‘What the heck is happening?’
I was sitting in the garden of a conference centre in rural Derbyshire. On the other end of the phone line, my friend and fellow church leader, Beth, had just said a rude word. It wasn’t actually the word ‘heck’. I hadn’t heard her say this word before, and I haven’t heard her say it since. It’s the kind of word that makes a film into a 15 certificate, or puts a Parental Advisory notice on an album. But it didn’t seem out of place in this particular moment.
After we had finished talking, I was reeling from what I had heard and from the knowledge of what we now needed to do, and I quietly sneaked back into the St Mellitus College staff retreat. The staff were singing a song of worship and praying for each other. I sat there, stunned, staring blankly. A friend of mine, Hannah, walked over and asked if she could pray for me. I quietly said, ‘Yes, but I might cry!’
I felt so confused. Where was God in all this? How would we get through it? Would our little church survive? I had just returned from a glorious summer, preaching at various Christian festivals, telling the stories of our church and the transformation we had seen over the previous couple of decades. I had met inspiring people, received prophetic inspiration and had returned to Salford full of vision and hope for the next term. I was hopeful that this could be the start of the move of God we had been praying for all these years.
I arrived home from my summer of inspiration to an autumn of disasters. The details of what had happened are not appropriate to share, but owing to two or three major issues among our core team (which all came totally out of the blue), our small church lost almost half of our regular Sunday attenders within one month, and the pastoral fallout lasted for much longer than that. We were launched into many months of struggle, trying to look after a hurting church that was devastated by what had happened, while still trying to maintain our many outreaches into the local community. We were left with a huge hole in our already stretched resources, and were unable to run our public Sunday gatherings in the local school for a period of nine months.
During those nine months we were stretched to capacity trying to look after people who were struggling, hurting and confused. There were many sleepless nights, tears and some meetings that involved shouting (I don’t like those meetings). On a number of occasions, I asked God if He was wanting us to close the church down, but all the words we heard back were of encouragement and perseverance. Songs about brokenness and God’s church rising up again echoed around my confused little brain.
All through this time people would call me up and ask to visit the church, to learn from us! ‘Hi, I heard you preach at a conference/read your book, I would love to bring a team to visit your church.’ I would sit there thinking, ‘There may not be a church for you to see!’ It seemed strange that our story was inspiring people all over the place, while it felt like everything was falling apart at the seams – like trying to grasp sand in your hands, and it all overflows onto the floor. And this was all before a global pandemic sent the whole world into disarray.
In this book I want to share with you some of the things God has been teaching us in this dark time. It is particularly in these times that I think we have much to learn from small churches that are apparently struggling to survive in difficult places. I would like to tell some stories not just of our own experiences in Langworthy, but also of friends of mine whom God has called to plant churches in some of the forgotten estates of our country.
I honestly believe that some of the deepest learning and most important truths that the Church needs to hear are coming from the estates and marginalised communities – the ‘forgotten’ places and people. Just when the Church is announcing yet more gloomy figures of decline in attendance, there are utterly beautiful things happening on the margins. God is at work! In a time where politicians are talking about forgotten places and people – whether rural areas, urban estates or even whole regions – God is doing a new thing. These places and the wonderful people who live there are not forgotten by God. There is creativity and innovation, new life, streams flowing in the desert, lights shining brightly. I want to tell some of these stories of hope. I won’t provide you with Six Simple Steps to Transform Your Community. There won’t be many tweetable phrases or rags-to-riches tales. We won’t be going From Good to Great, and we certainly won’t go viral. But I hope you will be encouraged in your own walk with Jesus, and inspired to keep going, to keep loving, to keep sharing the glorious good news of Jesus in the places God has called you to be.
Growing up in a Brethren church gave me a love for the Bible. Auntie Joyce (not my actual auntie, but we called most of the adults in church uncle and auntie in those days) would set all the kids a challenge. If we could learn all sixty-six books of the Bible in the correct order, she would give us a box of sweets. I will never forget sitting next to my mum, speaking down the phone to Auntie Joyce, ‘1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation!’ And then we would have the grand presentation of the sweets on the Sunday.
One of my favourite games at church was where we had to hold our Bibles in the air, then someone would shout out a verse: ‘John 3:16!’ The first person to find it was the winner. I was very good at that game. We had competitions with prizes for memorising verses and even whole sections of Scripture, and loved singing songs by the well-known children’s worship leader Ishmael, which were word-for-word Bible verses set to music.
That immersion in Scripture was just normal for me and some of my mates; it was the air we breathed. During a boring sermon we would sit at the back looking up the rudest bits in the Bible and giggling together (it was the days before mobile phones… OK, we were geeks!). The biblical characters, sayings and stories we learned as kids would live with us into adulthood, shaping our consciences, informing our decisions, giving us a lens through which to see the world.
When I started to lead some youth work at a church later on in life, I was shocked at the lack of biblical knowledge in the young people – they loved Jesus, they were great at hearing God speak and praying for each other, and passionate about reaching their friends, but they didn’t know whether John the Baptist was in the Old or New Testament. There was a lot of fire there, but not enough fuel. As a kid in the Brethren, it was the other way round. Plenty of fuel, but we were wary of the fire!
When the fire of the Spirit lights the fuel of the Scriptures, that’s when things get really exciting. I watched it happen as my childhood church experienced a charismatic renewal. It was amazing to see our youth group come alive and begin to experience – in our day – the reality of some of the stories we had learned in the Bible. It wasn’t just a quick, impressive spark that quickly burned out but a fire that lasted and spread way beyond our little group.
Over the last few years, I have often reflected on how the Bible has shaped our story here in Langworthy – inspiring us, urging us on, giving us stories and pictures to explain our experiences. I have spoken to friends who are involved in similar pioneering ministries across the UK, and pressed them with questions about their own engagement with the Bible.
What I want to do in this book is to use the framework of the scriptural story to present some of the learning that is emerging from a quiet revolution that I have observed in recent years. It isn’t led by a big organisation or famous preacher, but increasingly I am meeting young leaders who have been called by God away from the obvious path for them – perhaps they were being lined up to take on a large church from its founder, or had been ‘talent spotted’ by a leader of a prominent organisation. But they have found themselves leaving the comfort of the clear path and going to places of apparent obscurity, not just for a gap year but to lay down their lives and ambitions for the people they have been called to serve. They find themselves not quite knowing what to do, where they are heading, lacking a five-year plan, but knowing that this is where God has led them.
My prayer is that the story I tell here, which includes the stories that are unfolding in these places, will not only help those following this call to the margins, but will also be inspiring and challenging to anyone who dares to say to God, ‘Here am I. Send me’ (Isaiah 6:8).
Tohu and Bohu
The Bible begins with the Hebrew word B’reshith, which we translate as ‘In the beginning’ (Genesis 1:1). Out of nothing, the God who had no beginning brings the creation into being. The creator God sees what could be, and speaks it into being. The same God who created everything from nothing now lives within us, His people. We should expect that God will give us the ability to see what could be, in people and places where there seems to be nothing. The God who makes a space for life to flourish gives us a creative ability to make space where new life can come.
I remember when I first met one family on our estate. They turned up to one of our Sunday church gatherings, a dad and his two kids. The little girl ran wildly around the room, and her brother hid behind her dad, who was loud, talkative and proceeded to tell us about all the people we knew who he hated, including people who were there that Sunday!
In that moment I had this picture in my head of the three of them lost in worship, singing songs to Jesus and pouring out their love for Him. It was so unexpected and sudden, I knew I couldn’t just have made it up. God was showing me His intention for them – out of apparently nothing, God wanted to draw them into a transformative relationship with Him. So far, we have seen one of the children give their life to Jesus and some fulfilment of that picture as they have learned the joy of worshipping Jesus, and we continue to pray for the other two. God brings something out of nothing. A new beginning.
The second verse of the Bible tells us that ‘the earth was formless and empty’. The Hebrew language uses the words tohu and bohu. Tohu was often used to describe a wilderness or a deserted city – something that has gone to waste, or is void and empty. Old Testament scholar John Walton says that tohu describes ‘a situation in which positive values such as purpose and worth are lacking’. Bohu can mean void or darkness. The earth was a desert and a wasteland. And we read that ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep’ (Genesis 1:4). Commenting on the word ’t’hom’, which we translate as ‘deep’, theologian Karl Barth explains that this primeval, chaotic sea was seen as something to be feared, stating that ‘nothing good can come out of t’hom’.
This is where the creation of the world begins. In a wilderness and wasteland. In a place of chaos and disorder. ‘Nothing good can come out of t’hom.’ Does that sound familiar to you? It reminds me of Nathanael’s comment about Jesus’ home town: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ (John 1:46). The creation of the world begins in a desert, a wasteland, a place of darkness and chaos. This is where God begins. This is where many of us are finding ourselves led by Jesus.
When we first moved into Langworthy, all those words had been applied to the place. It felt empty – a third of the houses were boarded up, left behind by people who couldn’t cope with living there any more. There was darkness and chaos – t’hom – a lawlessness that created fear. I remember talking to an old school friend who said, ‘Langworthy? Why would anyone want to move in there?’ It was like a wilderness; it felt like a physical and spiritual desert. It was lacking in positive values such as purpose and worth. There was tohu and bohu and t’hom.
But there is more to it than this. The writer of Genesis tells us:
the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
Imagine a long pause before this line is read. Over the darkness, over the chaos, over the fear, over the pain, over the apathy… the Spirit hovers. There is this brooding, this anticipation of new life. Despite the chaos, the darkness and emptiness, there is a more important reality – the brooding presence of the Spirit of God. We are awaiting the Word that brings life.
It seems to me that there is a gift given by God that enables us, amid the chaos and darkness, to sense the brooding of the Spirit, to anticipate the new life that is about to be unleashed – an awareness of the heavenly realm, like Elisha praying for his servant’s eyes to be opened when all he could see were the enemy soldiers, and suddenly the servant could see the angels protecting them (2 Kings 6:17-20). It’s like Ezekiel looking at a valley of dry bones and seeing the army that was about to be raised up (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
Others will dismiss it, but you sense the brooding of the Spirit. It irritates you inside, like a fire burning in your bones (Jeremiah 20:9). You can sense words forming within you that must emerge. Then the words come: ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3).
Words of light and life and order and beauty are spoken into the chaos and formlessness and darkness. There is a permission given for the emergence of creativity and beauty: ‘Let there be’, not, ‘There must be’ – permission rather than coercion. Let them be – release them to grow, to fly, to swim, to laugh, to build, to love, to be beautiful – to express the creativity of the Creator. In this explosion of goodness (the Hebrew word ‘tov’), the darkness and chaos are pushed back and nothing will be the same again. We need to pray for more explosions of goodness in our communities, pushing back the darkness, bringing order to the chaos, blazing a trail of hope and new life.
We need to call out the goodness. Often when people visit us in Langworthy, they ask, ‘How do we identify the needs of the area we are moving into?’ This is an important question, but a more exciting question to ask is, ‘How can we identify and call out the goodness and gifting and creativity in this place?’ How can we speak words in Jesus’ name and with His authority that explode with goodness and new life?
Years ago, as we prayed for our estate, we would sing a song of both lament and hope, which was a prayer for Langworthy, a prophetic call to rise up again, referring to our estate as a place of beauty. A place once described by a prominent local police officer as a ‘sink estate’ with ‘feral youths’ was not seen that way by the Creator. As His people, it was part of our role to speak His words of life and new creation, and to call out the true identity of the estate and its people. Look for the good, name it and call it out. Even if it is something tiny, the size of a ‘man’s hand’ (1 Kings 18:44), pray it into being.
There is so much to glean from these early chapters of Genesis, but there is one other line I want to focus on. We learn in 2:8 that God had ‘planted a garden’. This theme of God as a planter, as a gardener, runs throughout Scripture. We learn that God plants His people in the land (Amos 9:15), and there is a longing for a return to this first garden, Eden, in the writings of the prophets; for example:
The Lord will surely comfort Zion…
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 3:9 Paul describes the church as ‘God’s field’.
The same God who plants a garden in Eden will also gather all the nations together in the garden city in the New Creation. It is interesting that in John’s Gospel, an account of the New Creation that starts with the phrase, ‘In the beginning…’ (John 1:1), the author describes the first appearance of the risen Jesus in a garden (John 19:41; 20:11-18). In fact, Mary mistakes Him for a gardener! She was actually right. The One who planted her people in the land centuries earlier, the One who planted a garden in Eden in the beginning, the One who will one day oversee the healing of the nations as they eat from the tree of life (Revelation 22:1-5), was standing in front of her in that moment.
The One who spoke the words, ‘Let there be light,’ into the chaos and confusion of the tohu and t’hom now speaks directly to her, right at the start of the New Creation. Mary of Magdala, crushed by grief and confusion, now hears the Voice that called the worlds into being, calling her name.
She is the first to hear this voice, this voice that brings a new hope, this ancient-future voice that said, ‘Let there be light,’ and which now brings into the world a new and dazzling light. In this garden of death and grief, heaven and earth are once again united together as in the age-old dream of Eden. On this day heaven and earth come together in this One who stands before her, calling her name. Mary is chosen as the apostle to the apostles, the first preacher of the message that would utterly change the world forever. This is the announcement that the Garden of Eden is being planted once again, that a New Creation has begun.
God is a gardener. And He encourages his people to ‘plant gardens’ too (Jeremiah 29:5). His image bearers are to be wise stewards of the creation, representing the heavenly Gardener as we pray for His kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. As we plant churches and pioneer into new places, we are reflecting our Creator.
I have reflected on this metaphor of planting. We often use it to describe the first part of a new church or initiative. We plant a church seed, and a church grows up. But planting a garden in an estate context seems different from this, less predictable, more of a genuine step into the unknown. Formulas don’t seem to work as they might do in other settings.
We started Langworthy Community Church (LCC) more than eighteen years ago, but I still sometimes say that we are planting a church. Some friends correct me when I say this, and remind me, ‘You’re just leading a church.’
This is technically true but is not adequate. When you’re pioneering in marginalised areas and groups, there is a real sense in which you are always planting. Or maybe there’s a better word for it. It’s not like you put a seed in the ground, give it all the right conditions and it does exactly what you think it should. It’s more like you’ve got a seed but you don’t know what kind of seed it is. An oak tree? A willow? A rose? And the place you’ve planted it is not known for any kind of growth. So, you’re constantly trying out different techniques to help it thrive. Some of them work; some don’t. You move it around a bit, it flourishes for a while but suddenly needs a radical change. Then all the leaves fall off and you think it’s dead. But then they return more beautiful than ever. You’re still not sure what it’s becoming, and whether it’ll still be there in the morning.
Each stage brings new challenges. Growth and decline, fruit that tastes great, some fruit that goes rotten and you can’t explain why. And there’s no one who can fully tell you what to do, because the garden is unique. There isn’t an Alan Titchmarsh of church planting to tell you exactly when to prune and when to leave it alone. You learn to appreciate the beauty but also that there is no technique that works for more than a season. You have to carefully watch what is growing up, and respond to what is happening now, using what you know but with humility and openness.
So this is why, eighteen years on, I still use the language of planting. It is a long, patient process and nothing can be taken for granted. There are models of planting with much clearer systems and results and even timings, but we need a language that helps those who are planting with unknown seeds into arid soil. We know the seed of the gospel will produce fruit, but we don’t know exactly how it will grow up in each place. Or, to use another analogy, we don’t know what kind of song will emerge – quoting the ground-breaking Catholic missionary Vincent Donavan:
When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us.
I’ve spent eighteen years planting in one place, and we are still doing that now. Trying to play our part in seeing the seeds of hope, love, joy, peace and resurrection grow across our estate. It’s hard graft at times, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is a joy and an honour to join in God’s work in the world in this way.
The hope and beauty in the first two chapters of the Bible are the grand entrance to the Scriptures. Imagine a huge medieval cathedral. It has its origins at one point in history, then in different eras new sections have been added – a magnificent entrance, an intricate and private side chapel, a towering spire. But now it stands as one vast building. It is like this with the Bible. Written over approximately 1,000 years, by more than forty different people, it comes to us as one magnificent work of art, bringing us into the presence of God and telling the story of his interactions with people. Genesis 1–2 is the entrance, drawing our gaze upwards at the glory and majesty of it all, setting the themes of what we will discover as we proceed, awestruck, into this place of encounter with the Holy.
After the awe of Genesis 1–2, Genesis 3–11 bring us crashing down to earth with an uncompromising series of stories illustrating what happens when we rebel against God. This is what some theologians call the Fall – when humanity chose to go their own way, the innocence of Eden was lost and a veil was established between heaven and earth. No longer would God be described as ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ (Genesis 3:8). Adam and Eve are banished from the garden and a sequence of disasters are set in motion.
After the rebellion of Eden, we learn about the first murder (4:8), and the vengeance of Lamech (4:24). Then the ecological disaster of the Great Flood (chapters 6–9), when the evil of humankind was so great that God ‘regretted that he had made human beings’ (6:6). This depressing section ends with the story of the tower of Babel (chapter 11), finishing in more division and judgement on the people of the earth.
These great stories are sometimes dragged into historical debates. Are they myths? Are they parables? Are they trying to tell us something that actually happened, or some deeper truths? Much more important than debates about whether they happened is the fact that they describe what happens. Rebellion, jealousy, murder, ecological disaster, revenge, arrogance. You just need to read a newspaper to see that these stories explain to us what happens when humankind rejects the Creator and does its own thing.
This section provides us with insight into the human condition – the darkness within. It holds up a mirror to each generation and we see ourselves staring back, confused and alone. And yet, even within this bleak section of the Bible, there is still hope. There is the righteousness and courage of people like Noah, willing to obey God, and Enoch who ‘walked faithfully with God’ (5:22). There is the creativity and innovation of Jubal and Tubal-Cain (4:21-22), and, just before the end of the section, we are introduced to a man called Abram.