Peter Grant tells how a fresh expression of church has developed from long-standing work among young offenders.
The ministry of Reflex, as part of Youth for Christ North East, ran for 15 or 16 years but changes in the prison system relating to young offenders brought changes in the ministry too. Such a lot of great work was being done but things had to develop in a different way to serve the needs of those coming out of prison so, just over 12 months ago, we set up our charity – The Junction 42 Foundation – to develop our work with ex-offenders, their families and friends in the community.
I've been working with men involved in issues of offending and domestic violence for over 20 years and what we started to see were real openings with the gospel in prison but it all broke down when the men were released and tried to get into the community through church. It just didn't work because the cultural difference was too great to make that step.
As a charity we started to run a couple of groups in the community, one for men and one for women. We also set up some mentoring training and got some people involved from local churches. The guys' group had around 10-12 people coming along; some were just out of prison while others were mature Christians, some with an offending background in their past.
We ran an Alpha course in May last year and ended up with about 40-45 taking part and 11 people being baptised. It was incredible to see people inviting their families and friends in a really natural way; it seemed to be a bit of a magnet for them. When we got to the end of the course, we knew we couldn't simply say, 'Well, that's done now so go and find a church.' We also knew we couldn't remain in the Alpha format because of the increasing, and very welcome, challenge of the sheer number of people wanting to worship together – and so Connect came into being.
The key for us is that it started really small, started from relationship not from structure. We read Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens by Neil Cole and it resonated with what we saw God doing with us.
A sense of ownership is something that has always been part of all that happens here. Right from the very start of Alpha, people went into the kitchens and started helping and then tidying up afterwards, they didn't have to be asked. That kind of 'come and be involved' approach is part of who we are and what we do; it's all about doing things together and not for. Connect is not something that's 'put on' by the church, instead that sense of ownership prompts many people to share their testimony and has encouraged people to discover – and use – their gifts.
Every week we see new people coming in, God is doing amazing things. Over the last year, we have seen many, many come to faith for the first time. We probably have about 60 'regulars' now – though the number would be closer to 100 if everyone involved in Connect all came at the same time; it really has grown very quickly and the core of it is growing stronger.
Christians come to us from all sorts of church backgrounds, including Baptists, Anglicans and Free Churches and a retired Methodist minister who's helping us too. A lot of people are particularly getting involved in mentoring so that's something we are looking to use and be fairly intentional about it.
There have been a number of signs of growth. Our women's group, which meets on a Thursday, grew out of one of them saying, 'I want to start a sisterhood'. These are young women in their early 20s, passionate about their faith, who look at the Bible and focus on teaching. We also have about 20 people going to another weekly Bible study – from which we are seeing an emerging leadership team.
We are not affiliated to any one Christian denomination though we do meet at St Luke's Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the vicar – Robert Ward – is a great supporter of what we do. Robert heads up a network of church leaders in Tyneside and there are a few people now going to his church who started with us here. However, the majority of new Christians say that Connect is their church.
To be honest, we kind of resisted the whole idea of calling ourselves church for quite a long while but when others started calling it their church we thought, 'Well if they are happy with that, we will too.' We are not so bothered about it now.
I have been a Christian for most of my life but this is like nothing else I've come across before. Yes, the discipleship issues are generally more difficult than what most churches see because they might involve drugs and other addictive behaviours, re-offending and so on but now a wide range of people are now being drawn in so we are beginning to get away from the idea of us being seen as 'an ex-offenders church'. About 25% of those now attending have been in prison, 50% are people who have come through a connection with ex-offenders, either as family or friends, and 25% are from local churches lending their support too.
We don't have kids with us but we have quite a mix of ages, including a number of retired people who have a lot of wisdom. People are invited to come as guest speakers and some really understand about speaking into our culture, for others it is quite a new experience but they always tell us that they are greatly encouraged by being there. Again, as part of this strong sense of ownership here, we are very open to visitors and people are very welcome to come and see what we do.
We see partnership as being really important and so we are working with Christians from other areas who want to do similar things. Sunderland is just about to launch a Connect and we are also in touch with people looking to develop one in Durham. Our aim is operate as a network; we don't want oversight of them but to help them.
In terms of oversight, there are now seven or eight of us involved in that, including people we have seen emerge as leaders here. We used to meet with Robert and Alice Ward regularly but now our leadership is moving towards being more inclusive in its structure – something not necessarily run by the charity.
We meet on Tuesday nights, arriving at 5.30pm to cook and set up and starting at 7pm. We try to finish at 9pm but people tend to leave at about 10!
The biggest surprise to us here is the worship. It was during our third session of Alpha that we decided to introduce the idea of worship at Connect. The worship leader used to be a prison governor. We were unsure how this would go down with people unfamiliar with church but simply said that 'This is what Christians do'. The worship leader said he'd play a song through once so everyone would get the idea of what it was like.
It was 'How Great is Our God' and it was just amazing. After the first verse everyone was on their feet and going for it, it was such a God 'thing' because it could never have been organised, or had such an immediate effect, if it had come from us. It was very, very, very different than any other kind of worship I have ever come across. It was raw. Our musicians are very talented but they are not polished; we have guitar, drums and sometimes piano. Our singers are young women, with incredible voices, who became Christians with us and they sing with a couple of guys. We are now very passionate about music as a community, the worship band has come into prison to lead worship in the prison from where Connect first grew, and it's amazing to see and hear it – the guys there love singing. It sometimes sounds like a football chant. The closest description I would have is a kind of Geordie version of a black gospel church.
Our format is pretty flexible but generally we have:
- some worship as people gather;
- about 20 minutes of worship;
- eat together;
- news of what God is doing in people's lives, including testimonies at times;
- speaker for 20 minutes maximum;
- discussion around tables;
- prayer and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are very much up for networking and not being isolated. That's why we have made connections with local Tyneside churches; St Thomas' Church, Philadelphia in Sheffield; and Reflex's links with The Message Trust.
Now, we are excited about linking in with Fresh Expressions and being part of a network of fresh expressions of church; we don't know how things will develop but we do know that God is in control.