I want to go back and tell our story, because I want people to understand where we’ve come from. Many of you have joined in to the life of our local churches in the last few years and may know nothing of our story. I want to rehearse the broad brush strokes of how God has got us as a people where we are. I want to rehearse the goodness of God and the blessing of God, and the way that God has led us thus far – so that we continue to keep walking under that blessing.
Our story goes back to the 70s, to what God was doing in both Witney and Cote. In Witney, God raised up a young and vibrant church called The Church at Merryfield House, where there was a significant outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a great anointing for worship, and a real sense of a body joining together that was something significant as God worked. Geoff and Mary were living in Merryfield, along with Dave and Chris Richards and others – they were foundational in all that God did.
Five miles from Witney, in a little hamlet called Cote, there was a Baptist church which in the seventies went through a transformation process. With three hundred years of history it was by no means a newchurch, but, by one means or another the Holy Spirit visited that church and a number of us who were there at the time (I was actually the pastor and David Freeman became Assistant Pastor after a period). Those were some very significant and exciting days, both in Witney and in Cote.
Over a period of time during 1978 to 1979, the people of Cote used to sneak along to the Merryfield meetings, and we got to know one another! The leaders would meet every couple of months for lunch in a Chinese restaurant, and share fellowship together. We began to have the occasional joint meeting, where God very clearly and significantly spoke. Some of those meetings were focussed around visits from people like Barney Coombs or Bob Mumford. As we waited on the Lord together, God began to speak to us that there was more that we could do together than either of these churches would accomplish on their own. God was calling us to work together across the county to influence the county, to be a voice in the county, to affect spiritually what was going on in the county. If we stayed in our little units, our influence would be very small. If we would blend together (and this wasn’t talking about an organic joining of two churches, but a co-operation of heart and spirit, and a blending together of giftings and life), then God would grant that we would touch the county. That was a very, very significant period of our formation and it was rooted in prophetic words that God brought to us at the time.
Out of our joining of hearts and lives, and feeling that God was calling us together, we did a number of church plants in the county: Wantage,Chipping Norton, and Carterton, although that was one that didn’t take so well. We have to be honest: some things have gone well, and some things haven’t gone quite so well; but then, if you don’t try, you don’t get anything!
When Geoff and Mary had hands laid on them in 1981 for leading a group in Kidlington, God had spoken through a very powerful prophetic word which Bryn brought : “How can a city come out of a village?” There was this great sense that God was going to touch the city of Oxford through smething He was doing in a village north of Oxford, which was going to be sgnificant and powerful. But in 1984, we felt God speak to us again, that we were to plant a congregation in Oxford, to begin to touch the city for the Kingdom of God. So, in February 1985, the Kidlington group became very much part of the centre of that: some people moved from Cote and Witney, and Geoff and I started working together, leading the church in Oxford.
During 1992 we planted Abingdon and Bicester out of Oxford, with people God had drawn from those towns. You can see a spreading influence across the county, out of the prophetic word of God. And that’s what I want to emphasise and underline: that these are our prophetic roots.
If you have joined in, let’s say, Bicester, in the last three or four years, you might not know that that congregation is part of a much broader picture across the county. But in our roots is a county vision; a vision, not just for the local – although we do want to touch the local very, very clearly. But’s it’s not just for the local: it’s for the whole area. That’s who we are: those are our roots and our genes.
Over the years, across the Area, we have sought to train leadership, support one another from community to community as we were going through plantings. We have rejoiced in our life together and the sense that God was calling us to a county-wide call: Oxfordshire for Jesus. And, of course, there’s still other places that we’re talking about: when shall we plant in Thame? When shall we plant in Charlbury? There are other towns and villages that we need to touch, sometime in the future – we don’t know what God’s agenda is, but we do have a sense of call to the county.
The reason I want to emphasise this is because it was so many years ago that God said, “If you stay parochial, if you stay in your little units, you will be weak. If you will blend together and work together, you will be strong together.” And as we’ve walked in the light of that word, God has blessed us. I want to give the glory to God. It’s His work: unless the Lord builds the house, we labour in vain who build it. But as we have walked in the light of that prophetic call on our lives, God has made us strong.
So, what has God said to Oxfordshire Community Churches? First of all, God has clearly said to us, and we believe is still saying to us: our strength is in our togetherness. I am privileged to work with men and women of top quality: to feel our lives are joined.
When the Israelites went into the land, they had to go in together. Some of them were inheriting land east of the Jordan, but they are told – “hey, you come in and you help your brothers inherit, and then you can go back and settle your land.”
And we believe that is the call of God: that we help one another get established in the towns and cities and the villages which God has called us to, and that there is a commanded blessing of God when brothers and sisters dwell together and work together in unity. Obviously, all of us have vision for where we are: I’m not trying to take anything away from that – if you live in Blackbird Leys, get vision for Blackbird Leys; if you live in Chipping Norton, you have to have vision for Chipping Norton. But outside of that, we’re interested in the strength and blessing of our brothers and sisters across the county in the churches to which God has joined us, and the family to which God has joined us.
Secondly, our vision is for the county. We have to keep thinking: Oxfordshire for Jesus! We have to think larger than ourselves. If some should be taken from one church to go and plant elsewhere, we should say, “Praise God, the Kingdom is advancing!” We have to have a heart to give – an unselfish vision – a vision for the county.
Thirdly, our strategy is to “go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem”. This was a prophetic word that God brought to us around 1980, that the west of Oxfordshire was like a Bethlehem, where something was being born, but we were inevitably bound, just like Jesus was, to set our face towards Jerusalem and head for the city of Oxford, which is a significant power base spiritually. God had to turn my own heart round about coming to Oxford – I did not want to come and plant a church in Oxford, because I knew the weight of the ecclesiastical establishment, of humanism, and of all the philosophies around – I didn’t want to get involved! God had to turn my heart around, so that I saw that this was a significant spiritual base which God still has plans to take and challenge.
The whole strategy of ‘Bethlehem to Jerusalem’ is that we start small, and we build gradually, and God makes you significant. We don’t need to make things happen: you start small – like a baby in a stable.We don’t need to make any claims for ourselves, but I can tell you that up to now God has given us some favour in the city. And of course, our vision must be even wider than the county – we have to touch the nations.
Steve Thomas is Senior Pastor of the Oxfordshire Community Churches.