The Rhondda's café church, Sacred Space, first opened its doors in Porth three years ago. Gethin Rhys, minister of Porth URC, organises the monthly sessions with Porth Newydd vicar, Chris Coles. Gethin describes how a sabbatical led to a new way of doing church.
Our first meeting, at Porth Plaza, was entitled Aspects of Love and it attracted people of all ages to watch film clips and listen to music about love in all its forms. We 'tasted' two Bible verses (involving horseradish and honey), wrote prayers and penned letters and postcards to prisoners of conscience adopted by Christians Against Torture. BBC Radio Wales also interviewed us on behalf of Good Morning, Wales!
At another service, we launched a 90kg rice challenge. The idea was to sell 90kg of fairly traded rice (in 1kg bags at £2.75 per kilo) to enable the Malawian farmer who grew the rice to send a child to high school for a whole year. A harvest session, entitled Bread of Heaven, saw us prepare bread for baking while worshipping together at the same time.
Our February 2011 topic was 'Money, Money, Money', when we looked at the 'art' of tax evasion and its devastating effect on people's lives in the UK and abroad. The informal format included Monopoly and Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
Sacred Space, as an ecumenical venture, is sponsored by the Porth Newydd parish of the Church in Wales and Porth URC. It all began when I used some time on sabbatical to look at café churches, I came back quite convinced that we should get involved in that. I spoke to my Anglican colleague, Chris Coles, because I felt this was something we could share – Rhondda has one of the lowest levels of church attendance in the UK. Before too long, Sacred Space had got off the ground.
We use the council-owned Porth Plaza in the centre of the town; it's a very good building for Sacred Space – especially as it's not on church territory. The council also let us have it for free for the first year which meant we could start the café church without a big financial outlay.
We meet on the third Sunday of the month at 7pm, it's not the ideal time but it reflects the fact that we are running conventional churches as well and Sacred Space is an add-on. In my other church we have a café church at 5pm on a Sunday and I think that's a good time but Chris has got Evensong so can't do it then. The 7pm start does rule out very young families because it runs too late for them to get children to bed and ready for school the next day.
We deliberately have a different format each time we meet. I plan it with Chris though there are a few lay people who sometimes come and join us but it's quite difficult to find times to be able to get together. Looking at long term viability we are going to have to find a way around it so it doesn't become dependent on us as clergy. In terms of who comes along to the sessions, at the moment we get many people who are connected with other churches but we are not often reaching the unchurched. Throughout the first year we advertised it pretty heavily and are on local radio quite a lot but it hasn't really prompted people from outside the churches to try it. We might have been better doing café church in a midweek slot but, again, it all depends on time, energy and resources.
At the moment we do attract people from various churches right across the age range – apart from the very young. We now have a number of children from seven and eight years upwards, a few teenagers and adults from 20s to 80s. We call it the Rhondda's Café Church so we get quite a mix of people from a wide area.
Craft activities do particularly well; that's really what engages people and makes it all age. Adults get involved in the craft because children ask them to help with what they're doing, adults wouldn't necessarily do that but a request from a child usually breaks down barriers and really makes a difference.
We follow the liturgical year reasonably closely whilst trying not to repeat the same themes too much because we don't want to get into a rut. We've always tried to ensure that it's never the same from one session to the next in order to avoid complacency. A recent Sacred Space was based on 1 John 4, for instance; the first time we had based café church on an extended Bible passage. We are very, very determined that when people arrive they shouldn't know exactly what to expect.
I was a stranger at every café church I visited on sabbatical and it was very interesting because I'm afraid a lot of them had become holy huddles and I did feel like a spare part when I arrived. That's why there is always something for people to do, maybe a quiz or a puzzle of some sort, when they first walk in the door at Sacred Space. The idea is that they won't feel awkward while waiting for something to begin.
At the start of my sabbatical I went along to a fresh expression of church with my teenage daughter. We went to a Sunday meeting but there were no welcomers so we did feel like spare parts – that wasn't a good start.
It got worse because there was a teenage group which met in parallel with the main meeting but no-one told us that at the start of the service. We only discovered that vital bit of information at the end and my daughter was really disappointed that she could have been with them doing something more interesting and appropriate to her own age group.
I also deliberately tried not to mention what I did for a living as I visited all these places because they would then treat me differently when they knew I was a minister.
A fresh expression needs to be genuinely fresh otherwise we are deceiving ourselves. There has been quite a churn of people since we started but there are some who have hardly missed a café church since we began, many of whom are from the Anglican congregation. It took my congregation a little longer to latch on to it all.
In our Sunday morning service at Porth URC we have started a Sunday school after a gap of many years. Some of those Sunday school children are coming to café church and that makes for an interesting crossover. There is also a core of people who come to Sacred Space immediately after Evensong. There have only been one or two sessions when there hasn't been somebody there for the first time from the outside but they are mostly from other congregations.
A number of initiatives, inspired by Sacred Space, have spun off to other churches as a result of these visits and that's great. The fact is that we didn't know what it would turn out be when we started but this is what has happened in this context whereas my 'other' church-based café church has developed differently. They each take shape in their own way in their own time.
I am still convinced this is the kind of church that could be much more accessible than something involving pew-based worship. I know that Sunday evening at 7 is not the best time in the week for reaching these people but at the moment that is a challenge that can't be met very easily. The Plaza building is hired out to other people, we are confined to the times we can book it, our own church schedules and the availability of people who have family and work commitments. A possibility for us may be to have it before Evensong, perhaps on a Sunday at 3pm.
The Spirit blows where it will and I'm not too inclined to try and control that in any way. In some fresh expressions material there can be an emphasis on knowing of the people you intend to reach, a target audience if you like, but we don't do any of that and I think we are the better for not doing it. Sacred Space has worked by not being strategised and, as a result, I see it as a real development for outreach.
It would be great to see people not connected with any other church at Sacred Space but at the moment it is clearly providing a very important service for all our churches. We have no problems with this and will not be making any major changes in the way we do things in a bid to change the outcome – at least for now.
Church people are the only people in the world who know about what Sunday of the month you're on. Realistically I think it is already on the way to being a full blown church but, for it to have a full identity, it would need to meet weekly. It would need that regular meeting for the core to build but I'm already ministering with two churches so there are all kinds of issues around that. We haven't got the critical mass of leadership people to make that work and those we do have don't want to leave traditional church.
There have been some amazing moments along the way. At one session on patterns of prayer, we had a group of teenagers just wander in to ask what was happening. They said, 'Can we come in and have a cup of coffee?' I said yes and they were there for the whole time, taking a full and active part in it. One boy had been excluded from school but I wish his teachers could have seen him that evening, being involved in confession, adoration, intercession.