Church in the Marketplace

"Go to the marketplace...” The prophetic word came at a leaders’ retreat back in ’89.

At that time we were a fellowship of 120 people who met in the local YMCA where we had been for about six years and we had brought our team away for a weekend of fellowship and prayer. As the worship finished on the last night, my wife Ze suddenly said, “ I have the strongest impression that the Lord wants us to go to the marketplace, but I don’t know what that means!” Neither did anyone else it seemed. I thought this must be a further confirmation of Ze’s and my desire to become more relevant and interactive with the public, to try and meet the non-churched where they were. Over the next few months, many people put their own spin on the word, but we couldn’t get any real clarity on it, and so we “stacked it” and got on with what we were doing.


Five Years later, while doing “carpet time” in Toronto, I had the impression that the Lord wanted us to get our own building. So, on my return, I asked one of our young men to search the city for a meeting place to rent on a permanent basis. He found a derelict building in the town’s ancient marketplace. When I went to see the building, I hated it. It was awful. The place had once been a supermarket, but had stood empty for 17 years. Hundreds of pigeons had invaded and the mess was disgusting.

As I talked to the landlord, I realized that it would take a lot of money to even get the place cleaned out, never mind ready for church. I turned him down. But something drew me back again and as I stood at the window overlooking the street on my second visit, the Lord reminded me of the word. Oh no, I wondered, could it be that the Lord literally meant, “Go to the market place”?

“Lord, if you really do want us to come down here, you’ll have to give me a positive sign – money would be good,” I said, somewhat nonchalantly. Six weeks later under rather casual circumstances, I received a “special offering” for a non-specific building fund. When we counted the offering, I couldn’t believe it! I made them count it at least four times. I was shocked to find £325,000 in checks, cash and pledges. I actually fell over laughing! That seemed to settle all my arguments!

So we set about the mammoth task of renovation and opened the premises to the public nine months later. The first morning we were £60,000 over budget and I resolved not to tell anyone. There was £60,050 in the offering!

“What’s the £50 for Lord?” I said to Him rather cheekily, my confidence by this time brimming over.

The very next Thursday evening, some of the youth were having a meeting and accidentally set the fire alarms off. The charge from the fire brigade was, yes, you’ve guessed it, £50!

We are in our seventh year of occupation now and the Lord has blessed our congregation more than words can tell. But that’s not the best...We are in the second floor of a 1950’s building overlooking a 700 year- old marketplace. Outside on both sides of the street, there are fifty or so stalls selling fruit and vegetables, clothing and household goods, all the things you would expect to find in an English market. The stall holders are typical market traders, rough, down to earth, and very territorial. Some of the families who operated the stalls for hundreds of years, some of the present traders have been there for forty years. What a tough way to earn a living! Not only that, but as you can imagine, they will take no nonsense and are as non-religious as any pagans can be. I’ve often wondered just what on earth they thought we were going to do when they heard that a church was about to move in on them.

Ze and I knew this before the church moved there, but we wondered how our lovely, gentle church people would react to them as well, especially the rough language! In my mind’s eye, I could see trouble brewing. I’m sure if this had happened to us in the early days, it would have seemed like we had been presented a mission field. Of course, that was true, but before we opened our mouths to witness to them, I thought, let’s hold on a minute and think.


“For God’s sake, don’t preach at them”, I told the congregation. We have to earn the right even to be here and if they curse at you, they’ll be doing it to test you. They think we’re a load of “happy clappy nutcases” anyway. So please cool it, we have to win their confidence and even if it takes ten years, our job is to shut up and pray.” Some of our church left as a result of that talk, but Ze and I had experienced the massive and painful gulf between the church and the world and we saw our occupation of the old building as a bridge into the market place.

Looking back, I ’m convinced we have learned much more from them than they have from us.

I constantly say to our congregation, “This place is full of sinners; the only difference between us and them is that we Christians have accepted what has been done by Jesus for all human beings, everyone and we know His forgiveness personally”. We are learning that these folk are just like us, with their own problems and that because of the grace extended by Jesus, they are all, every man jack of them potentially saved.

We had to learn to get with God’s program and try to find out how to reach them in effective ways. It has to start with respect. Love is no good unless it has some substance. Our pastor, Chris Roe says, “We have to encourage random acts of kindness.” It’s no good saying you love someone, seeing them in trouble and not doing something about it.

Just last week, for example, I had returned from holiday and was passing a stall when the stall holder’s wife stopped me in the street. “Thank you so much, she said. Geoff is much better now and your gift made it possible for me to take time off work to help him recover from his operation.” I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, so I said, “Well, give him our love and tell him we’ll pray for him.”

My curiosity was aroused and when I asked Pastor Chris, he told me that two weeks before, the market stall holder had been rushed into hospital and had to have an emergency quadruple bypass. Chris had given the man’s wife a cash gift of £500. I was so proud of him!

Last week Geoff came in to see me. It turns out that he was brought up a Christian, but got very discouraged and turned off by religious people. He told me that the gift had restored his faith in people. Now it may be we won’t actually see the result of that random act of kindness, but he knows that there is a church in Surrey Street that really does care about him and his family and in Jesus’ name too. He’ll not forget that for the rest of his life and even if we don’t see him in our church, the Holy Spirit can use that to talk to him about the Lord.

You see, we’re not after Christian “scalps,” we are after the sort of reality that Jesus got into so much trouble for. Not only that, but I bet the “bush telegraph” has been working overtime down our street! I wonder what they’re thinking about the “happy clappies” now?

In the same spirit, a pastor moved into town and took some of our congregation to start a new church in the area. I was mad, and there could easily have been a feud between us. Sometime later, though, we found out that his wife had just had a miscarriage and was having a hard time coping with their three children. So, instead of starting a war, we bought the whole family a very expensive all-inclusive holiday and guess what? He became a good friend very quickly! Jesus said “make friends for yourself by means of unrighteous mammon”.

Many of us church people are so out of touch with their world that we are not good advertisements for Jesus. We can be very off-putting to them and not good representatives for the Kingdom at all. Even though we all know that the gospel is an offense to those who are perishing, we’ve no right or reason to ram it down their throats! They’ve got enough to deal with just trying to make ends meet at the end of the month. Our job is to pray for them and try to make a difference. We need love and understanding for that, plus a hefty dose of reality. Above all, we need patience to reach the lost. Francis of Assisi once said:

“Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words”.

My prayer is that our church people get a good dose of “realness” in order to efficiently represent our wonderful Lord to our dying hungry world. We must learn to meet people where they are. I think someone named Jesus came to show us how.