Bill Blyth tells us about the difference that a focus on children and youth has made to St Lawrence Church in Towcester.
My wife and I joined St Lawrence Church in Towcester in December 1983, so we have been members for some 36 years, during which time we have seen a lot of change.
Back when we joined, we were one of a number of families (at least ten) where the parents were in their 30s or 40s, so there were lots of children. As a result, our two daughters fitted easily into a community of children which included Sunday School, before serving and then singing in the choir. Our Vicar was able to devote all his time to the church in Towcester (together with Caldecott and Easton Neston) and was very much involved in the local community. We were fortunate in that he was very popular and had a young family himself, and he played an important role in recruiting young families such as ourselves.
The fact that our congregation at that time covered all ages meant that there was a great deal of energy around, and there was no problem about getting things done. One memorable achievement was the production of an ‘Old Time Music Hall’ which relied on the talents of church members, including a lot of contributions from the children. It ran for two nights and filled the local Town Hall. It was so enjoyable that we repeated it three years later with equal success.
But inevitably our Vicar eventually left and went on to higher things! Over subsequent years, our church (like so many others) saw a turnover of clergy – some of whom were more interested in young people than others – and gradually the families of our age either left or grew older, and crucially were not replaced. Our congregation aged, and the children moved away to lead their lives.
However, a slow but steady change is now happening in our church. It is difficult to identify a single factor which has created this. The arrival of a new Vicar with a family, who made it his business to visit local schools, was important – as was the arrival of two young couples who helped to establish a special service for young families on the first Sunday of each month. Then came the establishment of a Mother and Toddler group, which is now held in each of the two main churches in our benefice every week. Two years ago we then had the good fortune of being allocated a young curate with a keen interest in recruiting young people into the church.
All the above factors, together with input from those of us who – albeit ageing – are still enthusiastic, have resulted in the growth of the numbers of children coming to church. On average, there are now about 40 children under 16 attending our church each month. The Mother and Toddler group in Towcester also attracts up to 50 children each morning.
Evidence of the growing support for encouraging children into our church came when our then Curate Paula Challen (now our new Vicar) set about establishing a dedicated Children and Families Worker in our Benefice. We very quickly received financial pledges from some 45 people, sufficient for us to be able to take part in the Diocese Gen2 programme. We were then extremely fortunate in finding Claire Reetz to take on the role last January. Claire is energetic, with a lively outgoing personality. She is now working hard across the Benefice and is really turbo-charging our efforts with young people in the local area.
The story is very much a work-in-progress. The measure of success will be the age profile of our congregation three years from now. At that stage, the Diocese Gen2 support will come to an end and we will have to stand on our own as regards the employment of our Children and Families Worker. The job has only just begun, but there is definitely a sense that our once increasingly moribund congregation is gradually changing, and there’s an optimism which was not there five years ago. We are now seeing parents with babies in buggies arriving in church, which is great.
There are still big problems to overcome, such as trying to use a building which is 900 years old with pews screwed to the floor for young children’s play on a cold winter’s morning. We also need to convert the growing numbers of toddlers and their parents into regular members of our congregation. We do have a long way to go – but perhaps the oil tanker may be very slowly beginning to turn!