I left Abundant Life Church (ALC) blessed and feeling that I’d known Paul and Hayley Anderson-Walsh, the pastors, for a long time. There is a caring and loving sense about them that puts people at ease. Not surprising really as ALC’s ethos is to genuinely love one another as Christ loves us. ALC meets at the Oak Tree Church on Acton Green in West London at 3pm. Approximately 80 to 100 form the core, most are in their 20s. It is a truly international church with people coming from Finland, Sweden, the Caribbean, Africa, England, France and Australia. Worship doesn’t start until about 3.20. The first 20 minutes are spent chatting over cakes and refreshment. The atmosphere is friendly, inviting and very relaxed. This fellowship is important to the church and is quite deliberate. Afterwards there is a longer time to fellowship sometimes over a meal shared once a month.
The relationship between the Oak Tree and ALC is a good one. So good, that ALC don’t pay rent. “As soon as we decided to do what God called us to do, He has opened every door,” recalls Hayley. “Especially through Mike Clarkeson, the Vicar of the Oak Tree and his wife, Linda. When we got there we asked them how much they wanted a month. They told us that God had spoken to them and said ‘whatever this couple wants, give it to them’.” Prior to establishing ALC Paul was on the pastoral team at Kensington Temple, a large west London church, as well as the director of its Bible School. In February last year, God called him to do something that had been on his heart a long time: “It was to try and see whether it was possible to grow a church on the principles of grace alone, a completely law-free church, where you could remove every stumbling block except the cross of Christ. Where you could try and see whether people could respond to the idea of just preaching Jesus and the unconditional love and acceptance that is ours in Christ.” Surely law has its place in church?“ It doesn’t mean that we tear the Old Testament off our Bibles,” said Nigel Lurrie, ALC’s Assistant Pastor, “The Law no longer applies to us because Christ fulfilled the law. So we now live under the new Covenant of Grace and that’s what we teach. We say there is only one law. It is to love the Lord your God and others as you love yourself. In doing that we are fulfilling the law. The Old Testament says you shall not commit adultery but Jesus says if you even look at another woman with lust you are committing adultery. We want to live by a higher standard than the Law” said Nigel..
The teaching is working and lives are being changed.“Our people say that their world view has changed. Because they understand that they are forgiven, they forgive. Because they see themselves as accepted they tend to be more accepting of one another. The fruit of the Spirit is ripening in their lives, as they are more loving, kinder and more patient. All of this has made them better witnesses – it is easy to talk to people about a God that you love rather than one you are afraid of,” said Paul..
Rachel Baker is 25 and a student at the Grace Project, the umbrella name for ALC’s training ministry. A Christian since the age of ten, she went away from God in her teens and came back when she was 20. Since coming to ALC her life has changed radically and she likes herself now. Also, God has become real to her. “I feel that God has revealed himself to me and that I have not created him out of my own understanding. I thank God he’s not what I thought he was,” she said. The church initially met last summer in each other’s houses. Then there were six. They moved to the Oak Tree in September last year. Now they are close to 100 ALC doesn ’t follow a formal leadership structure. There are approximately 12 people working in various ministries of the church. The Pastors are Paul and Hayley Anderson-Walsh the Associate Pastors are Nigel and Karen Lurrie. Also Larry and Melissa Grant run the Journey Into Faith ministry as well as work at the Grace Project. The pastors see their task as facilitating other people to fulfill their vision for leadership so the leadership structure is evolving in Paul’s words “it is deliberately designed to be fluid.” This group comes together every fortnight over supper to pray together and talk about the work they are doing.
As well as developing a close relationship with the Clarksons, Paul and Hayley made friends with a minister from Abundant Life Church in Houston,Texas: “When we went to ALC in Houston we saw enacted what we believe in. We saw relationship, people loving one another. We saw an environment where people don’t gossip, where people speak truth to one another, where if you don’t have anything encouraging to say you don ’t speak. We came back from America with their strap line - ‘healing hurts building dreams’. We said that if we could take our theology which is a doctrine of Grace and an unconditional love and acceptance and teach that to the church, then we could create a body of people that would: understand that you can only love to the extent you know you are loved, only forgive to the extent that you understand you are forgiven, accept to the degree you understand you are accepted. We want to take these relational values on board” The Hayleys claim; “people don’t gossip in our church, they don’t say negative things to one another, they say encouraging things to one another. But it is not empty and vacuous, it’s done because they understand that forgiveness is their’s in Christ.”
For a church that doesn’t advertise or evangelise (yes, no evangelism team), ALC is growing. “We had a very simple word from God about how you should evangelise in Psalm 23. I looked at the Psalm over again and I asked the Lord, ‘what do you mean Lord?’ and he asked me, ‘what do you see?’ and I said ‘lush grass and still water,’ and he said, ‘that’s it’. All you have to do is to learn to grow good grass and if you grow good grass, I’ll bring you some sheep. We just grow the grass and God brings the sheep ”. I had difficulty in understanding why there was no emphasis on evangelism.“ Like everyone else,we were raised on the teaching that the Great Commission was to ‘go out witnessing’ but of course that is not the Great Commission – it is ‘to be my witnesses’. And how will they know that we are his disciples? “Because they have love for one another,” (John 13.35) responds Paul. Once Paul and Hayley understood this, their view on evangelism changed dramatically. Paul agrees that some people may be called to ‘evangelise’ in the conventional sense, “but our calling is not to gather in the wheat but to turn the wheat into bread through the teaching of the Word,” he explains.”
Lorretta Andrews attends ALC. She is also a member of the Christian girl group Shine, who work in secondary schools’ R.E lessons. “We are all called to be evangelists. My job is as an evangelist. The biggest thing that impacts young people is when you are just living your life in front of them and they can see that it is genuine. The ethos of ALC is to live Jesus wherever you are,” she said. Many people come to ALC who are tired and spiritually burned out. They minister to people who had given up on church: “For six months we taught on spiritual burn-out. Our congregation is made up of people, who have been left for dead by the church. They have come with a great heart for God. They’ve been missionaries, evangelists but they have hit a brick wall because their whole life was ministering for acceptance. They were ministering out of a spirit of performance,” said Paul.
“When someone, hurt by organised religion, comes to ALC, the first thing we say is ‘you’re valuable not because of what you can do, but because of who you are. You have the permission to come to this church, sit down and do nothing until Jesus comes back, that’s fine, we’ll love you’, ” he continues..
Paul believes the church makes the mistake in not telling new Christians who they are but is keen on telling them what to do. “So Christianity becomes about doing in order to become. Real Christianity is about being in order to do. We teach what it is to be in Christ and then when you work you do it because you are accepted and loved,” he explained.. ALC also emphasizes the importance of the Exchanged Life. This teaching lies at the heart of ALC’s identity. Hayley explained: “Once you understand the Exchanged Life, you see everything in a different light and whatever you are doing will be from the position of grace first of all. So we don’t teach giving, we don’t teach tithing. But people give because they know God has done everything for them and they want to give and are happy to give.”
The Exchanged Life is derived from Isaiah 40: ‘God never grows weary nor faints, but even the youths will stumble and fall but those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength’. “You exchange your strength which will fall and faint and stumble for God’s strength. God never faints and never stumbles. You come to a point where you learn that apart from Him you can do nothing. What most Christians think is because of Him I can do nothing,” said Paul.. When people come to the church, there is a period of time called the visiting period. “There is no commitment. If you like it, great. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. We get many pastors from other churches who come and just sit and hear the teaching,” said Paul.. For those who want to be more committed, they are invited to join the Discipleship Training School (DTS), a 13-week programme.
“There is a lot of important teaching that we taught in the first few months as a church that we can’t go back to. The DTS teaches people about what we believe as a church, it also teaches on the Exchanged Life, identity,and acceptance,” said Nigel Lurrie.. In September ALC introduced ‘Journey into Freedom’ to help people who have been affected in some way by their church. “I found that as I was teaching Christians about cults, the issues affected them too,” said Larry Grant, a lecturer on cults at the Grace Project. Larry, a former Jehovah’s Witness, was a lecturer at Kensington Temple’s Bible School. “I was talking about cults and issues such as spiritual abuse, manipulation, authoritarianism and I realized here are Christians who are not in cults but had been affected by some of those issues in church. I was teaching about cults and then ministering for an hour after the lecture to people who had been hurt in church. It is an area that no–one wants to talk about. Everyone wants to sweep it under the carpet. Sadly, it happens and is possibly more widespread than we would care to admit,” said Larry..
The worship reflects ALC’s ethos and its worship leaders deliberately choose songs that exalt Jesus and are theologically accurate. Paul believes that the church has become so obsessed with how they worship they are forgetting who they worship. “We not only hinder our own individual worship life, worse still we force people to either perform or conform making worship an opportunity for the flesh and not the spirit.” ALC is currently looking for a worship facilitator who will be responsible for developing the worship life of the church to incorporate all types of worship. ALC could best be described as a young church. Most of its members are in their 20’s and 30 ’s. They come from all walks of life, students, secretaries, accountants, professional sportspeople, actors, dancers singers: “The kind of people who come to our church,” said Paul “are the kind the church doesn’t understand. Anyone who’s a little unconventional will come to our church because they won ’t get judged. They can come in on a Sunday with shades on because they’ve had a late night on stage or performing,” said Paul.
It is impressive what ALC has achieved in under one year. What of the future? Paul is hopeful: “It is our prayer that we build a healthy church; not a family church, but a church that is a family. That ALC will be a church where people matter more than programmes. We hope that we will have created a ‘spiritual community’ and prove unequivocally that it is possible to build a church by grace alone.” At a time when some churches are busy making members sign contracts to belong,or are applying secular management principles, ALC is focusing on the one who really matters in all this – JESUS.