Church at the Centre (United Reformed), Tonge Children's Centre sees its mission as sharing the love of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the people of Tonge Moor through worship, fellowship and action. Community Minister Pat Oliver explains more.
Tonge Moor United Reformed Church, Bolton, was originally founded as a Congregational Church in 1891 and is now a member of the Vision Pastorate with Rose Hill URC and St Andrew and St George URC. In 2000, the church reviewed its calling of service to the community and major issues were identified as a result:
- increasing age and decreasing numbers of members;
- burden of upkeep and unsuitability of a building over 100 years old;
- call to work more closely with other churches and organisations supporting the Tonge Moor community.
Whilst many members of the fellowship had their roots in the Congregational and United Reformed Churches, many of them actually lived outside the immediate community and so did not share (as residents) the problems and aspirations of local people. It was strongly felt that there was a need for the church to be shaped by local residents into the form of fellowship which best suits the needs of the community.
The church responded by firstly inviting neighbouring churches (Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic) to create Churches Together in Tonge Moor. Then after taking advice on the potential uses and limitations of its existing building, the church also approached Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council and East Bolton Regeneration with a view to making the church's land available for the development of a Community Centre, which would include accommodation for the church.
In October 2003, after demonstrating a willingness to work alongside others supporting the community, the church was invited to join in the creation of a new Children's Centre to be built on the church's land and that of the neighbouring Tonge Moor Community Primary School. The fellowship adopted the name Church at The Centre, when the Children's Centre opened in May 2006.
Out of the church's desire to better serve its local community, the church identified the following aims for its Church-in-Community project, Building Bridges:
- To counter alienation in young people and fear in older people by building bridges between the two age groups and developing mutual trust and support;
- To explore opportunities presented by the Church's partnership with the Children's Centre;
- Use this experience to identify and share ways in which other churches could become more engaged in the national Children's Services/Children's Centres initiatives in their areas;
- To provide a model for other churches to shake off the constraints imposed by obsolete buildings.
The Tonge Moor project involves Age Concern, Bolton Council Children's Services, other denominations, local Residents' Associations and URC NW Synod (all represented on the Project Management Group). The church has developed financial management systems for its community support work separate from its life as a worshipping fellowship. This was done to facilitate access to, and eligibility for financial support from a variety of bodies.
The Children's Centre's main remit is to help 0 to 5-year-olds, their parents and families, but we work alongside them to provide some supportive extra glue eg. summer holiday activities for the older siblings of families using the statutory services, craft activities or just chatting with lonely young parents in the Centre cafe etc. I basically try to grasp every opportunity I can to support what's going on here. It works as a seven day a week operation, five days a week for children's services with a community café and activities on Saturday and our informal services on Sundays. We try to be open to and willing to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can to demonstrate the love of God in Christ in this place.
In terms of community development, it takes time to build up relationships so as I'm based in the Centre, I'm able to work with the Centre's community outreach leader to organise some events jointly – it is part of their community cohesion remit and it's our reason for being. We are also building a volunteer base, involving people from church and community, which will help us to offer long-term support in this area. I’m not into offering something that comes and goes very quickly because that builds on the low expectation that many people have around here. People are accustomed to things starting up and then disappearing without trace; this contributes to the feeling that 'we don't matter'.
Being based in someone else's building has required adjustments by the church fellowship. Even new members who never knew the old building have preconceptions based on the traditional model where a Church has control of its own building. We've had to learn to share. People now appreciate how hard it is to cross the threshold of someone else's building no matter how warm the invitation! This new Centre is far more welcoming to 'non-church' people and provides 'neutral space' for church folk to meet with others from our local community and this is happening more and more now.
A recent joint venture involved creating a mosaic on the theme of nature. Anyone who came in to the Centre via the café was invited to join in and it took us three months to complete. We had a community artist working with us and the result is wonderful – the folks who aren't used to being creative have something to be very proud of. As far as the theme of it is concerned, for those who have no faith it's nature, for those with faith it's creation. This is the best visual example so far of what we are trying to do together.
I think at the beginning of all of this people said, 'Let's have a church within a Children's Centre' but what that actually means in practice is very different to what some imagined it would be. It can be a challenge for many to realise that church can look very different from the way they might expect. Folk outside of our fellowship find it hard to take on board that we're all about supporting people in living as good a life as they can in their community.
If they ask us about our motivation, then we have an opening to tell them about the whys and wherefores behind it all – the faith that stirs us into this action. If they don't ask, we just get on with it knowing that in God's time our message will be received one way or another.
We have about 30 members and we are growing. Some of the new folk have come from very different sorts of church backgrounds, or from no church background at all but whoever you are, you still have to get through the doors in the first place. As a result, hospitality events are very popular and very rewarding. We work with the other Partners in the Centre on special occasions and we also have a hugely popular candlelight Advent Supper.
Weekend baptisms, weddings and funerals can take place here as in any church but, mid-week – thanks to an arrangement with the Centre Management, the same services are possible. When requested, part of the premises is closed and we use a different entrance, enabling families to have their ceremony on the day and time they choose. Thus far only funerals have taken place mid-week but who knows what the future will bring.
My role is not about me alone or about building church in its narrowest sense; it's about supporting all in the challenge of looking for where God's love is already evident and joining in, it's about all of us carrying God's love to where it's needed, and it's about us together building God's community wherever God calls it to be. Not an easy task… some of the challenge comes from those who say that if people don't become 'official' members of our churches then how will we continue as a denomination? Others ask, 'If you are based in a Children's Centre, do you get children coming to church on Sunday?
Church at The Centre believe that we are taking our worship beyond Sunday mornings and into the week, and sharing the love of God as we meet people in their everyday lives – just as Jesus did. We don't expect people to respond by falling in with past traditional patterns – all must be encouraged to worship in ways that suit them and their journey with God.
As we go forward we know we are totally reliant on faith and the way God works in the community through people who say they have no faith. Christians don't have the monopoly on God after all.