Church Growth Trust loves to encourage and be encouraged through giving its church buildings a new lease of life for Gospel use. Ruth Leigh has been looking at the story of two properties at opposite ends of the country which have been repurposed for the glory of God.
In the former mining community of South Elmsall in West Yorkshire, an old chapel is being used in a most remarkable and Spirit-filled way to reach out to the village. In November 2017, Steve and Shelley Ward were approached by Church Growth Trust to see if they would consider taking the building on and planting a new church. As Steve explains: “We were a bit unsure, to be honest. We prayed, and we felt God prompting us, so we said yes and took the lease on in February this year. Years ago, we’d had a prophetic word for the name of a church, so we are now Cedar Valley Church. I’m South Elmsall born and bred, but we’d been travelling out of the village to another church 10 miles away.”
The former Jerusalem Chapel had lain empty for several months when Steve and Shelley went to see it. However, the previous fellowship had kept it in good condition and in recent years built a new entrance. “To our surprise, it had already been painted throughout, so all we had to do was go in and make it our own.
There were some tatty plastic chairs in there which had to go. We’d been given some money so when we saw an advert for 80 chairs for sale, we prayed and offered £500 for them which was what we had. Really, we were hoping for 100 chairs or so. When we told the seller what they were for, he generously sold 120 of them to us for £500. Amazingly, they matched the décor of the chapel exactly!”
The team numbered only 10 at this point – Steve, Shelley, Steve’s dad, their children and two friends. All of them had a vision for the community which had lost its heart after the mine closed. “People are hurt and broken. When the pits were open, there was a camaraderie and a strong community spirit. That went when they closed. We wanted love to come back to South Elmsall. We want our community to see Jesus in us and we want to love them just as Jesus does.”
Shelley set up a Facebook page to advertise Cedar Valley’s inaugural service. God moved mightily, as Steve explains: “The chapel seats 90 people comfortably. There were only 10 of us and we thought a few friends from other churches might come to support us. In the end, 120 people came! The new chairs were getting plenty of use! It was standing room only.”
The next week 28 people came to the morning service, including 12 children. The community is being drawn to the church, asking questions, finding healing and seeing the love of God, just as the team hoped. “We’ve seen some amazing answers to our prayers. A lady we’ve known for 30 years came to our prayer meeting. She’s never had a vision, but she was given a picture of the chapel doors opening with people walking through and asking what they need to do to find Jesus. The next week, that’s exactly what happened. A woman walked in one Sunday morning and she cried from the first note of the first song to the end of the service. Then she asked us that very question.”
Cedar Valley have a warm relationship with Church Growth Trust (CGT). “They have been fantastic! John Duffield met with us back in the winter when we had deep snow. He could have cancelled, but he didn’t. John felt in his spirit that we were the right people for the job. He prayed for us, put us on the CGT prayer list and shared so much knowledge with us. We are so grateful.” Cedar Valley now has two Sunday services, a Sunday school, a discipling course for new believers and long-standing Christians and a real place at the heart of the community. Prayer is key to this remarkable transformation of an old building. “We are constantly praying, surrounding this place and this village with prayer. We have seen the Lord working miraculously since we moved in.”
Just under 250 miles to the south in the village of Ditchling in East Sussex, another Church Growth Trust building, the former Emmanuel Chapel, is being shared between two local churches. Will Kemp is leader of The Point Church, while Keith Hine is the Churchwarden at St Margaret’s Church, Ditchling, part of the Beacon Parish. “I used to be an Elder at the Baptist Church in Burgess Hill about 25 years ago,” explains Keith. “Members of our church were invited to come down to the chapel to take services once a month. My wife and I live on the opposite corner to the chapel, so I’m very familiar with it. One day, Will called me to say that Giles Arnold from Church Growth Trust had been in touch about taking the building over.
Emmanuel Chapel had been running for over 100 years, but had gradually dwindled to a congregation of just five ladies. In the summer of 2017, I met up with Will, Giles and David Wallis, the vicar of the Beacon Parish. We found we had a lot in common with The Point. After praying it through, we decided that it would make sense to come to a 50/50 arrangement.”
St Margaret’s and two other churches form the Beacon Parish. “The way it works is that the Beacon Parish leases the chapel from Church Growth Trust and then sub-leases it out to The Point. It’s a good arrangement.”
Will takes up the story: “We’re a Fresh Expressions church in the Anglican tradition with a heart and vision for reaching out to our community. We rent space at the local high school for our Sunday service and we’ve been looking for premises for our offices and youth work for a while. We’ve just been granted planning permission to build a new office on the back of the chapel, which has been renamed the Emmanuel Centre.”
The Point use the Centre for their youth work once a week, as well as their worship team practice. The Beacon Parish are moving their mother and toddler group to the Centre and are starting an afterschool group for years six and seven. The two churches held a joint Week of Prayer at the Centre in January to ask God’s blessing on their cooperative venture.
Will continues: “The problem is that it’s really only a hall and a small kitchen at present.” With this in mind, the two churches have raised £34,000 towards renovation. Accessible toilets, storage, new heating, rewiring, new guttering and a kitchen refurbishment are all on their to do list.
Although the two churches are very different, they have a shared vision for the village. “At St Margaret’s, we’re mostly retired people with a few younger couples. Our average age is around 75. 30 per cent of the congregation at The Point, on the other hand, are under 18.
Both of us see our collaboration as a great opportunity for youth work for both churches and for the teenagers in Ditchling.” Will is in complete agreement. “We felt the Holy Spirit leading us through the whole process. Since we were already working with the parish church, it seemed like a logical progression. We now use the Centre for our mid-week activities, as well as training courses to encourage people to grow in their spiritual gifts and their faith.
Once the kitchen is sorted, we want to run Alpha, plus parenting and marriage courses.” As always, there are challenges, as Keith explains: “This area of Mid Sussex is quite affluent. It’s a very secular society with a lack of spiritual awareness in many people’s lives. We want to help our neighbours see that there is a purpose to life and that it’s not just about big houses and the newest car.” Will agrees: “We really want to draw people into the life of the church.” Both Will and Keith have enjoyed working with Church Growth Trust. “Giles and John are incredibly helpful and supportive. They’ve been able to provide us with checks and balances as we develop the building and always have excellent advice for us.”
John Duffield, Property Manager at Church Growth Trust has the last word. “At the Emmanuel Centre, it’s wonderful to see the teamwork in place. There are so many people using their God-given talents, skills and professionalism, pulling together to deliver something amazing to reach out to the people of Ditchling and Burgess Hill; the young people in particular. Something I was particularly happy to see was that they’ve reached out to their neighbours. Often, when there is a lot of building work going on and changes afoot, the neighbours get overlooked. This isn’t the case at the Emmanuel Centre – they have put them in the picture before anything has happened which is most heartening to see.
“For Church Growth Trust it is so encouraging to see the baton handed from one generation to the next as Christians run the race of faith in South Elmsall and Ditchling. It means that the Gospel can continue to be proclaimed from our buildings to grow God’s Church.”
Cedar Valley photography by Paul Drabble.