John Marrow is a Church Army evangelist working in Guildford. He works with local schools and runs an after school midweek fresh expression of church for families in three different locations across the diocese.
We started in January 2006 at Emmanuel Church, Stoughton, because we wanted to reach those families we don't normally get to see at all. In this area of Guildford we have so many football groups involving hundreds of kids on Sunday morning: 'traditional' church times are completely unsuitable for them.
I had visited Kidz Klub in Liverpool and, for years, I had been considering whether a similar thing would be appropriate in our own context. KidsAlive325 is different in that, instead of bussing the kids in, we invite whole families to what is 'after-school church'.
Do people think of it as a church? I think it's a mix. Some people, when they first come, see it as a club while others decide to come along because they don't see traditional church as meeting the needs of their children. A further group would see it very much as 'their' church because a standard setting is very alien and strange to them.
KidsAlive325 is now operating in three different places: Emmanuel Church, Stoughton, Guildford; St Andrews, Oxshott where it runs in the side chapel of a parish church; and Heatherside Church, Camberley where it is set up in a local school. In Oxshott, non-churchgoers make up about 70% of those who come along; in Camberley they are all non-churchgoers.
A team of volunteers helps to make the whole thing happen – 60% of my puppeteers for instance are retired folk. At Emmanuel I have Year 5 and 6 kids help with the technical stuff like the PA system and they love that. We simply couldn't run KidsAlive325 without this sort of teamwork – particularly as the service runs every week during term time so that demands a lot in the way of commitment. It really is a joint effort; a couple of weeks before one series has finished we'll be thinking about the theme for the next one; we'll then write our materials on that theme and get the three groups together to paint all the backdrops we need.
One of our previous themes was Godzworkus Circus and I was Jonno the clown. When I first did that, the kids realised that I didn't actually mind being a fool for Jesus. We want the children to know that it doesn't mean that you're boring if you go to church; we can be full of life and have fun.
It's all about building relationship, both within the teams and in the community. People are generally happy to get involved and, through that, we can get to know the families who come along. I just really enjoy getting to know the children, their parents, their families and obviously the staff and the people involved in the school as well.
It has now got to the stage at Emmanuel where we're thinking along the lines of 'what's the next step?' I work closely with the staff team there and a major question at the moment centres on the Year 6 boys who think KidsAlive325 is now 'too young' for them.
There are no easy answers to this sort of question but it's important that the traditional churches involved in this fresh expression of church are very much involved in its development. I make it very clear during KidsAlive325 that there is a very strong relationship with the local church and that means a lot. The vicar of Camberley is there every week and he is very much part of that relationship building process with that community. In this way he has been available to pick up pastoral concerns and baptism enquiries from the people he meets at KidsAlive325. They are connecting with him and the wonderful thing is that he, in turn, is now thinking about possible ways in which a baptism could take place at the after school service rather than in church.
At Emmanuel we have already celebrated a baptism from one of our KidsAlive325 families. This was a major step forward because, years ago, that particular family had been 'turned away' from a church and they had real bitterness about the institution of church and all that it stood for.
KidsAlive325 is not 'my' ministry as such – or Church Army's. It's got to be the church's ministry and the church's mission. It's about working alongside the local church in a real mixed economy way.
When I first started KidsAlive325, some people said it would be just like Messy Church and that we'd soon have them right across the country. The way things have worked out so far I'd say that KidsAlive325 could almost be seen as a follow-on stage from Messy Church because we don't incorporate a service or time of time of worship into a wider programme of activity; instead we are the service. Another difference is that the children and families who come will be given refreshments as soon as they arrive and they are welcome to bring a picnic tea to eat afterwards but food isn't part and parcel of what we do.
Sessions run from 3pm to 5pm. Younger children will arrive from 3pm, the service starts at 3.45 for a half hour slot and they can then hang around until 5 if they want. That's a vital time for us to follow up on people and we have a pastoral team to help those who want to find out more about faith issues, or anything else related to what we're doing and why we're doing it!