I've written a lot recently about our future but in our present we are in the exciting city of St Petersburg, where a new church called Hope Church has been making some rather big steps forward over these last few months. So time for an update from the home front...
July & August 2011 saw the passing of the second summer period for the church and as we passed our second birthday in early September, we could see that our Sunday venue was to be the most pressing thing to address, as numbers were high and space was now very limited.
Dave Henson & I had seen a wonderful venue back in April - at a hotel in the very centre of the city. The problem had been the cost - 20 times what we were currently paying (that's because our existing venue was greatly reduced compared to the normal rate, and this new venue was bigger and at the going rate).
With the summer months passing and the hall full already, we knew our current situation would limit any further growth - for two reasons. First, people might think there was not 'room' for them in Hope Church. Secondly, there was not much room for any more people in the hall!
In the middle of September we took people away for a church weekend - about 40 adults were there. We had invited Andre from Ukraine to come and speak to us, and he took the weekend to speak on faith. It was very encouraging! (It was that weekend that we first shared with the church about our plans for Tallinn, saying at the time how we thought that would mean moving in the summer of 2012, little did we know then!)
What Andre did was to ignite something in us all that was to have real results - and quickly! That very next week, we were to go see the hotel again, offer a reduced rate and see what they said - and they accepted it! We were to meet there from the beginning of October! So I think after the weekend away, we had about two Sunday's in the old hall before the move!
Making the move was to be a real step of faith - but we'd heard God clearly now and so made the step. Financially October onwards would be a testing time - had the church not stepped up so generously, that we saw a 50% - 100% rise in offerings from October to December. It was wonderful to see the whole church united with us in this big (and some might say risky) step.
We now had a venue that could fit up to about 300 people in, maybe a few more, but would also work well from our 60 to about 150 growth, such was the layout of the hall. It would have been hard for a group of 60 not to have felt lost in a much bigger hall. So the venue serves us well.
Little did we know what God had in store for us over the next few months!
About a month into our new hall with all this extra space, another local Pastor came to Dave and shared something he'd been praying about for a year - they were to move back to the US, and instead of their organisation flying in a replacement, he felt he was to shut the church and suggest they join Hope Church. This took some discussion and we are still working through this all, but as a church, they did close down at the end of November, and as Hope Church, we opened our doors to any of those that felt like they could be a part of us in time.
We'd long arranged a conference in December to which David Devenish was coming to, as well as Andre back again from Ukraine, so it was really timely as many people from the closing church were able to come and just get to know folk at Hope. We also had a group from two other small churches outside the city - we'd been asked to help them a little, their pastor a good friend of ours, and this is something we are also starting to working through now as well.
So as we met in December, Sunday attendance was now over 100 adults, plus at times something like 20 children! In our old venue, there would have been no way to have accommodated any more people - but only after we took the step, did we understand why it was so important.
It's now the beginning of February as I write this - in just under three weeks my family move to Tallinn to start the church plant there - this is another big step for Hope Church, to be planting another church less than three years itself having been planted. But praise God we leave behind us a healthy and growing church with a great team leadership - we also leave many friends, people that at most we've known for three and a half years, but relationships forged in pioneering and working hard together, the friendships deep therefore in such a short time.
In October we successfully multiplied the international home group that was meeting in our flat - having gathered about 10 regularly, the first week of the two groups at two new venues on different nights gathered between them 20! And they've continued to be that size. What was exciting, and especially with all these new people coming to Hope Church in December, was last Saturday gathering together 18 of our leaders, and from a discussion that came out of that meeting, multipying our three current home groups into 8!
One challenge we've had since moving into the hotel (which saw lots of new people joining us) is that the sense of Spiritual gifts and contributions in the Sunday meeting has greatly reduced. This could be down to a number of reasons - there has been a lot of change, new people from different church backgrounds are with us, the hall is much bigger, the crowd there bigger too! It just feels harder, or more intimidating to bring something. But its an area we want real break through in. What is clear though is that we are not to under-estimate the work of God.
Someone commented about last Sunday's meeting as being really hard, and worship feeling dry (compared to the near outbreak we'd just seen together on the Saturday with our 18 leaders). I encouraged them with what happened on Sunday - 6 or 7 people had put their hands up in response to the gospel, there were a number of first time visitors, the word was preached - and there was a good offering (January had been the lowest for months and we'd said how the church funds were now really low - so the offering was a sign that people were with us in faith). It's hardly as if God wasn't doing something - people got saved - it's just not the way it used to be.
Of course we do want a stronger sense of the presence and involvement of the Holy Spirit - with the free use of the gifts He so readily gives out. So we won't settle for what we have, but neither can we say God isn't working in us all either!
In time, after we have moved to Tallinn, we will visit Hope Church again (& again) and it'll be great to see this beautiful church continue to flourish and walk into all the promises there are for the church, one of which was that it would plant into Tallinn!
And with that I sign off on my (probably last for a long time!) update on St Petersburg - do keep praying for this great city and it's beautiful church.