New life rises from ashes for Norfolk church
2011: In the two-and-a-half years since Baptist minister Mark Taylor and his family moved to a quiet rural church in South Norfolk, he has seen his church set on fire - and seen it rise from the ashes with new life in the form of a youth club and a café church. He has collapsed from a stroke during a service and been rendered literally speechless, while seeing the vision of the congregation for revival renewed through setting up a house of prayer, and he has just secured permission to rebuild the church by the summer. This is his amazing story.
Following a difficult, and personally challenging, time of ministry we accepted a call to Carleton Rode Baptist Church and moved into the Manse in August 2008.
I felt God had said that this would be a place for healing and that I was to come and “gently” lead these people. A move is always an upheaval, especially when you have four young children that will need to fit into life in a new church, community and schools, and we cannot pretend that this was an easy move. However the support and love we have found from the congregation of Carleton Rode Baptist Church and the people of Carleton Rode and Bunwell villages has indeed been such that it allowed me to find healing from the damage of a previous ministry. The Lord has renewed my confidence to minister boldly again and to lead His people.
You may be forgiven for thinking that accepting a call to a very rural place in South Norfolk would be conducive to a quiet and easy life. Well, the sense of community and support here is strong, and the villages are indeed on the whole very peaceful, but – not long into my ministry here, just as you feel you are settling in, it seems that forces of wickedness were about to break the peace just as a sudden clap of thunder destroys the peace of a tranquil summer afternoon.
In May 2009, following a request from my 10-year-old son Joel, we opened a youth club at the Chapel. It met in the upstairs room above the old stable blocks at the Chapel, hence its name The Loft. This was initially aimed at children in Bunwell and Carleton Rode aged between 8 and 11 years old.
We had decided right from the start that this youth club would not have the obligatory “God slot”, as it would seem forced and a point of conflict; rather the onus would be upon the adult helpers allowing the life and love of Christ being seen in how they would care for and interact with the children, building a relationship and earning the right to share the love of God rather than force feeding. We were overwhelmed by the response from the village children – on the first night we had nearly 30 children and this grew quickly until we had over 70 on the register.
Some five weeks into the life of this new youth club, on Monday June 15, 2009, I received a call at 10pm to say “Pastor, your church is on fire”. I arrived at the scene to find eight fire engines in attendance and flames leaping high into the air - what a scene of devastation. Some of the congregation had gathered and were clearly shocked by what they saw.
I realised in that moment just how important a Chapel building could be in a small rural community - many local families and people have benefitted from present and past ministries and hold cherished and treasured memories of events and lives in this little place of worship. Were our dreams and vision for the future dashed that night as some poor misguided soul decided after a botched burglary to torch the place?
No! We have found that rather than looking like the end of a ministry, actually this fire has rekindled a new flame and offered us the joy of a new start.
Shortly after the fire Rev Kinglsey Appiagyie, President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, rang to say he had heard our news and God had a word for us: “What was intended for harm, God is now going to use for the good, this church’s ministry is about to rise to a new level”
The morning after the fire I took my children to school, as I entered the playground it felt as if I had walked into a rugby scrum; children in the playground ran up to hug me and parents rallied around.
“Pastor Mark, someone has burned our Youth club down, but we are going to help rebuild it.”
Overnight, people who I had not seen at worship in the Chapel were all suddenly taking ownership and finding a sense of belonging, they began to encourage and support our work. One Dad organised a 10-mile-bike ride around the local villages and came to church one Sunday morning to offer £400.
Not only were links with the local community suddenly vibrant and patent, the Rural Dean had asked the Anglican community to make their buildings available for our use, which they did with great warmth and sense of unity.
Bricks and mortar may have been destroyed, but actually you could see “church” being built.
Carleton Rode Baptist Chapel had joined with the churches in the Pilgrim Benefice and Great Moulton Evangelical Chapel earlier in 2008 as part of an outreach through the Hope08 initiative. Wishing to maintain this link, a Café Church had been planned to begin in June 2009 for a three-month trial.
Isn’t God’s timing amazing? The Sunday following the Chapel fire was due to be the Café Church service in the village hall - so all of the Baptist congregation turned up for breakfast and worship. Being forced out of the Chapel and into a new thing we found the congregation caught the vision for Café Church. Under the Hope08 banner we continued to prioritise this outreach, seeing it grow and continue on a monthly basis. In our little village community, once a month, we now have around 70 people coming regularly to Café Church – an informal and interactive approach to worship.
Being forced, I could say driven, out of your comfort zone leaves no option but to adapt to a new situation. We had to re-think how we should do “church”, where should we meet - we decided Bunwell Village Hall - what do we need. Should we concentrate simply on maintaining our little congregation or even, with the difficulties, should we be active in our outreach and witness. We found we had no option but to be active in outreach, the eyes of the community were upon us with great anticipation and expectancy of what might rise out of these ashes.
The Loft relocated several times, but it continued to grow with children travelling in from Wymondham, Old and New Buckenham, as well as the local villages. Café Church became more and more popular and after the summer Holiday club and at Easter we had in excess of 115 people coming to join with us. Our regular morning congregation has grown from around 45 to 65 or 70 people, admittedly we are not a huge church , but for the community size we are so encouraged.
One highlight out of so many over the last 18 months or so was when snow hit in January 2010. When the local schools closed for the day we quickly rang around every family we had contact with through the youth club. We said if they could manage to get to the Chapel field by 1pm then we would arrange a snowball fight and snowman building. Some of the ladies from the Chapel came and made hot chocolate and we brought mince pies and biscuits that still were left over after Christmas. Network Norfolk
ran the story of how 64 children and adults walked through the snow to spend the afternoon playing and relaxing together at the Chapel.
Over the summer just gone we ran a holiday club which met every Friday of the Summer Holidays from 10am – 2 30pm. In the mornings we played games, sang songs and followed the Scripture Union “Rocky’s Plaice” material. After lunch we had a variety of different events ranging from a falconry display, to which the children’s families and church congregation were invited, to hiring in a mobile chip van and sharing a fish and chip picnic on the field, again with the families and church mixing and fellowshipping together.
Things were going so well, even though our Chapel was still a burned-out shell. Whilst all of this went on I think we saw a picture of the church in Acts, where the Apostles were released to minister through the appointment of seven spirit-filled men to wait on the tables. I am very aware that my time could have been consumed with planning the rebuild, one of my deacons Barry Gotts has diligently and conscientiously shouldered the burden of overseeing the rebuild and this has allowed me to focus on ministering both to the church and community.
The church’s decision has been not to reinstate the damaged building to how it was prior to the fire, a big step of faith was made in the decision to develop and build for a new and future vision and ministry.
We have sought permission to redevelop this Grade II listed building through the removal of the fixed pews which will give a much more flexible use of the Chapel room, possibly lending itself to a ministry through cooking a meal on a regular basis for the older people in the community.
The old stable area will be developed into new toilets, and good sized catering kitchen and a lounge area. Half of the small car park at the front of the Chapel will be transformed into a fenced-off patio area which will lead out from the new lounge.
This is a big step of faith for a small congregation, the insurance will pay for the damage but any extra development must be met by the Chapel.
We do not hold raffles or jumble sales - you can’t build the Lord’s work on other people’s rubbish - we firmly believe that God will open the window of heaven over us and make His provision known to us. This He does not by making money rain down from heaven, but by touching the hearts of those who are favourable to us, or prompting someone’s spirit that they should give to this work.
Already the congregation have given over £35,000 towards this work. Put together with the insurance money this works out to be around 70% of what we need - maybe if you are reading this you might feel the Lord prompting you to encourage us and stand with us in our vision to rebuild.
Personally, another attack was to come. In October 2010, I was admitted to hospital after collapsing during a service. It seems the old enemy was having another kick to try and silence our ministry - I had been diagnosed as having some kind of stroke or brain incident. My ability to speak and write had been severely impaired and I was talking like a little child, I was now unable to preach the Gospel to which I have been ordained.
The work of the youth club has had to be put on hold, and only now am I slowly returning to minister, my speech restored after nine weeks of babbling.
We have received the last permission required to rebuild and we hope that by the summer, building will be well under way. God though doesn’t want us to be idle.
During my preparation to return to minister I prayed about what my first sermons might be. God clearly guided me to preach on three points of prayer:
We should pray because God has invited us to
We pray not from defeat but from the right-hand of God on high, that’s where we are seated with Christ.
Angels and heavenly armies mobilise and conquer when the saints of God pray
God was telling me that this Chapel should be a house of prayer
One of my deacons, Barry Gotts, was admitted to hospital for the day, and although his medical procedure was unsuccessful he had an amazing encounter with God. He called and told me how he had read “The Grace Outpouring” and that he felt God was calling us to become a “House of Prayer”.
We then heard about the word from Alabama that as the churches of Norwich unite in prayer revival would breakout. We witnessed with this so much that we joined the City Church and others at a united prayer meeting for this to come into being.
One thing we came away with that night was from the final song which said
Lift up you head you gates of brass
You bars of iron yield
And let the King of Glory pass
The cross is in the field
If anyone asks me where my church is I always say Carleton Rode and they 95% of the time reply where is that, I have taken to saying “Oh it’s in a field”.
This song and the call to prayer have witnessed with us so much that on February 6 we shared this new vision for the church to become a house of prayer, to believe that revival is here now - we are not waiting for it anymore. On Tuesday February 8 we held a revival prayer meeting to pray to bless this community - we hope to make this a monthly meeting to which the surrounding churches will come and join.
I have noticed in scripture that often the blessing and revival comes out of the wilderness or country rather than the city - John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and the people of Jerusalem coming out to be cleansed, a carpenter’s Son from little Nazareth changing the world and our destiny; we know God is on the move here – watch and see what he does and please PRAY for us.
It is my firm belief that as we now build with bricks and mortar, God will build a spiritual house with new living stones being added.
Pictured, from the top is Rev Mark Taylor and his boys, the arson attack on the church, the famous Bunwell snowball fight and the Big Breakfast in Bunwell Village Hall.