Rev. Bill Harding IV and other worshippers lift hands in praise during Swallowfield Chapel's missions conference held last June. Rev. Harding, an American, was one of the visiting speakers - File
SWALLOWFIELD CHAPEL is one of the most popular churches in Kingston. It is the envy of many pastors and with good reason. The church has seen significant growth in attendance in recent years and an audit of its ministries will cause many to conclude that it is doing a lot of things right.
In 1999, its membership stood at 400 persons. It is almost 800 today. The growth has been achieved without the church directly marketing itself, Cecil Ho, long-standing elder at the church, points out.
"We just say to our members 'Invite your friends to come to church'. We have never said to anyone 'Leave your church and come and join our church'. I am in marketing myself and the best advertisement is word of mouth, when people are satisfied."
There are two paths to church membership growth one that happens when persons are transferred from another church and the growth that happens when persons get saved and come into membership. Most pastors prefer the latter. While Swallowfield Chapel has had significant conversion growth, transfer growth has not lagged far behind.
RADAR OF SWALLOWFIELD CHAPEL
In recent years, the church has found its way on the radar of seminary students, clerics and Christians studying growth strategies, and best practices.
The church traces its origins to the pioneering work of the Rev. Herbert and Helen Gallimore, who in 1937, founded a Chinese Christian Fellowship. The fellowship grew and later it acquired property at 5 Swallowfield Road. On October 15, 1970, Swallowfield Chapel was officially inaugurated with a membership of 30, mostly persons of Chinese origin who spoke Haka.
The growth in members and attendance has been significantly increased since the mid-1990s. The church now has three Sunday morning services to cater to the many who seek to worship there. Few churches in Jamaica can lay claim to three Sunday morning services.
Swallowfield Chapel passed a landmark in its spiritual pilgrimage when in the 1980s, it decided to undertake a self-study and included some of the top minds in church circles to help them in that reflection.
OPENNESS TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
David Henry, who is the Pastor at Swallowfield Chapel, explained: "In the 1970s, there was this strong Charismatic Movement that influenced all of us. The Charismatic Movement began to influence our church in terms of our own style. It also brought a renewed openness to how the Spirit would do His work. The leadership did not seek to squelch that but to understand what was happening and to at least open our ears to see if we could learn anything. It is in that context that discussions about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit came about. Among the presenters were the Rev. Dr. Burchell Taylor (pastor of Bethel Baptist Church), who presented a paper on 'The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit'. This self-examination culminated in October 1985 when the Rev. Everard Allen (pastor of the Brown's Town Baptist Church) taught on the Holy Spirit. It was a watershed. It showed we were on the same page in terms of our own openness to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. There was leadership openness to the Spirit."
Swallowfield Chapel is functionally an independent evangelical church though it retains membership in the Christian Brethren denomination (aka the Brethren Church). The Brethren Church is essentially a layman's movement and as such does not have salaried clergy. It is also well known for its position where women are not allowed to speak or announce hymns during weekly Communion service, nor are women allowed to be elders.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
We wrote a position paper and this was circulated to the rest of the Brethren churches and they were invited to a meeting to discuss the paper. We had a meeting and in the end we agreed to disagree. So we took a different policy directive.
"We felt scripturally, women should be afforded more opportunity for ministry," said Mr. Ho. "They are not allowed to do pulpit preaching, but they can lead care-groups. They are heads of ministries. At Swallowfield Chapel, women can do everything except authoritative preaching and teaching and become an elder. The women at Swallowfield Chapel are very active and many of them have a high profile."
Pastor Henry was careful to point out that Swallowfield Chapel is in a process of transition and that this transition opens the door for further consideration of the role of women in the church.
Outside of the strong calibre of its leadership, Swallowfield Chapel is well known in Jamaica and the rest the Caribbean for two things its support for cross-cultural missions and its successful care group ministries.
MISSION A SECOND NATURE
Much of the church's vision for cross-cultural missions was cast by the late David Ho, former executive director of the Congress for the Evangelisation of the Caribbean (CONECAR). For several years, beginning in the 1970s, Swallowfield Chapel has convened an annual missions conference. These conferences have been privileged to have had some of the top names in missions, including celebrated missionary, Don Richardson, author of Peace Child which later became a movie highlighting the challenges he faced while working with an indigenous people-group in Indonesia.
For many years, the church has been sending teams to an overseas territory on a short-term missions trip. They go as far as Tanzania and as near as Cuba. The church is committed to playing its role in fulfilling the Great Commission.
"For us missions has become second nature. Each year 20-25 per cent of budget goes to missions," said Pastor Henry. Elder Cecil Ho disclosed: "Last year the missions budget was $10-million and every year we exceed our target to give to missions. We keep telling our members, the more we give to missions the more the Lord sends back to us. The more we send out people to missions, the more the Lord sends other people to serve us. (At present, the church is supporting 14 persons based overseas who have been commissioned from Swallowfield Chapel as missionaries.) None of our offering for missions goes to pay staff. We have a big staff, about 13 persons. I don't know how we manage, but the Lord provides the money. We believe in giving to missions a lot. And we don't just support Swallowfield Chapel's missions efforts. The missions funds also support theological students studying locally and abroad; various para-church organisations and various churches in need."
The care-group is, perhaps, the flagship ministry of Swallowfield Chapel and its most effective tool for church growth. The care-groups have become the point of entry to the church for many. Several persons who have joined the church, got saved and were discipled in a care-group before they were baptised and brought into membership.
"We recognise the importance of small groups. We appreciate the importance of growing big but at the same time growing small. We micro-manage our care-groups and train leaders for it and break-up large groups to form other groups. We have about 38 care groups. The average group has about 15-20 persons. These groups meet on Tuesdays. We are very deliberate about our strategy of inculcating the kind of culture in the church where church is not merely going to a place to hear a sermon, but that church is about community and about us being involved in our communities in reaching out. So the care groups are seen as microcosms of the church. The care-groups are a context for the nurture of spiritual gifts; a context for worship, the study of the Word, and outreach," Pastor Henry said.
THE WORSHIP EXPERIENCE
The 'worship atmosphere' on a Sunday morning is one of the big attractions to the church. Its Praise and Worship segment is guided by very contemporary music and there is a dress code which allows for casual elegance. The worship experience is aided by appropriate technology. There is, for example, a huge overhead screen and several televisions strategically placed on which some of the church's announcements and choruses are shown. Many are attracted to the church because of its unique worship style. The church is like a magnet for the professional class. Pastor Henry, a one-time lawyer in the chambers of the Attorney-General and then a partner in the law firm, Nunes Schofield Deleon and Company, thinks to a great extent it is a case of like attracting like. But he, like Cecil Ho, acknowledges a lot of these professionals who wear a jacket and tie in mid-week, are not keen on wearing the same on a Sunday and the culture of the church facilitates this easier style of attire.
There is no one factor attributable to Swallowfield Chapel's success in ministry, says Pastor David Henry. But many persons would perhaps agree that the starting point for its success resided in its leadership. "We have had a very good legacy of leadership, especially in terms of how the leaders facilitate the growth and development of young leaders and leaders who are able to manage change.
"One of our growth strategies is to empower our leadership. We have a once a month meeting which we call 'Pulse' which is comprised of the elders, care group leaders, ministry team leaders. Through these Pulse meetings we try to be informed and train and get feedback as to what is happening. In that process leadership development takes places. It is a time for strategising and strategic planning" Pastor Henry said.
"Leaders must be empowered. You must identify them early and you must give them an opportunity to serve," Pastor Henry said. He continued: "I like to quote John Maxwell, the internationally renowned leadership and management guru, who says 'Everything rises and falls on leadership'."