“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
2 Timothy 1:6-9a
It’s a joy once again to be giving a vicar’s report to the APCM and it is a real joy because we have so much to celebrate as a community of faith. We are experiencing positive change and are in a stronger position in many ways compared to last year. We are growing in discipleship, mission, understanding and faith which I will spend some time covering shortly. But like all things where there is new growth, there is also fragility, there is also stretching of resources, there is vulnerability. This is necessarily the way. There cannot be any meaningful change or growth without it. So, there is much to celebrate, so much joy, hope and love. God’s work is widening through our collective ministries and we are seeing the blessing of our community growing. Although that comes with the anxiety of vulnerable growth, we cannot overestimate just how amazing that growth is – and how many churches are in a state of decline and would be so envious of the position we find ourselves in.
I think the greatest thing we can celebrate together over the last year has been the growth in confidence within our church community. This for me, has been perhaps the greatest joy of the last 12 months. People feeling able to take on what God has called them to do, able to commit more fully to not just the very important roles around church governance as we yet again celebrate a full PCC, and all key roles filled but also in terms of different individuals’ own faith journey and holy calling. It has been a great joy to see both Don and Janet grow into their callings as they train for licenced lay ministry. I look forward to seeing how God can use them in ways they couldn’t imagine as they are licenced later this year. Many of the most important roles within the church are those that are rarely seen, and again not only have people stepped up with more confidence but they have increasingly grown into the role they have been called to. As always Jo and David our wardens have once again provided stable, confident and competent lay leadership within our community. It is no overstatement to say that much of what the church is able to do well rests on their shoulders. We have a full PCC that works well together, that has alongside the church, discerned a vision for our community, alongside key officer doing the hard work that allows the ministry to happen to our community. There are, and I mean this in the most literal sense, too many people to thank, whose life and witness as disciples of Christ and whose dedication to the flourishing of our community is enabling us to ask interesting questions growth for the future.
Led by Jesus, over the last year we as a community have discerned our vision for our church in five overlapping mission areas. Our first mission area is to be a community that is led by Jesus. This has to be where all life in our church finds its foundation. We are dedicated to discerning God’s will for every decision we make. We are, I trust, beginning to make prayer a feature of all our activity, learning to look to scripture for inspiration and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us. This is a continual work, and I would encourage everyone in all areas of church life to always begin whatever we do, whether privately or corporately, in prayer searching for God’s guiding and blessing.
From this first mission area flow our others. Our second mission area revolves around worship; our aim to make all worship accessible, inclusive and participatory. It has been a great joy to see people deepening their knowledge of scripture and faith through the alpha course or lent course. It has been wonderful as we have witnessed this year the confirmed children becoming servers, different people of differing ability volunteering for readings or prayer ministry. We have seen more people volunteer to become chalice assistants and most recently crucifers. We have enjoyed the growing choir, who are making our worship more joyous, despite the difficulties as various organs have broken down. As confidence grows a key question will be to ask how do we improve the musical worship of our church? How do we encourage more families to make St Andrews their home? What is God calling us to provide to help those on the margins of church life, that will help them worship their Lord in a way that is a stepping stone towards becoming a full member of our community?
Our third mission area is being disciples. Here too we see growth, as members of our community take opportunities to deepen their faith, learning more about the scriptures, deepening prayer and learning to trust in the Lord. All of this is happening in the context of joy. We are a joyful community, again something sadly rare in church communities, and this joy helps fuel our discipleship, often found in the act of eating together. This is entirely biblical and holy and something that must continue to be a focus for us just as it was a focus for Jesus and His disciples. Key questions over the next year are how do we create opportunities for people to grow in knowledge, faith and prayer? As people become ever more confident in their discipleship, how do we wisely provide opportunity for growth or ministry?
Our fourth mission area is making disciples, the act of going out and reaching the people of Cleveleys who are in desperate need of God’s love. We are seeing growth in this area. Our outreach through our ministry provision for children is bearing fruit. Toddlers is very full and provides contact between families and the church. SAS has grown again this year, now with up to 18 children coming fairly regularly to worship, play, make craft and learn about Jesus. Our lady chapel, largely unused previously, is now slowly transforming into a youth chapel. Over the last 12 months a number of people have completed or are completing the alpha course. We have seen our warm space turn into a lunch time community and which will continue through the summer. Our occasional offices, especially baptisms, are providing excellent grounds for people to hear the gospel often for the first time. Saturday morning Coffee Break is going from strength to strength with special events and well attended. Our Christmas tree festival is growing again, bringing in another record amount but more importantly bringing more people into the building. Some key questions to pray about is how do we increase our confidence to a place where we are able, or feel able to invite people into the joy of our community? As we see success, how do we offer people the opportunity to come to know their Lord? How do we make obvious that we are an inclusive community where people are invited to be themselves without fear?
Our final mission area is around teaching. Although we have seen some progress and opportunity through lent courses, alpha and sermons from different preachers this is an area that perhaps we need to focus on in the next 12 months. We will need to discern as a community how best to provide bible study, opportunity to engage in private and corporate prayer that will help us grow in faith. Another key question is how to make sure that teaching isn’t limited to the academic realm and how we can offer exploration of spirituality as well or finding God in the symbolic or in silence.
I hope it is as clear to you as it is to me that as a church we have so much to celebrate as we see our church grow and change. As we grow, we need to be aware of the significant challenges that face us as a community too. Some of this is frankly financial. We managed to meet our parish share last year which is an excellent sign to the diocese that they were correct to invest in St Andrews. We look like, by the skin of our teeth, that we will also manage to make our parish share again this year, despite significant increases in fuel and our parish share contribution, which have all been recalculated diocese-wide. There are tools that we hope will enable some of that, as we have recently joined the parish giving scheme, more on that in the next few months, and plans are afoot to try and enable other ways of giving. We do live precariously however, as at one point earlier this year it looked like we would not be able to pay all our bills and that still may be the case if things don’t progress well. So please pray as we think about how we can make our finances sustainable in the future.
As our community continues to flourish and change, I hope to ask seriously the question of how we enable more mission for our church. Some of the ministerial opportunities will be met by our new lay leaders and others who feel the call on their heart to a ministry. I also wonder if this means asking seriously how we might explore employing a youth worker, missioner or administrator. There are so many opportunities around our youth work as SAS members get a bit older and look for a youth group or around how our occasional offices are increasing or how our building is being used more and more by both the worshipping community and community groups that go beyond my own capacity. These are exciting questions to ask and I would ask that a focus for your prayers would be how we enable others to come on board and how we enable the exciting growth in faith here to go from fragile to embedded.
It’s also important to hear that as our mission as a church has increased so has the demands on everyone. We are in a period when our mission has not caught up with our membership. This has predictably led to many people doing more. It is really important to recognise that over half our regular members do something for the benefit of our community which is just so amazing. However, often the ones who are doing more are the people who already do so much. But as I said to you last year, church must never be a burden but a blessing. If you are doing too much, speak to me, let something go, we can explore the ramifications later. Jesus died for you to have life in all its fullness, not so you could be burdened with something that is too much. As our opening scripture from 2 Timothy said “[rely] on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” We are to rely on God for the growth not on any of us. Equally, if you are less busy and see some of the people on whom we rely on struggling, prayerfully consider how you might help. Even little things like occasionally counting the money, offering yourself as a reader, helping out with the flower rota, offering to help sporadically with teas and coffees make a huge difference. Many of you already do this, thank you to all the people who have stepped up to help at the warm space, the social and fund-raising committee, the new areas of worship and in many other ways.
These challenges, briefly outlined, are not problems a failing church has. We have so much to be thankful for and so much to look forward to. Through God’s grace we are once again becoming the parish church of Cleveleys, not simply in name but in actuality. As we pray and hope for the continued blessing of God on our community, let us give thanks for the abundant way God is answering our prayers. Let us give thanks for the wonderful Christians we serve alongside. Let us give thanks for the joy that is found here. Most of all I give thanks for people here growing in confidence in prayer, worship and service. May God continue to bless our precious community and may we be amazed by what God does here in the next 12 months.