Horfield Baptist Church and B&A Church in Bristol swapped buildings earlier this year. Sarah Phillpot explains the background to the move, what’s happened so far – and how the church deepened its reliance on God throughout the process.
‘When we walked in for our first service in the new building, folks said, “This feels like home,”’ notes Sarah Phillpot, minister of Horfield Baptist Church.
‘There was a sense that this is absolutely what God had for us. It’s miraculous, not just that it came to pass, for we’ve come from a place of desperation, but how it came to pass. It can only have happened with God.’
Sarah is keen to share the story, not necessarily for others to emulate, but to give hope to those in similar situations: small congregations wrestling with the demands of ‘magnificent’ but ageing buildings.
For when the church built 279 Gloucester Road in the 1920s, it had created the largest Baptist church building in Europe, Sarah explains. It was a time of growth generally, and Horfield epitomised that: it was planted out of Broadmead Baptist Church in 1892 into a rented house in Rowley Road (now Thornleigh Avenue), before moving into a ‘tin tabernacle’ in Gloucester Road. It then bought land in Brynland Avenue and built its first church building; as the congregation continued to grow it bought an orchard behind that church and built the cavernous premises in Gloucester Road.
Since then, there’s been a long story of decline – gradual so as to be barely noticeable at first, but one that has accelerated in more recent years.
It means the congregation had reached a stage where it experienced its building ‘as a burden, rather than as a blessing,’ says Sarah.
‘It is a magnificent building – but we were overburdened by it. Water was coming in in multiple places; we knew that it needed thousands of pounds worth of work or more, and as a small congregation we didn’t have it.
‘And everything we tried to do, the building was a weight. We’ve always had ideas, but everything was crushed by the building in one way or another.
‘So it actually got to place of desperation. There was a very strong possibility the church would have to close. We needed to do something.’
While there was no-one within congregation who had the relevant skills to take on such a complicated undertaking, it was around this point the church began to sense God’s provision for they would gradually be introduced to people who did. The church worked with Spurgeon’s College and Spatial Perception, which helped the congregation explore its ministry and mission. Spatial Perception introduced the church to Alastair Watson from Reveal Projects. Horfield also sought advice from the Baptist Union Corporation, the Property Trustee, and separately instructed Mike Southcombe as an independent property consultant.
‘We had the most amazing support from Mike and Alistair, and I absolutely believe that is God’s provision,’ Sarah explains. ‘I spent time crying out to God saying, ‘Help, what can I do?’ No one who wants to step up. No one wants to take responsibility. No one has expertise. But then people like Alastair and Mike came along, and helped us so much.’
Mike and Alistair set up a Bristol-wide consultation process; could other Christian groups take on part of the building, or even partner with Horfield? Other possibilities explored included developing the building into flats or selling it completely.
‘We prayed from the very beginning that whatever happened, we wanted it to be for the glory of God and the furthering of the Kingdom, because that’s what the buildings were built for,’ says Sarah.
‘But we said we weren’t going to be precious about any possibility; whatever God has for us we will accept.’
As the process continued, Horfield realised it didn’t want to be taken over by another congregation. ‘We believed that God still had a future for us,’ says Sarah.
One possibility began to gain traction – a building swap with the nearby B&A – an Anglican church with a number of ministries that had outgrown its own premises.
‘I don’t think the congregation leapt at it, saying this is wonderful, let’s do it. There was a sort of resignation because of our financial situation. But – we prayed about it, and sensed this is what God’s provided, so either we go with this or we would close down.’
The decision to swap was more or less unanimously in favour. With B&A also reaching the same conclusion, the wheels were set in motion and the exchange completed on 31 March. The first service in the new building took place on Palm Sunday (4 April).
Members of Horfield met on the steps of their old building before walking the 200 metres down the hill to the new, waving flags and banners and singing Hosanna as they entered.
As Sarah recounts, immediately people began to comment “This feels like home.”
That sense of peace about the move, that this is the plan God had for both congregations, has only increased in the ensuing weeks.
‘I think the congregation has settled in remarkably quickly. It really has been amazing,’ says Sarah.
‘Folks on are generally really content with being here. As a small church now, we are so re energised. People are feeling inspired. There is enthusiasm to do all sorts of things.
‘The finances are in a much better position, we can focus more on the mission and ministry that we believe God’s calling us to in this area.
‘We are getting new people coming in. It’s a slow process, but we’ve had a few people come into membership as well, which has been really encouraging. The makeup of our congregation is changing, with a few slightly younger people.
‘Of course, we’ve had to get used to new systems and processes, and there is pain in that we have lost a magnificent building. But we feel we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost.
‘The things that we’ve lost are the worry of the rain coming into the building and that sort of thing.
‘We feel we have been released.’
There are many elements that reveal God’s hand in what’s happened, Sarah says. She points to the work each respective congregation had done to their building in relatively recent years. For instance, around 15 or 20 years ago Horfield Baptist Church reimagined itself as a community hub, and completed the first phase of three phase renovation before its funds ran out. But the foundations are in place for B&A with its assorted ministries and reach to fulfil what the Horfield congregation imagined.
Similarly B&A spent around £1m renovating and modernising their premises, without a completely clear purpose.
Sarah says, ‘For both congregations, now that we’ve swapped premises, we understand why that work was done. It wasn’t for us at the time or even our future: God was putting that in place for each other.
‘God’s story and the church’s story are on different timescales.’
Sarah also speaks of how she has had to deepen her reliance on God. She became Horfield’s minister seven and a half years ago, but her sense of call didn’t include overseeing such an unprecedented solution.
‘It’s been a place of absolute terror. I felt I didn’t have the skills or the temperament or the knowledge for this. It’s not what I came for.
‘But it’s a place that has grown my faith. Everyday you go to God and say, I can’t do this. And God says, “It’s okay. I’ll do it for you.” And that’s been my experience.
‘And it has happened! I’ve had the most fantastic help. I’ve just felt that God has been there every step of the way for the last eight months or so. I just felt completely calm.’
She adds that getting the swap to completion has also ‘bucked the trend of Horfield’s story’ too. ‘Horfield has had so many plans in its lifetime, but none of these have been fully completed.
‘So when I spoke first to Mike Southcombe, I said whatever we do with this, we have to seek to completion.
‘And that’s God’s provision as well. This is fully completed, and only God could have broken that pattern. That’s a miracle as well.’
Telling the story reveals God’s involvement and the hope for the future.
‘We didn’t set out to do a building swap we set out to remain viable as a congregation because we believe that that’s what God had for us.
‘We might not know what the future looks like, but we’ve come as an entire community. We’ve not lost a single person in the move, which I think is God’s provision as well.
‘And because God has done this for us, we feel He has a future for us. There is hope.’