Caroline Holt, project leader at The Wesley Playhouse, will soon start training to be a Deacon in the Methodist Church. Will it affect her role at the children's play gym and fresh expression of church? She outlines the latest news.
Since The Wesley Playhouse launched in 2007, we've registered over 90,000 visits to the project. Everyone has to sign in when they come to the Playhouse; we know there will be people returning again and again so we can't say these are 'unique' visits but we also know that it's very rare for us not to have a day without welcoming newcomers here.
The pattern seems to be that when a group of people leave, usually because their children have moved on to school, then it won't be long before we see a new group arrive. We are now at the stage of welcoming in our second 'generation' of babies!
We see between 40 and 60 people attending our Playhouse Praise gathering – our fresh expression – on the second Sunday of the month. Most of them are regular attenders and we have a really good mix of church folk and others with no link to traditional churches at all.
It's all about building relationships and I was thrilled to be asked to help to conduct the wedding of a lady who came to us right at the start of the Playhouse. Her two children are very much part of the family here too and she had wanted to be married at the venue but the Playhouse was a little too small for the size of the wedding party so the service took place at another church.
We still make ends meet, predominantly through the income generated by the play centre. We are a self-financing fresh expression and we are never going to be a drain on anyone; many new forms of church always seem to be trying to justify their existence but – as far as finance is concerned – we always break even so people can't accuse of wasting resources.
We give an assessment to the North Kirklees & Morley Methodist Circuit of £2,000 a year and we do pay our way. Once a quarter we also give up three days' income to charity because that's an additional way of giving for us; the three days we give up are Saturdays, our busiest days. It's important to look at church models which can generate income because I don't think that what we offer in new forms of church should necessarily be free. People will pay for what they value. The Wesley Playhouse facilities are slightly cheaper than other soft play centres for children; people like that but they also like the sort of community they find here and that's why they come back again and again.
But, and it's a big but, there is a very real danger of the Playhouse just acting as a business and being seen as a business. There is a temptation for us to open the play centre on Sundays because Saturdays are so busy and people often want to book it on Sundays; we say no because we are first and foremost a church – and I hold that we don't work on Sundays and we don't have paid-for children's parties on Sundays. That's the end of the matter.
If we gave in to that temptation we'd make about £1,000 over one weekend but we'd have lost sight of our vision and values for this place. God's honouring the Playhouse by keeping us afloat and we have found that if we honour him, he will give us everything we need.
In looking at sustainability, the trusteeship of the building and the project's management has been taken over by the Circuit. That move was prompted because there were just a few older members of the original church and they were no longer able to come along to us; we had the last of our more traditional-style services for them in August last year.
At this time of transition we have also been looking at leadership of The Wesley Playhouse because it has always been my aim to make sure that it's going to continue without me. In fact, that already happens because there are people who currently run Playhouse Praise without me being directly involved at all. It's very encouraging to know that I could step out of it now and the whole thing would keep on running because there are enough people who have caught the vision as to what it's all about. Eventually I will fade out of it here and let someone else take it on to the next stage.
It's important to say that we have also had a great deal of sadness mixed in with the joy of this place. A woman who was a member of the church came to work at the Playhouse and it all seemed to be fitting into place for her to take over the leadership when, in September 2012, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in February at the age of 40. She left a husband and six-year-old daughter; we not only tried to support them in their grief but also the staff, volunteers and customers affected by her death.
One week later and one of the people who helped set up the Playhouse with me had a stroke and died. I went to those two funerals within three days in what I would say was the worst week of my life. It can be easy to think when reading a brief update on the Playhouse that it's all been plain sailing but it hasn't. Far from it.
Being involved in the Playhouse has changed my outlook on many things. At one time we thought that everyone working there would be Christians but God has brought us some fantastic people who aren't Christians yet and it has been great to encounter their questions and viewpoints along the way.
I'm looking forward to starting my training as a Deacon in September but I wish I hadn't had to become an 'official' leader in the church to actually have a voice. My work here as a lay person is testament to the fact that anybody can have a go; you don't need a vicar or a minister to follow God’s call in setting up something and helping it to grow. We have succeeded where many thought we would have failed -simply because of God's good grace.
I've heard lots of people say that it isn't for them, that they couldn't get involved, but one way in which I'd encourage those looking to do something is to consider leaving a legacy to these new forms of church. Many of the older chapels and churches – with predominantly elderly, small congregations – are closing down because they are simply not viable any more, they are mausoleums. Legacy money could help to make something new happen in those buildings – and elsewhere – that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day. The witness will be just as valid but the way in which it is presented may be very different.
That doesn't mean there should be lots of children's play gyms everywhere. Yes, it is great to know that several others have started up across the country and I thank God for it but the last thing I'd want is for people to take it 'off the shelf' as a project for their area without thinking and praying it through. It has been said before but it needs to be said again that it's vital to find out what God wants to do in your area and then do it. What does your community need? That is one of the most important questions for people to answer. Having a Playhouse is not a recipe for success; it is one way in which God is working his purpose out – a way that was absolutely right in this context and location but it may not be right where you are.