West Thamesmead Community Church: finding the ‘heart’ of a new housing development

Barbecue teamWhat does it mean to plant a church in a place where many people don’t ‘do’ church at all? The Revd Sally Willett reflects on how she and her husband Andrew – also a United Reformed Church minister – tackle that question at West Thamesmead in South London.

‘West Thamesmead, like many original new-build housing developments, had a focus on building houses and flats – with not so much thought about community venues where people moving into the area could come together. This has been a real challenge in trying to engage with a community that is difficult to find and we have been working alongside the local housing association and councillors with this. Our call, it seemed in part initially, was to help grow a community so we had a people to share the Gospel with. Our aim wasn’t to get people from any other church, we wanted to reach those you wouldn’t normally reach. 

Three other areas were developed before ours and church buildings were built in all of them, but that didn’t happen by the time they got to West Thamesmead.

The church plant is an interesting set-up, it’s an Anglican, URC and Methodist initiative. We were appointed by the URC in 2016 to plant a church in this area and we’re on a five-year contract; the URC provide housing and pay our stipend with the Church of England paying half of the church expenses and the URC the other half. In the future, because it’s URC/Anglican/Methodist, it may be that a Methodist minister may come here.

We are part of Thamesmead Ecumenical Partnership – comprising Church of England, Methodist and URC – and we do work closely together. It’s a brilliant team to be part of; we meet twice weekly for prayer and mutual support. We also set up an excellent management group, comprising the synod ecumenical officer, synod mission officer and the Revd Patrick Eggleston, Rector of Thamesmead Team Ministry.

We started off with a ‘blank canvas’ as they say; there was no team, no church building, no nothing! When we first arrived, we just needed to introduce ourselves. As there was no natural hub, we decided on polling day just over a year ago to stand outside the two polling stations, saying hello and handing out leaflets of introduction and invitation to a drop-in afternoon. Some people were a bit confused at first, thinking we had something to do with the election but, by the time they had come out from voting, they’d read the leaflet and realised what we were about! We had some great conversations and quite a number of people responded to our invitation to tea and cake to discuss what they would like us to do in the area.

Our ‘getting to know you’ period also involved us knocking on the doors of the estimated 3,000 residences in West Thamesmead to introduce ourselves. However, many of those residences are flats so it is very difficult to get access. There is also no central place to advertise anything which has proved to be a real challenge, so we have had to leaflet regularly and also advertise on random things like waste bins! From talking to people, it became clear that nothing very much happened in the community to bring people together. There’s no obvious ‘heart’ to it and it’s a difficult community to get engaged in; many people just stay behind closed doors and don’t come out.

We started to put on some events, and then we were blessed to find a student from ForMIssion College who wanted a placement, Helen Ola has been wonderful and she is now a key member of the team. We have even been able to use her skills as a beauty therapist in many community outreach events, including pamper afternoons and beauty workshops. Helen has led worship when we have been away and every week now co-leads KFC, Kids for Christ; part of our current Sunday programme for children.

We have had many times when we have really seen God’s hand in what has been happening. In the early days, during one event, Helen was busy in one room, offering mini manicures and pedicures while Andrew was next door with games, pool, table tennis, and so on. We had been planning a community barbecue as the next event but really had no idea how we were going to be able to organise it with just the two of us, as Helen was unavailable. The first guy who walked in to the games room was a Chinese man we had never met before. His first question was; ‘Can I help you with anything?’ We told him we were having a barbecue and would he like to come and cook? He said yes and when Andrew called round to visit him, it turned out that this man had worked at one of the top 50 restaurants in the world as a senior sous chef! Needless to say, he, his wife, and his wife’s friend, made and served the whole barbecue. His wife then started coming to church. She was the one who, at a subsequent Remembrance event – when we had been giving out St John’s Gospels – was delighted when Andrew produced some copies in Mandarin. She had been trying to read the Gospel in English and literally grabbed the Mandarin version out of his hand. Since then we have prayed with her, visited and encouraged her, she has begun her Christian journey and is a regular part of church. Previously her family had nothing to do with Christians or Church at all.

Gradually we began introducing a little bit of spiritual ‘stuff’ but it wasn’t overt. We had tracts or leaflets available and had many ‘God conversations’. At a ‘Queen’s Belated Birthday Party’ event, we gave out the Bible Society’s ‘Servant Queen’ book and we introduced a brief service at both the multicultural harvest and Remembrance events. We also had a Christingle and nativity service. It was through this – as well as a regular Messy Church, a healing event, and hosting a daily audio Bible tour and Christian concerts – that Church began to emerge.

logoIn late January, we began weekly worship as West Thamesmead Community Church, at Heronsgate School. Since then we developed a time together which runs from 4pm to 6pm. It is broken into different slots. From 4pm to 4.45pm it’s family worship as we have so many children. Then we have refreshments until 5pm; and after that we have the adults and teenage focus from 5pm to 6pm with KFC, Kids for Christ, similar to junior church for the children.

The style of worship has been formulated through prayer, trial and error. There is such a young population here; you couldn’t have a quiet, reflective service even if you wanted to. We certainly struggle to have quieter, more reflective time, though we are working on that. Even if we have a Bible study, all the kids come along too!

It’s a multicultural group and we tend to do more modern songs; we also want to include more modern African songs as half of our local population are African. We have new people all the time from many different cultures. At a recent multicultural harvest we had 64 people from 11 different cultures attending; it all melds together in a glorious chaos.

We are also inadvertently creating a ‘fringe’ of people who turn up occasionally. Whenever they come, we try to get their name and mobile phone number. If we’ve got something coming up, we’ll text them and invite them.

It can be hard meeting in the school because it takes an hour to set up and an hour to clear it away. That all demands commitment from people. But we’ve had fantastic social times together, including a great trip to Margate when we hired a minibus and took 30 people there because a number of people in our area have never seen the sea, let alone been in the sea. We now have a weekly community café at the only local village hall. The café is becoming a meeting place though it is still tough to get people out of their homes.

Sally and Andrew WillettAt the start of the church plant, there was just the two of us with no other leaders at all. Now we have a form of ‘elders’ group’ and we do pray with them and run things past them. Formulating leadership is something we are beginning to look at. There are gifted evangelists here. One of them is Paul – we were leafleting but didn’t even get to knock at his house because when we met outside and told him what we were doing he was delighted, immediately saying: ‘Come in a meet my family!’ He did seem overly excited but we realised why when he said that he had just been praying and fasting for three days, asking God to start a church in the area. Isn’t it great when we are an answer to prayer?!

It has been wonderful to be part of the continuing adventure of church planting in West Thamesmead and serving God and his people here.’

Contact: Sally Willett 07828 110 639
West Thamesmead Community Church, Heronsgate School, Whinchat Road, London, SE28 OEA