Sunday, 28 January 2018

First steps

Crossing the Line - part 13

It’s all very well hearing the call – but what do you do then?  Especially when you are 16 years old and still at school.

There was a lunch-time Christian group at school, but I had steered clear of it until now.  For a start, it didn’t have a very inspiring name.  Most schools and colleges had Christian Unions or Fellowships – we had the Christian Education Movement.  Usually this was abbreviated to CEM which was even less appealing.  It seemed like a name designed to put people off giving up their lunchtime.  It was certainly sterile enough for the secular agenda of the school.  It was safe.

In fact, I was only just old enough to go. 

My school was divided into a Boys Division and a Girls Division.  The two operated as two separate schools, a mirror image of each other in gender, ethos and architecture.  The buildings spread out along Chorley New Road in almost perfect symmetry, either side of a central arch.  On the right were the boys, on the left were the girls, with everything designed to ensure that the two should not meet.  Separate play grounds and sports fields, separate bus stops and separate Great Halls for assemblies, staring at each other across this central no-man’s land.  The Boys Division didn’t want the distraction of girls interrupting the finely tuned exam factory.  The Girls Division didn’t want those annoying boys getting in the way of producing ambitious young ladies.  When I started going out with Lesley from the Girls Division, it was mentioned at her next parents evening as something undesirable for a young lady studying hard.  There was almost no opportunity before 6th Form for boys and girls to meet together yet somehow we had circumvented this prohibition by living in the same village.

Girls Division on the left - Boys on the right
In spite of this division, the Christian Education Movement was a mixed society of both boys and girls, so no-one below the age of 16 was allowed to go.  I had turned 16 a couple of months before my ‘Gotcha’ moment but trying out CEM was something I was still keen to avoid.

I think it was Lesley who got me there one Thursday lunchtime.  She had a close friend who went, and one day she suggested that I should go - and that she would go too.  The CEM met in the Tower Room just above the central arch which divided the schools.  It was the only room in the entire school which had doors that led directly to both the Boys and Girls Divisions.  It felt a little like entering a diplomatic neutral zone – a gendered DMZ between two opposing worlds.

When I got there, about 8 people were holding a Bible study and I saw a group of dispirited boys and girls with heads down listening to someone holding forth about his own views to the exclusion of everyone else.  It was just as I had feared.  On the way there, I had decided not to say anything at the meeting, keep a low profile and drift away at the end; but listening to this monologue dominating the proceedings and getting more and more aggressive, awakened something in me.  I tried to keep quiet, but the more I saw how everyone else had been cowed into submission, the less I was able to remain quiet.  Eventually I snapped.  I opened my mouth and out came something like, “Oh come off it!”  I can’t remember if those were my exact words, but they certainly express the sentiment of what I said.  Everyone looked up in shock. 

At the end of the meeting, the leader announced that they needed to elect a new member to the committee which organised CEM.  Before I knew what wat happening, and without offering, I had been elected.   “So much for keeping a low profile” summed up my thoughts as I went to afternoon classes.

Over the months which followed, we changed the whole feel of CEM.  Argumentative debates went out.  In came more prayer, music and fellowship.   Before I knew it, I was leading the committee, and we were booking more local ministers and preachers as visiting speakers.

Over the two years which followed, more and more people came.  We went from single figures to forty or fifty people on a good day with an exciting speaker or worship leader.  We got permission to start an early-morning prayer meeting each week, with about a dozen of us gathering at 8:15am to pray together for half an hour before school started. 

Who was the only one wearing sunglasses
for the school photo?
When churches in Bolton came together to organise a town-wide mission, I got permission to bring a Christian rock band into the Boys Division for a lunchtime concert in the theatre.  We could have filled the theatre twice over with those trying to get in, and I was invited by the headmaster to speak at the whole school assembly about the mission.  I told the story of meeting a drug addict at the mission meeting in the Town Hall the night before, and how he wanted to change, but didn’t think he could.  Perhaps we are all like that before God, I suggested to 800 of my peers.

It would be wrong of course, to suppose that this was all my doing.  We worked as a team.  God brought people to us.  Then they introduced their friends, and before we knew it, it was unusual to have less than 20 teenagers meeting together in this very secular school.  We met for prayer and reading the Bible together, for worship and for fellowship.

Alongside this, my father had changed parishes, and we had moved from the village at Blackrod into Bolton, close to the school.  There was no youth club or fellowship at the church, and before long I invited the handful of other teenagers to my room in the Vicarage for a kind of Youth Fellowship.  I had no idea what I was doing or supposed to do, but saw the need.  We prayed and read the Bible together and for many months it stayed at about 6 of us, (some under pressure from their parents) and nothing seemed to be happening.

Then I sensed God prompting me to talk about being Baptised in the Holy Spirit, sharing my story and how God had changed my life.  It started to strike a chord and others began to come.  Some were from the Christian Education Movement at Bolton School, but more were from other local schools.  David and Catherine from Smithills School came and started to bring others.  David was very gifted on the guitar, and a natural salesman.  Catherine was the quiet and highly practical person that every group needs to flourish.  Then Neil came and introduced us to 100% Proof – not a whisky but a Christian Heavy Rock Band with a sound like AC/DC!  We started taking other people to their concerts around Manchester and as they shared their Christian faith without compromise, others saw that you could be a Christian without being a wimp! There were others too like Janet, Tim, Robin and Douglas – too many to mention.  We all grew in faith and learned to encourage others in theirs.

100% Proof in Concert
In time,  St Margaret’s Youth Group grew out of my room into the Vicarage dining Room.  Then it out-grew the dining room and took over the living room.  When finally we could not squeeze anyone else into the Vicarage, it had to move to the new Church Hall and continued to grow, with David leading after I left home for a gap year before university.

St Margaret’s Church was in a fairly ordinary part of Bolton surrounded by traditional streets of terraced housing and the old cotton mills for which Lancashire was once famous, now empty and silent.  The church had a problem with vandalism.  It had huge windows at the back made up of thousands of squares of glass held together in a lead lattice.  One of the jobs over the weekend was to sweep up the broken glass from the stones which had been thrown to break them.  One weekend my dad counted over 100 broken panes of glass in the church.  It was just too tempting for kids with nothing to do.

So what could we do about it?  That was the question.  The Youth Group started to organise “St Maggie’s Discos” for teenagers, in the Church Hall (it was the end of the 70’s when discos were still cool).  At the first one, about 50 turned up.  By the 3rd or 4th, we were turning people away because we had already filled the hall with around 300 young people.

The discos were never problem free and we couldn’t have done it without the stalwart support of some of the men in the church who controlled the door and provided back-up if anything started to get out of hand.  One night when we were preparing for a disco, a phone-call came from the police.  They had received a tip-off saying that a knife fight was being planned between two local gangs, at our disco.  Cancelling was not an option.  The idea of having 300+ young people in the street outside the church with nowhere to go was not a good plan.  When they were inside, we could ensure there was no alcohol, but outside, they would have been knocking back the Tenants Extra or Strongbow unabated.

We decided to go ahead, with two plain clothed CID officers in the Church Hall and 2 police riot vans parked up a couple of streets away.  Soon after the disco started, David and I found out which gangs were planning to fight, and got their leaders together.  We said to them, “If you do this, this will be the last St Maggie’s Disco ever.  Everyone will suffer.”  To our amazement, they gave us their word that there would be no fighting at the disco that night.  We learned later that they adjourned to a local park after the disco to settle their scores after the disco had finished, but they respected what we were offering to teenagers with nothing to do, and they didn’t want to be the ones who put an end to it.

Alongside this, the vandalism on the church dropped to zero without the church ever having to get anyone arrested or charged or taken to court.

Some of St Margaret's Youth Group on a Good Friday Walk
We also found that some of the disaffected young people who came to the discos also started to come to church and the Youth Group.  Side by side, posh pupils from Bolton School and teenagers with drink problems and criminal records were praying and worshipping together.  We even had one teenage girl whose Saturday job was as a prostitute until she gave her life to Christ in the Youth Group.

Reflecting on those first steps in ministry, I am amazed by two things.

First was the trust which was placed in us by my dad and our local church.  We were left to run the Youth Group ourselves without interference.  We planned the worship, led the Bible studies, wrote the talks, prayed and ministered to each other and those in need.  We saw God heal broken hearts and soften hardened hearts as we prayed, without the need to call a grown-up in to do the 'important stuff'.  While recognising the need for good safeguarding in youth work, I wonder if we now tend to professionalise it too much, rather than letting young people reach young people.

Second is how God honoured everything that we did.  As I look back to that time, I can’t believe how much I crammed in.  I was doing my A-levels, working a part time job, was in a 3-year committed relationship with my girlfriend and leading a youth ministry the size of most churches.  By rights, it should have all collapsed in a heap at some point, and yet it didn’t.  I even finished my A-levels with four grade A’s – something I couldn’t have even imagined a few years earlier.  God honoured the commitment which had been required of me and I was not alone.  The other leaders all went on to college and university. 

Neil, Benny and Tim drawing attention
to themselves at Greenbelt
I guess both of these things come back to trust.  Trust in the God who calls us, and trust in one another.  I wonder how much we miss out on because of our reluctance to do either.  I remember an former bishop of Southwark Cathedral advising his clergy to experiment; to see what would work and what wouldn’t in their parishes.  Experiment, experiment and then experiment some more.  He recognised that some of these experiments would go wrong but then we pick ourselves up and learn from them.  The other option is always playing it safe, repeating the things which have worked in the past until they finally bury themselves.  For young people in particular, this is simply not an option in a fast changing society.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of being in touch with a good number of people from St Maggie’s Youth Group, and I am constantly delighted and amazed by the way so many have carried on with their Christian faith.  Some are even worship leaders, pastors and vicars.  All through the trust which was placed in us by the church in our teenage years. 

It is perhaps worth remembering that the greatest calling of all time was entrusted to a teenage girl in a village in the middle of nowhere.  Perhaps the church should be looking for more teenagers to invest with trust?

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