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.
Instead 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.
In 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.
During 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.
It 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.