Home is where our heart is
Even before the pandemic, Oasis Community Church was moving its focus from simply hosting Sunday gatherings.
Many people agree that churches should not just be about Sunday services, but what does that mean in practice?
That is the question Oasis Community Church in Stratford-upon-Avon has grappled with as it has sought to introduce a new outward-focused rhythm of church life post-pandemic.
OCC’s pastor John Martin, who joined the church as an MIT in 2018, says this quest to change direction actually began just before the first lockdown hit.
“We had started to share that we were sensing God inviting us into some different things around hospitality and opening up our homes,” he says. “Some groups were planning to start inviting neighbours around for food... then lockdown happened and we all went online.”
The church formed Covid Connect groups, and through them tried to find ways to mobilise people into local mission.
“We asked who was crossing our paths and how we could equip church members to reach them,” says John.
“From this, a number of people began helping their neighbours. One person had lost their job and fallen through the gap in terms of being able to access support, for example. People in church were able to offer financial help.”
Others blessed struggling businesses with parcels and messages of prayer support.
“It was great to see people realise they could go out, love their neighbours and have an impact. It really sowed seeds for where we are now,” says John.
OCC came out of lockdown with a strong sense that they couldn’t return to pre-pandemic life, and began exploring how to do church beyond their Sunday gathering.
John decided to introduce a fresh, mission-focused way of operating and re-orientated the church calendar around this.
Firstly, the Sunday set-up was changed.
Pre-pandemic, OCC had rented its building on the outskirts of Stratford to children’s charity Vineyard Learning Centre when it became too small for the growing congregation.
When in-person services were possible once more, John replanted OCC in the town centre by partnering with the United Reformed Church to share its building, with each holding Sunday services on alternate weeks.
“When we meet, we eat, pray and read the Bible together and spur each other on to live a life of mission,” he says.
For the rest of the calendar, gospel communities – or extended families on mission – began to launch last summer with a vision to reach friends and neighbours who never set foot in church.
“We asked what it looks like to live life on mission and we now have people gathering in the places where they live, work or do things out-side of church.
“We have some people who are part of a tennis club, for example. What does it look like to invite the people they meet there around for food and open their lives up to them?
“Then we have groups who live on the same street who are inviting their neighbours around to their homes too.”
At present, there are two gospel communities with around 30 people in each. The vision, John explains, is to eventually have one for every 1,000 people in the Stratford area.
To equip people to reach out through these groups, OCC is offering Bible study and discipleship in smaller huddles.
“We’re investing in making disciples who make disciples by looking at spiritual practices.
“We ask questions like how do we become more like Jesus, how do we live our lives like him and start doing what he did? That’s stepping out in justice, praying for people, offering hospitality and supporting the poor.”
The approach is new, but after tough times during lockdown John is encouraged to see God moving and the church growing as it becomes more outward focused.
“We’ve seen people seeking God, encountering him and being healed too.”
He believes God’s pre-pandemic call for people to open up their homes is leading OCC to more closely mirror the early church.
What they are seeing in their Sunday services, he believes, is a precursor to what God will do beyond them.
“God’s stirred something in us to invite people into the places where we live, and by his Spirit is re-igniting something similar to what we see in Acts 2.
“When we gather, we see that in significant ways, but we see it too when we’re scattered. We are celebrating what God is doing as we’re filled with his Spirit.”
Forming missionaries of the future
Elim’s international missions director Iain Hesketh is an elder at Oasis Community Church.
The church’s outward perspective, he says, is helping prepare future missionaries.
“Our cross-cultural missionaries of the future are being formed in our churches right now. The question is, what kind of missionaries are we forming?
“Are we forming people who know what it means to walk with Jesus and how to help others do the same? The mission of God is to be carried out from everywhere to everywhere as we participate with the Spirit.
“The exciting thing about OCC is that we are seeking to do this through developing gospel communities orientated around discipleship and mission.
“I am convinced the more we do this locally, the more likely we will be to identify, train and send the next generation of cross-cultural missionaries to pioneer gospel communities in the nations.”
How online service drew me to faith
One of John’s highlights during lockdown was seeing Jonathan Youl, an actor and now a drummer in OCC’s worship band, come to faith after months of prayer by his girlfriend.
Initially avoiding the church’s online services, Jonathan progressively began to listen and engage and was drawn to faith.
“I came to faith during lock-down through various conversations with my girlfriend and, initially, from overhearing online services.” Jonathan says.
“I was going through a particularly dark and depressing period in my life and got to a point where I was so desperate to unload the weight of the world from my shoulders that I’d try anything.
“So I decided to keep an open mind and actually watch a service. The rest is history.
“The faith I now have means that when I find myself in a hole, when I feel like I’m alone and unloved, there is a friend sitting in that hole with me. It’s brought me so much comfort and confidence knowing that.
“Acting is my profession and bringing that confidence to the stage has made me fall in love with my job again. I am eternally thankful.”
First published in the May 2022 issue of Direction, Elim’s monthly magazine. Subscribe now to get Direction delivered to your home.
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