In October 2014, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Swindon and spoke at a prayer breakfast to which many of the church leaders in the town were invited. He encouraged us as leaders from a diversity of churches that we were living in days of unparalleled opportunities for the advance of the gospel, and challenged us from John 17 that relating together and working together were priorities for the mission of God in the world. His message had a lasting impact on us, and we received it as a prophetic call to the church in Swindon at that moment in its history:
“The more division goes on, the more we become accustomed to it. . . it can become habit rather than scandal, but it is a scandal, and each time we meet we should remember what a scandal it is!” (Justin Welby)
The backdrop was that Swindon had been known as a town with a fair amount of disunity. People moving from one church to another and little relationship between church leaders. Interestingly, at about the same time as the Welby breakfast, the leader of one of the larger churches in the town (not present at the breakfast) had begun to gather a few church leaders to pray, sensing that something new needed to happen. God was at work in various relationships and connections, preparing the ground for what he wanted to do in the days ahead.
A monthly leaders prayer breakfast was established, and over the next few years relationships were built and hearts began to be joined. No ‘big bang’, but a gradual growth in trust and understanding. A sense that Swindon is our patch, a place that God has called all of us to love and to serve. We want to see the kingdom come here and we’re beginning to realise that we’re not going to do that on own! We’ve gathered our churches to worship and pray together and over the last few years have co-ordinated an annual prayer campaign, Thy Kingdom Come (between Ascension and Pentecost), to stand together and cry out to God for our town.
In September 2019, a new church was planted in Penhill, one of the most deprived areas of Swindon. At the heart of the plant was a vision, shared as God’s people from across the whole town, to serve the significant needs of this area. A number of different churches sent people to join, some gave finance and equipment for the building which became available, and a few have since clubbed together to release the emerging church leader with a salary for one day of each week. The results have been really encouraging. To quote the original leader behind the plant:
“I can honestly say I have never seen so many non-churched people come to church and respond to the messages. I sense God’s presence in a very specific way and am very encouraged by this.”
We’re now beginning to see church leaders working together to support one another, perhaps where one is going through a hard time or where one has a particular gift or resources which can serve another church. We’re looking at the possibility of launching a town centre hub, together with a community café, to welcome those in need and to listen and signpost for further support. We’ve started praying together for the development of Swindon’s Eastern Villages, a new development of 8,000 houses which will take shape over the next 10 years – that God will direct us as to what it might look like for His people to be present in that community as soon as people start moving in.
We genuinely don’t know what’s next. We’re looking for what God wants to do amongst us as we seek His purposes together for our town. There’s no particular blueprint for the way that we see things developing, but we’re motivated by a broad vision for the transformation of our town, as the kingdom of Jesus starts to break into any and every sphere of life – one person, one family, one street, and one neighbourhood at a time. We’re aware that no one church has the whole picture, and at Gateway we’re excited about playing our part: giving ourselves to support, resource and facilitate in any way that we can. I love this quote from Roger Sutton (Gather Movement):
“Jesus prays for the unity of His Church, not because it’s a nice thing for believers to get on with each other, but because it’s a huge neon sign to the cosmos that God is active in the world and that His rulership is coming!”
Written by Nigel Howarth, Gateway Church, Swindon, UK.