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Walsall church plant: following Jesus into the forgotten places
Church Planting doesn’t happen in deprived areas – or so you may be hearing. But in St Peter’s Walsall, one of the most deprived parishes in England, something is happening which shows it doesn’t have to be that way, writes Rev Gavin Burnage.
St Peter’s Walsall was planted in 1841 from the large town centre church of St Matthew’s, and given a new building with a proud place on Stafford Street – but later, like the street, it suffered painful decline.
Then, at Christmas 2013, with the backing of the Bishop of Wolverhampton, Clive Gregory, and the Diocese of Lichfield, I brought a team from nearby Aldridge Parish Church, where I had been curate, to move in with the local congregation.
Now, more than three years in, the early signs are encouraging. The size of the worshipping community – those readily identifiable as a part of the church family – has more than doubled, rising from 47 in 2013 to 106 in 2016. The usual attendance at Sunday morning’s Holy Communion has gone from 25 to 65, and it’s now a unique amalgam of informality, contemporary worship music and set liturgy, something unique forged out of the practice of both churches.
We know and feel God’s Spirit is with us, and the good news about Jesus is preached wholeheartedly to the second poorest parish in Lichfield Diocese.
The church is reaching out to meet the community at some significant points of need. We partner with the Eden Network, which sets up teams of people who live in the toughest neighbourhoods, and, as full members of a local church, prioritise reaching youth to see their full potential unlocked.
Last year Jem and Gav Hicks moved into a Walsall Housing Group home on exactly the same terms as their neighbours, and their pioneering work outside church confines takes them to local playing fields for detached youth work, and into nearby Walsall College to meet FE students from around the region. But often as not, kids are knocking on the door and perched with them on their doorstep. Already they know by name 100 children and young people from the community, college and church – and on a daily basis work to bring the hope of God’s love into their lives.
We also partner with Betel of Britain, a dynamic network of Christian communities dedicated to restoring lives broken by drug and alcohol addiction. Every Wednesday a number Betelitos come down from their home in Derby to join us for worship, food and friendship and the chance to testify to the reality of lives transformed by the power of the risen Jesus Christ: both at Betel and St Peter’s we’ve seen some of our struggling locals made new.
“This church has been re-born”, says Tom, the warden, who grew up in the parish. “Without the plant we wouldn’t be here. The church’s future is out there: we’ve got to serve the community. Look at yourselves and ask what you can do”.
Kate, the other warden, came with the plant team three years ago. “On Sundays I used to be last into church and first out”, she says, “but coming here has changed me.” She now runs the Betel Drop-in and houses and mentors recovering addicts and ex-offenders.
What does the future hold? Three years in, we know the long haul required for God to raise a generation has only just begun. Next year we hope to help train a curate – the first at St Peter’s since the Second World War – with a view to planting again. We’re also longing to see people – could it be you? – join Eden and move into the area and serve as part our Eden Team, and praying hard that the disused Council Youth Centre, just yards from our home, will become a resource for our work and the local young people again.
Every church was once a church plant – and we need church plants, large and small, to move forward again. St Peter’s Walsall shows what can start to happen when, out of love of God and love of people, especially people in the forgotten and reviled places, the Nazareths up and down the country, we choose to step out in trust and obedience and plant our footsteps in Jesus’ own.
The church’s future is out there: we’ve got to serve the community, and planting to the poorest and most deprived areas is not only possible, it’s essential. Look at Jesus, look at yourselves – and ask what you can do.
Revd Gavin Burnage trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was the curate of Aldridge Parish Church until 2011. He stayed on as a non-stipendiary Associate Minister to spend a year living and working with Betel in Birmingham and New York City, and to explore and prepare the church plant to St Peter’s Walsall, a process which included following the Church Planting Course at St Mellitus College, London in 2012. He has been Priest in Charge of St Peter’s Walsall since February 2014