The Beacon – Mar15

VentureFX pioneer Bart Woodhouse gives the latest news of The Beacon Church at The Bridge housing development, Dartford.

Since we first came here in 2008, one of the biggest changes has been the Methodist Church creating a framework to authorise lay ministers to preside at communion services in cases of 'missional need'. I now have permission to do that, which is great, but I've used it sparingly to be honest.

One place where I have used it is our monthly family gathering; it’s a kind of bridging event – in between a Messy Church and Café Church. It's on the fourth Sunday and that's where we have been sharing in the Eucharist. There is a table with lots of fresh bread, honey, jam, butter and jugs of grape juice; we get the kids together and distribute it out to tables around the room. We use a very simple liturgy around sharing this meal together; it's all about the sweetness of God’s grace. Based around the children and families there, this has proved to be quite powerful.

We have stayed clear of the formal liturgy but instead decided to base it on the ancient prayer of Hippolytus. He was one of the first to write down liturgy for the Eucharist and it amazed me when I read it. You can see how the modern liturgy draws on it very heavily.

The Beacon Church - early morning prayerIt's not hugely different to how many churches would do it but it is just expressed in a different sort of context. It is really good to have that sense of permission from the Methodist Church to do it, and to explore how we do it, but it's also about recognising the importance of continuity – no matter what context you're in. We also recognise the active presence of the Holy Spirit both in our time together and the missional activities and relationships we have forged as we live and serve in this new community.

God has brought us a long way since the days when a small group of us started to try and discern what God wanted to happen here at The Bridge. We have grown from 6 to about 40 in that time. It's not happened quickly but, over the past year or so, it has been gathering a bit of pace. I, and my wife Rachel, have had a lot of support from the Methodist Church and the Circuit are still keen to have us around for as long as we are willing to stay – so that's good news for us!

I think that, as far as VentureFX pioneer group is concerned, what we are doing is probably the most conventional expression of church because we are – in essence – a community-based church plant and we stay well within the confines of what many contemporary ministries would do.

We will get the next renewal of a five-year block of VentureFX funding in September but this is money which will now diminish year on year. The Beacon is not yet in a place where it is self-financing but you could imagine that within another year or two that goal may well be achievable.

We have been saving money as a church for a long time now for a launch of a Christian coffee shop as a physical presence in the community – that’s our next big thing. We really feel that God gave us this vision a long time ago, namely that it was really important for this community to have us as a physical, daily presence on the site. We have got half of the money we need already and we are hoping to get help from Circuit and District.

The Beacon Church - signWe are still in negotiations for one of the three retail units on site. They are owned by a gentleman called Mr Patel; there is quite a Hindu community in this area and they have been very open to our plans and who we are because of what they believe – namely not to put any 'borders' or 'boundaries' around religious activities. They have talked about coming to church because their Hindu temple is too far away.

That reflects the broad spectrum of people who we see at The Beacon. We have Christians who moved to the area and stumbled across us through different things that we do. We have also got a de-churched element but not too much of that and then there's a fairly broad number of people who are relatively unchurched; some of whom have found faith, some haven't. We do have Pub Theology sessions and that's where the guys who have not been involved in church previously tend to gather.

We have a fairly small, quite fragile, leadership team. That includes me and my wife and at least another three individuals who have leadership roles in the church. So there is a good team here but I think that if I was to pull out of the project now, it would be a struggle. Most of the group are in their 20s and 30s and commute into London as well so there are many demands on their time.

Our programme of activities has expanded and we have a café-style Beacon Gather Church on Sundays at The Bridge Community Primary School Hall. We don't have a Gather on the first Sunday of the month because that's when we have Messy Church at The Bridge Campus Community Room. Our toddler group meets on Monday mornings and in the afternoon during term time at the same place. At most of the Gather Sundays, there are separate activities for children and young people.

Connect Groups meet every fortnight to give people a chance to catch up and get into conversation about a theme from the Bible or questions about our faith. They usually meet in people's homes and involve 5-8 people on average.

The Beacon Church - Messy ChurchWe also have groups meeting on Monday and Thursday evenings as well as the Pub Theology night at The Wharf Pub, Crossways, and an early morning prayer meeting at 6am every Friday.

We are now planning our 7th 'Bridge Big Lunch', as part of a national initiative, on 7 June. The annual event is really popular here with over 400 residents coming last year, giving people the chance to get together, share food and skills, have some fun and get to know others living in the area.

The Beacon

The Beacon - Bart WoodhouseIt used to be an industrial heartland but the Dartford Bridge area became ripe for redevelopment and housing schemes began to spring up on Thames Gateway sites previously dominated by factories and business. The Beacon came into being when the local Methodist Church appointed Bart Woodhouse as lay leader of a new church plant team.

I moved on to the Bridge development in north Dartford with my family while the bulldozers were still very much in evidence in early 2008 so we were among the first five or six people to be here! At first we simply started just to try and meet anyone else who was around so we’d take our children out and about walking, bump into our neighbours and get some conversations going.

The Beacon - housesAs more and more people began to move on site, I was very keen to start a Residents' Association. We put letters through people's doors and organised an informal meeting in one of the new buildings; about 40 or 50 people come along to it.

We made it very clear that we were a church and that we wanted to work to try and build community here, firstly by getting residents together in that Association and giving them a voice.

That was a really effective way of initially getting the community together and being able to listen to what was going on. In new developments there are always issues with houses and how well the windows keep out water and so on – I was able to actually get some movement on those issues. We saw that as part of our role of building Kingdom. Part of our witness here as Christians was to consider how we could make this place a strong, vibrant and healthy place to be – so very early on we did things like holding a community carol service.

The Beacon - building siteWe then stumbled on the national Big Lunch initiative which encourages communities to get together for food and activities. We had a very popular tug of war, a bouncy castle and a barbecue. We also got local people to bring along some home-made food that expressed something of them and their background – a kind of signature dish. As a result of that we had goat curry and many other wonderful things! About 60 or 70 people come which, from the small community that we are at the moment, was quite a big proportion of the people here.

In our desire to help shape community we'll also be working to help create a community garden on a small plot of land on site that couldn't be built on because there's a high pressure oil pipeline underneath it. The youth club will be involved by creating a piece of art or sculpture for the centre of the garden.

The Beacon - threeWe had quite a small group of people with us when we started and now there is about nine and 10 on a core team. They all have a real sense of call to be doing this kind of work but we are learning again what it means to be community and what it means to be church together. We've also got quite a large and growing fringe group and we are using things like the Y Course and other things to encourage that fringe to maybe explore the Christian faith and then hopefully transition into the cell life of the church.

It has been very much about winning trust, listening, forming real relationships and friendships with people and trying to demonstrate something of God's love to them in a practical and real way.

The Beacon - Learning and Community CampusWe meet on a Tuesday evening in cell groups – or Beacon groups – and then on one Sunday in the month we all have a big meal together, maybe with some sort of interactive prayer time. The Dartford Bridge Learning and Community Campus has been built on site and we have a room there which is just the right size for us. We also launched a celebration service at the new school on the Bridge Development in January.

Some people want to try and argue that what we're doing isn't really church, saying that it's just an extended house group or something but I really would want to defend what we're doing here by saying that we are authentically church; we are a worshipping community together. We are also about God's mission, demonstrating the Kingdom in this place, worshipping him and finding ways that are relevant for us to do that. We certainly are creating disciples in what we're doing and encouraging others as to what it might mean to explore being disciples of Christ in this place.

The Beacon - brochureThere are a number of challenges that I think we face in trying to shape a full and healthy Christian community here. One of them is that I'm a lay person in the Methodist Church and so I'm not able to preside at the Eucharist meal. I think there needs to be a real integrity about these new communities we're forming in being able to celebrate that meal – and all that it means – together.

We aim to:

  • Build a strong church that is rooted in the fullness of God's grace and demonstrates the 'Jesus life' to our community and our world;
  • Always strive to foster a strong and real sense of community, one that isn't invasive but supportive;
  • Discover a pattern of Christian life that is 24/7, not limited or detached from the rest of our lives;
  • Follow Jesus, and by his Spirit, demonstrate his message to others.

Our long term vision here is to create a kind of pattern of church that is so integrally part of this new community and yet is authentically a church expressing all the Kingdom values and living out the message of Christ, seeing people discover faith in Jesus and having their lives changed as a result.