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Doing church differently: Plans for a New Congregation at St John’s Owlerton

saint johns owlerton

Taking place once a month on a Sunday evening, the gathering will be called ‘God, Life and Everything’.

The idea is to create a space for questions and ideas, with each evening featuring a guest speaker sharing a personal testimony about something they’re passionate about.

James Gould is an Ordinand on placement from St Hild’s College:

“We want to think about New Congregations in a way that offers a different opportunity for people to connect, that allows more interaction and discussion than you might find in a typical service.

“It’s about expanding how we as a church do mission and discipleship, but also asking what we think church could be better at by allowing space for questions.

“Joy French (Oversight Minister for St John’s) and I really value being able to explore ideas. Sometimes you feel like when you have a question, it seems like you’re maybe showing a lack of faith, and I find that quite hard. We know of lots of other people who struggle in church because they can’t match up how life is with what they see in Scripture and what they hear from the pulpit; they’re trying to find a way to do that.

“When people feel uncomfortable with that, they stop going to church or they switch off from engaging with faith. We want a place where the people who have switched off can find a route back in and look at a way of exploring faith again.”

Food and conversation will follow from each talk, with the opportunity to ask questions of each guest speaker to delve deeper into what it means to follow Jesus.

The aim is for the evenings to revolve around questions on clarification (“What did the speaker mean? How do they feel about it?” and personal struggle (“Can you help me understand?”).

James says:

“We want it to be a space where people can ask their own questions and find their own faith, but we want to be distinctly Christian as well. We want to encourage a lot of questions about faith, however deep or shallow. People can own their faith rather than be told what they need to think but not be sure why they’re being told to think that.”

James thinks St John’s is a good-sized church with a great congregation, but says the building doesn’t have a service on a Sunday evening.

It’s hoped the opportunity can be grasped to fill this gap and move away from phrases which may be off-putting to people less familiar with church, as James explains:

“We’re thinking of avoiding use of the word ‘service’ because service makes it sound like all the other church services we do, so we’ve talked about using phrases like gathering or event more to try and make it quite different.

“We’re also not having sung worship music. It’s something we really like at St John’s and value highly, but there are a number of people who find that form of worship quite difficult. It can be intense and quite awkward for people who don’t get why it’s so intense. We don’t want it to be a space where people feel uncomfortable.

“If you like that kind of worship music, fabulous! There are loads of places at St John’s and other churches where you can do that. What you don’t always have is personal stories of testimony of how people have grappled with faith. You don’t always have chance to ask people real, personal questions on where they’re going and the struggles they have.”

Each session will end with a worship element in the form of a focused prayer or poem, including some form of liturgy to centre on God and give people a chance to reflect.

On Sunday 15th January the guest speaker will Azariah France-Williams, who is talking about ‘deconstruction’ and his own faith journey.

Azariah has written a book called Ghost Ship about racism and has spoken several times at the Greenbelt festival.

James says Azariah’s talk will be important for exploring further the idea of faith and identity:

“It’s not really about giving a theology because the speaker will share what they want, and it might be a very personal testimony story. It might be that they come to a theological position in that, trying to explain that to us, and that’s all fine.

“It’s also a space for more introverted people to just sit and listen to a few of the voices and not necessarily discuss what they think, because some people just need a bit of time to process things. We also want to encourage open questions that can clarify things rather than starting confrontations, because we’re grateful for dialogue and don’t want anyone to feel like we’re having a go at them.

“Our prayer is that we can create a space where people can meet with God and through His grace and Holy Spirit He will meet people and change us all, so we can see more of His kingdom in Sheffield through our lives.”

James and the team are working towards the six criteria of a New Congregation: worship (UP), fellowship (IN), outreach (OUT), reaching new people, raising new leaders and offering the sacraments.

If you want to find out more about starting new things generally, or a New Congregation in particular, contact