Today I am living to reach the unreached
As Stephen Smith prepares to reopen and pastor Oxford Elim, he reflects on his early life of grotty bedsits and prison cells.
"I’ll be dead by 30. I’m just an addict," thought Stephen Smith.
Trapped in a web of drug and alcohol addiction, and crime to fund it, and a stream of grotty bed-sits and prison cells, he had lost any hope of a future.
But today, as Stephen prepares to reopen and pastor Oxford Elim, he is in awe of the remarkable way God has transformed his life.
Stephen’s descent into addiction began early. Despite 'a good upbringing in a Christian family', he struggled to fit in at school in Doncaster and suffered severe bullying. Drugs looked like a way out.
"I got hold of cannabis at the school gates. I thought it would solve my problems and stop me being a target. To be honest, it did," he says. "I got high; it took the fear away and I became one of the bullies."
But as Stephen left school at 16, the root of addiction had been sown, and cannabis led to amphetamines and ecstasy. When he held a knife to his brother’s throat, his mum threw him out.
"When she kicked me out it was kind of amazing. I was homeless at 17 and could do what I liked. But I was injecting amphetamines and was sectioned three times in a year."
In and out of detention, the Christian identity Stephen had grown up with was replaced by crime and drugs. As he thieved to fund his habit, he was brutally attacked more than once; bottled in his own flat and thrown off a bridge into a river.
To cope with the stress of his life-style, he turned to alcohol. Even when he found love and secured a job, addiction still held him in its grip.
"I’d wake up at 4am vomiting, shaking, needing a drink. I was drinking eight bottles of cheap cider and taking 25 co-codamol a day. I was killing myself," he says.
When Stephen and his fiancé began using heroin, he lost his home and relationship. But one night, alone in a bedsit, his thoughts turned to God.
"I thought, 'God, are you real? Because if you are, why do bad things always happen?'"
Stephen struggled with his feelings towards God.
"I hated Jesus when I was younger, and I hated my family because of him. But I was absolutely broken and ended up going to church one night.
"I went to Teen Challenge in Doncaster. This pastor comes up to me and says, 'We need to chat, don’t we?' I needed a shoulder to cry on, so I filled in an application for rehab and started seeing this pastor every week and going to church."
Drugs were hard to escape, but after a spell away from church, Stephen returned to God.
"One day, I felt this deep sorrow. I felt broken and humbled over my sin. I said, 'Lord, all my life I’ve lived for myself and I’ve destroyed myself and everyone else in the process. I’m going back to church, I’m going to give you a try."
As Stephen reconnected with church, he found a job as a forklift truck driver and was surprised, during a training session, to encounter God in a toilet cubicle.
"I was praying, saying sorry for rejecting him and I felt this power and light rise up within me. I felt God saying, 'I’m calling you out of drug addiction.'
"I flushed my cannabis away, along with my cigarettes. I was filled with the Spirit. Jesus gave me hope and changed everything – the suicidal thoughts went, and the anxiety and paranoia."
When heroin addiction held on, God held tight to Stephen.
"I couldn’t get Jesus out of my head. Everywhere I went he was there. I went back to my pastor and said, 'You’ve got to get me into Teen Challenge – Jesus won’t leave me alone!'"
Teen Challenge was the turning point for Stephen. After being discipled on its rehabilitation programme, he joined its Leadership Academy. His heart’s desire, however, was to go to Bible college and train as a pastor. He was overjoyed when Elim's Regents Theological College accepted his application."
"In that season, God formed me and spoke to me about the things he was calling me to do – church planting and leadership. Today, I live to reach the unreached, plant churches and proclaim the gospel."
Stephen has been working as Associate Minister at Elim Lighthouse Church in Bicester and is now preparing to reopen Oxford Elim. As he looks back at his life, he is grateful for God’s presence throughout it.
"All those years when I had my middle finger up at God, he was saving me. I’ve experienced things people only read about or see in movies – I nearly died five times and should be dead today.
"Most people don’t live to tell the tale, but I’m able to bring hope and show there’s a better way to live – under the lordship of Jesus."
Replanting Oxford Elim as Restoration Church
Stephen and and his wife Chloé were already getting set to reopen Oxford Elim, but lockdown accelerated their plans.
"In the Bible, God always moves in the midst of crisis. We formed a church planting team and started discipling them," Stephen says.
"We’ve been refurbishing the building. We’ve had the old baptistry removed, the roof fixed and the electrics done. But what’s really incredible is we’ve already started seeing people being saved and this is only the beginning.
"Our heart and mission is 'reaching out and lifting up’ with the love, grace and truth of Jesus, and we have a plan to see many more reached with the gospel.
"We’re planning to launch officially in August as Restoration Church. We have started a youth ministry, and will be running a mission in August, where a few Elim churches will come together and outreach into Oxford."
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