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.
Partnership 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.
And 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.
After 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!
Our 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.
I'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.