Church Army Rural Link Officer and Chichester Diocesan Evangelist, GORDON BANKS, explains how his work at the Church Tent at The South of England Show is literally connecting him with lost people
County shows have played a major role in rural communities for decades, providing farmers and visitors with a chance to truly celebrate the ‘Best of British’.
The South of England Show, held at the Ardingly Showground in West Sussex, is no exception. Since its beginning in 1967 it has grown to attract more than 90,000 people each year.
With so many people gathered in one place, Gordon Banks has made the show a regular date in his diary. Over the years he has helped to develop a Church Tent ministry at the event. He has also brought with him 10 years of experience from his work with both The Royal Cornwall Show and The Devon County Show.
He said: “The Church has had a presence at The South of England Show for a good number of years and it all began with a crèche and lost children facility.
“The work has moved on since then, especially with the advent of the mobile phone, but the ‘lost people’ facility remains a bedrock for the ministry which provides a safe and secure place for vulnerable adults or children to wait until they are reunited with the appropriate people. It’s a bit like the Tent of Meeting set up by the wandering tribes of Israel.”
Throughout the three-day event the Church Tent is a real hub of activity and provides visitors with refreshments, a children’s craft corner, games, exhibitions and the opportunity to participate in prayer and acts of worship.
Each day people are invited to take part in worship and regular prayer slots where a freshly baked loaf of bread is blessed and shared among the guests. A Prayer Tent is also available for people who need a quiet space to reflect and be spiritually refreshed.
Gordon said: “This in every way makes us the Church at the show as we eat together, share faith, care for our guests, demonstrate our engagement with the world and worship together. Throughout the event there is a real sense of community and excitement.
“It has always been Church Army’s tradition to be out and about in the countryside meeting with people – not locked behind our doors. There have been times when I have nearly jumped up and down with excitement to see people talking to someone about their faith for the first time outside of the church setting.
“On one occasion I was standing outside the Church Tent chatting to a colleague when two ladies came out of the tent seeming distressed. I went across to them to check everything was OK and it transpired they were mother and daughter and that their husband and father had just died. They had come along to the show in memory of him.
“With their permission I prayed for them, that God might lead and guide them through the valley of the shadow of death. They returned to the tent later on in the day to enjoy a drink and sit quietly in a sacred space created by the team.
“We’ve also had people make return visits to the tent to update us on what’s been happening to them over the past year.
“One lady I particularly remember simply came back to thank us. The previous year she came to us very upset and frightened because she was facing a course of chemotherapy. A team member prayed for her and she wanted to let us know all had gone well and she was now in remission.”
The Church Tent is an ecumenical ministry and is run by local churches and Christian organisations. It takes a lot of preparation and each year Gordon and his wife Jane set up residence at the showground in their Church Army Mission Caravan.
He said: “It is a real privilege to be on-site throughout the entire event and to be able to offer people a real hope for the future by reaching them with the Gospel of Christ.”
One of Gordon’s Church Tent team members said: “Gordon’s passion is in trying to communicate Christianity in a way that ordinary people understand – so he uses ordinary words and there’s no special church language with him. It’s very accessible at any level.”
Alongside the Church Tent’s outreach, Gordon also works with the Farm Crisis Network (FCN) which seeks to help farmers who are experiencing stress and anxiety. Gordon is Chaplain to the Sussex FCN group which exhibits at the Church Tent.
The group began its work in 1995 as a partnership between The Arthur Rank Centre and The Agricultural Christian Fellowship as a response to the high suicide rate among farmers.
Gordon said: “The FCN is a vital support network for farmers who frequently find themselves struggling against the odds – especially when there are crises of animal disease and adverse weather conditions.
“The group is run by volunteers, with a strong Christian ethos, and by attending the show they have great opportunity to reach isolated people.
“Rural life can seem idyllic, but in reality it is often very lonely. The growing number of rural poor are struggling with the problems of infrequent transport links and limited access to government support services because of their geographical location. My job is to bring hope into these situations through my faith, words and action.”
Yet, despite the difficulties of rural living, Gordon continues to fly the flag for Christ and there’s no mistaking him at The South of England Show – dressed in navy blue, he’s Church Army through and through!
• For more information about Gordon’s work at The South of England Show, visit www.churcharmy.org.uk/GordonBanks and watch a short film
• To support Church Army Evangelists like Gordon telephone 0300 123 2113 or visit www.churcharmy.org.uk/support
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