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Encountering Jesus outside of a church building

Tourists flock to Stratford-upon-Avon because it’s the birthplace of William Shakespeare, but Elim pastor John Martin is working hard to make sure they also encounter Jesus.

With a background in worship leading, youth work and missions, John Martin was perhaps well equipped to take on his first role as a pastor.

So he and his wife, Cara, were full of enthusiasm for the challenge of replanting Oasis Christian Centre four years ago. Now known as Oasis Community Church, it was a church with just nine loyal members in the famous Shakespearian town of Stratford-upon- Avon.

“The church had done really well in the past but had become quite inward-looking,” said John. “I sensed God was saying that people would come to the theatres of Stratford not to encounter Shakespeare, but Jesus. Stratford is an arts and theatre town. Our job as a church is not to distance ourselves from that culture, but to shape it.”

The church’s original members supported John’s vision of planting a church in one of the theatres in the centre of town. Over the past four years, they have been encouraged by the rapid growth they’ve seen. John says, “We regularly have up to 60 adults and 20 kids attending on Sundays now.”

Church members are also growing in faith. Recently, John baptised a mix of new Christians, young adults, local families who have recently come to Christ, and students.

To reach people in the area, John encourages a community focus, running Alpha courses, and asking small groups to meet in town rather than in houses. Proof of their impact came in a most unlikely place.

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“A group had been meeting in McDonald’s on Tuesday evenings. One night, they were discussing whether to stop meeting there because the group had got so big. The cleaner overheard them and said, ‘Can I press pause on your conversation because I need to speak to my manager?’

“The manager came over and said, ‘We don’t want you to stop meeting here because when you’re here the atmosphere is different.’ Since then, they’ve reserved a private section for the group to meet there every Tuesday.”

Within the church, John has put ideas in place to nurture a spirit of generosity that will bless the wider community. “Every June, we have a month of generosity, where we give away every penny we get, plus our time and energy. In the first year, it was £1,500. Last year it was £8,500. This year it was £10,947.

“We budget everything we do on 11 months, then give June’s offering away to fund church planting, missions and local projects to bless our town.”

One popular project is an Easter Sunday event where the church hosts a free barbecue and hires giant inflatables.

“It baffles locals why we do this, but when they come we’re able to share the story of what Easter’s about. We’ve taken Easter hampers to the staff at McDonald’s too. A number of them have come to this event and asked for prayer.”

Other projects include providing homeless people with hot food every Wednesday lunchtime – cooked by a former top chef.

“Again, this is about creating a culture,” says John. “The people we work with say Wednesdays are great because they get the best food and the best people to talk to. It’s been really encouraging.”

Keen to engage with the town’s arts culture, the church has been encouraged by growing connections with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The students who come to our church have a real passion, and when they’re putting on plays we support them. It’s great as a pastor to be able to speak into their lives.”

John is now looking for new ways to equip church members from all walks of life to reach others in their everyday lives. “We have this idea of being a city on a hill where we are involved in everything in the town – the arts, finance and government.

“We’re really blessed to have counsellors in our church, and artists, representing all sorts of things in our society where we feel God is stirring something.”

Discover Oasis Community Church at occ-stratford.org.uk

A pioneer church for the youth work of Limitless

Last year, the church in Stratford was selected as one of the first Limitless pioneer churches – a project to resource 100 churches with youth leaders to develop their kids’ work. “Our youth worker developed a lunch club at our local high school, and we’ve launched a mid-week group too,” says John.

“For six months, we had just three faithful kids from our church attending. Now we have 15-20 young people. They have no connection to church, but come to play football. When they had exams coming up several asked if they could put a prayer in our prayer jar, and they’re keen to talk about what they’re going through at school too.”

As well as leading Oasis Community Church, John works part-time for Elim Missions. He joined the Missions team 14 years ago, using his degree in art and graphic design to assist with design, filmmaking and managing projects.

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