The Ark @ Crawcrook is a church, café and soft play centre near Gateshead. Deacon Tracey Hume and Superintendent Paul Saunders explain the concept.
The Ark opened its doors this month and we aim to help children and adults to talk about God and learn more of Bible stories by providing a safe space in which to explore matters of faith. We look to serve the local communities of Crawcrook and surrounding villages – as well as the wider Gateshead area.
Rev Liz Kent and Deacon Tracey Hume are the ministers there and they work alongside our centre manager Janette Lea. As a venue which can be used for children's parties, and lots of other events, we rely heavily on volunteers and party hosts.
The Ark, a not-for-profit organisation, has been built on what was the site of the Robert Young Memorial Church in the village of Crawcrook. It is a fresh expression of church which aims to be a place where the community can meet, have fun, be supported and welcomed.
We are inspired by the words of Jesus in Luke 18:16, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these'.
There has already been a lot of interest in using these facilities. SNAP! (Special Needs Access Play) sessions are for children and adults with physical and/or learning disabilities, and developmental disorders such as autism. The play sessions, which are also for their siblings, are run outside of public opening times so that the children and adults can have exclusive use of the playframe and sensory room. We've made sure that all areas of the playframe are accessible via a mobile hoist.
The playframe has been tailor made for The Ark because we managed to secure the rights to using drawings by popular illustrator and author Mick Inkpen. He's well-known for books like Kipper the Dog and Wibbly Pig but he has also produced many books based on the stories that Jesus told.
We had the playframe designed with these Bible stories in mind and we chose about six images from each story. The idea is that we will take the children into the three-storey playframe and literally 'travel through' a Bible story with them because there will be illustrations in each part of the frame to highlight what we're talking about. There are quite a few commercial play centres in this area but nothing at all like this!
Our play centre and conservatory is open to the public from 9am-3pm, Monday to Friday, for pre-school age children and birthday parties can be booked each evening and Saturdays.
Our church centre manager, in a full-time role, oversees the day-to-day running of the centre and takes the bookings for it but is also very much part of the vision. Janette is like a mission partner because she has to work with our partner organisations as well as supervise two part-time café supervisors. Volunteers help us to run the café and keep a watch on the play centre.
We also have party hosts who are going to co-ordinate the events that we will have as a party venue. Most of these hosts are local people and a lot of them are not involved with traditional church at all. We see it as being about the community trying to help the community. That's why we hope to welcome one or two adults with learning difficulties to help in the café as problems in getting employment has come up as an important issue.
One day each week we will close to the public from 1.30pm to 3pm so that local schools for children with special needs and disabilities can come in and use the facilities. We are also looking at doing money management courses and have been approached by groups for ex-addicts who want to use the space; there's certainly a lot of potential and we will keep on listening to what the community is saying to us.
Of course we have to cover our costs as well but we are working with the council in an effort to access money to subsidise places for the disabled-only sessions. Our business plan shows that the birthday parties are what pay for the building and the café. The idea is that we cover costs so we can be as flexible as we can.
Our aim is that The Ark will be self-funding, covering its staffing and other costs, in order that it is sustainable in the long term. We are also still seeking some funding for the equipment we will need for some of the more specialised needs of people with learning and physical disabilities.
Play and Praise is just one of the ways in which we are looking to provide opportunities for people to explore faith. We were very aware that we didn't want to predict too far in advance what these opportunities need to 'look' like. There will be free sessions once a month but we are also planning to do café church. We are holding off at the moment because we just want to establish relationships in the first instance but it's pioneering ministry. It's important to listen to the questions that people are asking rather than answer things that people aren't asking in the first place! It's an open book at the minute.
There isn't an existing congregation alongside us in this; we've got a blank canvas, only God know how it will develop! Whatever shape it takes in future, it will be useful for the Circuit as well because they will also be able to explore how to do new things.
This isn't about setting up in competition with anything or anyone else; it's working with people the Circuit have already engaged with very closely so we do not end up trying to meet the same needs. Yes, there will be some overlap and there will be times when families are drawn to us rather than other churches in the area but we can't avoid that. It's simply providing other routes for people to ask questions.
We are a place of worship so we can still do weddings, baptisms and funerals. For some families who find their way into The Ark it may be the only time they come into a church building. If they are then looking for a baptism, for instance, it seems a sensible place to do it rather than going somewhere which seems very alien.
It's important for us to get to know what people's physical needs are as well as their spiritual needs. Interestingly, the developing of partnerships and community links has already succeeded in opening up the eyes of the local council to what the church is all about. As a result, we are now getting quite a reputation for community involvement.
We have learned that it's not about telling them why we are doing something; instead we simply do something because it's the right 'something' to do. They see the difference and recognise where our motivation is coming from. It's a lovely thing to be involved in; it's where God has called us to be.