Lieutenant Catherine Dodd is leader of The Salvation Army in Cortonwood, South Yorkshire. She tells how their mission to 'go, gather and grow' has developed in the past six months.
I've been in church leadership for the past 10 years and had been serving part-time at Cortonwood since 2010 – alongside being the Officer (Minister) at an established Salvation Army church locally. In October 2013 I was appointed as the full-time leader here and Cortonwood was recognised by The Salvation Army as a new Church plant. We are situated right at the heart of our community, in a neutral venue above the Cortonwood Miners' Welfare Club.
Cortonwood was deeply affected by the miners' strike 30 years ago and the subsequent demise of the UK coal industry. Cortonwood Colliery closed and, as the biggest employer locally, this meant that life was changed forever for most of the families here. As a miner's daughter, I understand the culture and have a heart for the people of ex-mining communities.
It had been felt for some time that God wanted to do a new thing in the Dearne Valley, and so began the process of discerning the 'what' and 'where'. Since 2010, The Salvation Army had been experimenting with different ministries through the formation of a Dearne Valley Planting Team, which I was blessed to part of. Confirmation soon came that Cortonwood was the place where God wanted us to be.
There was no physical Church presence in Cortonwood – the Methodist Chapel closed a few years back, and the parish church is situated in a neighbouring village, but I always believed that God wanted to build a church here in Cortonwood. Furthermore, I discerned that it was never his intention to plant a Church by parachuting in a group of Christians. He made it clear to me that this new plant was to be formed from people within the community who, for whatever reason, were not engaging with a traditional, attractional model of church. He wanted it to emerge from us 'journeying out' and coming alongside the community, working with them and seeing what would develop – without being prescriptive as to what it would look like or what shape it would be. To have the freedom to be part of that from the very early days, and then go on to lead that, is a great blessing.
Initially, we did not have a base of our own and so we used various community venues as gathering places, which is something that we still do and are keen to maintain– we didn't want to go down the route of having one place that would be regarded as 'Church'. We have been blessed with the provision of our base at the Miners' Welfare Club, which provides us with office space, a community prayer room and multipurpose room – it's an accessible place where people can come along without it being a traditional Church building, which can sometimes be a barrier to people. We use it for some of our events, but by no means all.
One of the venues that we use is Costa Coffee. We have always had a good relationship with the manager there, and so when we were looking for a venue for worship we made an approach and we were delighted to be allowed to use this space. Since June 2012, we have used Costa as the venue for our now monthly worship event 'The Gathering', where we meet after hours on a Sunday evening. It's an event which is aimed at unchurched people, where there is good coffee, conversation, live music and opportunity to pause for thought.
We were very keen to have multiple connection points with our church. Some of the activities that we are currently delivering include weekly school's ministry, Toddlersong, food drop-in (with budgeting advice on offer too) and a Community Choir. Since January 2014, a weekly informal and conversational cell group has commenced which we call 'Time & Space', giving people an opportunity to ask the difficult questions as they explore faith. It's beautiful to see how God brings that together. The people are shaping that time of worship themselves through partnering with the Spirit; that's the way it's got to be. We have some powerful prayer times and it's very raw; it's allowing people to 'be' where they are. We have got a lot of needs in this area and some people feel downtrodden; when they start to see their value in the eyes of God, it's quite a special moment.
The key to relevance, is, for me, all about being willing to be experimental and acknowledging that this is a valid form of church. It has to be fluid. Whatever we start, we are not going to put it on tablets of stone and continue with something ad infinitum; we view things in seasons, and we just go with it. I believe this missional community, this fresh expression, is not a 'stepping stone' to traditional church – it is certainly church in its own right; yes it's firmly rooted in Salvationist doctrine but we are not frightened to be quite pioneering in the ways we go and reach out to the community.
We want this to a place where people feel safe, welcomed and loved, where we can work out together what it means to be disciples of Jesus today as we serve the community of Cortonwood.
It's wonderful to see individual's lives being changed as God’s work develops. One of the guys, who is coming to food bank, wants to start to get involved in volunteering; we are also establishing a community allotment as a means of creating community, tackling food poverty by growing fresh fruit and veg for our food drop-in and caring for creation, and we are also seeing people from our local community get involved with this.
It's still very early days but it's a wonderfully energising thing to be involved in – you know that when you get up in the morning you are going to see evidence of what God's doing in people's lives. I have always had a heart for the unchurched and a real concern that people need to hear the gospel but can't – or won't – come to established church. At Cortonwood, we are seeing people engaging with our way of being Church who would not otherwise do so. It's so important to come alongside people in relevant ways as part of their community and leave it to God to engineer the conversation. We've seen that happening in all sorts of ways, including through the local school, where I have been involved for the past four years, and have recently taken on the role as School Chaplain. We did a whole school, in-school Messy Nativity and most recently a Messy Easter for all children and their parents.
Our next priorities will be serving people in practical ways by offering 'eating on a budget' (cook 'n' eat) sessions, and setting up as an Employment Plus Centre, where people can come along and receive help in their job searching. It's all part of discerning the current needs within our community and responding accordingly.
In January, Vicky Hughes joined our team as a part-time Community Development Coordinator. Her role is to develop the food bank and get our community allotment up and running. She will also ascertain community needs and put plans in place to ensure that we can, in the name of Jesus, do something to help towards meeting those needs.
Life can seem very busy at times as I seek to balance ministry and family life. As well as leading this church plant, I'm also doing a MA in Aspects of Biblical Interpretation through London School of Theology. Distance learning can be difficult and the 10 hours of study per week can be tricky to fit in but I carry on with what God has set before me; I always find that he gives me the time I need to do what he wants me to do. I never feel overwhelmed in any way, and firmly believe that Cortonwood is where God has called me to be.
Church has got to be accessible for people. We need to be available to our communities, to love them and be prepared to journey with them in an authentic way. When we move away from our perceptions of how church should look and abandon ourselves to the Spirit, then we see God do amazing things. It is a joy to behold. Lord, may your Kingdom come, your will be done in Cortonwood, as it is in heaven.