timberland earthkeepers uk Building a church from scratch
How do you support young people in full time study, often away from home for the first time, and struggling with the anxieties that come with that?
And how do you revitalise Christianity by encouraging those who have lost interest in it or dismiss it as worthless to look again?
Tackling both these questions is part of Matthew Firth’s job. Matthew is 33 and a Cambridge astrophysics graduate as well as a vicar. And he came to Carlisle precisely because it allowed him to grapple with both questions.
He supports students in his post as chaplain of the University of Cumbria. And to revitalise Christianity he has set up a new church, The Way, with a new approach.
Some return to their faith and some come to the faith for the first time
We meet in his small office at the university’s Fusehill Street campus. Matthew is talkative, friendly and energetic and has firm ideas about the approach that’s needed.
To those traditionalists who prefer the old forms of worship, he responds: “We can’t just go back to the old methods. I’m seeking to create new forms of Christian community that will engage people in their 20s or 30s.”
There are few places with as many people in that age group as a university setting. Pastoral care is part of every vicar’s job, and Matthew encounters both students and staff who need his help.
“It can be issues around family, bereavement, ill health, the pressure of work, and international students when they feel like a fish out of water.
“It’s also about building a community within the university.”
One way to do that is to lay on a meal for students during term time at an ultra low cost. “For 1 they get a two course dinner. An average of about 70 students come along to that.”
They can sometimes be a platform for spreading the Christian message. “We unashamedly share our faith in Jesus with students. Some return to their faith and some come to the faith for the first time.”
But what Matthew was also keen to do was create a brand new church here. That didn’t mean a building with stained glass windows and an organ. The Way is aimed at, but not exclusively for, people in their 20s and 30s, some of whom don’t feel at home in a traditional church or may never even have been to one.
Sometimes it meets in the university chapel in Fusehill Street but Matthew stresses: “We are not tied to a building. We sometimes meet in people’s homes. Last term we met in the Woodrow Wilson quite often.
“We have a good mix of students, people who used to be students and now live in Carlisle and others who are local.”
On Sundays they meet at 5pm, normally in the chapel, for a talk from the Bible and prayer, followed by conversation and a meal. “People bring along food to share.”
And on Wednesdays they explore Christianity in different ways maybe through general talk, maybe through an Alpha course video.
But the emphasis is on keeping it relaxed, informal and non pressurised. “It’s about sharing the Gospel message about forgiveness and life with God and doing it in a way that connects with people.”
Setting up a new church had been an ambition of Matthew’s long before he came here. He grew up in west Yorkshire and went to Cambridge to study astrophysics. It was while there that he realised he was meant to become a vicar.
Matthew was already a Christian but recalls: “Cambridge was a really formative three years, where my faith blossomed and grew. It was somewhere where students would talk about what they believed, and it made me reflect. I might want to be a physicist but does God want me to be a physicist?
“It was out of the blue. Being a vicar hadn’t crossed my mind until I had that overwhelming sense of what God wanted me to do.”
So after graduating he spent two years at a church in Warrington, essentially on work experience. “I saw what it felt like to be a full time Christian minister.”
Then came three more years of study at England’s other ancient university, Oxford, and his first posting was as a curate at a church in Ipswich. He values the experience he gained there but after three years curates have to move on, and he knew what he wanted to do next.
“Chaplaincy jobs don’t come up very regularly. I thought I’d end up vicar in a middle class suburban church. But I was interested in ministry in education and in starting a church from scratch.”
The job in Carlisle allowed him to do both so was a perfect fit.
There will always be traditionalists who dislike what are sometimes termed “contemporary” forms of worship. Matthew doesn’t knock the traditional format.
“The institutional church is capable of reaching certain sections of the population,” he says. “It’s effective with older people, it’s effective with families but not with people who have been disengaged for a generation or two.
“That’s the whole point of appointing pioneer ministries. We are trying to present the message in a different way.
“We want people to think: ‘Maybe there’s some truth in what they’re saying.’ But if there’s a dryness in the church, why would they explore it?”