The Studio

As a fresh expression of church in The Congregational Federation, The Studio is still finding its feet. Its Missioner, David Richards, explains how it came about.

Heaton Park Congregational Church in Prestwich, Manchester, was built in 1881 but it closed down five years ago because the Grade II listed building had fallen into a serious state of disrepair.

The elderly congregation found it increasingly difficult to use the site and there was a big question mark over the future of this particular church. They decided to sell it to a developer and the church was converted into 23 apartments and penthouses. A new, modern worship area was also built next to the old church as part of the scheme and this is now used as The Studio community space.

When The Studio first came into the ownership of The Congregational Federation, General Secretary Michael Heaney explored how best it could be used. At that time I had just finished a pastorate in Rhiwderin, South Wales, and Michael told me about this space in Manchester. We met and the whole thing just snowballed!

The Studio - cathedralI was a photographer's assistant at a studio in Cardiff and we were very much part of what was going on in our area so this was a big move for us because we didn't know much about Manchester at all. We did quite a lot of preparation before we came, researching the area and the feel of the community. We also came up to see the building a few times and thought in detail about how it might best be used – though we could see the concept of it being an art space straight away.

We drew up a comprehensive report along those lines and presented it to the Council of the Federation. They were very supportive and the Federation paid for a nearby manse as rented accommodation for me and my family. The three years of initial funding take us to end of next year and we've now been given a further three years after that.

In our first year here, we had a general concept of it being a studio space so we did lots of things just to see what happened. It was a frustrating time because it was a very slow start.

At the start of the second year we connected with a woman who was very much a person of peace to us. She had an artist friend called Micah Purnell who had an exhibition at The Studio which attracted a bit of media attention and it kick-started a lot of other activity. Since then, there have been several exhibitions and we have got at least five in the diary for next year. It did take us a while to find that niche but once we started to get the contacts, it snowballed.

The Studio - smilesThat all continues to go really well, both with Christian and secular artists, and – in other developments – we have also made some strong connections with local community groups. We are starting to break ground locally and in the wider North West area where we are making some key faith connections with various projects. For the next stage, we need a few others to partner with us in prayer and resources. We need to build a group that can take it on, strengthening each part of it because there's a lot of potential here.

Our Sunday Gathering meets every week at 3.30pm as there are quite a lot of other churches in the area and we didn't want to set up yet another 10am service! It's very informal, café-style and we generally end up with a group discussion based on a biblical theme and look at how it applies to our day-to-day lives.

At the moment it's still a relatively small group. We have had our ups and downs with it but we are holding it very lightly because we would very much like a new church community to generate itself through what happens at The Studio. The Sunday Gathering is more a place of support for us as a team coming from various church backgrounds than a place where new people would ultimately end up. We are trying to see it as a bit of an experimental ground for ourselves but it would be marvellous to eventually have two emerging faith communities running simultaneously.

The Studio - wordsThe Sunday Gathering group includes people from The Congregational Federation's national youth and children's office, based in our building. They have three main employees and an intern and they were all 'transplanted' into the area when the office moved to Manchester. Their presence not only makes the building much more sustainable in its usage but they have also been a great support to us.

What we wanted to do is to have another church community that could quite easily emerge from people who express an interest in it. The Sunday Gathering is an opportunity but it isn't 'be all and end all'. As we start to put our heads above the parapet and say to people, 'We would like to explore with you,' then that would give us the beginnings of an emerging congregation. As a pastor that's what you want, that's the position you want to come to and it's very easy to become impatient but I need to keep on reminding myself that God is on the case.

One of the things we are trying to look at is how best to have spiritual interaction when the exhibitions are on. At the moment we give people a postcard to write down their own opinions and thoughts but we are currently trying to figure out how to do that in a more effective way than at present.

The Studio - Day 1In terms of accountability, we have a management group in Nottingham and I go over and meet with them. I also have a direct line manager and I see her quite regularly in order to pray and talk through where to go next. Until now, lots of the strategic thinking has been coming from me. This has involved bringing forward an idea, working through it, getting a feeling for it and looking at partners who will join and the relationships that will bring. What has become clear in recent times is that we need to have more people involved in local planning because the management group are not in the city. They can take it so far and then we really need to get people on the ground to act as another group to take it forward from there.

The Studio has already attracted attention from people wanting to start similar projects elsewhere. A Manchester-based charity, called The Mustard Tree, has launched an art course for homeless people and they are going to be doing an exhibition with us as well.

This is all really good news but we have got quite a few things that are on hold because of the challenges of resourcing them. I'm 'officially' part-time and involved for about 18.75 hours a week but, of course, it tends to be longer than that though I try to be as disciplined as I can. I know I'm very fortunate in pioneering terms as a far as funding is concerned, I'm very privileged. However, I still rely a lot on my part-time wage; I'm doing additional bits and pieces but it's not sustainable particularly when know that, for many organisations, the fifth year of a project is seen as the 'make or break' crunch year.

The Studio - secretOur programme is quite varied and all of our projects look for new ways to engage with people about our connections with God. They include:

  • Doodle: an art and craft group for toddlers and their carers every Wednesday from 10.30am to 1pm during term-time;
  • PAUSE: encourages busy people to take a few moments to stop and reflect on life. The technique used is loosely based on an Ignation meditation exercise;
  • varied exhibitions;
  • Gotosofa: A community that meets once a month at a cinema as an opportunity to discuss life and meaning through the medium of film.

Our Sundays currently look like this:

  • Gathering Around A Screen (1st Sunday of the month). Short video, small group discussions and a video;
  • Messy Gathering (2nd Sunday of the month) Fun family time with art and craft activities leading into a time of short reflection;
  • Prayers and Praise Gathering (3rd Sunday of the month). An inspiring time of music, art and creative prayer;
  • Gathering at the Table (4th Sunday of the month) Share a meal together, including Communion;
  • Gathering with a Guest (5th Sunday of the month).

The Studio - greyIt would be great to hear people say, 'We see the value in what you have established and we would love to come on board and help'. That might come from other Christians in a local fresh expression of church or a totally different source. Time will tell.

Left Bank Leeds

Youth worker and Baptist minister Simon Hall is involved with the Revive community and Left Bank Leeds. He explains why it's very difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.

Revive has been a bit of everything in the past. It was a youth congregation 20 years ago but, obviously, the people have got older and Revive eventually became a church plant rather than a congregation within a larger church.

We moved into Hyde Park, the 'boho', bedsit land area of Leeds because we knew the people we wanted to reach and where they lived. Revive has had its ups and downs, with many mistakes being made along the way, but in many ways we can now see Left Bank as a perfect fulfilment of Revive's original vision.

Left Bank Leeds - graffitiRevive saw young, single, people with alternative lifestyles and felt that these people weren't going to connect with traditional churches at all. We wanted to put church in their way and make God more accessible. Well, we haven't seen revival since then but we have seen a few people become Christians and others explore faith more deeply.

In more recent times, members of Revive helped to found a project called Left Bank Leeds, an arts and events venue based in the amazing surroundings of the former St Margaret of Antioch church in Hyde Park.

The building hadn't been in weekly use for some years, although occasional services had taken place there. From the outside, it's not the most attractive of places but inside it's huge; a mock gothic cathedral with a real 'wow' factor. We had funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funders for major repair work which began in July 2008 and finished in February 2011.

The idea was that it would be a centre for arts and culture, for new thought and new ideas, friendly and full of life – which is why we called it Left Bank, after the artistic district of Paris known as the Rive Gauche.

Left Bank Leeds - interiorHalf of the people who got behind it were from Revive and the other half from another local church. Left Bank is kind of undergirded by these people, most of whom are still either staff or trustees. There is also a wider community of Christians who ensure that the explicitly Christian part of the vision is maintained – known as the Left Bank God Group, they are involved in the day-to-day God 'stuff' and bits of programming that have a clear faith emphasis. There are about 20 people in the Left Bank God Group and most of them are part of Revive.

The other side of it is that we have got a wider group of people who have been drawn into the community through volunteering, about 200 of them. That's where conversations about faith occur naturally rather than us trying to manufacture opportunities. In the old days, I guess you'd call it an attractional model but it's the building and project which are bringing people together, rather than a service. We don't have to work hard at building community, it's all around us.

A great example of Left Bank programming would be Amazing Graze, our street food and culture festival. We worked in partnership with street food traders and buskers to create a unique weekend event – the vision came in part from the bad experiences of a member of Revive who is a professional busker; we wanted to celebrate the diversity of life on the street and celebrate 'the commons'. In the autumn we'll be working together on a massive Narnia community project – as pioneered by Liverpool's In Another Place. It will involve about 300-400 people, including professional sound engineers, lighting designers and producers wanting to lend a hand. Isn't this what church is supposed to be like with so many people using their gifts – a lot of them Christians, a lot of them not?  

Left Bank Leeds - musicFor the next six months, we will all be getting involved in the Narnia project but it's difficult to know where the boundaries are. Revive doesn't meet in Left Bank, it's too big! I live with my family in two terraced houses which we knocked into one and I think we have had about 50 people meeting in there at times. We've also got one or two other places that we go to and we have met in church buildings in the past but that just didn't work for us.  

Revive was definitely a young people's and then young adults' church. We have been really blessed in that quite a few of those people are still involved but it's quite hard keeping a church of that type going. Every now and then we'd say, 'Shall we just give it up?' and have a meeting to talk about it – but we kept on going because it's definitely like a family; I can only think of one or two people who have really left.

We are still only about 40 adults and 20 kids even when we are all together but we also have a much bigger group of people from all over the world who, in some way, feel they are part of it.

Left Bank Leeds - foodWe still do the thing that churches do and meet on a Sunday but we also have a strong focus on vocation and small groups meeting around a common purpose. We have:

  • book Group which is involved in organising open debates and lectures;
  • 'blokes' Group. Someone in the church bought some woodland and is trying to set up a programme to take kids from the city to learn bushcraft skills (this is sort of shared with another church);
  • women's Group, a prayer group exclusively for women in the church;
  • group for people who are musicians or really into music;
  • group for those who want to get involved in Forest Church;
  • the Left Bank God Group;
  • a very informal leadership group made up of anyone who wants to discuss what we should do next.

The small groups work as a sort of free market. They start and, if they gather people, they carry on. There is no central idea or strategy along the lines of, 'Oh we must have a small group based on…'

When Revive started we had some priming money. Over three years, we were given money from the Baptist Union and individuals were able to make up the rest.

I have never worked more than half time for Revive and, technically, I only work a day a week for them. We also have an organised, admin-type, person who does half a day a week. I would have thought our annual budget is in the region of about £10,000 a year. Thankfully, we have a few people involved who earn good money and they also support it financially.

Left Bank Leeds - worshipLeft Bank Leeds is a quintessential social enterprise. There is a charity that owns the building, with responsibility for the faith and heritage side of it. On top of that, we set up a Community Interest Company – which is the new legal vehicle for social enterprises – and that deals with the community and the arts ventures. We also have a commercial arm, renting the space out for gigs, parties, conferences and – in the summer – lots of weddings!

In terms of the future at LeftBankLeeds, there is a long list of needs to improve its facilities. Long term plans at the moment include:

  • development of a café bar at the front of the building. People are certainly attracted to the space but, at the moment, it's too big for them to feel able to stop. We want to ensure that there is community there every day;
  • continuing to curate a gathered space for all the creatives in the city; we want to be the catalyst to make things happen

For God Group, we are working on two things that people could pray for:

  • permanent exhibits that draw people towards God. There are already plans in the pipeline to have the Chartres labyrinth as part of our new floor;
  • commissioning other arts that would just give people pause – not as invasions of space but that the space would allow them to consider what life is all about.

We have reached an amazing new stage with Revive. While we have always wanted to reach out the truth is we have always been like a hospital for people with heart conditions – people who have been hurt by church, people who have asked too many questions of their churches and come unstuck – but now they are finding 'real' church again. This has always been the main way that the community has grown and sustained itself.

Left Bank Leeds - marketAt the moment we feel less like a hospice and more like a hospital, where people are actually getting well! We have been quite well known in the past for writing quite melancholy songs, but at the moment we are having to write songs of faith, hope and love because as a community we are finding out feet and want to be more positive.

Left Bank has a chequered history. It is a long time since it was full, if it ever was. Changing demographics in the area – first Irish Catholics, then Pakistani Muslims – mean that there was never a large congregation. And it means that the building doesn't have a place in the heart of the community, even though it is the largest building by some way. Most people who visit Left Bank have never been in it when it was a church, which has turned out to be a great help to us as people don't immediately associate it with religion. This new phase in the life of the building is fulfilling the vision of the original church in new ways, as well as the vision of Revive.


Methodist VentureFX Pioneer Minister Simon Oliver, whose ministry comes under the banner of 'RevCoffee', explains how new things are happening in Cottenham through community, creativity, Christianity and cappuccinos.

I am employed by the Cambridge Methodist Circuit to work alongside the Cottenham Community Centre (CCC) and Coffee Shop.

The Centre and Coffee Shop came into existence when, after many years of faithful worship and service, Cottenham Methodist Church closed down in November 2007. The day after its final service a public meeting was held to explore the possibilities of how the building might be used as a community resource.

The CCC was formed, much hard work and fund raising was carried out, and in February 2011 the beautiful Coffee Shop was opened. It is no longer a church, but I am privileged to be a part of the Community Centre team. I was appointed as part of the VentureFX scheme to work alongside the CCC with young adults and families in Cottenham, a vibrant village of about 7,000 people just outside Cambridge.

RevCoffee - counterAt the heart of my role lies a conviction that being a welcome, accepting, incarnational Christian presence in the community is key to contemporary ministry. So I spend a great deal of time simply hanging out in the coffee shop, sometimes working behind the counter, sometimes tapping away on my laptop, and often just meeting friends old and new.

Out of these relationships, and my connections with other community groups and churches in the village, I try to find fresh ways of exploring issues of life, meaning and faith. People are interested in looking at such issues but often feel alienated, disconnected or simply uninterested in traditional Church, or are just too busy with the chaos and demands of life to find the time and space in their schedules.

We now have quite a few initiatives and projects going on in and around the Community Centre and Coffee Shop; my wife and toddler are very involved in many of these groups. My approach is to be as collaborative as possible, so everything has been set up as a result of prayerfully listening to what people might be interested in, and in partnership with others (sometimes Christians, sometimes those who don't usually have anything to do with traditional church). These initiatives include:

  • Arts Night: A small group of young-ish poets, musicians, storytellers, comedians, singers, photographers and artists get together on the second Sunday of the month. It is a mostly musical group and we have also had some great poetry from Larkin, Yeats and our own members, short stories and photography. Each month has a theme (eg war and peace, parenthood, love, death, resurrection) and we share original and borrowed material and attempt collaborate in creating new works, as well as putting on quality performances. And we always have some really interesting conversations exploring issues of life and faith from a variety of perspectives.
  • Film Club: A fun, new group where people of all beliefs and none come together to watch a movie, eat popcorn and then explore the existential and spiritual issues that come out of it.
  • Dad's Play: We have a large (70-plus on the books) group of dads and male carers/guardians of under-5s who meet informally in the back hall of the Cottenham Community Centre Coffee Shop. The kids get the chance to play together while the men get a chance to eat bacon sandwiches and drink good coffee. We also have regular curry nights – although the children aren't invited to this!
  • RevCoffee - logoMarriage and Parenting Courses. We have run a number of these courses in the Coffee Shop.
  • Daily Prayer: This takes place from 8:30 – 8:45 am, Sunday to Friday at the Coffee Shop. It is often just a couple of adults and my two-year-old, but others often pop in, have a natter and occasionally join us or ask for prayer.
  • Football Plus+: A group young and not-so-young men play football on the first and third Sundays of the month, and a small group of us are exploring the possibility of using of the fourth Sunday to talk football, life and faith over a couple of beers (or lemonades).
  • the Roost: this is new all-age event which we have been experimenting with over the last few months on Sunday afternoons and which officially 'launches' in September. It is a relaxed group which includes arts, craft, conversation, messy play, videos, the Sunday papers, music, poetry, coffee, flapjack and more to give people the opportunity to have fun together, create community and to explore different issues from a Christian perspective.

All of our activities aim to be open and accessible to all, and to give people the opportunity to develop meaningful community and consider the possibility of faith. All beliefs and viewpoints are valued, and seen as equal conversation partners as we try to make sense of life together. Everything is done in very low key and simple ways and – as I have already said – relationships take precedence over activities.

My ultimate hope is that through one or more of our initiatives people are given the opportunity to have a meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ and to explore what that might mean for them.

I take the Methodist and Fresh Expressions commitment to ecumenism very seriously, and have found it very encouraging to work alongside the Baptist Church, The Salvation Army, All Saints Parish Church and Christians Together in Cottenham as we seek to develop our ministries in collaboration.

It is not always easy, but it is a wonderful role and a rewarding project, and I feel very grateful to God and to the Methodist Church for allowing me to be a part of it!

Edinburgh Dreams

Lou DavisVentureFX pioneer Lou Davis tells about the formation and development of a community in Scotland's capital city.

I had been working with the C3 community in Stockport but then applied for VentureFX and was sent to Edinburgh a year ago. At first I spent a lot of time getting to know what was happening in the city, speaking to people and going to different groups. I started by doing Twitter searches for Edinburgh and following people online to see what they were doing in the city.

I have always liked making things; it was a kind of family activity. As a result I always tend to gravitate towards creative people who also make things because it seems a very natural 'fit' for me. At Stockport I went on a pattern cutting course which eventually led to me taking a two year City and Guilds in Fashion and Textiles. At C3 we majored on craft groups but, in Edinburgh, I initially steered clear of doing the same thing so that I could discern what God was calling me to do in a very different situation.

After a while, I felt that making things and being creative was so much a part of me that I couldn't let it go. Things have since moved on and I have got myself a studio at Portobello, the city's seaside! It is great for making friends and building community as a creative hub, a place where people are creating artwork in all sorts of different forms.

Edinburgh Dreams - pint glassAt the moment the ministry is developing in three main areas:

  • I'm developing a new Christian worship community called The Gathering. I'm doing this with other people from the Edinburgh and Forth Circuit and this is designed to help in exploring Christianity and creating a place for developing community. It is a twice monthly act of creative, community-inspired worship in the heart of the city. We start off with tea or coffee, cake and chat at 6.30pm followed by worship half an hour later and a trip to the pub afterwards. We also have a few smaller groups; we meet up twice a month to share a meal, get to know each other as friends and serve others. As a group we have already found ourselves serving the homeless of Edinburgh.
  • I'm also involved with the YMCA in Edinburgh by helping with the drop-in events there. I attempt to play darts but keep hitting the wall!
  • I work with different artists and creative types, going to meetings and already established networks. I work with other creatives under the name of Edinburgh Dreams and we have staged events and worked closely with YMCA Edinburgh and the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church. We've got some great plans for the near future, including photography, video, art, fashion and a public art project for Advent.

Edinburgh Dreams - lettersThe concept of Edinburgh Dreams is to build community across the city, inspire creative activity and to build friendships across divides – social, economic and geographic.

I go through phases when I consider how things are developing. Some days it is very exciting and positive – usually when something has gone well – and at other times it seems like I'm just doing endless admin and not getting anywhere at all. But then I may meet someone new, have an amazing conversation about God and it's all worthwhile.

For me it has been really important to keep in contact with the friends I have made in other places. I make sure I don't lose those friendships because I have needed the backing and love of people outside the area I'm working in. Thankfully the Circuit is really interested in what sorts of things I am doing and I'm also grateful for their level of support for me. In the community itself I don't think everyone's totally aware of what I do, at the YMCA for instance I just say, 'I work for the church.' That's usually enough to spark a conversation where deep thoughts about the meaning of life are shared.

Edinburgh Dreams - easelMy post is initially for five years but it's very encouraging to see how things are already taking hold; whether it be through the friends that I'm making in the artistic community or The Gathering which has been meeting for just a few months now but is finding its feet. We currently get together in a café in the city centre and we do slightly different things each time we meet – music, video, conversation and creative prayer and we always spend time together just chilling out.

Previously I've been part of groups where we wore ourselves out trying to do good things when there were people, or groups in the town, already doing those same things. I didn't want Edinburgh Dreams to fall into the same trap so it has been really good to start slowly, to find out what is already working in the city. It has been really useful to see the work of the YMCA, for instance. That has been a real eye-opener and shows a completely different side to Edinburgh from the tourist city with its tartan shops and castle. There can be a lot of kudos attached to having a project with your name on it in some way but it's vital to look around and see what else is being done and how 'your' own project can best serve the people around you by linking up with others or sharing the load.

Burning Bush Barn

Burning Bush Barn - paintIt is almost three years since Burning Bush Barn was established as a place of creativity and contemplation. Wendy Shaw has seen how the quiet space has become a place of blessing for many.

The barn is in the grounds of the Rectory at St Mary's Church, Rockland, near Norwich. It was disused and very run down when we first arrived in the area but through a lot of hard work, successful grant applications, diocesan funding and wider fundraising, the barn is now a wonderful, quiet place for people to come and be.

I wouldn't describe it as a church or an art gallery but it has the potential to be more than both can be individually. It is rooted in the understanding that creativity is the language of a God who created and continues to create in us – and through us.

The journey for me involved traditional Church of England training and curacy but I had been trying for many years to find my own voice for prayer and healing through arts. In 2003 my path crossed with that of artist Kate Litchfield and we started prayer painting together and exploring the depth of non-verbal prayer. We began with canvas, making marks and line and colour that enabled us to be honest and play in prayer like we hadn-t done before.

We had wanted to try a prayer painting workshop day and very quickly we had a long waiting list. It was very difficult initially because we had to hire venues, get all the furniture out of the way, 'declutter' the space we were using, put out the art materials and pack them all away again at the end of the session.

The context is crucial, and a silent still space was integral to this way of praying. Word started to spread about what we were doing and we quickly got calls from other dioceses to stage similar days but we eventually took the decision to stay within Norwich Diocese, the place we had been called to and supported by.

Burning Bush Barn - exteriorWhen my husband became Rector at Rockland St Mary, the barn was derelict in the garden but we could see how the building could be used in a new way for our developing needs. The fundraising appeal for £203,000 was launched in May 2007 to renovate and preserve it. Much has been done because we now have a worship/gallery space and studio space but there's more to do because we'd love to have a hospitality space too. We have got planning permission to do that but have still got to raise about £65,000 to pay for it.

We have up to 26 people, Christians and non-Christians, for the Thursday morning breakfast sessions and it's a wonderful time to be together. If God comes up during our conversations during those sessions then that's great but we are not there to evangelise. Our belief is that this creativity is a language of God; it's not art and faith, they're inseparable. Art is not something we do; art is a way of living.

Burning Bush Barn regularly welcomes people from ages 9 to 84, it's a great joy! It is not about making fantastic works of art but instead our focus is on the process; it's in the waiting, of making marks.

So many artists say to me, 'I'm a Christian but I don't go to church, I struggle with it'. How do we gather these people together? We are continuing to grow; people want to be here but they don't have to commit to anything. A hospitality space would allow us to develop the community here because we need to be grounding and acknowledging that and seeing it grow.

We implicitly break bread in recognition of gathering as a body and the presence of Jesus Christ here. We try to pitch it so it's open enough for everybody to be able to find a place; we believe in accepting people where they're at.

Burning Bush Barn - logWe often say we don't know where we're going here but the important thing is to watch and wait for the move of the wave. As a result we don't know how long to be on that wave but that's OK. I may want to know what I'm doing this time next year but I can't tell you that. We have to wait.

In all of the questions about this being a fresh expression of church there is a presumption that we want to make church. Do we? As an ordained priest I know that anything we do is rooted in the gospel – otherwise you can't be flexible – but people ask, 'What sort of shape are you at Burning Bush Barn?' I would say it's not church shaped, it's probably amoeba shaped because the edges of it are ready to change at any time. And we are people who live on the edge. We are edge dwellers.

We are not here to make something permanent because we hold what we have lightly, allowing it to move, and one day it may disappear. We began doing something because we felt that God was calling us to it. The sacrament is at the heart of what we do here; the whole thing is rooted in it; that holds us – but we are a transient group of people that allows freedom of movement. The authorities have had to struggle with that a bit and funding is quite difficult because Christian funders are uncertain about the arts and arts funders tend to be more uncertain about anything that seems to be based around faith or religion in any way.

I am asked, 'How many people do you have?', 'What are your donations like?' Well, as far as the money goes, sometimes it comes in and sometimes it doesn't. But, to us, it is important that what we do here is offered without charge, to ensure that they are truly accessible. We are very grateful to the Diocese of Norwich which pays our services' bills.

We have to live responsibly as artists, as a faith community. We are here to work that out creatively; to live from what we have, not for what we haven't.

Burning Bush Barn - Psalms banner

Burning Bush Barn - mugs


The cities of Brighton & Hove are in many ways iconic of the changing landscape of British contemporary culture. They are a regional hub for a holistic mix of alternative spiritualities, world religions and twenty-four hour entertainment. It is in this mix that Beyond seeks to explore what it means to be new forms of church and mission in an emerging culture.

In the run up to Christmas, Martin Poole and Beyond, a fresh expression of church in the Diocese of Chichester, sought to explore an 'arts-as-mission' event using the beach huts on the city waterfront. Martin Poole explains the story of the 'Advent Beach Hut Calendar'.

Brighton and Hove annually hosts the largest arts festival in England and is well known as a centre for creativity and culture. Art is in the DNA of the place because it is about experience, and experience is how many people today explore what they feel and think about things. As with other parts of the UK, there is an increased interest in spirituality and a rejection of traditional religion.

So the challenge then for us in Beyond, is to explore how we engage in using art to inspire and stimulate people to think about Christian spirituality. We use art as a media for mission in this way, partly because of the context but also because we are committed to create artistic parables about spirituality to allow people to come to their own conclusions about God, and art is the best way to do that.

Beyond - huts

Beyond is an opportunity for people to explore spirituality through a variety of creative approaches. We hold events that provide an opportunity for exploration and discovery, and the Advent Beach Hut Calendar is one of these.

The aims of Beyond are:

  • to help people to a deeper understanding of spirituality through the arts and other creative activities;
  • to explore non-traditional ways of being Christian;
  • to be a resource for church people who wish to further explore their relationship with God.

Every day from the 1st to the 24th December 2008 a beach hut will open its doors at 5.30pm for an hour to reveal a festive display in a life-size variation on the traditional calendar used by children to count down the days to Christmas. The beach huts are all built to the same design and could be described simply as reasonablly sized sheds on the beach (which is why popular website has kept track of each night on their site throughout December).

The similarity between a beach hut and the cattle shed in which Jesus was born has not gone unnoticed to a few of our hut owners and some have fully exploited this. Eileen at hut 382 saw this potential early on and booked 'Away in a Manger' as her carol and gave us the full stable experience, with a manger, the baby Jesus, Mary and even a donkey peering out from the back of the stable. Sadly Mary, Joseph and Jesus didn't have mince pies and mulled wine to keep them warm as we did, but the wise men and the shepherds did bring them lots of other gifts to celebrate the holy birth.

Beyond huts

The response has been unbelievable. I expected ten to twenty people each night and for us to see a lot of familiar faces. The lowest numbers we've had were thirty or so and on some nights we've had over a hundred. Our local television news and local newspapers have also got behind the event, so many people know its happening. Every night I meet new people who have simply heard about it on the radio or read a poster or heard of it through a friend and decided to come down. People have been coming from all over Sussex and beyond to see it and some people have made it a personal pilgrimage to be at each hut every night.

But the true value has been the opportunity to speak to individuals about their spirituality in an open and honest way and begin a dialogue about that. We are really pleased that the beach hut owners and artists have formed a real bond with each other. A community of care is beginning to develop in that group, even in this short time.

Night Church Hastings

A town centre church in Hastings hosts a monthly Night Church to provide a safe space on Saturday evenings – a place where people have the opportunity to encounter God. Revd Annette Hawkins explains more.

Night Church - aisle

Several people from different places had a vision to open a Night Church in Hastings. Some of them had been inspired by Church for the Night in Bournemouth (featured on expressions: making a difference and this website) as something that would work alongside and complement the ministry of Street Pastors in the area.

As we met together a team emerged and we found that the vision we shared was to create a safe space where people felt welcome and accepted. We would offer hospitality and be sensitive to people's needs; talking and praying for them if that is what they wanted but also giving them space and being careful not to get in the way of what the Holy Spirit was doing.

Night Church - galleryTowards the end of 2011 a team from various churches in Hastings transformed the interior of Holy Trinity Church in the town centre. We covered an 8ft cross with Christmas lights and decorations and set it in the chancel, organised a comfortable area where people could pray, light a candle and pin prayers to a prayer wall. We also set up a large café area with sofas, chairs and tables, good tea, coffee and cakes. The church was decorated with tealights and Christmas lights and different areas were created by using fencing panels covered in material!

There were poetry, art and multi-media displays and music and light projected out into the street to attract passers-by. Sixty people of different ages came in, some for a few minutes, others for a couple of hours. Some lit a candle and prayed silently, some chattered noisily and asked lots of questions, some poured their hearts out and shared deeply painful and moving experiences.

Most were amazed that they were allowed in at all – especially if they had been drinking, many of them expressed their appreciation and their intent to come back and bring their friends.

Night Church - crossEncouraged, we opened the doors again on New Year's Eve and similar numbers of people came, several who had been to the first event but many new people as well. Our next event will be around Valentine's Day and we plan to open monthly from then on. Up to now we have advertised Night Church as running from 10pm to 2am but in reality we have kept it open as long as people needed us. We're thinking that we may now have a cut-off point of 3am though on New Year's Eve people were still walking through the doors at 4.30am. One person who had been contemplating suicide that night said the fact that they could come into Night Church had saved them from doing that.

Holy Trinity is an Anglo-Catholic church and a very beautiful building; the local council pay for the chancel to be lit and the light can be seen through the stained glass windows. It's one of those 'wow' sort of interiors and when people walk in for the first time their first reaction is one of amazement! The church is in an interregnum at the moment but the predominantly older congregation have been so helpful and are really thrilled that their church is being used in this way. They have also been generous in giving us storage space there. One of the most exciting aspects of this ministry is that at the last count there were people from 10 different churches and seven different denominations working together with no agenda other than to serve the community and show God's love.

Night Church is missional in that we seek to help people to encounter the living God, particularly the unchurched and dechurched. We actively discourage Christians from coming unless they are on the team. At the moment we are not in a position to disciple people although the hope is that, as we build relationships through regular contact, we will be able to encourage people in their faith journey. We are at a very early stage and are quite open to the leading of the Spirit as to what the next stage may be.

Night Church - logo

Bare Soul

David Barker spent three years as a fresh expressions enabler in the West Yorkshire District. While in post, he launched a variety of different things including youth cell groups, all-age church and church in sheltered housing accommodation. He is still involved in a church in a bar, known as Bare Soul.

Bare Soul - bar

Church in a bar works like a spiritual open mic night. There's a different theme each time and people are encouraged to bring along songs, poems, a piece of art or something that they have made (especially if it is cake!). These sometimes have very tenuous links with what we're thinking about in that session but everything is welcome! Among the themes we've explored so far are peace, hope and joy. These can be interpreted in a number of different ways, in an attempt to engage people who are not regular churchgoers – though many are spiritual seekers. I also run a gospel choir and there is a lot of cross over between the two communities.  

Bare Soul - frontageThe bar is based in the Bare Arts Gallery in Todmorden in what are off-sales premises for a micro brewery. The brewer is the owner and his wife is an artist who specialises in painting nudes, hence the gallery name.

The brewer heard about us doing church in another pub and said, 'can you come here and do that?' He and his wife love it and like to tell their customers that 'church comes to us once a month'. They are really supportive and get people to come along: they are our best evangelists. The numbers vary because it's in the main bar area which means that some people just happen to be in the room when it happens and get subjected to it, many asking when it is happening again!

Bare Soul - tableWe have been going since December 2009 and usually have between 15 and 25 people coming along. A team of us, who play in a band together, help to set it up each time. We act as the house band on the night with me generally acting as MC, though it tends to be with a very light touch – we don't make a big thing of setting up 'church' on the premises or anything like that. It can be a little nerve-wracking at times as you never know if anyone is going to bring anything or what they might bring. There have been quite a few opportunities for discussions but we haven't got to the point of interesting people in Alpha or anything – mainly because the people who come are in a different place to that. They are starting much further back.

It's all about building relationships and introducing Christian spirituality because this context is one in which there is a very arty community and a very spiritual community. They're interested in all sorts of things and we're delighted to have the chance to be part of that.

River in the City

River in the City - Keith HitchmanThe vision for River in the City is to create new ways of 'being church' for people who work, relax and live in Liverpool City Centre. Pioneer minister Keith Hitchman envisages a growing network of small communities in workplaces, cafes, and many other areas.

Liverpool ONE is one of the biggest shopping centres in the country. Its 42 acres includes 160 shops, more than 20 bars and restaurants, a 14-screen cinema and a park. It is the largest city centre regeneration project in Europe.

River in the City - streetRiver in the City will seek to serve those who visit, work and live in this development but it will also be there for anyone in and around the Liverpool city centre. The slogan for Liverpool ONE is 'Love the City'; the aim of River in the City is to follow Jesus' lead and to love the city in his name, demonstrating that love in useful and practical ways.

The Diocese of Liverpool is looking at a model of church that doesn't involve a large number of people coming together in one place but sees groups being established around a common interest – whatever that interest may be. In a world of choice and change, people form groups with others who share the same interests and views on life. It is through these groups that they discuss and ask the big questions and I want to help people to do that.

River in the City - wheelThis is about taking church out of the church building and into the workplace environment. It's about growing faith where life happens and life happens in the workplace and places like the city centre.

It's interesting how people see my work. Someone recently described me as 'the travelling vicar.' In a sense I suppose that's what I am! Other things are also important here. I have already been asked the key question of what football team I support. My son has chosen Liverpool because I don't think we'll survive without supporting a team from the city but I'm going to stick with my own favourites, West Ham. That means I don't have to be a 'Blue' (Everton) or a 'Red' (Liverpool). Anyway if you add the blue and the red together you'd probably get the claret colour of The Hammers!

River in the City - blocksCulture is changing so rapidly that, for me, fresh expressions is not an add-on. It is vital. We're mapping out the way the Church will look over the next 200 years and that's exciting, but it’s also disturbing for people I think. The line that comes to me is from the book of Acts, 'these people are disturbing our city'.

Supportive bishops, deacons and those in leadership in the Diocese mean there is a growing understanding of what it means to do church in new ways and be church in new ways for a new time. I love the fact that there is a strategy for pioneer ministry here and the imagery of Lake and River – with the river of fresh expressions flowing into the lake of the inherited models of church. There's something very holistic about that.

River in the City - cityscape

Colin Brown

Colin BrownJust over a year ago Colin Brown moved to Cornwall to start a fresh expression of church amongst the artistic community. It's a slow, steady task but one Colin, Church Army and the Diocese of Truro are committed to.

It's not easy starting a fresh expression of church from scratch at the best of times, but when you are trying to engage with a dispersed community of artists on the south coast of Cornwall, it is even more difficult. Colin Brown knows he has his work cut out. "As well as the joys of being in a beautiful place, and doing what I love to do – painting – I find myself with a lot of questions", he said.

Colin Brown - FlushingAnd it is quite a list: "How do I follow God's lead in this? Where do I put my energy today? How do I go about meeting people who don't go to church and help them to become aware of God in their lives… in their art? What might church look like for them, and what part do I play in developing that?"

But slowly and surely the way forward for Colin is beginning to emerge. He started with prayer, valuing the importance of listening, silence and space, and then realised God was leading him to meet certain people and opening certain doors. He was asked to help with chaplaincy work at the local art college, given the chance to mount an exhibition in a local pub, found a temporary studio space in a local vicarage and began to meet other artists at a weekly night class.

Colin Brown - FerryColin is at the stage of building community amongst those he meets. It is something which he believes he needs to take slowly and gently, and is grateful that both Church Army and the Diocese of Truro, who support him, agree. "They have given me the freedom and the permission to be here, as an artist amongst fellow artists, to be inculturated in the artistic community, and to be accepted".

He is aware of the risks he is taking too. He has worked for the church for 15 years but his pioneering work in Cornwall seems to be much more fragile. He's realised how important it is to gather those around him who 'get it' but still admits that things may not work out.

Colin Brown - harbour"I know that in this particular moment I need to be faithful to my sense of where God is leading me, but it may be that it all just fizzles out. But I know that I have been true to myself and I know God is saying to me 'Colin, enjoy it, enjoy the journey and don't think too much about what is going to happen tomorrow'".

And deep down Colin has a dream – to see lots of artists in and around Falmouth discovering and expressing a deep sense of God coming through their work. "And who knows where that might lead," he wonders.