A Spirit of Discovery

“Welcome to Plymouth. Britain’s Ocean City.” These are the new signs the City Council have just erected on the approach to Plymouth. I preferred the old ones. “Plymouth – the Spirit of Discovery.” Don’t you think it just sounds a bit more exciting and forward looking? Although, it was too much of a temptation for some comedian whose deft paint spraying left it saying “the Spirit of Disco”. It may sound a bit clichéd, but I do believe that in my life time there has not been a more exciting time to be a Christian in this country. It truly feels like God is doing something new and, here in Plymouth, we are being called to participate in this “Spirit of Discovery”.

From September 2013, I have the huge privilege of succeeding Paul Smith as Superintendent of the Plymouth Mission Circuit and of ministering with the wonderful team at Central Hall. I have lived in Plymouth for seven years already whilst working as District Mission and Development Enabler, so I have gleaned some insight into the workings of Central Hall. What I share here are some initial impressions of how a church of this kind can respond to the challenges and opportunities of city life.

Central Halls were built between 1886 and 1945 in most major British towns and cities (and in several London boroughs) mainly by the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Many were built in the style of the surrounding architecture, rather than in a classical ‘church’ design and for this reason some, like Plymouth, are often not recognised as a church building. They were intended to play their part in the social and entertainment life of the city and some became renowned for the huge crowds attracted to them by popular preachers. With the massive deprivation experienced in the city centres during the late Victorian era and after the two World Wars, the Central Halls also became centres for practical care of the most poor and vulnerable.

Whilst many of our Methodist Central Halls across the country have suffered from the drift of population from the city centre, the constant redevelopment of pedestrian precincts, and then shopping malls, Plymouth Central Hall has managed to maintain its place at the heart of city life. It now stands alongside Drake Circus Mall, the newly expanded Plymouth University and the increasingly popular Plymouth College of Art. We have our own café, a small prayer chapel, four retail units which are let on a commercial basis, including, on the edge of the car park, a coffee and milkshake kiosk, ironically calling itself the ‘Ministry of Milk’.

There is not room here to outline everything that takes place, but just to highlight that, alongside all the regular groups meeting at Central Hall, there are also two outreach projects in other parts of the city, which are on the sites of previous Methodist Churches. After years of hard work in maintaining a presence in some of the most deprived areas of the city, both properties now also host fledgling congregations once more (one a midweek ‘Messy Church’ and one a Sunday afternoon café style worship).

So, let me be a good preacher and share three areas which I believe are part of our discovery of where the Spirit is leading us.

A voice in the market place

Four years ago, I spent some time with the leadership of Churches Together in Plymouth carrying out a Faith Action Audit. We invited the University’s Social Policy research team to set up the questionnaire and crunch the numbers for us and we were able to track a large percentage of the community work undertaken by all faith groups in the city. Like many who have done similar research, we were able to demonstrate the vital contribution of Christian congregations (and others) to the social, physical and spiritual well-being of their communities. Over time, and with the emergence of a massively successful Street Pastor Programme, development of a Foodbank (hosted and significantly funded by the Methodist Church) and other initiatives, we are discovering that the Christian voice is being heard again in the civic, business and commercial spheres of city life. Whilst the secular-materialist agenda is never far away, we are praying that the Gospel will make an impact through our presence. If we can demonstrate the power of love in action, of caring, inclusive communities and of life enhancing spirituality, then we may once again have earned the right to contribute to the debate about the future of city life.

Healing and wholeness

I am writing this piece having just spent a week traveling to and from Westminster on the underground for the Methodist Conference. A pretty stressful experience. Whilst I can’t pretend that life in Plymouth can be compared with London, we know that for many people obtaining and retaining a job, keeping on top of finances and maintaining healthy relationships in the whirl of city life is immensely stressful. Whether in the business and commercial sector, among the staff of hospitals, police or social services, or for those trapped by poverty, unemployment, or as refugees, contemporary life throws up huge challenges to the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of thousands of people.

Two years ago, almost symbolically, we moved the prayer chapel from a room at the back of the building to one at the front. At its re-opening, we held ten days of 24-7 prayer, involving people from many different churches across the city. The door to the prayer chapel stands open every day and a brief service is held on a Tuesday lunch time. Crucially, alongside the regular pastoral ministry of the church, there is also a healing ministry, with a trained prayer team. They are not only available during Sunday worship, but meet with people in the week for prayer and healing ministry.

Whilst there is a massive need to offer practical support through the Soup Run, Foodbank, toddler groups, or fellowship for the elderly, so many people just need to discover what the Message version of Matthew 11.28 calls “the unforced rhythms of grace”. We desperately need oases of tranquillity in the busyness and business of city life, demonstrating that there is a Saviour who will release them from the addictions created by their being caught up in the whirlwind of materialism; a Shepherd who will help them find still waters among the constant striving for identity and purpose.

Resourcing Mission

Last year’s cohort of six ‘on trial’ local preachers were coming to the end of their training together, when the tutor asked them to consider what God might be calling them to do with this experience they had shared. After some time apart to pray and reflect, one, who is the circuit family worker and appointed to a small community project in Devonport, said she felt called to re-launch worship at the centre which was formerly Keyham Methodist Church. The majority of that team has now joined her and on a Sunday afternoon, after a break of nine years, a group of people, many of whom have no experience of church meet together for worship.

The youth work at Central Hall, which includes an open Friday night youth club, with a passing trade of over 70 young people, is facilitated by a part-time coordinator. Her task is not just to oversee the programme and the recruitment and training of volunteers, but she also supervises an ‘intern’ youth worker. The intern is a member of the team, but also continues in training. This year’s intern is about to take up a post graduate course at Cliff College.

In the new Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network, we are beginning to talk about ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ circuits. In a church as well resourced as Central Hall, all this comes naturally because we have the people. We are still named a ‘Mission’ circuit and this is our calling. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20.21). However, the most effective way we can do this is to equip people to respond to the call of God on their lives, provide them with opportunities to test out that call, and offer guidance and training to step out in faith. (Ephesians 4: 11-12).

So, our discovery is that, rooted in Scripture and prayer, God’s Spirit is making a way that the Gospel can be heard in the market place; that a place of welcome and prayer will bring hope and healing for the weary; and that disciples may grow and respond to the call of God in mission.