Story 42 - Community Shaped Mission
Ross on Wye Baptist Church
“It’s not about bums on seats, it’s about bums in the Kingdom of God!” This kind of passion for mission almost seems to overflow from Reverend Neil Bennet as he explains to me the recent missional adventure his church in Ross on Wye have been on over the last year. Their particular adventure called ‘Loaves and Fishes’ initially began as a response to food poverty amongst local families during the outbreak of Coronavirus in March 2020 but was so successful it has now become a permanent part of the church’s mission.
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Rev. Neil Bennett 13/10/2020
In order to understand how this project came about, Neil describes what would have been happening at the church before the Coronavirus pandemic hit. Normally, in the summer months the church holds an enormous holiday club, attracting over 120 children to the club plus a weekly café, complete with the church’s own bouncy castle(!), games and free lunches for the children. Neil comments that ‘people came to rely on that, especially because we were giving away free lunches for all the children.’ Without the possibility of running these kinds of events in 2020, the children and families team at the church became aware that a lot of the families they were already connected with were experiencing food poverty. In an area like Ross on Wye which is so heavily based on tourism, many jobs have been affected throughout this year and the added weight of children at home without their normal school meals, resulted in many families genuinely struggling to make ends meet.
The appropriately titled ‘Loaves and Fishes’ was started from the church in order to meet this need and although only running once a week they were soon producing 20 dinners per week for the families they were connected to. Simply but cleverly done by making up a bag of ingredients with a menu card of how to make the meals (a main and pudding), this not only came with the hope to encourage families to cook food together but also to demonstrate healthy eating. During lockdown the church chose to take this further by including craft activities for the children in the bags complete with all the resources they would need as well.
Although this came to an end in September with the children returning to school, the church was contacted by so many families asking if they were still able to continue Loaves and Fishes because they weren’t out of the struggles of food poverty and many of the difficulties connected to employment in the area still remained. Neil reflects that when, as a church they learnt of parents having to make the decisions between eating and paying the rent, ‘we were just horrified.’ After sharing the situation with the church fellowship their response to continue the project was overwhelming and people gave generously to keep funding the project throughout all the school holidays.
Neil comments that one of the exciting parts to all this was that it was all in response to a genuine need, asked for by the community and not just a knee jerk reaction. Furthermore, it is now shaping part of the families work at the church going forward. He says, ‘having mission shaped by the community you serve rather than just by the church is so exciting’ and he challenges churches moving forward, especially coming out of the coronavirus pandemic to pause and likewise reflect on their own missiology. By allowing some traditional views on mission to be reshaped, which Neil notes is an ongoing process, he states that the opportunities to share the gospel change likewise, saying, ‘when your mission is shaped by the community it’s not necessarily about the gospel first and foremost...but because you do something that the community needs you begin to have permission to actually talk to them about Jesus.’
Whilst seeing that this can be a hard challenge for some, Neil encourages us to remember that God has chosen to bring His life into people through us and that we should be open to God using us. For many within the church at Ross on Wye the positive encouragement out of the struggles of 2020 is that they have been provided with opportunities to not only participate in mission in new ways but also to grow in their own discipleship, as Neil notices that they have discovered this is a way that they ‘can be gospel’ in their own locality and interact with people in ways they have never done before.