When I first met Don and Stephanie Smith, Don was leading a very small meeting in his home, the beginnings of a house church. He had been a gardener by profession but is a real shepherd by gifting.
Only 14 people attended and Don often jokes with me that, after my initial visit, the number dropped from 14 to 11! However, he began to build a church which outgrew their basement flat and moved through a series of meeting places, from schools to community centres. I can’t remember how many different locations they outgrew, Don and Stephanie always working together as a great team.
Gradually they multiplied through the hundreds, became the largest church in town and eventually bought a vast former indoor cricket centre called Boundaries, now Kings Church on the edge of Hastings, the famous ancient English town where Don and Stephanie lived.
Disciples were made and leaders were raised up several of whom were subsequently sent to start or serve other churches and can be found in different parts of the UK and further afield. Don has been a remarkable builder of lives but he could never have accomplished all that he has without the aid of his superb wife Stephanie, a remarkable complement to his leadership gift. I always noticed her at the end of meetings purposefully moving among the people.
Some years ago, when we were beginning to multiply Newfrontiers churches, I asked Don how many of his people commuted to Eastbourne each day. After a few moments thought he replied, “Maybe a couple of dozen”.
“Why don’t you move with them and start a new church in Eastbourne?”, I asked. There was no immediate reply, but very soon he got back to me. They agreed to go. I was present with them on their second Sunday meeting with 24 people in attendance, Stephanie as ever by Don’s side.
The Hastings story was repeated with a church that gradually grew through the hundreds to become a church of nearly 1,000 people, meeting in a stunning former warehouse, now a superb church meeting place for Kings Church, Eastbourne.
Last December Wendy and I were privileged to gather at Steve and Ruth Brading’s, together with John and Marion Groves with Don and Stephanie to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. As ever it was a joyful time of reminiscing, laughing, enjoying one another’s company and talking future plans.
We had no idea that within a few weeks news would reach us of Stephanie’s sickness.
Tuesday was a remarkable privilege as we attended Stephanie‘s funeral with hundreds pouring into the King Centre in Eastbourne. Tributes were shared, stories remembered and Jesus was worshipped as the Saviour of a beautiful godly woman, so unpretentious and straightforward, yet wholehearted in her zealous commitment to Jesus, a life so well lived and overflowing with fruitfulness.
Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us that it’s better to attend a funeral than a party. Well, Tuesday‘s funeral was truly memorable and of much more lasting worth than any party I’ve attended. So good to reflect on a life so well lived, full of excellent choices made, sacrifices embraced, loyalty outworked and Jesus glorified, celebrated by hundreds of grateful friends.