Peter Gilbert, a member of Church of the Martyrs in Leicester, tells the story of how Tomatoes has proved to be an innovative project in engaging with unchurched local families.
In October 2007, Tomatoes began as an initiative of our Curate to explore a Saturday morning breakfast activity aimed at mission to the many students of higher education who live in the urban area of Leicester. We soon realised that this was a foolish endeavour, as what students do you see around on a Saturday morning? However, we quickly realised that it could be a great project to engage with local unchurched families. We are situated in a multi-ethnic urban context, with a Hindu Temple nearby and very different people living near each other in the local community.
The Parish Church of The Martyrs in inner-city Leicester is right next to a church hall and on Saturday mornings, the hall is taken over by an independent ballet school which is very popular with local families. Given that this was next door, we invited these families to come along to Tomatoes for a free breakfast and an opportunity to build relationships with local people. Surprisingly the connection worked and food is always popular! It began with mums and their children, but soon grew to partners coming along too. Now, people still come even if ballet is not happening, as it has become an important part of people’s local rhythm of life. We now have around seventy to eighty people and their children arriving for Tomatoes, coming every other Saturday. Most of these people do not go to church or have any faith background. Also a number of Martyrs folks come as well.
We were very fortunate that the Diocese of Leicester Mission Fund gave two grants to get us going and sustain us in the first three years. Running costs are around £1 per person.
So what do we do? Well we have a café style set up in the church, with newspapers, drinks and food. We don’t charge but allow people to make a donation.
We used to have a theme to each Tomatoes event and have a number of talented musicians in the church community play in the background with visuals and videos where appropriate. We usually have someone talk about some issue to do with faith, and this can lead into discussions. We have had discussions around news items in the papers. At first people were reluctant to talk about spirituality and its application into modern life, but it is now much easier to talk about these things. The key focus remains on building relationships. There is also the opportunity for people to write down prayer requests and give them to us, and then a short time of prayer is given after the talk part with a quiet reflection.
Tomatoes normally operates between 9.30am and 11.45am every other week. The focus then is on building community and showing the church as part of that community. Most people are not yet ready to explore Christianity in a formal setting, but are definitely now more open to spirituality. So these sessions do not encompass worship or being church, they remain a focus on relational mission.
The website and local advertising and particularly word of mouth have increased the visibility of Tomatoes, so we are working hard with ten of us as volunteers to keep it going. We are looking forward to Church of the Martyrs having a new vicar, as there has been an interregnum now for a while and whilst the project has really worked we would like to see more of the congregation involved in it as a way of enjoying themselves and of outreach to the community – one of our stated aims.
We are really pleased that the project has been able to listen to local needs, and responded with Tomatoes as a form of loving service, which has helped to build a community. The greatest challenge then from this is how to address the need for discipleship and Christian formation and then the need for authentic yet contextual forms of worship. There is no way that people can just go and attend an Alpha Course for example, as it will not relate to the context, so we are really not sure how we make this next step, and we need the Vicar or new curate to start working at Church of the Martyrs to help us explore possible ways of doing Christian formation in this particular context. We were pleased to see that some unchurched families were able to come to a Christmas Service, some were able to make this shift, but this will be a minority. So many we are in contact with are pre-Alpha and interested in spirituality rather than anything religious including Christianity. So discipleship and forms of contextual worship with its own distinct approach remains an important dream for the way forward.
In Tomatoes people tend to drop in and out of it in a fluid way, so there is not really a culture of people starting and finishing at the same time, so doing any form of discipleship ‘course’ with this type of set up just will not work.
So we do see Tomatoes as a community but not yet church, full of potential we hope to become church in the future, but not yet anywhere near ready to go that way. You can’t rush or force people to go there, it has to be in the right time.
It has taken us three years to get this far, I think it is going to take quite some time for people to make the next shift to being interested in Christianity.
Another challenge we face is balancing the needs of unchurched families alongside a significant homeless population all in the same space. This can lead to some tensions when there are a lot of small children in the place, so we try to practice hospitality but also keeping the space safe for families.
In the meantime we need to be careful we do not burn out with the pressure of Tomatoes on top of very busy lives and we do need to get the Church of the Martyrs more fully behind what we do. But so far, Tomatoes has been a privilege to be part of, and something we hope will develop.