It’s about three years ago that I had a call from a chap called Steve Horton from Sheffield. He wanted to meet up with me to talk about the local church situation in the West Midlands. He’d just been asked to start looking after evangelical Congregational Churches in the area (Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches) and someone had put him in touch with me as a local pastor who was concerned to encourage and support revitalisation.
We met up and Steve told me about a few of the churches. Most were struggling with declining and aging congregations and were without pastors. One was very close to us, West Smethwick Congregational Church. At this stage he asked me simply to pray for them. A little while later, Steve got back in touch to say that the church were looking for help. They realised that they were heading towards closure and did not want the Gospel light to go out in their community.
A couple of us from Bearwood Chapel met with the remaining leaders at West Smethwick to pray and talk with them about the present situation and about the future. We were clear that we could not make promises. At that time 2020 Birmingham were looking at where they could support further church planting and revitalisation. I urged them to look at West Smethwick arguing that if we were to see Gospel growth into the Black Country then we had to start encouraging people and resources into places like West Smethwick now.
Through 2020 contacts, we were able to link the congregation up with Tom Martin, at that time part of the pastoral team at Kensington Baptist in Bristol. Tom and his wife agreed to come up and have a look around. After a period of prayer they agreed that God might be calling them to West Smethwick and were encouraged by this when another couple moving into the area form family reasons indicated that they would be willing to join them. So, the Martins moved up to Smethwick about a year ago, right in the middle of COVID.
It was therefore encouraging to join with others over the weekend of the 2nd -3rd July as part of a team helping the church prepare for future outreach beyond COVID. The building needs a lot of work doing to it and so part of the team focused on painting, decorating and gardening to help present a brighter, more welcoming appearance.
However, whilst the building is important and useful, church is first and foremost about people. It’s about being a witness into the local community. So, the other part of the team focused on rebuilding connections with the local people. I helped with this and we were joined by a group of trainees from OM carrying our community services to ask people about life in the local area, the challenges they faced and how a church could help.
A lot of people talked about their love of the local community, its welcome and diversity. They also spoke appreciatively about amenities, especially the local park. However they also opened up about the challenges of unemployment and especially of crime including violent crime with several mentioning anti-social behaviour and knife crime. When asked what was important in their lives, most talked about family: mum, husband/wife, kids and yes the pet dog! Most had heard something about Jesus but knew little of him. Most people I spoke to expressed willingness to at least visit a church sometime. It is clear that there is a spiritual hunger in the area and if the church doesn’t meet it them someone or something will.
The team at West Smethwick is currently very small. There are a few people left from the original church and another couple have joined the church since it began to reopen for public worship. But they would really benefit from others being willing to come and partner with them.
Could you support the church replant at West Smethwick? This might include through
- Committing to pray for them
- Offering time and skills to help with building renovation
- Giving financial support
- Moving to join the church.