The Ark at Crawcrook – Oct14

Deacon Tracey Hume works alongside Rev Liz Kent in The Ark church, soft play centre and café in the village of Crawcrook. She updates the story so far.

The Ark is both a church and a business which throws up all manner of challenges. Having been trained for ministry, Liz and I have had a steep learning curve in learning the business side but, without that business side, the wider work of The Ark would not happen.

The church side of The Ark keeps taking us in surprising directions! When we started we assumed that our church focus would be on children and we thought a Praise and Play type of regular church event would be the direction of travel. However, God is a God of surprises. We did hold a few Praise and Play type services on a monthly basis but the majority of those who came were folk who attended other churches and that was not what The Ark as a fresh expression of church was about, it was supposed to be an opportunity to engage people who do not normally attend a church to ask questions and explore life and faith.

So we decided to look at providing opportunities for prayer and worship at times of the year when people were more likely to want to engage such as harvest, Christmas and Easter. We held a carol service with free non-alcoholic mulled wine (we are a Methodist church after all!) and hot chocolate. We thought we may get around 20 people but instead it was packed to the rafters. Around 80 people squeezed into the centre and we had the opportunity to re-tell the Christmas story in different ways and to celebrate the Christmas season.

The Ark @ Crawcrook - conservatoryInstead of children, God kept sending us adults who wanted to ask questions and explore the Christian faith. On a day-to-day basis we were having interesting conversations with customers but then we started having conversations with our non-Christian volunteers. One in particular happened to ask me one day how I became a minister which allowed me to share something of my testimony. A couple of days later I got a Facebook message from her telling me that there was something about The Ark which was doing something to her. She didn't know what it was but she had started to pray and she wanted to read the Bible! We bought her a Bible and had conversations over the next few months about what it meant to be a Christian etc. The exciting thing is that in November she is being baptised at The Ark – along with her five children.

This, and other conversations, led us to feel that we should run some kind of Christian basics course to allow people to continue their exploration. It did not feel appropriate to use Alpha or similar materials, we needed something 'pre-Alpha' really. We decided to create our own eight-session course called Coffee, Cake, Craft and Christianity (CCCC for short!) The sessions were going to look at a different aspect of the faith, such as Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is prayer? but we wanted it to be informal and flexible. Free coffee and cake was offered too! We had used craft at another church as a vehicle for people to talk about themes etc and so we decided to incorporate this into our course. Each week we made something which helped to illustrate what we were talking about. For the first two sessions we had a written plan for the session of the kind of questions we might ask to get conversation going but very quickly we realised that God and the attendees needed it to be slightly different. We still kept very loosely to the themes but, in the end, we just had to allow people to talk about the things they needed to talk about and ask the questions they had. The questions did not relate to the origins of creation, or something similar; instead they were rooted in experience. So we had questions around why God would allow cancer or why forgiveness was so hard.

Th Ark @ Crawcrook - caféIn the Spring we also ran a course called 'Marvellous Me'. We became aware at the beginning of January that many of our staff and volunteers and customers were all going on diets and were concerned with issues of body image and self-esteem. We were also aware that many of their daughters, in particular, were struggling with the same thing. We felt that the Church had something to say on this so we developed a three-session course for mothers and daughters to look at the issues together. This threw up interesting conversations and we will certainly look at running it again.

For a while we struggled a bit with trying to build church community but not feeling that monthly services was the way to go at this time. We had conversations with various people to help us think this through and we came to the conclusion that building relationships was the most important thing at this stage of the Ark's life and ministry. Developing a church family was more important than a congregation. This was brought into sharp focus around Christmas time. One of our volunteers was pregnant but was having a lot of complications with the pregnancy. Her family lived away and her husband worked nights so she was often on her own with her young son. The Ark staff and volunteers were brilliant with her and helped her along and provided emotional support. At the beginning of January she went into labour and the baby was born with numerous medical conditions. Sadly the baby died after two days of life and the mother was understandably devastated. Liz and I supported her as much as we could and helped with practical arrangements for the funeral and so on but the Ark family came into their own. They supported her in so many ways, including helping with her son and providing emotional support and hugs. They were there for her when she reached rock bottom and loved her through it. Since then, the lady concerned has had to leave the area due to marital problems but the Ark family are still supporting her.

Caring for each other has been key. We have a prayer post box in the entrance to The Ark where people can leave prayer requests and these are emailed to The Ark family regularly as well as our own requests.

The Ark @ Crawcrook - prayer roomDuring the last two years we have done quite a lot of reading around creating community. We feel very drawn to the ancient communities of Aidan and Hilda. These monastic communities allowed people to access their community at different levels. Some participated fully in the rule of life and worshipping side of things, others just attended the worship and others just came to receive hospitality. This resonated very strongly with where we felt God was taking us. We were experiencing people accessing The Ark community in different ways depending on where they were at. We also have over 1,000 people in our Facebook community so the digital sense of belonging sits alongside the face-to-face community.

A community around a rule of life also felt right; a simple rule which helped people to live better and to deepen their relationship with God. The Methodist Church continues to use a system of membership as a sign of commitment to the church and each other but somehow we are sensing that membership might look very different at The Ark. When Liz and I began to theologically reflect on where we were with The Ark we realised that we had been modelling a basic rule of life all the way along but had never named it. For example, The Ark has a charity every month which we actively try and support and a tenth of our week is given over to community groups where The Ark does not make money but offers to support and resource local needs. We have been modelling how we use our resources and tithing. We also have a prayer room now with a variety of prayer stations for all ages as a way of helping people to develop their prayer life and intercede for others. We will continue to reflect, read and listen to God for how this may develop.

The Ark had its first baptism in August which was exciting. A family who had been coming to The Ark to play asked if we still did baptisms there. This provided more theological and practical challenges. How do we baptise a child without having a worshipping community to baptise them into? It felt like God was doing things backwards! We sought out people to theologically reflect on this with before we committed ourselves. Rev Michael Volland from Cranmer Hall in Durham was incredibly helpful in this regard. We looked carefully at the baptism service and tried to remain as faithful as we could to it but to make it a little more accessible in terms of language and we created a service around the play frame, story and experience.

The Ark @ Crawcrook - nativityIt has been quite a busy time for Liz and me. We both have another church each to run as well as Methodist Circuit responsibilities. We spend approximately 50% of our time on Ark activities so that there is the equivalent to a full minister which allows us to both bring our different gifts and skills to the project but we are aware that many fresh expressions of church have a dedicated minister or leader who has that project as their only focus. This can be a challenge and is not ideal but, with the help of our centre managers, staff, volunteers and directors, we muddle through.

At each stage there have been things we have expected to do but we have tried to listen to what God is doing and ask how we might join in. It's not about our ideas; it's about falling in with what God is revealing to us along the way.

The Ark at Crawcrook

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 at Crawcrook - caféThe 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 at Crawcrook - building plans

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 Ark at Crawcrook - playframeThe 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.

The Ark at Crawcrook - sensory roomOur 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.

The Ark at Crawcrook - teamOf 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.

The Ark at Crawcrook - sign

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.

The Ark at Crawcrook - logo

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.