Glenwood Church consists of three congregations, all on the eastern side of Cardiff. The main congregation meet at a purpose built building consisting of a main auditorium and several smaller rooms. The ‘Bethania’ congregation meet in a renovated traditional chapel on the outskirts of the city with an emphasis on family and children’s ministry. The Penylan congregation meet in a local school closer to the centre of the city and seeks to minister amongst the local residents and the many students living in the area.
In the early part of the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of Welsh men and women gave their lives to God during the most recent of the famous Welsh revivals. The impact on Wales was enormous, with both pubs and police stations closing early due to lack of custom! In more recent years, the Welsh church has witnessed a massive decline in attendances and now faces the challenge of reaching a generation that has left God off its agenda. Glenwood Church in Cardiff is seeking to meet this huge challenge. Glenwood describes itself as a dynamic group of 300 – 400 people who meet regularly on the east side of Cardiff. It is non-denominational and evangelical with charismatic tendencies. It currently consists of three congregations meeting in three locations. The main Llanedeyrn congregation aims to reach the community in which it worships with a variety of ministries covering an array of age, interest and social groups. The Penylan congregation meets closer to the city centre with a more relational than location based ministry and includes work with the many students that reside in the city. A third congregation based further east after some recent changes aims to reach the many families living on surrounding housing estates by becoming a ‘children’s’ church..
I visited the main congregation to find out more. Only when I saw ‘Glenwood Church’ written in large letters on the side of the building was I sure that what appeared to be a sports hall was in fact the church building of the main congregation and the administrative hub. I arrived at 10 for a 10.30am service and after shaking hands at the door entered the windowless main hall which deepened the impression that the building was designed more for sport than worship. I sat alone for a few minutes enjoying the seven-piece worship band practice. At 10.20 there were about 10 of us but within five minutes there were considerably more as the worship band continued to play over the relaxed chatter. An older man came and shook hands with me, concerned that I was sitting alone. When I returned his questions about where I lived he was keen to tell me that this was his local church and he wanted to reach the community that had been his home for many years. At 10.35 the incomplete congregation was still arriving as a very brief set of notices were given by Paul Francis, an elder of the church who then handed over to the worship group. The worship was relaxed and I felt a clear freedom to worship the Lord in any way I felt appropriate.
Some of the congregation raised their hands, others knelt in prayer,while others simply stood and sang. During this first half hour we also prayed for a couple that were soon to go abroad to do Christian work. Then a nurse working in the NHS was interviewed, not because she was giving it up to become a missionary – but because she was a Christian doing a job to which she felt called, and valued prayer to do her job and meet her family commitments in a way that reflected God’s love and grace. The children then left the main meeting for their activities while the adults continued with more worship. Then Richard Woods, another elder of the church took the platform and began his sermon. He began with a call for people to come and fill the empty chairs at the front where a the large number of youngsters had been sitting. Unlike the other times I have heard similar pleas, people actually got up and sat closer to the front. Richard then began to speak about the need for Christians to allow God’s discipline in our lives. His sermon, one of a series, was based on Proverbs and contained many anecdotes, a challenge for us to listen with a correct attitude followed by a message that despite no visual aids dealt with the subject clearly and effectively.
In the conversations I had afterwards with church members it was evident they all had a desire to reach the local community. Almost all of them were involved in some part of the church’s ministry. Dave, one of the youth leaders, speaking with his wife Jane who had led the worship said, “We found it difficult here to just sit in the pews.” Those around us agreed. When people described the church they began with a description of the congregations but soon began to speak of the various ministries. “You must speak to Sarah, she does such a good work with the kids from the estate,” one of the elderly members told me. Another pointed me in the direction of Windsor who organised Friendship – the over 50s group. It was clear that Glenwood Church is much more than just about Sunday mornings. To find out more I met with Paul Francis, a salaried staff worker and elder of the church. He began working for Glenwood as a youth leader when the church met in a nearby primary school. The church began as a plant from a local Brethren assembly that had members living on the estate in which the main church building now stands. After meeting in houses for a few years the church grew from 12 members to about 70 and began to meet in the primary school.
In 1980 just after Paul had started working as a youth worker they moved into the building that is now the centre of the three congregations. “Before I was involved in the church they decided to build a building that could serve the community, hence the resemblance to a sports hall. It was considered radical at the time but they wanted something that the community would feel happy about coming to,” he told me..
There was an amicable split from the Brethren movement as issues concerning women’s ministry and spiritual gifts were addressed by this now thriving church. By the end of the 1980’s over 400 people were attending the church each Sunday morning but it was felt that the church had begun to lose its evangelistic focus. “After much discussion it was agreed that the church should plant additional congregations in surrounding areas” explained Paul.
“We had problems though. It wasn ’t that the congregations didn’t work but we found that unless the church employed leaders on at least a part time basis the stresses of leadership, family and job commitments were causing them to burn out. As a result we brought two of the congregations back into the main congregation ”
Did he see this as a failure? “No, people came to faith as a result of these ‘plants’ and Christians grew individually as well. But we did have to spend some time evaluating exactly how we could use the resources God had given us most effectively.” The result is the three-congregation model that exists today. “We like to stress that church is not just about filling seats but getting involved.” The result is there is an impressive and diverse range of ministry occurring in the church. This includes youth ministry with unchurched teens,which began through detached youth work when a church member began talking to the kids that used to hang round the car park during services. There is also work among churched children and youth as well as a number of after school clubs.
Ministry among adults include a men’s keep fit group, Friendship, a group for older members of the community and Alpha groups. Social action is a feature of Glenwood, with an active work among homeless people which aims to transition clients into furnished accommodation, as well as soup runs, meals and shower facilities at premises close to the city centre. The church, along with other local churches, funds Speakeasy, which provides free legal advice to the poor and disadvantaged, operating from premises next to a busy shopping centre. The desire to serve the local community is also evident in the drama group which as well as performing in church services is open to unchurched kids from the estate that take part in productions watched by their parents. The drama group is one of many of the church groups that have become a regular feature in local schools. The church also runs money management and stress busting courses and ‘helping hands’ – a group of volunteers that carry out odd jobs and errands for members of the local community.
I asked Paul how the church keeps such a large number of ministries running? “Because we have good people leading them.” He replied. “I also believe it is important to trust their gifting and meet with them regularly to ensure their pastoral needs are met.” The church believes it important to adapt to the community it serves, an example of this is the recent changes at the Bethania congregation. It was realised that there were a large amount of young families living nearby the church building. As a result the church has begun to mould itself around the concept of becoming a ‘children’s church ’.
“We’re learning to run an action packed programme for 7-10 year olds,” says John Gallacher a leader of the church with responsibility for the Bethania congregation. “Next will come the infants,eventually a similar programme for the juniors will run but at the moment a less intense programme is all we can manage. For the youth the goal is to give them opportunities to serve alongside the adults in any part of the morning they choose. The more difficult challenge has been what to do for the adults. The result is a life skills programme run in a café environment. Just imagine waking up on a Sunday morning, deep in your consciousness is the thought of fresh cream cakes and good advice on how not to be outsmarted by your teenager. We think it is a bit more interesting than washing your car!”
What about the future of the church? Over the next few months ‘Bar None’ a congregation meeting in a Pub will start. Initially meeting monthly it is hoped to create a friendly atmosphere in which people can enjoy and chat with their friends. There will also be the chance to hear a short talk or story and a few musical items and maybe a poem. The bar will be open and people can come and go as they please. “We also need to improve in several areas,” admits Paul Francis. “Communication within and between the congregations could be improved and we need to make sure church doesn’t become a lonely place for those coming in from outside. We want to keep Glenwood moving forward to achieve a number of goals including having a greater impact into society and encouraging one another into deepening our love for God. We believe that this is captured by the title Glenwood: one church – many expressions..”