by Ruth Leigh
Shrewsbury Chapel, Redhill, a 19th century gospel hall, sits comfortably sandwiched between Victorian terraces and more modern houses, with the Gatwick flight path overhead. A small, slightly cramped site, the chapel has seen many changes in the past two years.
The surrounding area is largely residential with plenty of families. There are three other churches within 200 yards of Shrewsbury Chapel, a Baptist church, Methodist church and a Strict Baptist assembly. Gordon Matthews was one of the two Elders at the chapel for many years. He takes up the story: “We were always very keen on reaching out into our community. There was a council-run refuge and rehabilitation unit just up the road from us, which supported people suffering with mental health difficulties. Many of them had come from church backgrounds, put their trust in God in earlier life, then gone off the rails due to drink, drugs or any number of problems. They would often come and join us at a service on Sunday morning, which was wonderful. We had some great times with them.”
In addition, the chapel had close links with a college run by the RNIB nearby. “We would have many students and carers join us at our family Sunday service. It was a great outreach. We did a lot of work with the Torch Trust too, which started life at Shrewsbury Chapel, in fact. A group of ladies from the chapel also used to spend every Tuesday evening up at the college. We had a very strong relationship.”
The chapel had two Elders, Gordon and another brother. “Sadly, the other Elder died at the age of 87 and that left me as the sole Elder. I felt it was scripturally wrong for one man to be leading the assembly. That said, I felt responsible for the church group, having been so closely involved with it for many years. Shortly after that, Peter Collins, a former member, re-joined us, and that was a tremendous help and support to me.”
Peter recalls: “We have always been a Bible-based, evangelistic congregation and there was a Sunday school which reached out to the local children. Sadly, that no longer runs. We knew of Church Growth Trust and in 2015 we got in touch with Giles Arnold, following lots of our own research into local Christian groups who might be willing to work with us. We felt that it was time to offer our building to other local Christians when we weren’t using it.”
After much prayerful consideration, the four trustees retired and appointed Church Growth Trust (CGT) as sole trustee of the Shrewsbury Chapel Trust. The search was on for the right people to move in and share the space. Unusually, when the decision was made, it was a charity who took up the lease, rather than a church group. Peter and the congregation realised very quickly that they had gone to the right people when they approached Church Growth Trust.
“Giles of CGT is a gracious brother, committed to achieving the Lord’s will. He could not have devoted more time or care to us. We all have a very high regard for him. He set up meetings for us with several local groups, but nothing really seemed quite right. However, then he contacted John Bartlett at a local Christian mission, Renewed Hope Trust.”
Gordon and Peter both knew John, as he had been a guest preacher at the chapel. From that initial meeting, events moved quickly. “On 1st September 2016, our trustees passed the trusteeship to CGT and a five-year lease has now been taken up by Renewed Hope Trust. They are reaching out to the homeless locally, providing them with meals and support, plus opening a night shelter in the winter. We still have our two services on a Sunday morning, while Renewed Hope Trust uses our building during the week. We are delighted with this arrangement and so grateful to Giles for his help and advice.”
Gordon made the decision to move closer to his daughter in Lincoln in 2015, following the death of his fellow Elder and a period of ill-health. The two Sunday services, the breaking of bread at 9.30 and the family service an hour later, continue under Peter’s guidance.
John Bartlett, Chair of Trustees of Renewed Hope Trust, has a long history of involvement with mission in the area, in just the same way as the Shrewsbury Chapel had. “I’d been involved with the winter night shelter for about seven years. I’m keen on not simply leaving people where they are, but moving them on towards faith. I suppose you could say it’s all about being a full gospel mission – I feel it’s important to share the word with people. Some of our clientele were telling me that there’s nowhere open on a Sunday, nothing to do and nowhere to go. Many of them were ending up at the pub, which isn’t good.
“I’d been looking for a property in the area for a while, and I’d heard on the grapevine that Shrewsbury Chapel might be available. I went down there one Sunday morning and got talking to Gordon. I remember that almost his first words to me were, ‘Are you looking for premises?’ We chatted and they invited me to speak at one of their services. That’s how I got to know him and Peter.”
John was considering the notion of offering Sunday lunch with a gospel presentation, but did not have the premises in which to do it. Having made the connection with Gordon and Peter, he was then introduced to Giles Arnold, Chief Executive for Church Growth Trust. “Giles normally finds churches to move into gospel halls and chapels, but we expressed an interest and it all worked out. It was an unusual partnership, but it’s worked well.”
Church Growth Trust worked closely with both the chapel and Renewed Hope Trust to ensure that everything ran smoothly. Gill Pedler, Architect at CGT, has been planning out the building work needed to make the chapel ready for its new dual use.
“The chapel is in reasonable condition and it’s been well maintained. The main issue is that there are no toilets which are fully accessible for disabled people. Renewed Hope Trust want to offer their clients the facility to shower, so we are going to be building a shower room and disabled-friendly loos. There is a room upstairs, which could be very useful, but there is a rather home-made and rickety external staircase to access it, something which was probably constructed over forty years ago. I say staircase. In real terms, it’s more like a ladder!”
As with all older buildings, Gill faces challenges. “This is going to be a difficult job for us as the space is so tight. There isn’t much land outside and we are going to have to be really creative with space in order to squeeze in a shower and accessible WC. We are going to have to extend the building out to the current width of the external staircase. We have obtained planning permission, which is good news. We visited the building with our structural engineer to look at the existing structure and suitability of the foundations, and are now going out to tender. Once that work is complete, there are only cosmetic jobs to be done, so it’s not a huge project. It will make a big difference to the remaining church group and the Christian mission though, once it’s all done.”
John Bartlett has a clear vision of what he wants to do and is working closely with other local churches. “We have a five-week rota to host our Sunday outreach which we call “The Real Meal”. We invite our guests for 1pm, there is a service while they eat and we’re all done by 2.30. Six local churches, two Baptist, two Anglican, an independent, a Pentecostal, and ourselves work together hosting. That means there’s a good mix of people with whom our clientele can interact, and lots of different approaches. It also means that the workload is shared. We like working with the cross-church model – it’s good for everyone.”
The church group and Renewed Hope Trust work together well.
Sunday morning from 9.00 – 12.00 is when the two morning services and fellowship are held. Renewed Hope Trust come in at 12.00 to set up The Real Meal and use the building during the week for the occasional prayer meeting or get together. Once the building work is complete, John anticipates using it much more.
“We want to have a real impact on people, showing them Christian love and pointing them towards organisations who can help them. A number of our clientele have come to faith over the years and we do want to keep modelling our hope in God to them. But it’s a social outreach too – yes, we want to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and give the thirsty a drink, but we want more than that. Having the premises has opened up many opportunities for us.”
The original five-year lease has just been extended to ten years, which means that Renewed Hope Trust can apply for a charitable donation from a local grant provider. How does the future look? John is clear. “Revival! That’s what it’s about for us. We want to see the movement of God amongst the urban poor, a group who have been often overlooked in this area. We want to serve the poor and help them to become a faith community and inspire the churches. As and when people come to faith, we move them on into the local churches rather than keep them at the chapel. That’s another reason for working with six other local churches with The Real Meal. It builds strong relationships.”
At the chapel, the members are keen that the word continues to be preached, that they worship the risen Lord and meet to encourage and strengthen each other. The Shrewsbury Chapel assembly fully supports the invaluable work of the Renewed Hope Trust. As the building enters its third century of serving the local community, the future looks bright.
Photographs Copyright Andrew Williams.