Welcome to Oswestry, a border market town of 20,000 souls just over the border of Wales in Shropshire. I began to serve the congregation of Holy Trinity over twelve years ago. It is one of two Church of England parishes, together with eleven other Christian churches in the town (two of which are Welsh speaking).
My appointment was one of a growing number in the Church of England, where a clear evangelical minister is appointed to a non-evangelical parish. This kind of ministry is sometimes called ‘turnaround’ or ‘revitalisation’. Part of the rationale behind my willingness to serve in such a context is that the Scriptures often blame the poor health of the sheep on the poor work of their shepherds. Under more reliable shepherding, the sheep can be restored. In God’s goodness that’s our experience in Oswestry.
Focusing on sowing
Our basic conviction is that the parable of the sower is true. So we expected many different kinds of reaction to the Word, but we also expected there to be some good soil out there somewhere. We had our share of conflict over the gospel, but it will surprise many how much good soil there proved to be in the existing congregation. The tragedy is that this good soil appeared to have been starved of the Word. Some of these people had been labouring without real food for decades. They had always called themselves Christians, sung the hymns, said ‘Amen’ and given of their time and money, but now they were hearing more of the grace of God than ever before. And in due time, under careful instruction, fruit was (and still is) borne among them.
There was no rocket science involved in sowing the Word. It was simply seeing every conversation, church meeting (whether traditionally called a business meeting or not), informal contact, pastoral visit, or knock at the vicarage door as an opportunity to sow the Word of Christ and trust the power of his Spirit. This compulsive sowing was the biggest change for the life of the congregation. My job was to trust the power of the gospel and wait patiently and lovingly for hearts to change and grow. The temptation was that external change in the rituals, practices and furnishings (so we at least looked evangelical) was enough. This wouldn’t have been real change at all, of course. Meaningful changes in practice came after hearts began to love Jesus Christ.
Focusing on men and families
One of the striking features of the congregation when I arrived was that men between the ages of twelve and sixty accounted for less than 5%. In a congregation of fifty adults that constitutes a crisis for both current and future leadership. So I tried to put particular effort into reaching men. I began by inviting men who had some connection to the congregation to a meeting in a quiet corner of a local pub. I gave a four- or five-minute introduction to some aspect of the gospel and then we discussed it for an hour. None of the people I thought it would be good for came! But some others did, and occasionally others from the pub itself would join in. We talked about suffering, atheists, Bible passages, ambition, who Jesus is, the role of the state and much more. This group was never the effective outreach to men that was planned. But over the years it proved invaluable to Christian men who began to come, helping them to be more confident in thinking about everything in a Christian way and being able to give an answer for the hope that they had.
As well as working with men (my experience is that Christian women are much better at looking after one another) we concentrated on families. This was based on unsurprising statistics which show that if the man in a household is committed, then there is a very good chance his family will join him at church. Through our efforts to sow the Word of Christ, we now enjoy good representation in almost every generation and both genders. We continue to struggle among the 20s to 30s; this is partly due to the population of Oswestry, but there are prayers to be said and work to be done for us here.
In general, over the years, we have made our plans, and the Lord has directed our steps. I have lost count of the occasions when I have set up a meeting there or formed a small group here, and the Lord has done something different and better with it than any of us had imagined.
Focusing on the future
Our church growth strategy has never moved on from the parable of the sower; nor will it. In particular, there is a part of the parish where virtually nobody goes to any of the many congregations in Oswestry. That won’t be a revitalisation, but the beginning of a new congregation of the Lord’s people. So the work goes on, the strategy doesn’t change, and Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.