A Grand Design for mission
How a Baptist church is responding to a high profile housing development on its doorstep. By Stephen Rand
Every Thursday night for six weeks around two million people have been gripped by Channel 4’s Grand Designs: The Street. Ordinary people taking up the challenge of building their own home from scratch: there’s been broken relationships, engineering disasters, financial strain, emotional stress… but each programme has ended with the builders proudly showing the presenter round their very individual home. Apparently it has all been worth it in the end!
So where are these exciting and innovative homes? “Oxfordshire”, says the presenter, while a lovely tree set in a gentle field appears on the screen. They are actually in Bicester, and while Bicester does have some trees, the programme hasn’t quite mentioned that the Grand Designs Street is actually part of the reputedly fastest growing town in Europe, due to double in size in the next 15 years – 14,000 new homes.
So how does the church respond to this challenge? Simply join in the grumbling about the inadequate infrastructure, the lorries, the mud… or try and work out of welcoming the thousands of new residents in a really positive way for the sake of the gospel?
Something else unusual happens in Bicester: the ministers/leaders of (nearly) all the churches have an active relationship. Not only is there a weekly breakfast meeting, but a willingness to work together in mission, with individual churches taking the lead on different initiatives and being backed by all – FoodBank, Street Pastors, Refugee Support… and particularly in responding to the new housing developments. So Orchard Baptist Church is the lead church in responding to the unique Graven Hill self-build estate challenge – what will eventually be 1900 homes, including the ten in the Grand Designs Street.
For Orchard Baptist Church the story began with a church plant in a much smaller Bicester in the 1990s. Twenty years later, with over 100 people meeting for Sunday morning worship in a school hall, the inevitable question was raised: do we want our own building? That question quickly became how can we be more – and most – effective in mission? The new housing estates were clearly an opportunity and a challenge – and the fact was that neither land nor finance was available for a church building, and community halls were not going to be built until the estates were already well-established.
Inspired and informed by Ali Boulton’s experience in Swindon, we recognised that having someone living on the new estate as early as possible in its development was the key. So we prayed, swallowed hard and took the decision to appoint a pioneer minister (the name changed to community minister when we realised that titles need to work for people outside the church rather than those inside!) and provide a home/manse/ministry base for them on the estate.
We’ve had great support from the Baptist family in grants to help support the costs of the appointment; the church has risen to the financial challenge of finding the funds for the building. While finance is vital, it's not the key to effective mission. Finding the right person and releasing them to do the right things needs guidance from the Holy Spirit and courage to keep on course and not be diverted from the task.
We were looking for someone who saw ministry not built around Sunday service ministries for the church family, but committed to building relationships with residents, builders, councillors, council officials: focused on blessing the community and working with the community.
Nearly a year later we’re excited with the point we’ve reached. Helen Baker (pictured) has been appointed – and her commitment and focus is already bearing fruit. Getting to know residents is worthwhile in itself. Contact with the developer and council officials builds confidence in the role and intentions of the church, and yields insights into what is planned for the community in the future. It helps to begin to build bridges between the different social groups already part of the estate – social cohesion will be an even greater challenge on a self-build development.
The first community event has been held! Praise God for beautiful Easter Sunday sunshine… and Easter Egg hunts. The majority of the residents joined in, indeed the event went ahead with their enthusiasm and support. People were brought together, community was experienced, and chocolate was enjoyed by young and old. How appropriate that Easter Sunday was such an encouragement!
But it’s not been easy (has effective mission ever been easy?) Getting the new house sorted is taking time: the plot’s been bought, the building company appointed and the plans are about to go in… which means that Helen is commuting to her community, and spending more time than she would like driving backwards and forwards, looking at plans and documents. But it does mean she and her husband Nick are sharing in many of the joys and frustrations of their fellow residents – she is one of them, not an outsider parachuting in. Relationships are being built, even if the house isn’t – yet!
The church is trying to respond to the challenge of a unique new estate in a growing town – in one way not so much a Grand Designs for mission as living out the original God-given method of incarnational ministry. As Helen said when she first came and preached at OBC: 'Living Jesus-following lives outside of the walls of church, where we can be authentic, loving Christians is effective. We might not be able to attract people into our church to experience the joy of God’s love in community, but we can take the experience into the community to show them.'
A final word: are you one of those inspired rather than daunted by the self-build challenge? Our community minister on Graven Hill needs a supportive Christian community around her if she is to be effective in mission. If you would like to know more, and explore the possibility of being part of this Grand Design for Mission, get in touch – email firstname.lastname@example.org
Graven Hill Grand Designs image | Channel 4 press pack
Any Baptist church pursuing ministry opportunities on new estates might find it helpful to know where Orchard Baptist Church received funding for the appointment of a Community Minister on the new self-build Graven Hill estate. Alongside generous and sacrificial giving and loans from our own members, we received significant grants from the Home Mission Special Ministry Grant (contact your local Baptist Association for further information) and from the Baptist Insurance Company (small and large grants are available for evangelistic projects - for more details visit https://www.baptist-insurance.co.uk/about-baptist-insurance/grants).
We also received a three-year People and Places Grant from the Charlton on Otmoor Living Legacy Fund, set up after the closure and sale of a nearby Baptist church. We are immensely grateful for all the support we have received from the Baptist Family which has enabled this exciting ministry to progress.
Stephen Rand is a member of Orchard Baptist Church, Bicester