Stonehouse is a small Gloucestershire town where two large estates flank a single high street. One of the five churches in town is Stonehouse Baptist Church, where Joy Ramsbottom has been a member for fifteen years. She’s never seen a baptism there, and for most of that time the church has been without a paid minister. With an elderly congregation that reduced to about ten, things got rather depressing and Joy wondered about moving on.
She’s glad that she didn’t. The church became one of WEBA’s growing number of partnerships between larger churches and struggling fellowships nearby. Stonehouse made a two year agreement with Minchinhampton Baptist Church. There was help with finance, leading services, and preaching, and several people took on dual membership for the duration. Then the two churches decided to appoint a minister who would divide his or her time equally between the two churches, strengthening the partnership. A grant from Home Mission would make this possible.
Simon Shepherd was an IT professional in membership at Minchinhampton. Joy told me that the first time he ever stepped across the threshold he felt that God was calling him to be the Minister of Stonehouse Baptist Church. He hadn’t had any formal ministerial training at that point, but he followed the call and applied for the job.
Simon’s call was unanimous from both churches, and since he took up the post in January 2011, change has been dramatic.
“It’s really changed beyond all recognition” says Joy. “Everybody’s so much happier!” Attendance has increased from around 10 to 50 at some services. The church has got involved with a churches together initiative, using an empty shop in the town centre as a Youth Drop In. There’s a service for older people once a month, and a new mums and tots group, and also a parenting course, will be starting soon. There’s also a wonderful lively lunchtime Bible Study, which was filmed recently as part of a new BUGB video to promote Home Mission.
The biggest change Joy has noticed is in peoples’ willingness to join in and help out. She was recently part of a team organising Harvest Supper for 70 people. “I didn’t have to ask anyone to help clear up” she said – “they just got up and did it!” Although Simon works incredibly hard for the church, he has also been a catalyst, breathing life into all the church’s missionary disciples.
The increased numbers are mostly a result of Christians choosing Stonehouse when they move into the area, or locals who chose to stop travelling elsewhere to church. One or two spiritual seekers have come along too. There’s just one thing Joy can’t wait to see: “We’re longing to get the baptistry open!”