A fresh expression of church is NOT a cheap and cheerful option (Caroline Holt)

Caroline HoltCaroline Holt explains why a fresh expression is not a cheap and cheerful option.

Those of us in the church need to wake up to the fact that many people don't feel comfortable with any of our traditional ways of doing things. They also don't have a clue what we stand for.

The Wesley Playhouse may look nothing like a traditional church – with its children's soft play area, climbing frames, ball pool and café in the middle of it – but those who come along to our Playhouse Praise once a month see this place as their church, and so it is.

A fresh expression of church should be one that understands a generation and culture that's very different to what we may know and recognise. The young families I come across don't know what to sing and they don't understand our words. Why should they?

On Mother's Day we're laying on a four-course meal for mums and their families. It's a chance for people to relax while we wait on them. It should always be about service.

We have already had several christenings here, but we have just taken bookings for two more.The families had initially asked at other local churches but had been told that it couldn't happen because the godparents hadn't been baptised. They were being pushed to get to a place where they didn't want to go.

I'm not saying that we're the cheap and cheerful option; I'm saying that we welcome people even if they don't call the ceremony a christening because they don't know the 'right' word. It is completely alien to them. Ours is a consecrated church building so we're happy to arrange christenings, explain what it's all about in their terminology, and develop relationship with them.

Many people don't feel comfortable with any of our traditional ways of doing things. They also don't have a clue what we stand for.

Why in traditional church do we ask people to make promises that we know are not going to be kept? Yes, I'm aware that people will have been through some sort of baptism course and are meant to appreciate the seriousness of what they're saying, but we have to get real – that is not what happens in many cases at all.

The church will feel that it has done what it is meant to do by making them go through the hoops; in turn the people will promise to turn to Christ and renounce evil, etc. The uncomfortable fact is that these lies are told in front of God in church and that's an accepted part of Christendom, but, more often than not, the words mean absolutely nothing. That's not because the people don't want the very best for their child, and they certainly wouldn't want to lie to God, but they can't really relate those words to everyday life.

In the past I've asked children in schools, 'What happens in church?' Their answer was, 'You go there to die', because they associated church with funerals. Now a lot of people go straight to the crematorium without having a church service, so the church is not even where you 'go to die' any more.

We've got to change our ways, care for the people, fund risky initiatives like ours, and give thanks for the chance to do it.

The Wesley Playhouse – update Jul13

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!

Wesley Playhouse - tableWe 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.

Wesley Playhouse - chairsBut, 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.

Wesley Playhouse - Caroline HoltIt'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.

Wesley Playhouse - cakeI'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.

The Wesley Playhouse

Caroline HoltWho would have thought that a visit to a children's indoor fun centre could inspire church steward Caroline Holt to oversee a dramatic shift in the fortunes of a small West Yorkshire Methodist church?

Caroline made the trip to a commercially-run activity zone with her god-daughter, and wondered why such a venture had never been provided in church buildings? Surely it would bring in countless children – not to mention their waiting parents?

As a member of Howden Clough Methodist Church, Birstall, Caroline was faced with the challenge of a dwindling congregation and a community that appeared to have no need for the traditional church building on their doorstep.

"Seeing all those children in these awful places to play made me really stop and think," says Caroline. "I thought, 'why don’t we do something like this at Howden Clough?'"

Wesley Playhouse - the play houseHer dream has become an amazingly successful reality – thanks to the efforts of a dedicated volunteer team, key sponsors, and a church willing to take what was seen as an enormous risk. "As far as I'm aware, nothing like this has ever been done anywhere else in Britain," says Caroline. "We now have 3,000 sq ft of play area, a café that operates alongside it and a supportive local community who have taken it to their hearts and now use The Wesley Playhouse as the venues for birthday parties and celebrations. We've even had several Christenings there as a result of people feeling so much part of what has very much become their own fresh expression of church."

Since its launch in 2007, the project has seen over 24,000 people come through its doors. It's a long, long way from the days when the pre-Playhouse Howden Clough Church had just 10 members attending regularly.

Wesley Playhouse - serviceCaroline explains, "There was no doubt about it, we were facing closure. We had tried various attempts to get local people into church but nothing seemed to work so in 2000 we decided to leaflet the community and find out what we could do to serve them.

"When I put the idea of the Playhouse to our members they were mainly supportive, though some people obviously did have concerns because it's quite a difficult thing to imagine in a Chapel building that has been around since 1871! But, God bless them, they backed the idea and it all snowballed from there."

Wesley Playhouse - open for businessFinance was the first major hurdle. The church needed to find £120,000 to get the scheme off the ground, and they had £3,000 in the bank. But the money came rolling in – thanks to the Methodist Circuit, District and Connexion providing £78,000 in loans; individual supporters; and £50,000 from the Biffaward landfill community's fund.

Twenty people from different churches across the area came forward to offer their staffing help for the project, and Howden Clough began its transformation into multi-coloured Playhouse and The Ark Café. Work started in February 2007, with the Playhouse opening in October of the same year.

Services take place in a room re-designed as a chapel downstairs every Sunday morning, and a Playhouse Praise is now a regular event on the first Sunday of the month. The young visitors, their families, and older members of the original congregation share the facilities on offer, and Caroline is now working to bring them even closer together.

"It's fantastic to see how many people have struck up friendships and are happy to be part of this community," says Caroline. "People have asked to have their babies christened here and been amazed to discover that we can do this in The Wesley Playhouse. I explain that we may have climbing frames and all sorts of things all over the place but we are a church, and we’re here because we love God and we love them."

And the ongoing challenge? Caroline is clear: "At the Playhouse itself, it's to lead people to faith and disciple them; to help them find out why we've done what we’ve done with this project and encourage them in their own walk with God.

"Personally, I'd love to see The Wesley Playhouse 'brand' go nationwide and be part of making that happen. Maybe other churches in similar situations to us are wondering how they could get something started along the same lines. I want to be the person to help them do that, and with God’s help and blessing, I will be."