Four Elim churches on the Isle of Man are pioneering innovative ways to share the gospel.
Their pastors Jonny Harding and John Powell explain...
"Our commission is to go out and share the gospel, not expect people to come to us to find it", says Jonny Harding.
This belief is driving a radical change in the way the two churches he leads operate.
In the north and west of the Isle of Man, Ramsey Elim Community Church and Peel Elim Community Church are pioneering a dramatically different way of working.
Both well-established churches serve traditional, rural, settled island communities, and through prison visits, food provision, playgroups and schools work are already active in their local areas.
But their pastor Jonny Harding wanted to encourage more personal outreach, so last July he and his team decided both churches would meet for services on just the first Sunday of each month.
Outside this, members can choose to gather however, whenever and wherever they like to reach friends, family and neighbours.
"We asked how we were loving our neighbours, connecting with people, meeting needs and communicating Jesus to people who hadn’t heard his name for a while," says Jonny, who has pastored Peel for eight years and Ramsey for three.
Jonny believes this outreach-focused approach is vital.
"Our assumption has been that people will come in to hear the gospel, but actually our commission is to go out and share it. So we’re deliberately placing ourselves in the middle of everyday life in our communities."
To equip people to adapt to this change, Jonny has encouraged a focus on prayer, Scripture and character building.
A weekly devotional is shared as a resource for people gathering together. A text prayer service via a website, text-prayer.im, has also been launched. And a teaching series focusing on character is helping church members examine how they follow Jesus, love others and interact with neighbours.
The Isle of Man’s size is proving to be an advantage as church members focus on outreach.
"Ramsey has 8,000 people and Peel 5,000 so we know each other and can connect and be aware of needs."
Jonny says this drive to meet beyond the boundaries of traditional church is bearing fruit.
"We’re giving people an opportunity to talk through some of their needs in a way that wouldn’t be possible in some more traditional Sunday spaces.
"Some people have had painful relationships with church and maybe feel disqualified, put off or nervous about re-entering that space. But we’ve seen people reconnect with Jesus and the body of Christ when someone they know has invited them to eat together and talk in a different environment.
"It’s given us the ability to have conversations with people about Jesus who had expressed zero interest in connecting with a community of faith.
"People need to know there is hope and joy, to experience peace and to know they are loved, accepted and included.
"We are trying to find a better way of communicating that."
Zoom services encouraged unity and growth among many of John Powell’s church members during lockdown. As he seeks to build on this, he is also working to encourage unity between the wider denominations on the island.
"Zoom gave everyone a voice," says John.
He leads Onchan Elim Church on the east of the Isle of Man and Elim South Church at the bottom of the island. He's interested in the lasting effect life during lockdown has had on his traditional churches.
"Everyone had a chance to talk, people got to know each other better, it added more flavour and we haven’t lost that," he says.
Lockdown on the Isle of Man was shorter than in the UK – borders were closed swiftly, meaning households were released at the end of June 2020, and were only locked down throughout January second time around.
John chose to run church on Zoom so people could interact.
"It put everybody in one group and we heard from people who might not necessarily get the microphone on a Sunday morning.
"It’s often the quiet voices you never hear from that come out with the most level-headed things. Older people who had lived through the war encouraged the younger ones not to worry.
"Also, I think there’s a danger that church is becoming too professional; that only the best musicians get to play. But Zoom gave everyone a chance and made sure there was a place for everybody."
"Online meetings encouraged growth. Around 20 people joined the church and others grew in faith as they read their Bibles more and asked questions in chat rooms.
The changes have lasted, John says. "When we returned to live services we found people sitting with others they hadn’t sat next to before because they’d made friends on Zoom."
That said, one of John’s focuses this year has been supporting those who struggled with the second lockdown.
As an island community used to coping with powerful storms, the first lockdown didn’t faze them. But when 19 people died from Covid at a nursing home, ferry staff lost their lives, and islanders lost family members on the mainland during the second lockdown, people struggled.
"We realised it was very, very real. People who got through the first lockdown found the second one left them a lot flatter."
Meanwhile, in addition to pastoring his churches, John is also chair of Churches Alive in Mann. Aiming to encourage unity among denominations, he has launched a preaching initiative to bring churches together.
"Someone from each denomination is coming to my church to preach. We pray for God to bless them and pray together that the Lord will break any boundaries between us. I’m also preaching in some of their churches, to break down any sense of us and them.”
John says he has learned an important lesson from the past year. "I just don’t do busy anymore," he says.
Lockdown forced his first break for 19 years and he is keen to learn from it. "It isn’t exactly manic on the Isle of Man but there are people saying they hope they don’t go back to the office, because too often we work to live rather than live to work.
"It’s the same in the church – some of the busyness has gone and it’s more relaxed. I wonder whether during lockdown, God grabbed hold of Great Britain, shook it and said, 'You forgot your shabbat'"
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