“Just being a church member didn’t seem enough for me…”

Anyone who’s ever had more than a passing conversation with Ellon Parish Church elder Sandra would know the truth of this statement. You see, Sandra has a preposterous life ethic; if something’s worth doing then it’s worth throwing your whole self into. In Ellon Parish Church we say ‘Get your whole self in’.

Sandra is a joy to volunteer alongside – whether it’s choir singing, rural committee organising, Session Clerking or committee leading, you know that you’re going to get all-embracing engagement and total trustworthiness.

For decades this is how communities from Alness to Ardwell have thrived. People volunteering their time to help community organisations like the rural, rotary, bowling clubs or the church. This is also where the problem dwells. If the church is full of folk who put the kirk in the same basket as all the other community organisations, then we’ll struggle. The Church’s purpose will be at odds with her members because, the church has never been about charity fundraising dinners, coffee mornings or meetings. The church is about bringing people into an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. This is our mission. This is what changed Sandra from being the most glorious, dedicated community volunteer into a living, breathing, struggling, joyful, faltering real disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sandra’s journey began in a wee, rural Aberdeenshire church before moving to Ellon and getting involved here.  Becoming more involved “…because probably I was nosey…” gave her more confidence.  Over time she was asked to become Session Clerk because people recognised her dedication and skills. A top class Session Clerk she was – dedicated, organised, supportive and willing to gracefully disagree. As glorious as that is, it still doesn’t make someone a disciple. It still doesn’t move the church beyond a bunch of well-meaning attenders into community-altering radicals stirred up by their relationship with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t enough for Sandra…

“When I became an elder, I got a district and I went to session meetings and I tapped my feet on the floor in agreement. It didn’t fulfil me. It was almost like we were encouraged to become an elder to fill a space, to make up the numbers. And it didn’t fulfil.”

Becoming the leader of the Mission and Discipleship Team helped because it allowed her to “gather information and learn more.” She was inspired by all she learned, and especially moved by a focus on the fruits of the Spirit. Even more reshaping was to come through a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit…

“There is no doubt the Alpha Course changed my inner feelings. I always remember the middle Saturday. I’ve never been so moved or felt such an intense warmth… an internal feeling that overtook me. I was completely taken aback by how I felt. And I think since then, I still get stressed, but a lot more of the time now I’m more at peace with myself and things in general.”

I can see lasting change. She’s faced some difficult situations where she’s relied on God for peace. From tapping feet in meetings to transformed by God, Sandra’s adventure of faith has been lived through the institution, but was never bound by it. Sandra used all the church had to offer to bring a life-altering, peace-giving relationship with God which spills out into her relationships and work in the community.

As we look to 2022, and consider the uncertainty of our church institutions, we can be overwhelmed with the task at hand and not know how to fix things. We’re not called to fix an institution or even an organisation. What moved Sandra from church member to disciple was being open to encountering God as part of the church. That came through different routes, but mainly a focus on scripture and then through being prayed for at the Alpha Course. Let’s be clear, it wasn’t about the Alpha course, it was about offering a space where God could minister to her. In an Aberdeenshire church building, with a packed-lunch and some coffee.

It’s not about big budgets, flashing lights or loads of people helping. Three people in a church hall, coffee, and space for God to work.  People. Coffee. God. It’s about intentionally structuring our church life towards bringing everyone into a relationship with God, over and over and over again, every single week. It starts with those who sit in our pews… exactly where Sandra was.