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Friday, 4 March 2011

Paulton: the full story

 I've had reports back that people found the story about Paulton Baptist Church in WEBA News encouraging, so here's the article in full. You can download a pdf copy of WEBA news at www.webassoc.org.uk on the resources page.

Barrie and Sue Clarke moved to Paulton in Somerset in order to be near their daughter and her family. Their granddaughter’s headmistress happened to hear that Barrie was actually a retired Baptist Minister. She was secretary at the local church, and they were interested in calling a Minister part time. Barrie, who pastored his first church 50 years ago at the time of the Billy Graham rallies, took on the challenge.
Paulton Baptist Church was like many others in our region; the congregation was elderly, and while there were one or two new faces over the next five years, funerals were a more common feature. The church shrank from around 35 attending week by week to just 20. Now at the other side of 80, Barrie began to wonder whether it was time to stop.
 “It was a hard grind,” he says. “The hard grind isn’t doing things, it’s in your mind. When things are going well, you feel better”
Eventually, something began to change.
“After 5 years, a couple came in, and then the next week another couple came in. They didn’t stay, but then another couple came in who did, and it gradually grew from there.” Some children appeared – their parents knew the church from the days when they had attended the youth club. One or two people just walked in off the street, and it gradually grew from there. Now the Sunday congregation numbers between 45 and 60 people.
“ It’s easier to grow when you’ve got a cross section of the population” says Barrie. “If you see there’s a range of people, you’re more likely to stay.”
So what does he think made the difference?
First of all, he says, “wherever the church meets there’s always been prayer.”
Has prayer led to new ideas? “It’s not an idea, it’s being totally welcoming” he replies, and in addition “we tell everybody everything” – which means that no-one, new or established, feels left out of anything that is going on. 
 The church has also put a huge amount of effort into refurbishing the building. They were fortunate in having access to funds the church had invested some time ago, but the folk at Paulton were also willing to get their hands dirty. They stripped the place bare, removing tired Victoriana, and one deacon worked from 6 in the morning until 9 at night decorating until the job was done. Church members bought one new chair each, and the building was also fitted with a new kitchen, curtains, and carpets were re-fitted.
“We’ve got a 5 year plan which started last year” says Barrie, “and we’ve done 4 years already.”
Paulton’s plans encompass much more than the building. A couple in the next village are planning to use their house for an Alpha course; another young couple are considering starting a young people’s Bible class; a headteacher wants to begin a toddler group when she retires, and there are other plans for outreach and home visits. Messy Church is one initiative which has already begun. Barrie explains  that ‘messy’ doesn’t refer to the glue and paint involved, but to being ‘messy round the edges’.
“When I was young you were either a member or not, the parameters were there. The idea of messy church is that there’s all sorts of people coming in.”
It’s clear that the church’s willingness to embrace change has made transformation possible. After all, when the minister is over 80, the congregation can hardly use their own ages as an excuse for resisting it. What would Barrie say to other churches who find themselves  where Paulton was five years ago, with a diminishing elderly congregation who are feeling the strain? He admits it’s a difficult question.
“Keep asking God” he says. “Keep asking God what you ought to be doing.” 

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