Here comes the bride… at a Café Church

St Ives Methodist Church (SIMC), Cambridgeshire, has celebrated its first Café Church wedding. Claire Winpenny and Jonathan Eason tied the knot earlier this month at a service led by the Church's minister, Matt Finch, who tells the story.

Jonathan and Claire found out about SIMC's Café Church on a rainy Saturday when we opened the doors for people to look around as part of a heritage weekend. The Church was set up and ready to go for a Café service the following morning; they were intrigued, returned the next day and haven't stopped coming since. At Café Church they found a place to ask questions, discuss faith and reflect on their own spiritual journeys in a relaxed atmosphere. When they decided to get married, they came to me to ask if a Café wedding would be possible.

This posed a dilemma. Was Café Church suitable for the formal, and legal, requirements of a wedding? We didn't know of a precedent for it but we were very much aware that Café Church continually surprises and delights us; new faces have become familiar friends as we have sat, talked and worshipped in this format once a month. SIMC had already celebrated Christenings and thanksgivings within the Café Church framework, so why not a wedding?

St Ives Café Church - exchanging ringsThe Café has been running for five years here and has shifted from an occasional service to the main act of worship on the third Sunday of every month at 10.30am. It is planned, set up and led by a committed group of people who are passionate about Café Church and the way it places hospitality and community at the heart of worship.

But we have always had to face the nagging question about being 'proper church' or not. Our journey seems to have been that, with patience and time, Café Church has emerged as a Christian community – with God bringing in just the right people at just the right moment. The answer to this question of 'proper church' has been a slowly unfurling 'YES' as we have discovered we are actually exploring and expressing the mystery of faith as church has always done. The difference is in the presentation and the café style but there is no difference at all in the gospel message of hope and transformation. It has been a joy and an adventure exploring the seasons of the Christian calendar, and themes of faith, with fresh eyes and new perspectives. This adventure has also provided fresh revelations to people of all ages and across the spectrum of church experience.

As a result, with the Café community growing, the way it expresses its faith has grown alongside it. In 2014, SIMC celebrated Easter through Café Church. It was a great moment as 140 people, some of whom had never been to church on Easter Sunday, gathered around tables with prayer, laughter and activities to mark the celebration at the heart of the Christian faith.

So, after Claire and Jonathan's request, the Café team came together with the couple to plan the wedding. There was a lot to do! An 8ft, 'pop-up' maple tree in the middle of the church was laden with Bible verses speaking of God's love, all of which were printed on card. A box of activities was also produced for each table, including:

  • inflatable globes to blow up as conversation starters to find out where people had travelled from to be there on the day;
  • cards on which people could write prayers for the couple. These prayers were then sealed in envelopes and given to Jonathan and Claire to open in years to come;
  • guests were invited to take 'selfies' at the ceremony and upload the images live to Twitter and Facebook to build a virtual memory of the day for Jonathan, who has a brain injury and struggles with memory loss.

St Ives Café Church - the roomThe identity of SIMC has changed since Café became a regular feature in our life together. Our vision has never been to form another church but rather to have, at our heart, a form of worship that connects with people beyond the normal church boundary. Nor has our aim been to get Café worshippers to learn how to sit through more formal acts of worship. We want people to find faith, and we are glad if that is either through Café Church or – as some have done – by coming through Café to be part of our regular weekly services. Inevitably, in our mixed economy, some folk are very definitely aligned to Café while others only worship on non-café Sundays, but there are many others who bridge the gap between the two and are amazed at what God is doing in both!

Feltwell Chapel

When Matt Finch became co-minister of ten Norfolk Methodist chapels in 2002, he inherited a fortnightly Bible study among the largely elderly congregation of Feltwell Chapel. It was well attended by six members of the church and several others from neighbouring villages.

Matt describes the 15 members of Feltwell as having

a passion to do things differently.

The Bible studies provided helpful fellowship, but while undertaking a CPAS course on evangelism, 'Lost for Words', Matt became aware of a deep dissatisfaction among the chapel members. The course helped highlight the despondency people felt about the state of their church.

They asked, 'What can we do with this?'

he says.

'We can't do a mission course and not change.' There were lots of mumblings about church not being right.

What needs to change? 'We can't do a mission course and not change'

Matt took a big sheet of paper to a Bible study and brainstormed with the chapel members how they would like church to look in the future. He typed up the results, brought them along to the next meeting and presented the chapel members with a clear picture of their 'desire to be connected'.

They were there every Sunday but never connected,

he says.

They wanted to know who sat in church with one another.

At that time a building project was under discussion. Now it was scaled down – bar essential changes such as disabled access – in favour of instituting a new way of being together on Sunday mornings.

Feltwell Chapel - membersSuch was the enthusiasm that the new model of church began the very next Sunday with each member offering to take responsibility for certain elements. They each agreed to play their part in arranging coffee before the service, to sit around tables and to have an interactive sermon and shared prayer time. To meet all needs, traditional services happen on occasion, still around the café tables.

'They were saying they had always had baptisms and communion but not community. Now they are sharing each others' lives.'

Because I wasn't there every week it was hard, but a real understanding developed,

Matt says.

They were saying they had always had baptisms and communion but not community. Now they are sharing each others' lives. Some of the members pray together regularly, and they are in pastoral circles in which they each take responsibility for one another.

This recognition of a congregation's responsibility to care for one another without reliance on the minister is especially important in a rural setting where clergy are spread over several locations. A key lay worker has also undertaken a commitment to Feltwell to assist when the ministers are unavailable.

Matt describes the chapel as still

a long way from being truly missional,

but since its changes in 2005 several non-churchgoers have become interested. A baptism family was so 'blown away' by how the chapel had changed that the parents now want to marry at Feltwell and even, if possible, have a café style wedding.

Matt puts down Feltwell's growing success in building community to a new freedom on the part of chapel members to question and disagree with the preacher, and to a new involvement with one another.

They weren't happy with what happened on Sundays, but they still wanted to worship on Sunday mornings,

he says.

Feltwell's worship is culturally specific, but the underlying principle is of something that connected with them and helped them to love one another.

St Ives Café Church

Matt FinchSt Ives Methodist Church, Cambridgeshire, hosts Café Church once a month. Minister Matt Finch explains how the church's new website has also helped to 'open the door' to newcomers.

We recently launched our new site and it is fascinating to see how it is being used. I'm finding that it acts as more of a front door than the church's real front door; I'm getting regular emails from people asking things like, 'how do you come to church?', 'Is it all right to just turn up at church or do I need a special invitation?' The internet allows them to step across the church threshold and allows us to step across the threshold into their world too. In time I hope the website will become a real focal point for what's going on so that it will create a community outside the building.

At St Ives Methodist, the journey has always been about a mixed economy approach. The pressure with that revolves around working with those folk used to established ways of doing things and those who bring in newer idea. I'd like to say that all parts of the church at St Ives are finding renewal in what we are doing but there are always going to be difficult and honest discussions about the best way forward.

St Ives Café Church - teapotFor us at the moment, fresh expressions is about seeing what can be done with a real missional intention in this church setting. Café Church is a case in point; it is now attracting an average of 100 people – sometimes up to 130. For those folks there's no doubt that it's a real blessing; we've got an all-age band together and it's interesting that – apart from me and one other person – the Café planning team is made up entirely of people who weren't in the church three years ago.

Discipleship is developing through those planning meetings because we talk about faith as we look ahead and talk and work things out. We engage with people where they are and try to answer the questions they have.

We don't have to advertise the Café Church at all because it's all about drawing together different networks and making them feel welcome. Email is important and Twitter increasingly, because just one email will be sent around to everyone's personal network of friends. You just have to have the trust and confidence to let the information go out there and be distributed. It's a real joy to see how things develop; someone who has been on the fringes of church and is now café regular recently said, 'I want to be confirmed'. I'm still trying to work out what that would mean in a café context.

St Ives Café Church - globeCafé Church takes place from 10.30am on the 3rd Sunday of the month with tea, coffee and pastries served from 10am. We also offer a podcast from of every service Church for those who would like a taste of all our service without committing themselves to coming.

There is space to talk with others, join in the activities, reflect quietly, sing a song if you like or just read a Sunday newspaper. We know that lots of people want to talk about faith, even want to come to Church, but find a traditional service hard to understand, or boring to sit through, or just plain confusing.

As a church the children stay in every week because we had recognised that a traditional Sunday School wasn't working for us any more. We also understand that weekends are precious times for families to be together so we wanted to create a fun, engaging space where children and young people can feel welcome too.

We provide good quality children's toys and activities in the back corner of the church so, yes, it can be noisy at times but that's the way it is with children. I appreciate that some people can find that difficult but I've also had messages from others saying, 'The reason we have stayed with you is because you don't send our children out.' When they are encountering church for the first time they really don't want their kids to go out to another room with a stranger. They want to be together. I suppose we are making a stand for how families operate these days and changing our way of doing things in order to accommodate those who know nothing of the way that churches traditionally work.

St Ives Café Church - buildingFor those looking for a creative and engaging place to think about God, we have a monthly alternative worship service called Breathe. Some of those who come along have been Christians for many years while others would struggle to identify themselves as Christian and are just looking for a place to reflect on spirituality.

We also have a young adults group known as Phos (Ancient Greek word for light) trying to think through life and faith in the 21st Century. They meet in people's homes to look at various topics, talk about them together and pray. If I'm honest this is struggling a bit but trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us in what is next.

I've now been here for nearly four years and the idea is that St Ives Methodist Church should become a centre of excellence, a place which could inspire and change a whole Circuit. We have run the mission-shaped intro course for instance; we provide café resources for other churches, I meet with leaders and try to offer a central hub where people can find out more about this thing called fresh expressions of church. What does it look like in reality? What does it mean to be a place for waiting on God? We look at these things constantly and we know there is no such thing as a 'quick fix' as we see how God shapes what we do and around those who seem to like the idea of joining us.