‘So, you are leaving us to go to a big church then?’ said one of the members of our previous church when the news broke that we were moving to Abbey Baptist Church in Reading. ‘Glad to hear that you are going to a big church!’ wrote someone in an email to us when the news became public knowledge. We were greatly amused by both comments because (in the way these two friends understood ‘big’) Abbey was far from big. Numerically it was smaller than the church we were leaving, and the stipend they were offering was also less (although I am pleased to say that subsequently they have matched Julia’s previous stipend). Nevertheless, reflecting upon the meaning of ‘bigness’ subsequently, I have come to see that Abbey is indeed a big church … for a number of reasons!
Abbey is a big church because of its history! Dating from 1640 Abbey is one of the first Baptist Churches to be planted in the UK. During the last 380 or so years it has moved site several times and is now based in the historic Abbey area of Reading. It is not, however, simply important because of its historical longevity (although it is known and respected as such) but because of what it has achieved in that time. Over the years Abbey has planted somewhere in the region of 25+ congregations in and around Reading but also further afield. Not many churches have done that kind of thing. As a result Abbey is held in high esteem by many of the other churches (of all denominations) in Reading.
Abbey is a big church because of its location! Situated as it is in the historic Abbey Quarter of Reading, Abbey Baptist Church is right at the centre of the town with all the potential that that carries. Built as it is on the site of the old Reading Abbey precincts, one cannot help but feel (as many others do) that having a church, recognised even by non-Christians possessing such an esteemed heritage, at the heart of the town, is important. In some ways Abbey is a kind of sleeping giant waiting to wake up and achieve its potential, its destiny. And, sitting spiritually, as we do, in both the evangelical/charismatic Reading Christian Network and the Central Reading Council of Churches, we are ideally placed to encourage and facilitate meaningful cooperation in the cause of the Kingdom.
Abbey is a big church … literally! Our buildings are a bit like the Tardis. From the outside the buildings do not appear to be as large as they are. Once you get inside the building, however, you discover that there are rooms galore spread over three floors. They are already being put to good use in several ways. We house four congregations on a Sunday – a Sri Lankan Tamil speaking congregation, a Ghanaian congregation, and a Portuguese congregation, as well as our own congregation. Currently we are four different churches, but we are already meeting together for social events, and sometimes shared worship, and hopefully this will develop more and more. In all over 200 people meet for worship in our building every Sunday, which more than many churches today. Julia and I would love to see these four congregations start to work even more closely together in the future. Our buildings are extensively used every day of the week by various community groups and charities including U3A. In addition we rent out part of the building to a charity that works with ex-offenders, and we are also part of the ‘Bed for the Night’ scheme that provides overnight accommodation for the homeless during the excessively colder winter nights.
Abbey is a big church because of the opportunity it presents! Our friend Azar Ajaj (President of the Nazareth Evangelical College) never talks about ‘problems’ but always refers to perceived problems as ‘opportunities’! I want to say something about some of the difficulties we face in a moment but for now I want to underline the wonderful opportunities we have at Abbey. Situated where we are just off the main town centre drag, surrounded by tall buildings originally built as offices, has been perceived in the past as a major problem. But today, the historic Abbey Quarter of Reading has been developed into a tourist attraction, the office blocks are being converted into flats (including social housing), and our buildings (as my mother-in-law describes them) are a ‘hidden gem’. The premises (although in need of some updating) are both pleasant and useful. Lots of people know about Abbey. Over 60 local church leaders meet to pray for Reading every Wednesday morning from 8.00 a.m. for an hour. Baptist-Christians in Reading are strong with a good number of churches who work together well. The holistic needs of people in Reading are great, but we are in a position to meet many of them in Christ’s name. The future could be amazing!
Abbey is a big church in terms of vision! Julia and I come to Abbey with a vision for us as a church to become a Community Hub Church open 24/7 to meet the physical, mental, social, emotional and environmental needs of our community, as well as the spiritual. Whilst we understand the Gospel holistically, we also recognise the integral nature of the Good News and that primarily we need to help men and women come into a living relationship with God through a living, personal experience of coming to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Without this we have effectively done nothing to meet the real need of men and women. It is only when we become ‘new creatures in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) that we find the real answer to the meaning and purpose of life. Abbey is already well on the way in their journey along Community Hub Church lines – our role is to encourage and facilitate this aim and objective.
And finally, Abbey is a big church in terms of it being a big challenge! Numerically we are a small church – around 30 or so members of the church and congregation. We are also largely an elderly congregation with most of us being 70+ in years. They are a great bunch of people who still work hard at enabling us to function as a church. Everybody, almost without exception, plays a significant part. But, the simple fact of the matter is that we need a spiritual blood transfusion if the church is to survive and continue to be a significant influence for good and for God in the future. We need new people, younger people, people who will buy into the vision for Abbey and who see its importance in terms of the Kingdom. Ultimately, we need conversion growth, and this is one of our aims and objectives, but we could also do with some mature Christians coming to join us. One of my bug bears (and I am not just thinking of Reading here) is the number of larger churches numerically where a huge proportion don’t really do anything other than attend on a Sunday morning. Here at Abbey we could do with some ‘dirty hands Christians’ – people who take the call of God seriously and want to get stuck in and see something significant achieved in God. Please pray for us, especially that God will send us some mature Christians to help us and add to our numbers those who are ‘being saved’ (Acts 2:47).
So, yes Abbey is a big church in a lot of ways. Most of all, however, we have a big God who is ‘able to do so much more than we ask or even think possible’ (Ephesians 3:20). Perhaps God is calling you to come and join the revolution – here at Abbey or if not here right where you are right now!
I believe the Lord has an exciting future for all of us who worship at Abbey Baptist Church! What will it look like I don’t know. The Methodist Covenant prayer expresses well the journey into the unknown we take with the Lord.
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’
Are you able to pray this prayer? Think about if before you do!