Lyn Edwards, project leader of the Shackles Off youth project in Cumbria, explains the development of its fresh expression of church, X-treme.
Shackles Off provides support, training, a safe space, advocacy and mentoring for 11 to 25-year-olds, as well as youth clubs and activities. We have always had a prayer box on our counter in the former shop we use as a base but we wanted to provide something much more intentional. Some of us decided to sit and pray in the premises on a Sunday morning – whether anyone else came or not. X-treme, as our fresh expression, came out of that.
The project as a whole had started as a result of three vivid dreams that God had given me during a holiday in the Lake District. I returned to my home in Pembroke and announced the move to Seascale. We did that in 2006 and then I became involved in the HOPE 08 initiative. Some friends and I drove a 'HOPE Mobile' – a Citroen Picasso with a HOPE sticker in the window – around the area but it enabled us to get to know the young people. With support from the village's three churches, we gave out snacks and built relationships.
I had walked past the shop I had seen in one of my dreams every day and noticed that the landlord was doing it up. One morning, I plucked up the courage to share my story. He didn't believe in God, but said if someone had moved house because of his premises, he would take my interest seriously. When I said we would fund rent through 100 people giving £1 a week, he laughed, but he trusted me.
After getting permission from the local council to secure the building, Shackles Off was launched. In 2007, we started X-treme as a place where we would talk explicitly about God. It runs from 9.45am to 11am on Sundays though when it first got off the ground, it was more like a discussion time for our young people. They would come with their mobile phones in hand and then we'd sit around. We had much of our music on a CD and they would laugh at us trying our best to sing. Not one of us who started the group could hold a note and the young people would be in hysterics listening to us. I also always did a very short bible study but our young people had no idea who the biblical characters were.
Right from the start we were up front about what we believed in, asking the young people if they wanted us to pray for anything. One of our first requests came from a boy who said his family always had mashed potato on a Sunday, could we pray that it wouldn't be made lumpy again?! But gradually those prayers got a lot more serious with requests like, 'Lord I want to stop drinking, please can you help me?' or 'Nan has cancer and I don't know what to do. Please help me.'
This pattern of meeting went on for at least two years, we'd have 10 or 12 regulars but nobody made a commitment. People used the prayer box; we talked about issues in their lives and made sure that anything we studied in the bible related back to their situations. We learnt bible verses off by heart – in fact they first learnt them by rapping them. Having been a teacher for over 30 years, I thought we had to find a way that they could remember so I ended up going on Google to find out how to rap! We started with John 3:16 and then we started to rap our own rap songs, we formed a group called The X-treme Rappers and the Strangled Duck and we would learn verses or hymns and stories like the Prodigal Son.
So we just kept on going, doing the traditional in a very untraditional way. They would ask me all about the things we can take for granted in church, things like, 'Why do you put your hand in the air when you pray?' 'Can I lie on the floor?' In the end they just did their own thing and nobody had any inhibitions in God's presence.
When we started, the youngest was 12 and the oldest would have been about 18. Most of them were about 14 or 15. On a Sunday there could be two or three coming along or we could have 12 to 15. They were the core who would say to their friends, 'Come and see what we do.' On a Friday night at Shackles Off youth club we would have 45-50. That was all great but I knew that the thing to make it complete would be to know just one person come to know Jesus.
In summer last year, the prayers were answered when we took 11 of them to Soul Survivor and nine became Christians. That totally changed everything. I can see that commitment in their lives and in their worship; it's now personal. It has changed them but, of course, it's a mixed picture. Some are intermittent and are struggling while others would go to a big event without any problem at all. This year we are taking 20 (13 young people and the volunteers).
God saves, not us, and he knows when people are ready. For too long I think the church has tried to force people into the Kingdom or seduce them into the Kingdom but it's got to be fruit that will last. All I'm doing is telling them about God and teaching them all the things they need to know. We go to a church with them if we are invited to take a service – there are usually three or four of those invitations a year.
For ongoing discipleship I tell them there are three things they need to do every day; namely talk to God, worship God and read his Word. To me it's that simple. If they do that, they will grow as Christians.
We have things that are causing big hurdles for us because we are a Christian-based project – not just a social project. We come under the Methodist umbrella but we also work with other denominations. At the Christian end of things we can be seen as being 'too social' while, in the light of our social commitments, we can be viewed as being 'too Christian'. It's an interesting balancing act!
Our next challenge is looking at the question of, 'How do we have communion in our drop-in centre?' We are talking that over with Methodist Circuit Superintendent Philip Peacock but the fact is that we are pushing boundaries and making the traditional churches think about how things have been done in the past and how they may need to change now.
Full immersion baptism is another issue. Some of the young people said, even though they had been baptised as babies, they wanted to publicly declare their faith and be baptised in the sea. We are hoping for baptisms and declarations of faith to take place in the sea at Seascale.
We have broken a lot of rules here but I don't mind because Jesus broke the rules, not the laws. The last thing we would want to do is to upset the churches around us so we get involved and help in any way we can. We come under pressure sometimes because people will ask us to come and plant a Shackles Off youth project in their area. I tell them to get together and seek God's face to find out what he wants in the place where they are – not to take on what someone else has done because it may not necessarily be right for them.