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Growth Conversations: St Mary Magdalene, Littleton

Tim Rose is the Rector of St Mary Magdalene church, Littleton. He shares his journey of growth, from exploring a new men's outreach to growing a team of volunteers.

If you know much about the film and TV industries, St Mary Magdalene is just by the gates of Shepperton Studios. We’re a village on the edge of London – Heathrow Airport is about five miles away and we’re inside the M25, but we fall just outside of being part of a London borough. I’ve been the vicar here for about 10 years. Littleton is a very tight knit community and longevity is really important – one couple told me they still felt like newcomers after being here for 18 years! The church has had a chequered history – there have been some amazing times of growth as well as times where the congregation has dwindled down to about six people in the seventies and talks of closure. When I joined in 2013, the church hadn’t had a full-time vicar for a while and there were a handful of children and about 40-50 adults. It’s rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, though I’m from an evangelical, charismatic background. We’re now about 110-120 adults and 50 young children and people, which is really exciting. There have been challenges along the way, from being faced with the pandemic to navigating our mix of worshipping styles and traditions, but we’ve found a route where we believe everyone can flourish.

It can be hard to change the culture of a church, but starting the Grow Course immersed us into the language of mission and growth, and it’s really changed our focus as a parish. Beforehand we were very busy as a church, but we weren’t very fruitful. We spent time on the Grow Course working through our vision statement, coming up with the phrase ‘a local church growing the kingdom of God through faith, hope and love.’ It’s incredibly helpful now to ask ourselves if the things we do reflect our vision and if they don’t, ask how we can reshape them to reflect this vision. I think that lots of our congregation would be able to tell our vision statement now, so it’s allowed us to define who we are as a community. 

One of the great concepts that came out of the course is our new men’s outreach. We’ve given it the name ‘Beer and Bible’ and every two weeks we meet in the pub together. We put a pint glass in the middle of the table filled with questions: we always have an ice breaker question, such as ‘You’re Prime Minister for a day, what three laws would you change?’ or ‘When was the last time you cried?’ Then we have some deeper questions, such as ‘When was the last time you prayed? Is there any justification for war? Does everyone go to heaven?’ We have about 8-10 men coming each time – they’ll be different men coming every fortnight and we usually only get through three questions as the conversation spins off from there. So many men are really lonely – I discovered this during my own mental health journey when I had time off work. Lots of them don’t have friends or find it hard to talk – suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 19 and 40. Fewer men come to church – we have lots of mums who come on their own – so on the course we explored how to find creative ways to reach men and connect with those in our community.

I probably learnt as much from the other churches attending the course as I did from all the fantastic input and case studies.

The Grow Course really appealed to me as it ran over a length of time – it wasn’t just a one-off day but structured over a longer period. I’ve always been passionate about church growth; I was a curate at a church plant, so exploring growth and how to reach out to the community were on my heart. The fact that I could bring other people was a huge positive. Moving from a church with a staff team to leading a parish church on my own was a learning curve. But I had a team of volunteers, so I took five people with me on the course. We travelled there together and had dinner afterwards, which was an amazing opportunity to build our relationships and mull over the content. With a volunteer team, it’s often hard to find space to talk through new ideas, so this concentrated time allowed us to explore ideas that people had never had the occasion to share. I felt very blessed to have these volunteers, especially as I subsequently had time off work due to anxiety. One of them (a retired headteacher) is now our volunteer Operations Manager and heads up our coffee mornings. She was inspired by attending the learning communities in person and learning peer to peer – in fact, she’s become the most missionally minded person on the team and she now continually reminds us to come back to our vision! 

I always remember walking in on the first day of the course and seeing the neighbouring parish attending too, which was really encouraging. I probably learnt as much from the other churches attending the course as I did from all the fantastic input and case studies. Being able to hear the challenges that other people were facing, ask them questions and explore the solutions they’d found and what had worked for them was hugely helpful. For example, the classic model of home or life groups doesn’t seem to work well in our context. Making a long-term commitment isn’t very appealing for lots of our members, especially for those who are new Christians or those who have previously left the Church. One of the other churches on the Grow Course shared how they don’t have any long-term groups, but they run courses for a maximum of six weeks, so we’ve taken this idea on board. We’re currently running a six-week discipleship course called Pressing On for an hour online and in person – we’re going through the topics of prayer, Scripture, love, forgiveness, calling and the future. 

The Revd Tim Rose

A great piece of advice I was given and would give to other church leaders who are considering signing up for the Grow Course, would be to let other churches stimulate, but don’t always replicate. We can’t always transplant ideas but we can take the heart or the essence of a concept and apply it to our own context. Context is so important – we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit as we listen and find out what is unique in our setting. We have an Anglo-Catholic service at St Mary Magdalene so I loved the opportunity to learn from churches with different traditions – the case studies from Anglo-Catholic churches were a highlight, as well as hearing lots of wisdom on how to survive and thrive as a church leader. Coming on the course hasn’t stopped the struggles – I’ve experienced a breakdown and we’ve transitioned through lockdowns, Covid restrictions and online church, but it has helped us to navigate the last few years better and encouraged us with this deep sense that others are going through the same things. The pandemic became an extraordinary time of growth for us – we connected with 15 new families or couples on our Newcomers Zoom and our congregation has grown numerically. Regardless of circumstances, God’s kingdom will grow if we are willing to be flexible and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. We all go through different seasons and there is a huge mystery to God’s work, yet Jesus is always with us and growth is possible. This culture that came through the course was massively helpful in reminding us of this.

CCX works to inspire the Church in its health, renewal and multiplication. You can find out more about the Grow Course here, or begin a conversation with Grow team member Katie Lysak.