trading arm of a charity) while The Welcome Church itself was formally recognised as the newest church in Methodism at a special dedication service in September.

It was a great month because we had already celebrated confirmation of two members. We have now got 16 members and the two most recent additions are dual members – one from Knutsford Methodist Church and the other is our new business manager who is an Anglican.

Rev Dr Keith Davis, chair of the Manchester and Stockport Methodist District, conducted the dedication service held jointly at The Welcome and a local community centre. It was interesting when we were putting the service together. The Welcome style is very hands-on and experiential and the worship is quite distinct but in the end it was actually a very traditional service because people said, 'just because we normally do it differently doesn't mean we can't do it the standard way. We are not fixed to one style like some churches are.'

So we started to look at liturgies and it seemed to be a contradiction in terms that we were about to celebrate this non-traditional church in a very traditional way but the community message was clear, 'How dare you assume we can't do it another way?!' As a result, Faith and Order now want copies of the liturgy. What we have done changes further develops Methodist ecclesiology!

The important thing is that this has come up from the community, this is the way they want to do church but they also want to be recognised. They are very much for the moment. At one stage they weren’t ready in any shape or form to become a church but things change – and we have to be ready to react to those changes. Other developments include a youth café and a Travellers' Bible Study (that’s a Bible study for those on a journey with God not a Bible study for travelling people…)

The Welcome - table

Another recent visitor was our local MP for Tatton, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. He said he was thrilled to see what we were doing, describing The Welcome as 'The Big Society in action.'

Last year was a difficult one in that we had to make our cook and community manager redundant but this is a new stage and we are looking to God for what happens next. The first time we met as a church there were about 25 of us and at the special service we had more than 100. We don't open the doors and expect the people to come in, we go where people are – I don't think anywhere on Longridge or Shaw Heath is as busy or well loved as The Welcome.

Our former kitchen supervisor now works alongside me in pastoral work and hers reflects the story of The Welcome. Five years ago at interview she said, 'I'm very happy to do the job so long as you know I don't do God.' She is now a preacher in training and our Senior Steward! The Welcome has been and continues to be a place where God is at work and where people meet with him daily. Our prayer is that, even now we are a 'fully fledged' church, and have even held our first 'Welcome-style' Church Council, we will continue to listen to God and to follow his lead as we have done for the last fifteen years.