Debi and I had just come through another bruising and discouraging encounter with a church that we’d tried to plant in to. We’d failed. Again. It was the twelfth time we’d tried. The church that I loved and where I served as a Curate, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), was being patient with me. They couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. But I’d been there for 5 years and felt at times like a bit of a spare part. I was supposed to be fixing my mind on the future. But I was stuck in the past. I was depressed. Maybe I’d got it all wrong. Perhaps I should give up church leadership and go back to making money in the City.
By contrast my companion for the journey oozed energy and excitement. Ric slurped his coffee with eager gulps. His eyes shone. He had a huge, permanent grin and he laughed often and loudly. The natural cynic in me tried hard to find him annoying but failed, he was such a nice guy to spend time with and his optimism was infectious. Looking back, he spent that entire train journey doing just one thing: encouraging me. Here was a guy who clearly knew the importance of, “encouraging the disheartened.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). If it wasn’t for that day with now-Bishop Ric Thorpe, none of what follows would have happened. I owe him so much.
We stepped off the train at Bournemouth in to bright sunshine. I’d done my research. They say there’s a micro-climate here such that we get more sunshine and less rainfall than the rest of the UK. There are 466,000 people who live in the area. That puts it in the UK’s top-20 largest urban areas. It’s one of only a small handful of places where the average age of the population is falling as more and more young people decide to live here. But only a tiny percentage of the population go to church. There’s surf, there’s sun, and there’s a lot of people who don’t yet know Jesus. As I blinked in the dazzling sunshine, my heart leaped, my energy rose and a single thought filled my mind, “I can’t think of a better place to start a new church.”
We were met by the Archdeacon of Bournemouth, Peter Rouch, who had come to explain the Bishop’s vision for a new church in Bournemouth and to show us some of the possible sites under consideration. Peter explained that alarm bells were ringing at the Diocese. Despite valiant attempts by dedicated local ministers, overall numbers in the church in Bournemouth were in decline and the average age of congregations was rising – that at a time when the background population was doing the exact opposite: growing and getting younger. Overall, the church was stuck in reverse, and had only a very limited lifespan. A change programme was just getting started in existing churches, but alongside that the feeling was that it was time for a risky new experiment.
Peter started talking about the questions that needed answering. Had the younger generations of Bournemouth rejected Jesus, or the church? Were the poor, the addicted, the lonely, the homeless – those who had lost hope in Bournemouth – beyond reach? Was it possible to encourage the wider church in Bournemouth, to see every congregation move in to a new phase of life, worship and mission? He wanted us to come and start an experimental new congregation aimed at answering those questions.
In the months that followed I talked to many church leaders in the town. As I listened I realized that there are many churches here that get the urgency of the situation and are pursuing change. It’s up to new leaders to take advantage of the faithful hard work done by many local believers for a long time and to encourage them to keep going. There’s an incoming tide of God’s blessing and power available for his people, a tide that will float all boats willing to rise over the years to come.