‘Since the Coronavirus outbreak, we have seen a new level of unity among the churches in our area’
A church leader who came to our National Leadership Conference in early March shares some of what God showed her team while they were there and what they’ve seen in their local context since.
What’s your church like?
We’re a small church which serves both Cheddar village and the wider valley. A team of four of us have led the church jointly since last summer. This is a new model for us, but we feel it is right for the current time and there is a real spirit of unity in the group. We have been seeking this same spirit of unity for the wider church in the Cheddar Valley, as well as praying for new people to come to faith.
Why did three of you come to our National Leadership Conference at the beginning of March?
We’ve been connected to New Wine for a long time and saw the conference advertised. While it was four-and-a-half hours away, we really wanted to hear about what God was saying to the wider church, to connect with other churches, and to get practical ideas and others’ thoughts.
What did you get from the Conference?
It was amazing from start to finish. In the first keynote session, Paul Harcourt talked about unity and the next move of God being bigger than any one denomination or group. This really resonated with us and felt like a confirmation of everything we had been feeling and preaching about in our local church. We were also excited to hear the prophetic word that Nicola Neal shared that she could ‘hear the sound of rustling in the leaves of the trees’ and God was on the move.
The first day felt very much like a day of preparation for what God wanted to do. He challenged the three of us individually in different areas. We were able to forgive and move on from some of the more challenging things that had happened to us over the past year. Personally, I was struck by Carol Arnott’s words about being judgmental. The verses in Matthew 7:1–2 say, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ I had always related that to Judgement Day, but Carol was talking about it being in the here and now. It was a real revelation to understand that the way in which we judge others is often a function of how we see ourselves and really impacts our own lives.
At the end of the first day, we felt like we’d learnt so much that we could probably go home! However, the second and third days provided confirmation of what God was doing in our hearts and a deep sense of how he was commissioning us for the future.
For Jackie, one of the team, this commissioning was very focused on children’s ministry. She had stepped in to work with the kids to respond to an immediate need. Jackie has a huge heart for the young people but felt that she was not the ‘young and trendy’ youth worker that the church might need. However, God really touched her at the Conference and confirmed that this was a key part of her calling. He placed the kids on her heart in a way that made her just cry out for them. She was also able to have some great conversations with one of the New Wine Youth leaders. All of this confirmed that she is commissioned for this work and her heart of love for the kids is what God really needs.
The other team member who came, Phil, has had a deep calling to pray over recent years. This started as a short time of prayer in the morning and has grown and grown. At the conference, he was worshipping and gradually felt a weight in his hand. He said it got so heavy that he opened his eyes to see if he had something in his hands. He felt it was something precious that he needed to give away. He decided to test it a bit, so he started to expand his arms and it got bigger until his whole head was in it! Phil had previously been given a prophetic word about ‘no limits’ in his life which was confirmed at the conference, both by this experience and by a direct confirmation of this word by a New Wine leader who prayed for him.
In the last meeting, Phil put one of his hands on top of one of mine and the other on top of one of Jackie’s. I just thought he was praying for us. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen but suddenly I could feel the same weight in my hands. It was awesome and a real testament to the need to give this precious gift of God away.
For my part, I was struck by Pastor Agu Irukwu’s keynote session in which he talked about people being called to be standard bearers. As I reflected on his talk, I recalled some earlier prophetic words which had been given to me and I realised that this was a key part of my calling.
There was a real sense that the ways in which God touched us all at this Conference were different. In the past, I have been to similar events and have felt that God has touched me from the outside. However, on this occasion, there was a much more profound sense of God planting something in each of us that we needed to nurture and grow. There was no sense of hype, rather this was a deep work of God to prepare us for the future.
What happened when you went back to your church after the Conference?
Everything just seemed different. We have wanted people to find faith in our church for a long time but we have seen relatively few new converts. However, the first Sunday after the conference, Jackie was leading the children’s group and there were some new kids there. She was explaining to them about how we can say ‘yes’ to Jesus. One of the new girls responded and gave her life to Jesus which was just amazing!
It has also previously been challenging to see a very clear, life-changing response to the preaching. However, on that same Sunday, I felt completely comfortable about asking people to respond. I was preaching on the challenges of a busy and hurried lifestyle. I felt very much like there was somebody there who’d been hiding their pain in busyness. Someone responded and is now working this through with our pastoral leader. All in all, we could tangibly feel a spiritual shift and we’re continuing to build on it.
How have you changed what you’re doing since the Coronavirus outbreak?
We had no idea how things would change so quickly after we returned from Harrogate, but it is clear that God was preparing us for this time. Our initial measures were practically focused. We were very clear that people should respect the authorities and observe the advice available. However, things moved on at a rapid pace.
We realised we would not be able to meet together so we spent a lot of time setting up small groups of between two and four people who keep in contact with each other. We bought Zoom licenses for the church and now run all our meetings on Zoom, including the main church meeting, prayer meeting and our leaders’ meetings. Everyone has been so grateful for the opportunity to meet virtually and share fellowship. We have managed to get almost everyone on it, from the youngest to the oldest, which is a huge testament to everyone involved.
The format of our main meetings has obviously changed but we have been able to introduce some new elements such as poems and meditations. We are also trying to share some practical hints and tips for activities during this lockdown period, notably having structure to the day and making sure you take exercise. We have suggested some of the ideas from the workbook that goes with John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, which are aimed at simplifying many aspects of our lives.
The children’s ministry has also changed. Jackie is now running the kids’ session via Zoom on Wednesday mornings using the Lightbringers course. This is obviously a great help to those who have to work from home and manage their young ones at the same time. Our ‘Infinity’ youth group has started to meet on Zoom, lighting up the day of some of our young people.
What are you doing to reach out to your community at this time?
We’re encouraging the church to look after their neighbours, collect their groceries and do whatever they can for them. There’s a Facebook group that’s operating in the community that we’re part of that is offering support to anybody. We have a café in the village which has closed but has arranged to feed a small number of those in need.
How are you working with other churches in the area to meet needs in the community?
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, we have seen a new level of unity developing in the churches in our area, exactly as Paul had stated in his keynote address. The churches have joined together to help with some of the practical needs of the community. The leaders and others are praying together on Zoom every Saturday morning and we are all working together to provide virtual ‘prayer room’ slots for anyone who needs them. In addition, youth workers from other churches are talking about working together to connect young people.
What is God saying to you as a church in the crisis?
The outbreak raises lots of questions. For us, the focus is on showing God’s love to the Cheddar Valley and praying for his protection over it. As a church, we are declaring Psalm 91:1–7 out loud every day over ourselves, our families, the church and the whole community:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
What can New Wine do to support church leaders like you right now?
We have recently connected with the local New Wine network group and have found this really valuable. As we enter into these uncharted waters, it would be great to share more ideas of how to respond to the crisis. Most importantly, it would be fantastic to hear about what God is saying to the church throughout the network. Our desire is to continue to build on what he said at the conference and to understand how he wants us to build his Kingdom in these unusual times.
Sam Hart is part of the Leadership Team at Cheddar Valley Community Church in Somerset.
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