When Victor Howlett began his curacy in 1997 in a market town in Wiltshire, he found that families were not coming to church.
Realising that it might take more than the four years of his training period to make existing church worship more family friendly, he decided to create a special service. On approaching the staff team he discovered a free half hour on Sunday mornings from 9am, after the 8 o'clock service and before choir practice, which he decided to call Early Bird.
Still unclear himself about what Early Bird would be, he invited a small team from the existing congregations to join him in visiting local children's groups with an invitation to church.
Posters were placed in shop windows for a monthly service, a method still used today.
Ten minutes before the first Early Bird service was due to begin, no one was in sight.
Then we heard the first buggy coming up the drive,
Victor says. That first half hour attracted 60 people, two thirds of whom were new to church.
It gradually developed into a service appropriate for 0-8 year-olds,
Always dads came rather than mums, which was unusual. They also automatically sat at the front!
By the time Victor left, a regular congregation of 40-50 was gathering once a month and continues to meet some years on.
The service is 'very unchurchy', with no candles, hymn books or robes. Songs of no more than two verses are sung from a book of six coloured sheets and announced according to colour. If one proves unpopular, it is replaced.
The service is 'always', Victor stresses, based on a Bible story.
If it goes well, we tell it again.
This spontaneity is important for success, Victor believes, something which sticking to a monthly rather than weekly programme encourages. Coffee is served afterwards and as people leave they are handed an invitation to the following month's service, which is always on the second Sunday since this never clashes with school holidays. Even if this Sunday falls on a festival such as Easter, it still happens. Children are texted or emailed between services to keep in touch.
It keeps working,
says Victor, who is now in his third parish and still repeating the Early Bird model, albeit under the name Jump Start Sunday. In the meantime, ten other Early Bird services have sprung up over the diocese (Bristol) and news of another in Berkshire and two in Wales has reached Victor, who occasionally gets
phone calls from the grapevine asking for advice.
Not all are called Early Bird, but all follow the original premise and emphasise that these services are church in themselves for the mostly fathers and children who attend, with some families choosing to come 'fully into the life of the church'.
We make a virtue of being early and design it for children and parents,
They know it's only half an hour and we describe it as 'the best way to start Sunday'. Because it caters for children, the parents are pleased, but it also offers community.