The New Thing
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
It all began in 1989 in the local village shop. Christine was married to John, one of the churchwardens at St Nicholas’ Church, and with her husband ran an electrical retailer based in the village of Ashill. One evening, John and Christine had a meal with the new rector and his wife. During this, Christine mentioned that she had an appointment to see a medical consultant which she was rather apprehensive about.
The following day, Martin and Maureen visited Christine at work in her shop to find out what was wrong and to offer to pray for her. Christine told them that she had a much-enlarged ovary with a lump the size of an egg which she could feel in her stomach. Her doctor was concerned too and had referred her to a consultant who in turn had booked her in to have a scan. Much to Christine’s surprise, Martin and Maureen prayed for her there and then. They laid hands on her and asked Jesus ‘to make it so that when she goes to hospital the ovary is completely normal’. That’s exactly what happened.
That’s a wonderful thing. I got to the hospital and I had the scan. And the woman said, ‘What are you here for? There is nothing wrong with you. Your ovaries are completely normal.’ So, I’m perfectly alright. Isn’t that amazing?
Indeed it was, and Christine is still full of vigour and worshipping with us today. She describes her joy and love for Jesus as still growing, and has never forgotten what God did for her that day within the confines of her shop.
Martin came to these parishes with a loyalty to the Church of England and a heart to see the ancient churches ‘full to overflowing with praising people and God moving in power in every place’. Statistically the church was in decline, but God could change all that. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). It seemed impossible for them to live. But in his vision he was instructed to prophesy over them and command life. As he did, the bones were clothed in flesh, tendons formed and finally breath entered into the bones and they stood up – ‘a vast army’ (v10). This was God’s word to Martin: ‘Speak to these bones.’ So he did.
From the outset Martin had invited response to the sermons he preached on Sundays, calling people forward for specific purposes. These included opportunities to commit or recommit their lives to Jesus, be filled with the Spirit, deal with specific issues of repentance or receive healing. His very first sermon concluded with an invitation to:
Come and stand with me at the front of the church as a sign that you repent of your sins, that you want to claim the forgiveness which Jesus offers and that you commit your life with me to his obedience. This is not a ceremony. This is for real. Don’t do it unless you mean it. But if God is touching your heart to do this with me, come forward now.
In one of the two churches, most came forward. Some were deeply moved by the experience. Sandra said, ‘I had never done anything like that before in all the years I have been going to church. And ever since, I’ve felt great.’
During his first Lent season in 1989, Martin held a midweek course to ‘teach more about the person and work of the Holy Spirit to those who wanted to hear, and we began to put into practice what we learned: the ministry of healing, the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of tongues’. Martin also began to take a small group of people to a summer conference called New Wine.
As time went on, people who had been renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit grew in their desire for all that they were experiencing to be part of the regular Sunday experience in church. Space was given on a Sunday for prayer ministry. Testimonies began to abound. Someone who had suffered permanent damage to cartilage from playing football was greatly improved after prayer. Christine’s daughter Louise came to visit. She was expecting a baby and experiencing some difficulties:
She was suffering a good deal of pain and feeling quite ill six months into her pregnancy. She laid hands on her own stomach as we prayed over her. From that day on she felt fine and carried the baby for the rest of the time without trouble.
One Sunday morning, a year or two later, her husband, Adrian, surrendered his life to God and is now rector of four churches in Northamptonshire.
People were coming to faith and being baptised by immersion – initially at the school’s swimming pool, then at a local hotel. In those days no one would have anticipated that eventually most baptisms would take place in the comfort of our own heated, portable baptism pool.
It was an exciting time of growth in the life of the church, but not everyone was moving at the same speed. It was all too much, too soon for some. Not everyone appreciated the changes that were being introduced to worship and services. One lay minister resigned and joined another local church. There were difficulties to be overcome. These apply to any church welcoming spiritual renewal. There were issues of language, music, the place of children and young people, worship style and expression. Again, in Martin’s words:
There was trouble about the guitars and drums, about the new worship songs and the way we sang them, about dancing in church and about banners, about the public use of the gift of tongues, about words of knowledge, about the invocation of the Holy Spirit, about people laughing, crying and falling under the power of the Holy Spirit. We also stumbled over other issues which had been lying dormant in the church, including yoga, Freemasonry and extramarital partnerships.
In these early years Martin was signposting the direction in which the church was heading and there would be no turning back. Spiritual renewal challenges our values. It moves us from ‘maintenance’ mode to ‘mission’ mode, from ‘church’ to ‘kingdom’. Our priorities change from being defined by the needs of the church to the needs of the world and the proclamation of the gospel.
With this in mind, in early 1993, Margaret, a member of the congregation, came to see Martin, having seen an article advertising an Alpha conference being held at HTB in the summer and she enthusiastically encouraged Martin to attend. He was keen to do so but would be on holiday at that time. So, knowing that Alpha had played a significant part in our story, Martin asked Pippa and me to attend on his behalf.
Since we had attended Alpha in the 1980s, HTB, through Nicky Gumbel, had seen the potential for it to be developed as an evangelistic tool. It was proving highly effective as a ‘Come and See’ invitation. The average number attending Alpha had significantly increased to an average of 500 per course and, with Alpha hosted termly, there were three courses each year. People were travelling to attend an Alpha course at HTB from as far afield as Salisbury and York. HTB wanted to equip local churches and leaders to run the course in their area. So, in June 1993 we headed down to London for this two-day training conference. We returned greatly enthused and very excited by the potential and vision behind Alpha, and eager to run our own courses.
We suggested initially encouraging both church congregations to attend. Alpha is a course that lays such a good foundation on what it means to be a Christian and how to live as a disciple that we felt it would be a helpful way of getting more people on to the same page in terms of vision and values. In particular, the focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit would give a shared language and experience across the two churches. We also wanted to encourage people to come so that they would then invite others – experiencing Alpha for themselves would give people confidence to invite their not-yet-Christian family, friends and neighbours to come along too. So we shared the vision with the two churches and recruited a team, including Margaret, who had first suggested Alpha, and her husband, Peter. We gathered the team together to prepare for the first Alpha course three days after moving into our new home in Saham Toney. We were surrounded by packing cases and somehow crammed everyone in, but we all left that first training evening sensing that God was beginning a new phase on our journey.
We ran the first Alpha course in September 1993. The take-up from both churches was encouraging – in the first year alone we ran three courses, each one attended by between fifty and seventy people. We met in one of the local schools. We started the first evening with a meal, then a talk on the topic of the evening, before breaking for refreshments and small group time. Martin and I shared the teaching and we made sure that we included the weekend on the theme of the Holy Spirit – although in our case this was squeezed into a Saturday’s teaching. It is more difficult to encourage people already living in the countryside to see the value of a weekend away! This was so often the point in the course when people began to experience the love and power of God. It didn’t always lead to conversion, though. I remember one person who was shaking on the spot describing the experience as feeling as if they were being electrocuted, but they still managed to walk away without making a commitment to following Jesus. However, many did make fresh or new commitments to following Him. It was an exciting time of growth in the church.
One person described themselves to me as being like a tall building. They said that before Alpha began, all was dark. But, week by week, a new floor was illuminated until by the end of the course the person felt as if the whole building was lit and they had moved from darkness to light.
There is no doubt that running Alpha accelerated the pace of renewal being experienced in both churches. Most commented that the opportunity to be filled with the Spirit had deepened their faith. Many had never heard the theology of the Holy Spirit articulated so clearly. One seventy-eight-year-old lady wrote in the frontispiece of her Bible, ‘Have been to church all my life and have finally discovered what it is all about.’ Poignant and deeply moving.
Meanwhile, I needed a form of ministry that was authorised within the diocese, and it was agreed that it would be best for me to apply to be appointed as a reader. This was approved and, as I was already some way through completing a diploma in theology, my diocesan training was shortened to one year. However, at the same time the diocese had decided to set up a new Ordained Local Ministry training course and, with the encouragement and support of Martin and both PCCs, I applied. l had explored ordination upon leaving Letton Hall but the answer then had been ‘no’. Although it is always easier to receive positive news, at the time I was content to accept the decision as I had applied more through the advice of others than sensing a firm conviction for myself. This time, though, I was sure that I was being called – I fully expected the answer to be positive, and it was.
So, three months after being licensed as a reader I set out on ordination training, to the chagrin of my reader tutor, who had been very impressed with an essay I wrote on the merits and need for effective lay leadership in churches. This is something I am still passionate about, but there is a place for ordained ministry too, and in due time I wanted to be in a position to lead a church within the Church of England if God so called.
Back home in the two parish churches, Martin further strengthened his leadership team. Alan was head teacher at a local school and had lived in the village for more than twenty years. Along with his wife, Susan, Alan had been one of the first to respond to the invitation to come forward to be baptised in the Spirit. He was ordained as a non-stipendiary minister in 1994. In the same year I was licensed as a reader and two years later I, too, was ordained. As a team, we shared in the public ministry of the church, leading worship and preaching. For all of us and for both churches, this was a significant change from the inherited ‘the rector does all’ model.
Although non-stipendiary from the diocesan perspective, I began to be paid by the church. Martin needed an administrator and, as it was relayed to me, someone suggested to Martin, ‘Well, what about the chap with glasses. Surely he could do this?’ So, it came to pass that I was appointed as administrator, initially on a half-day per week basis. As time went on, these hours were increased for a combination of administrative and pastoral reasons until, after a couple of years, I became a full-time member of staff. Part of my stipend came from the two churches and part came from a regional ministry called Living Water, about which I shall say more in Chapter 3.
By 1996, both parish churches had changed from being traditional Anglican churches to ones that were openly and confidently charismatic, with an increased openness to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. The pace of change had been different in each church, but there had certainly been change in both – and the pace was set to increase yet again. The previous year a new wave of the Spirit, which became known as the Toronto Blessing, had begun to spread around the world. It touched us too. We changed our pattern of services to enable us to make more space for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our morning services at the two parish churches were synchronised to start at the same time and, after preaching the Word, we would invite the Holy Spirit to come. The essence of this season was to wait upon God and give more time and space for people to receive from Him. So that’s what we did. There were physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit at work. Some were more comfortable lying on the floor as they were prayed for under the power of the Holy Spirit. Some were released into laughter; others wept.
Once again it was all too much for some, but for others it was a season of new life and growth. Once again we needed to make time and space to explain what God seemed to be doing. Once again there were difficult conversations. By now, however, a head of steam had been built up and the train called ‘renewal’ was moving forward, especially so at St Nicholas’, where the congregation had grown to be more than 100, including children and young people. There was a desire to create more space and flexibility within the building to facilitate greater freedom in our worship – to give space for prayer ministry and hospitality and to have the flexibility for all ages to meet together. There was also a growing realisation of the gap between the way we did church and the picture presented in the New Testament. There was a growing hunger to make the gospel more accessible to those who did not yet have a relationship with Jesus.
In order to use the space in the church building at Ashill more creatively, we wanted to be able to move the furniture. A plan to remove some of the pews in the south aisle was making progress through various committees and had the support of the majority of the church council. However, when the plans became known locally, a campaign was launched in opposition. Suddenly we found ourselves and our story not just making the regional news but on the pages of the national press, local radio and regional television. It was more than a local story. In fact, our story was a microcosm of a bigger one – one that illustrated a growing tension between traditional church and new forms of church formed either through a desire to express worship in fresh ways or to engage in mission and evangelism. This tension was exacerbated in village communities like our own, with more fixed, traditional expectations.
It became clear that any attempt to change the church furniture or furnishings would be a long and painful process. A few weeks before this exploded into the public domain, Martin and I had sensed God speaking through Isaiah 43:19: ‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?’ We had both preached about this on consecutive Sundays. At the time, I don’t think we were quite sure how this would be worked out, but we did know that God was up to something, that it would be significant and, by definition, something that we hadn’t seen before. After all, it was going to be ‘new’! There was a challenge from the preceding verse (‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past’, v18) that in order to take hold of the new we had to let go of the old, and a promise that as we did so, the Lord of the church would make a ‘way in the wilderness’ for the ‘new thing’ to flourish (v19).
At the time it felt like living in a pressure cooker. The momentum for change was irresistible, and it was only a matter of time before the pressure valve would need to be released. In the end it was Martin who pressed the release button. He took the view that as the route of reordering the medieval church building was proving difficult and raising hostility, it would be better to take the people elsewhere. He hoped that separation would enable the traditional and the renewed church to coexist, side by side. The invitation was extended to those who felt called to pioneer and plant a new church to start meeting in the local community centre. The bishop agreed to the move, provided that a form of traditional service was held in both parish churches, which we were only too happy to continue to lead and resource.
So, on one Sunday morning in mid-July 1996, ninety men, women and children met together in Ashill Community Centre at the very first gathering of ‘The New Thing that God is doing’.
It was a difficult birthing process. We had tried to keep all the carriages connected to the train, but in the end this proved impossible to achieve. As a result, our birthing was more difficult and indeed very different from how it might have been today. We were established when the language and permission-giving culture of Fresh Expressions was yet to be created. At the time there was no shared language to communicate in, few models to which to point, no experience to draw upon; there was pressure from the institution to conform and be squeezed into the mould of the traditional church building and culture. At times our language and attitude probably did not help. It is hard to steer a ship through uncharted waters and always be gentle and kind to those who are called to stay in the harbour.
Martin commented on that time:
For some of those who left the parish church, the parting broke ties which went back a very long way. This was a village church in which some of the congregation had been baptised and married, where they had worshipped all their lives and their fathers before them. In many cases their ancestors were buried in the churchyard. This place was church for them.
There was pain on both sides and it has taken time for some of those relationships to heal.
Few churches are renewed without tensions and conflict, and yet more disappointments, difficulties and disagreements were awaiting us in the future.
What is it that causes opposition to renewal? Perhaps there are three most common factors.
First, and probably most significant of all, is the spiritual battle involved in contending for the King and His kingdom. Spiritual renewal isn’t about the modernisation of the Church. It’s a recognition of the need to be filled with the Spirit of God and a radical openness to whatever God has to give or wants to do. Jesus Himself experienced and promised conflict. His followers can expect nothing less. It doesn’t make it any less painful, but it helps us to see beyond the person who seems to be against us. As the apostle Paul said, ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:12).
At the height of the press coverage, my father and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum. He was churchwarden at St George’s and I was very much associated with The New Thing. One of the Sunday nationals in particular attempted to capitalise on this, and I think we did a good job of not allowing that to happen. But obviously there were tensions. We each simply had to get on with being in the place we felt God was calling us to be, and leave it with Jesus to decide how and where to build His Church.
Second, the issue of traditionalism. We know this takes root when we focus inwards on church, our liturgy and services, above what God is calling us into, or above the need to engage in reaching out to others in mission. We have valued the rites and practices of our Anglican liturgical roots and found creative ways of honouring our heritage in the rhythm of our worship practice. But the problem of traditionalism arises when the attention of people and their worship is focused on these rather than on God Himself. As Jesus said, there will be those who prioritise ‘human traditions’ above ‘the commands of God’ (Mark 7:8). Often it’s to do with our way of doing things: the music we play, the songs we sing, the language we use.
Incidentally, it’s not restricted to issues of ‘ancient or modern’ – traditions are formed surprisingly quickly. We can all too easily become used to a comfortable, familiar format. In our case, we sometimes created problems for ourselves by changing too many things all at the same time. It is hard to manage the tension between those who want nothing to change and those who want everything to change all at once. However hard we try, though, sooner or later there is likely to be one change too many for some.
Third, the issue of conservation. Each historic renewal of the Church has affected the way church buildings have been ordered. As Martin said at the time:
Like its predecessors, this revival is leading to a desire to renew the physical surroundings of the church’s work and worship. In the story of our own parish church, it was at this point that the irresistible force of spiritual renewal met an immovable object: the rock of modern conservationism.
Occupying a building of historical or architectural interest often means that we have to live with a conflict between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of conservation. It is possible to reconcile these values, but when our buildings are not serving and helping to meet the mission strategy of the church, it is time to lock the door and pass the key on to those with a heritage concern. It was this issue of conservation, at least on the surface, that caused us to leave the traditional church building behind and move into the community centre.
Jesus often had to address issues of fear and doubt in His disciples. I suspect that most of us who are seeking to pioneer kingdom initiatives have to contend with these responses at times. I know that I certainly have. It can be the fear of failing, the fear of ‘what if’, the fear of simply not being able enough, the fear of change; fears that are often rooted in insecurity and inadequacy. For ourselves, we didn’t know how this would turn out but we did believe that we were taking the right step. It was a time of change and challenge for us all, and some left our churches preferring to worship elsewhere.
There were, though, two unifying purposes that lay behind the formation of The New Thing. The first was connected to mission and the second to the practice of being church. We had a desire to reach with the gospel those not already in church. In the immediate aftermath of the new congregation being formed, we did find people joining the church. Some came from our own villages who had not been part of the parish churches; others were attracted from further afield. Some found faith for the first time and came from an unchurched background; others had once been churchgoers but had not been back to church for some time. In terms of the practice of being church, we found a new freedom in our worship, prayer and meeting together, and we shall explore what this looks like and how it developed in ensuing chapters.
The renewal of the Church is always dependent upon personal renewal. There is no renewal of the Church without it. The stories of our personal experience of God at work in our lives are powerful. It’s hard to argue with what God has done in someone’s life. So let me bring this chapter to a conclusion with the story of just one person whose life was dramatically touched by God during this period.
Jean had attended a diocesan Day of Renewal back in 1989. At the end of the day the visiting speaker, David Pytches, had invited God to send the Holy Spirit. Jean had been afraid to let go and surrender her life to Jesus. David invited people to do just that with the words of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Jean went forward and asked Jesus into her life and to fill her with His Spirit – which of course He did. Martin tells the story:
Unknown to anyone, she had been a manic-depressive for nearly thirty years. Moods of black despair and unbearable depression had alternated with times of whirling, uncontrollable mental activity. Her illness had first been diagnosed following two suicide attempts at the age of twenty-one. She had dropped out of college, unable to cope. In spite of this she had later met and married John and had brought up two children. For years she had been stabilised by heavy doses of lithium salts and anti-depressants prescribed by the doctor … At the Day of Renewal something changed. She did not receive any prayer for healing but the Holy Spirit coming in and filling her soul gave her a new centre of peace.
There was more work God wanted to do in Jean’s life. Later that year, she attended New Wine and was reminded of some very painful memories. She chose to forgive those who had hurt her and, on the final night of her time away, asked Jesus to heal her hurt and give her His peace. ‘Suddenly she felt herself being bathed in lovely warm water, flooding through her whole body from top to toe, washing and cleansing every part of her.’
Three years later, in 1992, at a similar event Jean was suffering from menopausal symptoms and went forward for prayer, seeking God’s help. This time those praying for her sensed the presence of an evil spirit. They prayed for the spirit to go and Jean returned a little shaken but conscious that something had gone. The following day, Jean seriously damaged her back and Martin and Maureen visited her in hospital. During their time with Jean, they discussed what had happened the day before. As they talked together, Jean was reminded of a childhood memory when she was twelve. ‘Her parents had been shouting and fighting over the meal table and Jean had taken a knife to her throat. “If you don’t stop”, she had screamed at them, “I’m going to kill myself.”’ They didn’t and neither did she, but it seemed to be that moment that had given the opportunity for an evil spirit to come in. Martin and Maureen prayed with Jean, asking Jesus to heal that memory and her back as well.
About thirty-six hours later, early in the morning, Jean was praying in her hospital bed when she felt Jesus Himself come and lay his hands on her back. Her pain went and later that day she was discharged from hospital, the doctor telling her that she had made a remarkable recovery. God had done it all.
Five years ago, Jean moved to live near her daughter and she died at the end of 2020. I spoke to her earlier that year and asked her to reflect on the events I have just described, and her relationship with God since. Her immediate response was rooted in a verse from Joel (2:25) as she spoke about how she had seen the Lord restore ‘the years the locusts have eaten’ in her life over the previous thirty years. He continued to give her strength to cope with anything she had to face – including the loss of her husband two years before.
The call to Christ is a call to discipleship. It’s a journey. There were many touched by the hand of God who still chose to walk away from His call. At the same time, there are many more stories of lives transformed that could be included here. That is the nature of kingdom growth. The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23) is our encouragement: some may falter for various reasons but in others the seed will find a fertile home, take root and flourish.
These were formative years in laying the foundations for what was to come. The adventure had only just begun.