Oakwood Forest Church

Emma Major is Licensed Lay Minister at St Nicolas, Earley. She tells how three friends from local Berkshire churches started Oakwood.

I became a Licensed Lay Minister (our local equivalent of a Reader) four years ago and, right from the start, have been pioneering. I'm not what you might call a 'standard' Licensed Lay Minister (LLM)!

I have been at St Nicolas for 11 years and I had my calling while I was there; they supported me brilliantly through my training which was in the evening and at weekends though the Oxford Ministry Course. I was previously a civil engineer, running Government workshops, but I have always been interested in pioneering.

Oakwood Forest Church - leaves

Oakwood Forest Church all started when three of us were talking at a joint churches' event about how close many of us feel to God when we're in the countryside; how he feels less removed from our prayers and he seems more alive in our hearts.

The general thought was, 'If we could worship outside, that would be amazing'.

In the summer of 2013 we were in the Maiden Erlegh Nature Reserve when this seed of an idea grew a shoot of a plan. The reserve is a lovely green space, which includes eight medieval oaks, in the middle of a 1970s urban area.

We decided that we could meet together in the reserve to worship God differently; meeting people where they are already finding the source of their belonging. That became Oakwood Forest Church (OFC) and, over the last 18 months, we have met every month to walk, explore and pray together at the reserve. We have grown in number to 30 adults and 20 children who attend at least four times a year.

Oakwood Forest Church - walking

It's important to say that, while we love the creation all around us, we are not worshipping it – we are worshipping God as the creator. We are very Christ-centred in our programming at Forest Church; always coming back to Scripture and prayer. We generally pick up a Bible passage that relates to the season and take it in turns to plan our time together. It's particularly encouraging when young people and teenagers are asking if they can lead sessions or elements of response which we describe as 'Mossy Church', a title I know others are also using.

We started out by putting details on Facebook of what we were planning to do and we got 20 people coming along. Then others started to ask us questions about Forest Church as we were walking around and some dog walkers joined in! There has been quite a mix of people coming along; we've had people who have been separated from God for so long but said, 'This is church for us, we don't want to go into a church building'. Others have wanted to go into a church building again and some have said they want to do both. All of them, whether they've had experience of church or not, don't see Oakwood as 'just' an event – they all recognise it as being far more than that.

Oakwood Forest Church - thumbs up

Facebook and all the social media give us the opportunity to keep on connecting, we are 'meeting' every week in that way and, as a result, prayer for each other – and the Oakwood community – has grown out of it.

This spring, four of us who feel called to lead OFC over the next few years, got together to pray, plan and prune. We reflected on what had been going well and made changes necessary for the ongoing growth and strengthening of this fresh expression of church. We decided to reduce our meetings to five times a year, linked to Christian festivals at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Summer and Harvest, in order to ensure the sustainability and depth of our services. We also made the decision to hire the Rangers' Interpretation Centre at the nature reserve in order to make OFC more accessible and allow us to have a fixed base to worship and share a meal together.

Everybody loved it from the moment we started to use the centre because it felt like a home or us. Personally, I have developed a debilitating illness so I can't walk too far any more but knowing that I can stay at the centre and pray – while others are responding more physically – is broadening the accessibility of Forest Church.

Oakwood Forest Church - cross

Word is beginning to spread about what is going on here and we have people from other churches, schools and individuals nervous of the institutional church, asking what it's all about.

We are so blessed because we have such support. Our local Churches Together love it and The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, has said that he trusts us in our planning for this while our priest at St Nicolas', Neil Warwick, tells us, 'Just go for it!' I feel so lucky to be part of this and to be alongside people as they come to faith through Oakwood Forest Church.

I'll be part of the team involved in the Thames Valley mission shaped ministry course, starting this month, and I'm looking forward to reflecting on what is happening here as part of that. During the summer, Oakwood Forest Church will be providing prayer stations at local church and community fairs. We trust God to lead us as we continue to grow and evolve.

PPP Messy Church

Emma Major tells how she followed a fresh expressions 'journey' to develop People, Prayers and Potatoes (PPP) Messy Church.

People, Prayers and Potatoes at St Nicolas, Earley, does what it says on the tin – we bring people together once a month at midday for a Bible story, craft, activities, worship and prayer before sharing a jacket potato meal. Since we started four years ago, we've served up over 2,200 jacket potatoes!

I will tell how it developed through the fresh expressions' journey of Listening, Loving and Serving, Building Community, Exploring Discipleship, Church taking shape, Doing it again.


PPP Messy Church - giantAfter completing my training to become a Licensed Lay Minister I spent a year in formation discerning what God wanted me to do at St Nicolas, Earley. Being a mum in the playground at the local primary school it became clear to me that there were many families searching for something 'God shaped'. I was forever being asked things like, 'What do you believe in?', 'Will you pray for me?' I encouraged them to come along to St Nicolas, and for their kids to join the thriving Sunday School, but the majority of the families had never come to church so this was a step too far.

Our standard 10am service at St Nicolas is quite formal so it's just not the right place to bring people into a church environment if they've never known it before. It really wasn't attracting the people who don't have a background in church.

Loving and Serving

Over several months of prayer and conversations with the unchurched families, the concept for People, Prayers and Potatoes evolved. Over the years I've found that God tends to speak to me in images and it was at this stage that I got an image in my mind of people sitting down and eating together, I then wrote what I thought that was all about in terms of exploring faith.

It sounds incredible but, within two weeks, I knew how it was going to work in practical terms and I'd chatted it all through with my vicar, Neil Warwick, who was really supportive. A friend offered to come and cook a jacket potato lunch for whoever was going to turn up and we'd see what happened.

With the help of a few keen teenagers, and two expert cooks, PPP was born as a place where families could come and meet God, many for the first time. Interestingly I only discovered Messy Church, and its resources, after about a year of us running PPP! So I did not have that model in my head and we are not exactly like a Messy Church because there is no set format each month but it gives a verbal shorthand for the type of thing we do.

PPP takes place on Sundays at mid-day. If children are involved in football on Sunday mornings, the matches have finished by then so it seems to be a good time. We don't try to make something that suits everybody because you can't but we keep it very simple with a talk, doing something with the kids, go into the church for some worship and prayer – and, of course, eat together.

Building Community

PPP Messy Church - craftAll we did was ask people we knew from the school and the community to come and join us. We told them that we didn't really know how it was going to look but that we'd have a God story in one way or another and that it would be a type of church. The line was, 'Come and try it. What have you got to lose? We'll feed you lunch!'

I thought no-one was going to come but People, Prayers and Potatoes, as a Messy Church, was popular right from the start and six families turned up for the first one. It was all very informal and unthreatening. Within three months, those initial families had brought friends who also kept coming; and families approaching St Nicolas for baptism came to PPP to explore faith as a family. Now, four years on, we regularly have 50-60 children – and their parents and carers – who worship together. We've got babes in arms, children at every primary school level and four teenagers who are part of the leadership team.

Exploring Discipleship

We have a jacket potatoes rota where the families volunteer to cook lunch for everyone else and we also have a craft team who come up with wonderful ideas every month. PPP is truly a community of families exploring and growing in their faith together. Two years ago I started the 'Mums and More' group to which a dozen mums from PPP belong; this is a group which explores prayer, the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. We also ran a nurture course which fed them further.

I am a person who likes to take the risks and start something new; I want to keep pioneering and you can't do that until you help what you have started to grow to be sustainable. In saying that, PPP is extremely cheap to run with the food costing about £30 and the craft materials no more than £10. It's also interesting that the families who come along now take it in turns to do the jacket potatoes; they say it's their gift to the community of PPP – others might donate some craft resources for use in our activities. That culture of giving is already there.

Church taking shape

PPP Messy Church - EasterWe have never had a huge team but have grown a planning and leadership group of three from the families who call PPP their church. Over the last two years we have had three Messy Church adults' baptisms and we are thrilled that six of the PPP mums will be confirmed in a Messy Confirmation at the start of September 2015. People, Prayers and Potatoes is truly a church in its own right at St Nicolas, Earley.

Doing it again

I am now in the process of handing over the leadership of People, Prayers and Potatoes – partly in response to the fact that a decline in health means I need to step back from those particular responsibilities. That's OK with me because I never wanted to hold on to the reins too tightly. When you step out to do something, you should create space for others to flourish and I've already been fortunate to see that happen. The leadership team have run three PPP services to great acclaim alongside the clergy worship team. They are gaining confidence in planning the year ahead and it is a joy to see their faith grow as they lead others as they were led. I have no doubt that People, Prayers and Potatoes Messy Church is in extremely safe, motivated and enthusiastic hands!