Impossible, difficult, done!
“I know that the vision for this has been around for 18 years and the faithfulness with which you have kept this vision is an inspiration to the whole diocese of Liverpool and beyond.” Ten years ago to this very day Bishop James spoke these words as he opened our Ministry Centre, a significant event in the life and ministry of Christ Church where I was vicar. And yes, it was hard going, setback after setback and against some determined opposition. Looking back a decade later the Ministry Centre project has proved to be a key resource in sharing Jesus in the wider community. In fact, those who spent time and energy opposing the venture have since apologised for their obstructionism, with just one exception. The whole project was an exercise in struggling to keep up with God. We soon began to discover that “he is able to do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) Or to quote the Message translation of this Bible verse which undergirded the whole project: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!” It began in 1994 when the Victorian school building alongside the church became available. The initial challenge was to buy the site in an area where land for residential development is at a premium. Meanwhile the Lancashire Education Committee Council gave us permission to use the building. We invited church members to give their vision for the half-acre site. Everyone assumed as a matter of course that the nineteenth century building would stay, despite it being the wrong shape in the wrong place and in poor condition. To say we lacked ambition was an understatement. One member even wrote in his submission “Unless absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t want to knock down the current building.” Hilariously (for God has a sense of humour) this same person as project manager commissioned its very demolition some 15 years later. Looking back, the key to the whole project was prayer and in a series of prayer meetings we asked God for his direction rather than looking to our resources. In fact, during the whole project PCC finances were under stress but during that time church members gave or pledged £1.3million. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in the words of Francis Xavier, “to give up our small ambitions to preach the gospel of Christ.” We waited for the vision for how God was going to use the building, a process which became somewhat unnerving. And step by step our vision grew as we began to imagine what God wanted us to do, even through us. We began to see the building even before it was built. It was a case of catching up with the Holy Spirit. I recall one member of the project team in an early presentation to the congregation, sharing Hudson Taylor’s quote: “There are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.” At the time we knew only too well that we were in the ‘impossible stage!’ Our first building, the Parish Centre, failed in 2006 to get planning permission. Clearly a huge setback. Strangely our Spirit-inspired vision was given a backhanded compliment by our opponents at the West Lancs planning meeting, They wore specially commissioned t-shirts with the words “JUST TOO BIG!” However, those six years in producing plans for the parish centre were not wasted. We had learnt some valuable lessons and undaunted we started afresh. Amazingly it took just three years between commissioning a new architect and opening the Ministry Centre on 19 June, 2010. During the opening one of our previous curates, on looking around the building, came to me and said “Ross, you have the gift of faith.” He was right, of course – we did have this gift, knowing deep-down that God would deliver. For when the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he talks about the various gifts the Holy Spirit gives to his church in order that we may bear fruit - his fruit, that is. In the middle of this list, he writes “to another faith by the same Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:9) Clearly the apostle is talking about a particular kind of faith given to specific members of the church. He is not referring to the faith in Christ that all Christians have by definition. Here he is highlighting a faith which enables a particular ministry or undergirds a special project. And this is the faith which the Holy Spirit gave to a sizable number of church members. It wasn’t something we had somehow worked up and certainly not an optimism that “it will turn out all right in the end.” This was a God-given conviction that his purposes would prevail despite everything. To quote Hudson Taylor again: “You do not need a great faith, but faith in a great God.” Such faith, by definition, will draw flak. Strangely the setbacks and the discouragements were indications that we were on the right track. To quote the first Bishop of Liverpool, J C Ryle: “Obedience is the only reality. It is faith visible, faith acting, and faith manifest. It is the test of real discipleship among the Lord's people.”