Two young men met in a fog bound cobbled northern English street. It was evening, perhaps going up to ten; the light of gas street lamps seemed to heighten what was a moment of decision for both of them.
The date was November 1958, the place, Oldham in Lancashire. They were both new Christians, experiencing their conversions the previous year. Friends from their school days and both now studying architecture alongside working in local architectural practices, they had been to a Thursday evening fellowship in the Edward Street Methodist Church.
There they had listened to a silver haired Cliff College evangelist, and the challenge had been quite simple: ‘What is God calling you to do?’
And we both knew; Alan and I knew, that God wanted there to be a ‘Mission Band’ in the Town Centre in Oldham. And so it was that somehow or other there was a ‘Mission Band’ in the Methodist Church on Union Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the Town Centre.
It began life in January 1959. It met at 8.00 pm on every Sunday Evening, and its object was to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel to the young people going about the town on a Sunday evening.
Its leadership was the ad hoc group of young people who emerged around us, aged from their mid-teens to early twenties. Alan and I were both twenty one, the oldest amongst us, 26. I did not know it then, but we were embarking upon a roller coaster adventure, which would mark us for all of the future years of our ‘Walk with God’.
The Minister of the Church was the East Oldham Circuit Superintendent, the Rev. G. Dean Sherriff. He was in a very real sense our guardian against those who would have ejected us.
A man of great compassion and wisdom, he only came amongst us when we asked him to, but we always knew that he was there for us.
Our distant spiritual guru was the Rev. Roy Dew, who had left the town four years earlier, but whose legacy had been the ‘South Chadderton Mission Band’, within which both Alan and I had come into Christian faith. He was from ‘outwith’ the Church, and I was a ‘cradle Methodist’.
The new ‘Mission Band’ was based upon a twin track approach to those who came and joined us. There was the charismatic Worship of the Sunday Evening Meeting; and, the Fellowship activities we tried to put in place.
In the first, we developed our own worship leaders, several of us already being ‘on Trial’ local preachers in our own circuits. Worship was enabled in so many ways, because our God really was for us a ‘God of Surprises’; wonderful gifts emerged, such as our talented Anglican pianist who couldn’t even read music!
We met indoors in wintertime, and on occasion tried ourselves at open air witness and worship in the summertime. We also, as and when asked, took our worship on the road, conducting ‘missions’ in the neighbourhoods of such Churches as would invite us.
Sometimes at a distance. The door knocker became an invaluable contact with new people. Some who remained friends for a life time.
The Fellowship activities began with meeting to go for hill walks; but then went up a major step when the local Hospital invited us to put on Saturday evening entertainment and fellowship for long term residential psychiatric patients who never ever left the hospital.
Again, new friends, new revelations, new challenges, new opportunities. Yet wonderfully in God’s resourcing, we did it; every other week for a time, and we did it!
And somehow or other in God’s grace, young people whom we would never otherwise have met, were coming forward and committing their lives to Christ. Our normal weekly attendance soared beyond sixty, and the age range with it to also embrace some older folks who found there that which was missing elsewhere in their lives.
Eventually there were those from many denominations, and those from none. Leaders from other local churches turned up to see what God was doing [or what it was all about!]. Of course, that is but a clue to the burden which eventually some of us were bearing.
Essentially we were running a new and charismatic young Church, and with all the pastoral responsibilities which inevitably emerged. I was working full time, and also studying.
But we were all changing; people were maturing, marrying and moving on. Alan had already given up part-time study and gone to university.
I was courting Beryl, and in due course we were married and set up home.
We became parents, and our lives were inevitably moving to their next stage. I was approaching final qualification as an architect, and the need to secure future employment as such loomed large.
In August 1962 I started a new job in Boston in Lincolnshire, leaving Oldham in a black Ford Popular. For a time, and until Beryl could join me, I was travelling back to Oldham every week-end, leaving for the 125 mile journey back to Boston after Mission Band concluded. Mission Band was anyway developing into the hands of others, and also moving premises.
By the end of that year Beryl and I were domiciled in Boston, and I was learning to be a Local Preacher in a 36 church Methodist rural circuit. When I was eventually recognised as a Methodist Local Preacher, it was in the Centenary Methodist Church in Boston – and we were committed to the next stage of our own ‘Walk with God’.
The ‘East Oldham Mission Band’ had been a four year adventure in our lives.
Who we were to be, what things we would do, the lifelong friends we would have, even the life of today, were all shaped in those ‘Mission Band’ years.
I pray for all of those out there the world, now in more mature years, who shared those four years with us.
(David Cowling is the Author of Methodism in Scotland and in Perth)
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With many peaceful blessings