Katharine Crowsley tells how a 'mixing bowl of prayer' has helped to develop Cook@Chapel.
Over the past four years Cook@Chapel has grown and evolved as a fresh expression of church. The group of young people meets once a week to cook together, pray together and share a meal. By sharing food, hospitality and worship these young people can develop and deepen their faith – and build a small missional community.
Our prayer life of Cook@Chapel has developed very quickly from a grace said at the start of the shared meal to a time of prayer that takes place every week and forms a central focus to our meeting. The young people like to use a kitchen mixing bowl that we place written prayers into; we then pass the bowl around, stirring the prayers and reading them out in turn.
Prayers are for all sorts of issues, from international concerns to the local, for family, friends and each other. This is called the 'Mixing Bowl of Prayer' and we realised the young people wanted to use this way of praying more frequently when the mixing bowl was brought out for prayers week after week. It has formed a prayer liturgy for the community which works and gives a good example of how the prayer life of the group has evolved naturally.
Over the past 18 months, the numbers of people attending has steadily increased as the turnover rate has decreased. This means that the group of young people attending has gradually stabilised. Before this period, people would join the group for a few months, or maybe a year, and then move on – whereas now they stay. As a result, the community has become more cohesive as faith has grown and worship has developed.
This change has been a positive one which, in turn, has raised many questions, including, 'how do we cope with the increase in numbers?' and 'how do we effectively disciple those who are new to the Christian faith, especially if Cook@Chapel is their only contact with church?'
Recruiting new volunteers to help when we meet on Friday nights is something that works with the increasing numbers in the short term but the longer-term aim is to encourage young leaders from within Cook@Chapel itself. This will ultimately be more sustainable for Cook@Chapel's future and means that the young people will be involved in leading and guiding the development of Cook@Chapel.
Cook@Chapel is made up of some people with quite a deep Christian faith and others relatively new to faith. Providing opportunities for discipleship needs to occur in both an informal and formal way. Future developments will include the more structured option of deepening and developing faith through a taught course, whilst informal discipling will continue through the conversations that occur whilst preparing food or sitting around the table. Most importantly however is the discipleship that happens while journeying alongside people, developing our faith as we go.
Cook@Chapel was recently been involved in fundraising for an education project in Ghana and we cooked a safari supper to raise some money. The young people prepared a traditional meal of spicy chicken, rice and peas and the whole event was very successful – especially as it gave those at Cook@Chapel a chance to showcase their cookery skills to a wider 'audience'.
As Cook@Chapel moves towards the start of its fifth year, other plans include a possible allotment where we can grow our own vegetables to cook for our fellowship meal. This is very much in the planning stage at present but would allow us to become more sustainable and to think more about where our food comes from. Love and care for God's creation has been an important part of Cook@Chapel's philosophy right from the start, so the allotment development would encourage stewardship of the earth's resources and the opportunity to work together as a community.
A Fresh Expressions vision day inspired teacher Katharine Crowsley to ask a lot of questions about what God wanted her to do in her area. She tells the story of what happened next.
I was interested in fresh expressions of church when I booked for the vision day in Milton Keynes but I had no idea what that would mean in practical terms. That was two years ago; I'm amazed at what has happened since and how things continue to develop.
My church is Hanslope Methodist Chapel in Buckinghamshire; it's very family friendly but I wondered if we were reaching young people – not only our own young people but all those other young people in the wider community? As a secondary school teacher, I feel quite comfortable with that age range and so was happy to consider something specifically for them.
One thing that really stood out for me from that vision day was the story of the 'bread-making church' in Liverpool. For me, it prompted the big questions of, 'What does God want me to do?', 'How is God looking for me to serve my area?'
Somewhere Else was established in a very different geographical and social context to ours with theirs being an inner city church and ours in a very rural area. However, I really liked the idea of praying and worshipping, talking about Jesus when cooking, and then eating a meal together. A lot of teenagers don't want to necessarily sit around and talk to you but many of them will have a conversation while they are doing something else.
As a building, the Hanslope Chapel really lends itself to this initiative. About three years ago, a new kitchen extension was added and the schoolroom totally refurbished. This means we can prepare the food there and eat there too. Perfect!
When I went to the Church Council for their support, they asked me to test it out first. I linked up with a community food worker and we did a six-week trial before I applied for a grant. We drew up different menus and asked if we could do it for those aged 12 (Year 7) to 16. We got the go ahead to run it for the academic year from September to July, and we've just started our second year.
The Methodist Church gave us a fresh expressions grant with our Chapel and local community having to match fund it. The money was found and we got underway. We run Cook@Chapel on Friday evenings for two hours and about 7-9 young people come along, we couldn't accommodate any more than that. Jamie Oliver has fired a lot of interest in cookery among young people but it is our volunteers who have been the experts. I have had to learn a lot myself; it was quite a challenge because I'm not a particularly confident cook! We generally have one main volunteer and a team of two more who will stand in if necessary. The cookery worker has now moved on but is still involved on a consultancy basis.
Young people don't do so much cookery at school now so they tell us what they would like to learn and we do it – things like cheese sauce, chilli con carne, tortillas and lemon drizzle cake. They like all the chopping up and making things, doing things from scratch.
After we've made the food we sit down and eat it together; it's very informal – they really, really like that. They also like to take it in turns to say grace using our grace dice. Conversations around the table and while cooking can be about all sorts of things, a lot depends on who we have got there and also who the volunteers are. Originally I thought I would need young volunteers to link to these young people but I was wrong. The older people have been ideal, they relate to our 'cooks' in a different way and sometimes they can talk to them very much more comfortably about faith issues.
It's fairly equal in terms of male female ratio but there are more boys wanting to join. However they are not allowed to join until Year 7 as we decided that Cook@Chapel should just be for secondary age young people. We don't advertise at all; most of it is word of mouth recommendation.
We did some outreach into the village hall to reach other young people but that didn't work. The only ones who came were those already part of Cook@Chapel so we had to think again about what is right for a particular group of people. Cook@Chapel was building community as a fresh expression of church but we wanted to nurture these young people as they began to explore more of the Christian faith.
The young people who come to Cook@Chapel don't necessarily come to our church, in fact only two to three of them do but questions about faith and spirituality come up quite naturally again and again.
Following up on that I became involved in a youth service called Cross Purposes that takes place every month in nearby town Newport Pagnell, about five miles away. It's a joint Anglican, Methodist, URC and Baptist project at Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church but a lot of its planning and delivery is done by the young people themselves. My vision is to link Cook@Chapel to Cross Purposes – It's not too difficult a leap when it's young people inviting young people to go along and find out more. As we look ahead to 2011 and beyond, we pray that will happen.