As the son of a preacher my childhood Sundays were spent driving around the North Yorkshire Dales to cold chapels and warm kitchens. The smell of the hymnbooks, the wheezing of the harmonium, the sight of the tables spread with food, and the gentle earnestness and generous hospitality of the dales folk are still etched in my mind. Today most of the chapels are closed. Only last week, I helped to move furniture from one that held its last service just a month ago. This caring Christian presence at the heart of every community is disappearing fast.
At the 2022 Baptist Assembly, Alan Donaldson spoke about “Something dying and something not yet born”. Rural Ministries director, Simon Mattholie wrote in the last edition of their Mosaic magazine about the ‘challenging place’ the church finds itself in, in this post-covid world. Today, I still live on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, and my love for them and my desire to see God glorified in them have never left me. But something is certainly dying and it is challenging to know how to respond.
A few years ago I was sitting on the back pew of a chapel in a small Yorkshire Dales village not far from where I live. As the preacher led the prayers I remember sensing a growing appreciation of the devotion of the people sitting around me, to Jesus, and to their chapel community. These people loved God and were faithful, yet as I contemplated this and looked around the room I noticed the chapel walls had begun to melt away. Soon I could not see them at all. The rows of seats and people remained, but now I could see the village green, the cars parked outside, the houses around and the people of that community going about their lives. But there were no walls anywhere, there were no barriers, and there were so many more people. It was then I was overcome with the overwhelming sense that God loved these people, not just those sitting in the pews in front of me, but all of them. This was a vision of a church-without-walls. But a vision is one thing, it is something else altogether to know how to respond.
Dales Faith is partly a response to this vision. Over the years I have met many people who live in and around the North Yorkshire Dales area for whom church is a challenge, and I am sure this is true for most other rural areas too. Where geography dominates every part of life, positively because this really is a beautiful place to live, but also negatively as small communities are spread thinly over vast areas, ‘local’ can actually be miles away, and isolation is a daily reality. There are few churches now, and those that remain often require all that their congregations have to give, to remain open. Yet there are Christians here, and there are many more people who are looking for meaning in their lives and a community to belong to, whose lives could be transformed were they to encounter the love of the God who made them. And so Dales Faith was born, to encourage those Christians for whom church is a challenge and to walk alongside others as they explore this faith for themselves.
Starting out online during the first lockdown of 2020, we are still in early days. New things are accepted slowly in this part of Yorkshire. Our hope is that through this online and social media presence we can connect with those of you who already know Jesus. In time our vision is to see God grow his Church again, in and around the North Yorkshire Dales area and so we believe that our part in his vision is to encourage and enable the growth of church-without-walls, a non-congregational expression of God’s Kingdom formed as a scattered-yet-connected network of individuals and small missional communities gathering in people’s homes across the area. We hope to both encourage, and equip those who connect with Dales Faith to gather in small groups where we live, and to help each other appreciate that this too can be ‘church’. Personally I would love to see such a Missional Community grow here in Bedale, where I live, and if this is something close to your heart, then we would love to hear from you.
We are not concerned about denominational labels, though I consider myself a Baptist at heart. We have no desire to draw people away from the expressions of church that still exist in this area, instead, we desire that God will build his church and that those who proclaim that Jesus is Lord may find local community where they may be loved and encouraged, and may grow as disciples of Jesus. Integral to this is the conviction that every Christian community is called to join Jesus in his mission to bring healing and restoration to this broken but beautiful world, and to express this through engagement in some practical local activity. Recently I was encouraged by the results from the Talking Jesus 2022 survey that remind us that there are many people in the UK who consider themselves Christians, or at least open to the gospel, who do not regularly attend any church (In the UK in 2022 48% of adults surveyed describe themselves as ‘Christian’ yet only 6% said they were a part of a church community. See: talkingjesus.org).
Something is dying, something is not yet born, and yes, these are challenging times. But, I believe that there are green shoots out there too. When Jesus wanted to explain the significance of his impending death to his rural disciples, he chose a farming metaphor. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). Perhaps this is also true for his rural church too. Maybe, too, we recognise that there is also something inside of us that if we were to let go, then new life, new opportunity may be closer than we think. When we are willing to lay down our personal agendas and expectations, before the one who raises the dead to life, perhaps we too may become a part of this new growth. To me, this sounds like an exciting prospect. Why not join us on our journey?
If you would like to know more about Dales Faith please visit our website dalesfaith.org or follow us on Facebook facebook.com/dalesfaith