A church steaming ahead

Ask a passer-by what they associate with Southampton, and, if the answer is nothing to do with a football team, it might well be one of its two most famous ships. The ship of doom — the Titanic. And the ship of hope — the Mayflower. Both set sail from Southampton Docks. But while one led to the death of thousands, the other led ultimately to a new life in a new world for millions.

Those who for years prayed for and laboured towards the launch of Christ Church Southampton hoped that God would give the church a fair wind and enable it to chart a steady course. They never dreamed that — on a simple diet of no-frills Bible-study and preaching — it would become one of the fastest growing churches in the country.

Just over a year

And yet, in just over a year since that group of pray-ers and labourers welcomed their first pastor last June, a stream of men and women of all ages have given their lives to Christ, large numbers of university students have flocked in to Bible study groups, and dozens have got involved in one-to-one discipleship relationships. In the same period, church attendance at Christ Church on a typical Sunday has more than quadrupled.

‘It’s been absolutely exhausting — but exhilarating too!’ said Orlando Saer, who moved down with his family to lead the church plant last year. ‘We just didn’t, in our wildest dreams, expect the work to take off like this. God is clearly doing something very significant here and we feel a great sense of responsibility not to get in his way!’

Half students

Christ Church is a young church, in every sense. Around half of its Sunday morning congregation are students, and — given the location of the Sunday morning venue, initially in a primary school hall, and more recently a secondary school hall, both on the doorstep of Southampton University — the student ministry has been an obvious focus from the start.

‘Most of the students will have just 90 weeks with us’, said Orlando. ‘And we want to make sure every one of them counts. We want to see every student grow every week in their love of Jesus, their understanding of the Bible, their desire to reach the lost and their ability to serve the body of the church.’

Connect groups

Instead of an evening service, the majority of the church’s ‘Connect Groups’ (Bible-oriented small groups) meet on a Sunday night, for a meal and then Bible study and prayer. This includes the network of five groups for undergraduates (‘Student Connect’), the 20s group (‘Cross Connections’) and the groups for international students (‘iConnect’).

And that ethos of serious Bible study has stretched into the one-to-one discipleship students are offered, as well as into what proved for many to be the highpoint of the year — MYC (‘Mid-Year Conference’), the church’s weekend away for students and 20s.

But Christ Church has not aimed to be just a ‘hothouse’ for maturing disciples. The culture is one of serious and prayerful concern to bring people into the kingdom. So of the 13 small groups that were meeting by the time people dispersed for summer holidays, three of them were devoted primarily to helping unbelievers understand and respond to the Christian faith.

That gospel-shaped culture has found its way into the families work too. As well as partnering with Christian parents in seeing their children grow up loving God’s word, there’s a real desire to reach out to local families, so there’s been flyering of the neighbourhood, a Christmas children’s party and a summer holiday club to provide a focus to this families outreach, with a Parents and Toddlers group kicking off this autumn for the same purpose.

‘It was tempting to wait until we had a decent, established children’s work before launching these ministries’, said Amanda Lansdowne, Director of Children’s Ministries at CCS. ‘But we realised that time might never come unless we saw families come to faith. So we prayed… and we got to work!’

Problems of growth

The year has not been without its hiccoughs. There have been choppy waters. Problems of growth are nice problems, but they’re still problems requiring solutions.

One of these has been how to retain a common heart and mind within the church family at a time of such rapid growth. A key element in addressing this need has been the development of the ‘The Christ Church Partnership Course’. Initially aimed at the church core, but subsequently offered to all those who join the church, the course takes ten weeks and covers key doctrines, church ethos, practical ministry skills and a look at how the Bible fits together.

‘The idea is to make sure we’re all singing from the same songsheet — and, if we find we’re not, to realise this sooner rather than later’, says Orlando. ‘If we’re going to be “contending together as one man for the faith of the gospel”, we need to check that we all share common gospel convictions.’

Practical issues

‘We’ve spent an awful lot of time this first year thinking and praying about where to go to accommodate new and growing ministries, wrestling with how to fund these ministries when we still have so few wage-earners in the church, pondering who could possibly lead this or that new group, and so on’, said Orlando. ‘But somehow we’ve got through this first year intact. We’ve got an army of prayer-partners around the country, faithfully committing the work here to God, as well as a culture of serious prayer within the church family, so we shouldn’t be surprised that God’s seen us through!’

Philip and Nathaniel

‘As we look to our second year, we long to have even more Philip-and-Nathaniel stories to tell. John 1 tells us about an enthusiastic Philip inviting an incredulous Nathaniel to discover Jesus for himself: “Come and see”.

‘That’s my prayer for the year ahead: that we’d be a church of Philips, dazzled by Jesus ourselves and longing for those around us to find what we’ve found in him.’

Christ Church Southampton meets at 10.30 am each Sunday at Cantell School, Violet Road, Southampton SO16 3GJ. To find out more, call 023 8067 7672 or visithttp://www.christchurchsouthampton.org.uk

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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