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Story 33 - Developing a Culture of Change

Addlestone Baptist Church, Surrey
Suzie Abramian in conversation with Rev. Ben Fortescue, 30/07/2020

Some of you may remember the article about Addlestone Baptist Church in Baptists Together Magazine Summer 2019, which gave an overview of the change this church undertook to turn its morning services into ‘Breakfast Church’. (For more details see;  https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/547308/Baptists_Together_magazine.aspx). 

Here we catch up with Minister Rev. Ben Fortescue to see what has been happening since then, touching on the effects of lockdown and looking at how this fresh expression of church was stretched out of its comfort zone by developing a culture of change from the outset.  

Q: First off, can you just take us back to what prompted such a change at ABC? 

Story 33 - Picture1A: I guess we were what you’d call an average church, just ticking along with normal services but I became increasingly aware that we weren’t growing, if anything we were starting to decline. I had a conversation with Stuart Davison (SEBA Regional Minister) and he put me in touch with a resource from the Episcopal Church in America called ‘Lifecycle of a Congregation’ and it looked at how when a church starts to plateau, the church needs to rediscover its vision and if it doesn’t it will start to decline. It described how depending on how far a church is down this process the bigger the change that is needed. We used this tool as a presentation at a church meeting and it was a real eye opener as we realised we were much further in decline than we had thought. Numbers had been dropping, regular attendance was erratic and any newcomers that came into church weren’t sticking. I also saw that there was a difficulty in inviting people along to church as they never knew what to expect or who would be there. We had tried changing small things in the past, but nothing had made any significant difference.  

This left us with a real worry, we knew we had to change but we didn’t know how. At that point it was suggested that we should get on our knees and have a prayer week! In that week, we wanted to lay down everything and not be precious about anything in order to trust God to help us pick up the things that were important to Him.  

One of the key things that came out of this was that we needed to be flexible, particularly the word “malleable” which set us up for creating a vision to go forward with. This included thinking about how church could look different, what if it was more like how we do normal relationships in life? And out of that came this vision for doing Breakfast Church, starting every service with breakfast together followed by a time of reflection, worship and then an optional bible seminar. 

Q: This was clearly quite a journey you all went on as church, can you explain a bit further why you started by changing what happens in a Sunday service rather than starting something separate from Sundays? 

A: Through this process, we rethought where we position our Sunday church. Previously we had a model of church that was in one place and our community outside was in another place and culturally there was a huge gap. I think we’d fallen into the thinking that we had to create stepping stones between the gap, like putting on toddler groups and various courses with the hope and desire that someone from the community who goes to these groups would somehow, someday enter the church but the reality was that never happened. Even if they had come on a Sunday it wouldn’t have made much sense to them either unless they had some kind of church background.  

So, we said what about if we change that and took our Sunday service and move it to be much closer to the way community operates so it’s not such a big leap. Then beyond that we can build discipleship, so the service is actually the first point of contact.   

Taking our lead from culture we saw that we live in a coffee shop culture, almost wherever else you go in society you will be offered a cup of coffee and immediately that becomes a disarming thing, allowing relationships to be built up. 

It was that kind of mental process that involved changing the way we thought about what happens on a Sunday so those coming in can recognise what’s going on. 

Q: What kind of fruit have you seen from all this change?  

A: There was a little bit of a of “bedding-in” time, to see what worked and how God was ministering during it. But after about a year I think we were settled, and we started to see some growth. A lot of that growth, in terms of numbers, came from those people who were a bit hit and miss in attendance coming more regularly. I think this was because the whole premise of Breakfast Church is about developing deep relationships and giving that the time that it needs.  Rather than our service being completely front led, we wanted our service to be about being involved in each other’s lives. And that’s changed everything for us, relationships have been deepened and it’s also a much more accessible place for people who are either unchurched or ‘de-churched’.  

I think we’ve given new life to people who were on the verge of becoming de-churched. Although there haven’t been lots of conversions, I think there were many who were on the brink of walking away from church and probably become nominal in their faith but now are coming as committed, fired up members of the church. 

Story 33 - Picture2  
Q: That’s interesting, why do you think that this model of church is particularly working with those who may have had some connection with church or faith but were disconnecting, or previously wouldn’t have come? 

A: I think because of the disillusionment that many of those people feel about church they will see through any fancy facade. If you just try to jazz things up by introducing a drum kit it won’t work, people are after genuine relationship and meaningful discipleship. I think people also want to be known and you don’t get that if you just sit anonymously in rows staring at the backs of people’s heads, the only place you do that in society is in the cinema or theatre. And when you go into those environments you immediately become a consumer, where you judge how entertained you are, which isn’t the attitude we want in our church.  

We also wanted people outside of the church to see that it was still a service. That was important, we didn’t want to be so radical that it wasn’t recognisable as church. Rather, we wanted to show that this is what we understand as being real church. It’s unashamedly church but hopefully more accessible.  

Q: Have there been any other specific approaches you’ve taken to reach out to those beyond the church using this kind of service model? 

A: We haven’t done any formal evangelism as such but one of the things we identified was that before, many of the congregation were slightly embarrassed about inviting anyone to a Sunday service for fear of not knowing what to expect and it was so culturally removed. We wanted to change that so that now they’re able to say, ‘come to breakfast with me…it’s only an hour, come and sit with me, we sit around tables etc..’. We wanted to change the way the current fellowship felt about church because ultimately,  they’re the evangelists. If they’re excited about church, they’re going to be much more evangelistic in their other relationships.  

Q: You’ve mentioned that through all this a culture of change has been encouraged, how has this time of lockdown fitted with that?  

A: We’ve already been through a process of letting go of some of the traditional way of doing things and seeing the blessing that comes from stepping out in faith when we weren’t able to meet together I think our church was in a stronger place for coping. 

We’re very aware that even though we’ve been through this process of creating Breakfast Church we don’t want to just get settled, it’s never been a silver bullet and we want to constantly evolve.  

Also, because there’s been a deepening of relationships for some time, when the coronavirus pandemic came, we were stronger for supporting each other.  

Q: You’ve given a lot of encouragement here already, but do you have any other words of advice or encouragement that you would give to a church who is considering the same kind of venture as yourselves?  

A: I would say that you’ve got to be all in with this. We were very aware we had very limited resources, we didn’t have the resources to launch an extra expression of church on top of what we were doing. We also recognised that as a church we needed a culture change and not just to add on something else or try and find a compromise.  

It has been a difficult journey and change does come at a cost and is painful. The only way we could do what we did was because I had a fantastic team of leaders and we were united as a leadership, that was absolutely vital. 

So, you’ve got to be all in, you’ve got to be wholehearted but above all you’ve just got to go for it! 

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