Hitting the headlines as the ‘Fastest Growing Church in the South’, the 1980s saw incredible growth for the church. With groundbreaking teaching, dynamic worship styles, Bible Weeks and new-church planting, it was revolutionising Southampton’s church scene.
By the early 1980s, it seemed nothing would stop the growth of the church. Under its title ‘Southampton Community Church’ the congregation grew to an impressive 400 people by the mid-1980s. What had been the passion of a small group of believers five years previously, had now become an incredible movement of God that would dramatically change the church scene in the Solent area and transform hundreds of lives.
Churches were planted across the city – Shirley, Freemantle, Bassett, Portswood, West End, Woolston, Townhill Park, Bitterne Park – and across the region – Hedge End, Fair Oak, Bishop’s Waltham, Eastleigh, Chandler’s Ford, Romsey, Winchester, Salisbury, Gosport, Fareham, Havant and Portsmouth. As the leaders saw more of what God was doing, they started planning for a building that would hold 1000 people. Towards the end of the 1980s the various churches moved back together in one location at the Bolderwood Medical School.
Community Church regularly caught the attention of the media - at first for its rapid expansion, and later for its revolutionary style of worship. Its groundbreaking approach to leadership, teaching and prayer went far beyond church customs of the time, leading to divided opinions among other denominations, and its being dubbed ‘charismatic’ by the local papers.
Home groups, in particular, contradicted the traditional format of church in the 1980s. The small intimate gatherings for prayer, encouragement and worship formed ‘House Church’ meetings in over 40 homes across the city. They introduced the idea of church being about a community of people, rather than a building; a concept which, until then, had been widely misunderstood. This became an outworking of the prophecy the church received about “restoring the King as the head of the church.”
Throughout the 1980s, the various churches that were now connecting with Community Church formed a network called Cornerstone. Tony Morton was recognised as the apostolic leader of this movement, as well as the senior leader of the church. The Cornerstone team was engaged in mission in Europe, Africa and Asia, inspiring and equipping church leaders in many nations.
The team also hosted a number of Bible Weeks, initially in the New Forest and then at Shepton Mallet. These week-long summer events attracted thousands of people hungry to encounter God and learn more about what He was doing across the nation.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the opportunity to purchase Central Hall became a real possibility. Community Church tendered a bid to buy the building. Two other bidders – the Mountbatten Theatre and Southampton City Council – were also keen to purchase the vacant premises but the owners decided to sell the property to the church. The leadership team had a vision for a seven-days-a-week Christian centre that would be a hub for loving God and serving the community.
It would also restore Central Hall’s original purpose as envisioned by its Methodist Church founders: for the building to be a “busy hive of positive ideals and interests with Christ at the centre.”
The first meeting in the new home for Community Church took place in May 1990, marking the start of what was sure to be an exciting new season.
The King’s School
The King’s School was set up by Community Church in 1982. It offered professional education, for four- to eleven-year-olds, that upheld Christian values of love, acceptance and fair discipline. Starting with just 35 pupils, the school grew to its current numbers of 200 Year R to Year 11 students.
Firgrove Family Trust
Headed by Phil and Sheelagh Clarke, The Firgrove Centre opened in Shirley in 1987 to offer free and confidential advice to women in crisis pregnancy situations.
“As part of the church leadership team, we were asked to explore the issue of abortion.
"Our search took us to Phoenix, Arizona, where we’d heard of a group who set up a crisis pregnancy centre.
“After the trip, we knew God wanted us to establish something similar in Southampton. We felt he was saying that it’s not just about speaking out about the issue of abortion, but getting alongside women, loving them and giving them space to think through their options.
“But we felt it should be an inter-church venture, so people from many different churches got involved. We saw women’s lives touched and transformed. The first woman we saw chose to keep her baby and later became involved in church as a result of Firgrove. Then we started running training days and many other pregnancy centres were established around the country,” Phil & Sheelagh Clarke, Central Congregation.
1980 – The Southern Evening Echo reported Community Church as the ‘Fastest Growing Church in the South’ that held ‘immense appeal to Christians long stifled by dead routine.’
1981 – The church set up other congregations in Fareham, Gosport, Havant, Winchester, Romsey and Hedge End.
1982 – The King’s School was set up by Community Church to provide a high standard of education that was in keeping with Christian values.
1982 – Community Church joined ‘The Banquet’ in Wembley stadium, where 10,000 people from across the nation gathered for teaching and worship.
1987 – Firgrove Family Trust was set up in Shirley to offer confidential advice for those in pregnancy crisis situations.
1988 – Young members of the church rapped the gospel to shoppers in Southampton precinct, as part of the ‘Seven Days for God’ mission event.
1989 – Community Church put in a bid to buy Central Hall on St Mary Street. They were granted permission for the sale in May 1990.
“I turned up in 1982 and had been told about Community Church. So I went along and just thought, ‘these people are a bunch of nutters and there’s no way I’m going to join this church.’ But then I found that being among these people and a part of this church was the most amazing place to be, so I got stuck in,” Billy Kennedy, Senior Leader.
“There was incredible growth taking place and that was coupled with the sense of revival. It was a vibrant time of activity and possibilities. You dreamt something, it happened, and that was the way it was,” Alan Cox, Eastleigh Congregation.
“I was asked to help plant the church at Hedge End. On the first week I was there, a curate from the Anglican Church approached me and told me they didn’t want another church in Hedge End; they already had six, which were all nearly empty. I tried to be as gracious as I could and told him ours would be different. And just like Southampton, it grew and grew. Now, there are 500 people at that church in Hedge End,” Roy Pearson, Central Congregation.
“The most exciting project for me was Bears Camp. I got together with six dads and we took our kids to the New Forest for a weekend. And it caught on. Since then I’ve taken groups of up to 40 dads and kids – Christians and non-Christians. Now, I’ve handed that on to a generation of younger dads, which is delightful,” Nico Chart, Central Congregation.
“I had these children turn up on my doorstep and – what I could do then, but couldn’t do now – I brought them in, gave them cake and sang songs for them. Then the next day they appeared again. And in the end, we started putting on events for them. We had a little club each week and we did a holiday week during the half-term breaks,” Caroline Kennedy, Senior Leader.
“I remember coming to see the building when they were thinking of buying it. It was in a terrible condition, with pigeons flying around inside! So it was delightful to be involved in knocking it into shape. We went to the docks where they were knocking down a building and got 2000 of their carpet tiles. And we carried them to Central Hall for the rooms and corridors,” Nico Chart, Central Congregation.
“The first meeting in Central Hall was absolutely dreadful! We were used to the comfort of a modern university lecture theatre with a sound system. And here we were in this cold, old-fashioned building, with a sound system that sounded like a swimming pool! But it was incredible to get this building and to see God intervene,” Adrian Thomas, Central Congregation.