Revd James Blandford-Baker, vicar of St Andrew's, Histon, describes how the church's vision to be at the heart of the village community led to the development of Essence.
St Andrew's, a charismatic evangelical church in a village just to the north of Cambridge, has an average Sunday attendance of about 250. We praise God for that but it became clear that we were missing out on relationship with many people who would never come into a Sunday service.
We have a Stepping Stones organisation that runs a playgroup, toddler group and babyclub on weekdays and a monthly Friday morning Teddy Bear Time – recently renamed Toy Story Time. That's when mothers, sometimes fathers, and very young children come to church for songs, Bible stories, craft activities and refreshments.
We began Essence three years ago in an attempt to offer mothers a space to explore their spirituality alongside the Christian narrative. We had lots of contacts through our children's work but they had remained just that, contacts without relationship. Having looked at a number of courses (such as START and Alpha) it quickly became apparent that we would need to invent something of our own that would connect with people. The driving issues as we put Essence together were the attitude of consumerism, the importance of story and the desire for spirituality.
Consumerism meant whatever we did it had to be good: quality invitations, great hospitality (decent coffee, croissants and cakes are key) and a fully staffed crèche. Story meant that we had to give space to listen to people's stories as well as finding appropriate ways of speaking about the Christian story: a café-style layout with interactive time for input, questions and discussion (we often use DVD material such as a clip from a movie or a Nooma to get things going) has worked well. Spirituality meant creating space for God to speak: from the start we've used an upper room for 10 minutes of silent prayer, often stimulated by a picture, icon or some creative display.
When Essence was launched, we prayed for five people to show up on the first Wednesday and 10 arrived. The format worked from the outset; people talked naturally and honestly, sharing their stories and engaging fully with the Christian story. By week three people were exchanging mobile phone numbers; community was forming. Not long afterwards people began to look after each other when they were in need. It is quite normal for a new mother to have meals for the family delivered each evening for a fortnight.
From the start we were quite clear that we were building a congregation for the unchurched and dechurched – as well as a few churched. This was expressed by clearly saying to the PCC that it was not the purpose of Essence to get people to come on Sunday. The vast majority of people we see there don't come on Sundays and do see Essence as their 'church'. The intent is very much missional… our focus is not on passing on a 'package' of Christian beliefs but seeking to engage with the questions that people bring. We use the language of story a lot: we want you to feel able to share your story, and we will see if there are connections between your story and the Christian story, and explore if those stories might come together.
Of course this approach raises questions about some big issues, including Baptism and Communion. We haven't resolved those issues but are happy to be continuing on this journey while we continue to consider them.
Our times of prayer and quiet at Essence have been a fascinating journey too. Some people have had to learn to stop and be quiet; others use the word 'oasis' to describe what they've found in the silence. Although we didn't anticipate it, people have been keen to share what's happened in the quiet; God has done some amazing things and touched people at their point of need in quite wonderful ways. For many busy mothers the time on their own as someone looks after their child is the only 'time out' they get during the week.
Essence runs on a Wednesday morning. We begin at 9.15 with coffee and croissant as people arrive and settle their babies in the crèche (run by a wonderful team from St Andrew’s). At 9.45 we begin our input and discussion time. With visitors every week it is essential to rehearse the ethos of Essence at the start (all questions are valid, please share your story, no Christian jargon allowed). At 10.30 we break for more tea and coffee and the essential cake and then at 11am we move upstairs for our quiet space and collect children from the crèche at 11.30 as we end.
Essential to the success of Essence has been the team made up of clergy, our lay pastor for people with young families, our children's worker and other lay people who have taken on certain roles. The crèche team give of their time generously; they have a real heart for the mothers as well as the children. They too feel involved in the spiritual journeys of those who come with many conversations about what God has been doing as the mothers pick up their children after the quiet time. The topics for the sessions each week are a mix of ideas from the team and suggestions from those who attend. Unlike on an Alpha course, there is no sense of the need to get through a defined 'spiritual programme'; we go with the flow and find that there are plenty of opportunities to explore all the most important Christian themes and ideas.
Essence is a mobile group as mothers come to us for a time and then return to work and as new people join. The group is very open – men have been known to attend, and those who come cover an age range from the very young to someone in their 80s. Attendance including children is around the 40 to 50 mark each week.