Reflections on the journey thus far
By Keith McCrory
(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)
On November 26, 2017, Maynooth Community Church celebrated its 10th birthday since constitution as a new congregation with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. MCC’s Pastor, Rev Dr Keith McCrory, reflects on their experiences over that first decade.
It is inevitable that our tenth birthday would lead us to some ‘reflective practice’ as we look back over our first decade as a church. Being asked to put this reflection on paper for VOX Magazine was not so expected but it has been very welcome.
COMPLEXITY AND THE TRUE BUILDER
There is simplicity, yet an amazing complexity, to the work of establishing new churches. In some ways, describing our development as a congregation here in Maynooth could seem quite straightforward: “God called a few of us to seek to start a new church in north County Kildare and, as we have allowed Him to lead us by His Holy Spirit, and have sought to share our lives and the Gospel of Jesus with those around us, a new church has developed.” Sounds simple enough.
And yet, without question, there has been an amazing complexity to our church story. Countless incidents, decisions, people and provisions have led us to where we are today. As Paul says (1 Corinthians 3:10), wisdom and skill are needed to establish new churches. But looking back has reminded me yet again that we are never more than mere helpers in another’s great work. Starting or developing our churches is beyond us. We are always, entirely and utterly dependent upon what God does. He is the only true builder (Matthew 16:18) and only One who can build His church (Psalm 127:1).
Having said that, there are some key things that have shaped our church’s development:
Almost always, when new members share what stood out for them when they first encountered MCC, they answer “the sense of acceptance and love.” (I always hope they will say ‘Keith’s great preaching’ but you have to live with disappointment as a pastor.) I believe, this embodiment of John 13:35 is there because of what happened in our initial home group.
On our very first evening there were just nine of us, and five had never been to a Bible study before. We were as unlikely a gathering of ordinary and broken people as you could hope for. However, I will never forget what happened after our study when I asked folks to share where they were in their lives. The honesty and depth of sharing that took place was truly amazing. Over the following weeks, as we looked at Scripture’s admonition to love one another and what it meant to be a church, people took risks in sharing their lives together. Their vulnerability and willingness to love one another was truly moving. In this way, the importance of genuine acceptance and love was sown into the DNA of our congregation long before we ever met for public worship.
When starting up, we felt God was calling us not only to build connections with people but also with our town itself. From the earliest days, we tried to connect with Kildare County Council, our local politicians, Maynooth Community Council, the University, our schools, sports clubs and the other local churches. Some of this happened naturally through existing relationships. Some required quite an effort. Ten years on, the impact has been enormous. The Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board’s decision to allow us to meet in their facility in Manor Mills is a great example. Kildare County Council’s decision to sell us a site on which to build a permanent facility is another. All these relationships have taken years to build and have not only improved how we are perceived but have also allowed us access to resources and opportunities that were crucial for our growth.
EVERY MEMBER MINISTRY
Seeking to include as many as possible in ministry has made a huge impact. One of our core values is being “Ministers Together”. This Sunday, there will be 23 people on our church rota and all are needed. Currently, we meet in a corridor above Dunnes Stores in Manor Mills Shopping Centre. (It is much nicer than it sounds!) We only have access to our meeting place on Saturdays and Sundays and so we have to set up our sound system, chairs etc. each week and take it all down again afterwards. It is amazing to watch our folks at work. One of our insider jokes is that ‘MCC puts the service back into Church Service’!
Creating a place where participation is constantly encouraged, where it is ok to have a go, where it is ok to fail as well as succeed, has undoubtedly contributed to having so many members involved. Even more encouraging is the impact on spiritual growth. We have learned that participation is a key element in discipleship. Learning to lead worship encourages people to worship; leading a Bible study helps people grow deeper in their understanding of God’s Word; sharing their story of faith is a huge help in realising what God has been doing and saying; preparing and delivering a sermon is a great boost to people’s confidence and skill in sharing the gospel.
Gaining the trust of our local communities is difficult – and understandably so. Why should those around us have anything other than distrust when we arrive and dare to say that we have a message that calls people to repentance and can transform their whole lives and eternities? In the days of the early church, people regarded the first Christians as pagans because they refused to worship the local gods, and as cannibals since they spoke about drinking blood and eating someone’s body! Early on, one of our visitors challenged us to become a blessing, to be good news for our community as well as seeking to share good news.
Our small attempts in this have changed our town’s view of us and have allowed us to build relationships that might otherwise have been impossible. Our annual Arts Festival, our Christmas Concert in Aid of Refugees and our Saint Patrick’s Day Breakfast have been our public attempts to serve.
Redecorating efforts for families in need, putting in new kitchens in local homes and in a local school, volunteering with Tidy Towns, serving on housing associations and the community council have been much smaller ways to serve but have nonetheless contributed to a change in how we are perceived. They have also led to great opportunities to share our faith.
THE WONDER OF GRACE
There are lots of other things I could highlight such as the importance of building teams, learning to handle conflict, helping people develop their own spiritual practices, getting things clarified in writing. My final reflection is simply on the joy it has been to see people come to understand the wonder of God’s grace. I come from a tough and broken background. Discovering that the God who created me loved me, and that He wanted me to know Him, was the greatest news I had ever heard. It changed my whole life. To be allowed to work alongside an incredible group of believers and see that same discovery happen in other people’s lives is such a privilege.
Often, we do not know the impact we are having. Recently, I looked down during the service and saw a visitor from the US sitting in our congregation. Kim is now a lawyer in New York but had spent one semester in Maynooth six years ago as part of her degree. She had deliberately chosen to come back to Ireland and to Maynooth. Kim wanted to let us know that she had become a Christian at our Alpha course all those years ago and to say “thank you” to those who had helped her to find Jesus. We had no idea!
At our birthday service, two current members shared. One talked about the impact of being cared for. Another described how God had helped her to learn to forgive. Ministry is often hard and discouraging but such moments remind us why all our efforts and all our churches are so important. God’s love for us in Jesus continues to change lives today. What greater endeavour could we give our lives to than in allowing every person in our nation (and beyond) the opportunity to discover that wonder for themselves?
We are now moving into a new phase as a congregation with a large building project and all the challenges that will bring. I am tempted to feel overwhelmed by what’s ahead. Where will all the resources we need come from? Surely, they will come from the same source as all the provisions of the past decade.
1 Samuel 7:12 was our text on our 10th anniversary. It sums up what all of us feel when we look back: Samuel set up a memorial stone and said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” He has indeed!
Keith is the Pastor of Maynooth Community Church and Chairman of the Saint Patrick Foundation - a reconciliation ministry based on the life and legacy of our Patron Saint.