Alistair Birkett is a farmer and lay pioneer leading fresh expressions of church in the Scottish Borders.

Day by day my time is largely spent developing fresh expressions of church whilst running Norham West Mains farm near Berwick upon Tweed. The fresh expressions of church, which are collectively known as Gateways, meet in various different contexts around a monthly cycle.

I am married to Ruth and we have two sons (Sam 23, and Jonah 19). It was after a change in Ruth's family farming business that we moved to the Scottish Borders 10 years ago. I had trained at Moorlands Theological College from 1995-98 and was then involved in leading a community church Cheshire, but we then felt the call to move to this area. Ruth's family had farmed up here for many years and, at the age of 38, I started running this 550-acre arable farm. Our aim was always to make it work alongside some sort of ministry.

Norham West Mains is a reasonably large arable farm, and I use a local agricultural contractor to ease the workload and allow me to develop Gateways.

We had some difficult times when we first came to the Borders, both personally and in trying to discern what we should be doing in ministry – and where. I was working with a local evangelical church for around eight months and I began to feel that I needed to re assess my involvement there. This time then prompted us to ask a lot of questions about what it means to be church in our modern world, and how to minister effectively.

A few years before that the local Church of Scotland minister retired and a locum minister was appointed to serve the rural Parish of Hutton, Fishwick and Paxton. Bill Landale is a visionary guy who has a real understanding of the inherited church model but was exploring the question, 'What else do we do?' He put together a working group to look at future plans because they were down to about 15 people attending and realised that if they didn't engage with the under 50s, the church in this area was completely bust!

Gateways - walk

Facing up to what was a clear missional challenge, that working group carried out an extensive community survey which showed that people in the parish were interested in spiritual things but were not sure about exploring those things within a traditional church model. Those results formed the basis of the Gateways project, starting in January 2011.

Another turning point in the journey came when I attended the North East mission shaped ministry course at Berwick upon Tweed. Sessions also took place with a course based in Tyneside. We knew that Fresh Expressions had been running the mission shaped intro course for a few years, so I took four people along to msm, thinking 'it will be good for them'. I'm sure it was good for them but, in fact, it was I who fell in love with the course! The teaching really helped me in the early days of Gateways because, in our community, we were growing increasingly concerned with inherited, attractional models of church. For years it seemed that I'd been trying to do what we did better instead of asking, 'How do we completely re-form this?'

My role, as project leader, was not to get bums on seats in the local parish church, but was to form a team which would seek to reach families and young people in particular – people who had no formal contact with church at all. The cultural gulf is massive between what happens in a traditional service in the Scottish Borders and a family with kids in their teens!

The Church of Scotland graciously granted us a three year funding package via their Emerging Ministries Fund, and we were tasked to listen, get involved in the community, and begin the journey that has now been going on for over four years. As the work has developed, we have sought to create a fresh expression of church embracing a mixed economy way of working. When we first began Gateways, we were encouraged by the Church of Scotland to be experimental; some things have worked, some have failed but being given permission to fail in an environment of mission is liberating.

There are about 550 people in the parish in total. In terms of population, we live in the 'big village' of Paxton where there is a village hall and a parish church but there is no school and no shop. The smaller of Hutton has a village hall and a church but no other community facility. Fishwick is a hamlet. A new estate has recently been built in Paxton, and although the development only amounts to only around 30 homes, the impact is large in such a dispersed rural area.

We are seeing our Gateways communities develop in different ways with a number of elements, a number of expressions of church life. During 2015 we will see funding from the Church of Scotland Go For It fund tailing off, so we're looking at different grant-making bodies However, we don't want to get into the fundraising trap of trying to find the money to simply exist. Our longer term aim is to be sustainable on a local level, and progress towards this has thus far been very encouraging.

Gateways - quad

The Church of Scotland has been very, very helpful and we still have a close relationship both with the local church, the regional Presbytery, and the team at Go For It. For instance, I recently gave a presentation about Gateways to the local Presbytery which was attended by John Chalmers, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and we're hoping that Gateways will continue to have a close relationship with the Church of Scotland.

Gateways has become constituted as its own church through OSCR (Office of Scottish Charity Regulator) and the key to what we do is serving and developing and growing our different gatherings of people. Gateways started as a 'bolt-on' ministry to the local parish church but, as things moved on, we believed it important to take a step forward as a church in our own right. The Rural Ministries organisation, which also gives us some funding, helped us with the basic framework of a constitution and we then drew on The Church of Scotland statement of belief before taking it to the Scottish charity regulator.

There is no formal link to the Church of Scotland in terms of constitution but four of our five trustees are elders of the local parish church!

We like to run with ideas that we can get people to facilitate. so our young people, for example, suggested that we get involved in Comic Relief. We started by asking the question, 'Would Jesus wear a red nose?' That prompted great discussions and the young people then went on to organise and run coffee morning for Comic Relief. Looking back at the very different areas of Christian ministry I've known, Gateways is the smallest, most fledgling thing I've been involved in, but probably the most exciting!

In our small, rural parish we very much see Gateways as being the local church with two congregations. My wife and I also worship in traditional, inherited church – not only because we believe that's the right thing to do, but also because it reflects a genuine sense of mixed economy in our ministry.

Our monthly Gateways Gatherings take place at 3.30pm on a Sunday afternoon and is aimed at families with young children, food is always a really important element, we always eat together, read Scripture, pray, worship, and have some sort of craft activity linked to the theme. The Gatherings alternate between Hutton and Paxton village halls.

Gateways - sack race

Gateways Fellowship is an opportunity to further the discipleship journey. It began in January 2015 at Paxton village hall and it takes place monthly, at 11.15am on Sunday. Although still focussed around the family, the Fellowship is aimed less at younger children. In terms of style, it's like café church but instead of serving lattes and flat whites, we serve steak sandwiches! The format includes more teaching, questioning and small group discussions.

I'm excited to see that the people coming along to Gateways Gatherings are predominately unchurched, I'd say around 60%. The remainder are de-churched or those fed up with the way church has been, as well as those who are genuinely embracing mixed economy and are also involved in other church contexts.  So far, with the Fellowship, I'd say it's attracting more of the de-churched because it's the most 'church-like' thing that we do. Not everybody that goes to the Gathering would go to the Fellowship.

We also have a fortnightly Discipleship Group in people's homes. We have developed a core team from a discipleship group of 10-12 people; all of whom help to share the load and widen the vision. If everyone comes to the Discipleship Group, we have about 15 people in total and around 6 of them would say that for them the Tuesday Discipleship group is their church.

Developing indigenous leadership takes time but, as we continue in the fifth year of Gateways, we have got to get beyond the stage of, 'If Ali and Ruth don't do it, it won't happen'. Our core team are fantastic, but we haven't made a big thing of who they are and we haven't used a Sunday gathering to introduce them to everyone else; we've deliberately kept it all very low key. I believe that's the right policy because, as has been said to me, 'In many other churches we wouldn't be allowed to give the hymn books out, never mind be on the leadership team!'

Gateways - building

We are regularly forced to reflect theologically, dynamically, on what's happening here. People ask us what Gateways will look like in future. I don't know but we've got to the point of knowing what we wouldn't want to look like! The aim is to be fleet footed and be flexible enough to go in different directions, according to where the Holy Spirit guides us – and all of this is to happen under our three values of hope, creativity and inclusivity.

Word is spreading about Gateways, and I am increasingly being asked to lead infant dedication services and wedding ceremonies. That, in a way, I see as a real sign that we are becoming the church in the village.

I'm not an ordained Church of Scotland minister, but I worked with Bill Landale, as the local minister to do an infant baptism recently; we both just commit to making it work. When there was a baptism in the River Tweed, we both went out and took a shoulder each – again we were committed to working together for the kingdom!

There are always challenges and ours centre on developing local leadership and our long term financial sustainability. I'm only contracted part-time to lead Gateways and on occasion it all seems too much, but God has blessed us, and brought the Core Team together; all of this is nothing to do with our own abilities or strengths, it's all to do with him. I try to keep that in the front of my mind whether sowing seeds of faith or grain.

The Well

An ex-mining village in Dunfermline lies at the heart of a developing fresh expression of church. Aileen Christie reports.

It takes a long time to build trust and relationship and we have certainly found that at Wellwood. It's a village of about 750 people and it's a place that's quite isolated in the northern part of Dunfermline.

Wellwood used to be a mining village but the industry's decline brought difficult times for what is a close-knit community.

In 2004, Wellwood was brought into the parish of Gillespie Memorial Church, part of the Church of Scotland. We were doing Purpose Driven Church and, at one point, we all held hands before being told to turn around and look outwards. Some of us felt it was no coincidence that Wellwood came into our parish at that very stage in the life of Gillespie.

The congregation embraced the idea of reaching out to the village but it didn't go too smoothly at first; we tried to deliver Easter eggs but this was met with suspicion by villagers who had been let down by churches in the past. Thankfully, that seems almost unbelievable now – and it's all down to the community relationships we have built up since then.

Jesus in the Park,or J in the Park, was our next step. That's when we took a large tent to the local park in the summer of 2006 and offered a week-long programme of activities, including drama, games, crafts and worship. We did that for five years and we did see some people coming to faith, that was all well and good but it was then a major step for them to walk into a traditional church setting.

We started off with the whole congregation involved and now there is a relatively small number of people concerned with it, I guess it's slightly unusual because it has taken the opposite track to many fresh expressions in that we began with a very large group that has now become smaller in number – but the good thing is that the smaller group is one that's more focused on its intention to be church in the community.

In those early days, ten years ago, we weren't looking to create a fresh expression of church; all we wanted to do was to engage the people of Wellwood to come to our church. In the first year, some of the kids came along and we built up some good relationships. After that, we did have people coming down to church and it was a complete disaster; that's when we realised that church as we knew it was just not going to meet the needs of people with no experience of church.

From then on our aim was not to get them to come to our church but to find out what would be 'church' at Wellwood – and that's still the journey we're on today. We are still not there in exploring discipleship but we can see that that will come in God's time.

We started to put our energies into getting to know the residents and developing friendships with them. We had a Scripture Union group at Wellwood Primary School and that meant we were seeing the people every week; it just built relationships but it really does take such a long time, we couldn't believe how many years it takes to get to that stage.

Again, we still had no idea of setting up a fresh expression of church but then I did the mission shaped ministry course in Edinburgh and things developed from there. We'd come to the natural end of Jesus in the Park at the point when I was doing msm and I felt it right that we should have a permanent presence in the village, a place for the community which might also become home to a fresh expression.

There wasn't a community facility at all at Wellwood. There was a small food store and what was an empty unit next to it which people remembered as a post office and later a beauty salon. It's a fairly small space and had lain empty all the time we had been in the village. If we were going to set up a permanent presence in the village, that was the only place to do it.

The Well - building and bannerInitially we were completely funded by the church but after Jesus in the Park finished, the funding wasn't as available so we were looking for external funding. Thankfully, we have a great relationship with the Fife Council in the Dunfermline area and they were very amenable to partnering with us in Wellwood. We also applied to various trusts and the Go For It fund of the Church of Scotland. Although not significant sums of money, this helped us to tell our story in various circles of assistance. Go For It has been such a huge source of support and encouragement along the way and we are very grateful for that.

We knew that we had to make a move for the empty unit so, in the end, we just went into the neighbouring shop and asked the woman who owned both sets of premises, 'How do you feel about us taking on the next door unit, even though we can't afford to pay anything like what you are asking?' She said, 'That sounds like a great idea!' It should have been £650 a month but she gave it to us for the first year for £200 a month with an increase to £300 after that time.

The wonderful thing is that Gillespie Memorial Church did support us in that. They agreed that if we didn't manage to get funding, they would underwrite us when we took on the lease. That sort of support meant such a lot to us.

We can have small meetings in the unit, which has become a real hub for the local community and is known as The Well, but we are now hoping to move into the local primary school. That's when I think we can start developing working with adults coming in and having meetings and chats. At the moment the environment doesn't allow for that. It's really reaching the end of its lifespan for us but it was the ideal location at the time.

We're into our fourth year and the unit is used regularly by the community. We have a lively youth group on a Monday night and hope to revive a drop-in on Thursday lunchtimes for secondary school pupils.

People in the village give us far more credit than we feel is due to us for making things happen but the truth is that they have found the confidence to develop as a community; we have been happy to support them in that. A major turning point was the planning of a Gala in the village. In mining communities, the Gala was a big event on the calendar but there hadn't been a Gala at Wellwood for about 20 years.

Then it was decided that it would be great to have a Gala again and The Well became the meeting place for the Gala committee. We were able to facilitate that and we helped with applications to the council, and so on, but we weren't even officially on the committee; we simply went along to the meetings.

It was fantastic to see people gain in confidence and actually take control but even until the very last minute we didn't know how the wider community would react to the Gala. We went to the top of the village where the parade was going to start, there weren't many people around… and then, with 10 minutes to go, all the doors opened and the people came out as the band came marching down the road. It was so significant for everyone in the village. That then was the turning point because the attitude changed from complaining about the council to thinking about what they could achieve themselves.

By the second year, it strengthened our relationship with the community and the rest of the people. Now we're looking forward to the fourth Gala on the last Saturday in July.

It has been a real highlight to see how that has developed but there have also been some terrible low points. Wellwood's primary school closed in October 2014 as part of a package of school closures across the area; we walked alongside the parents to build a case for the school to remain open but, in the end, the decision went against them. It was a devastating blow.

The children now have to go out of the village to school. They have settled all right but I think it's more about the impact on the community not to have a school at the heart of it any more.

But there's now a possibility of using the redundant school premises, getting it at a token rent for use by the community. We really hope the residents get the chance to do that, particularly as they are saying to us, 'The church needs to be there, we couldn't do it without you'.

We have to get the paperwork done by April. We never know where we are going next on this journey but we would hope and pray to be established in the old school buildings in the summer.

The school closure was awful, though working closely with the parents has been such a blessing. If the school was made available, it would give us the space to do a lot more, particularly with the kids, and it would also give us so much more scope in the range of things on offer.

There are three of us on the team at the moment. I work with Shirley and Linda (our respective husbands also lend a hand!) We are all lay people. We also have those who support us in the church – mainly in prayer but they are also there if we need help at all. As I've mentioned, there was a massive buy-in from Gillespie Memorial Church at the start and there is still a lot of goodwill but, in practical terms, it's just us.

All three of us are 50 and we are in this journey for the long haul. We all do what we can do and then we wait and see what happens. We do work very closely with the people on the Gala committee, about four or five of them, and I think we are at a tipping point in terms of members of the local community stepping up to take responsibility. I think we are on the verge of seeing people say, is there a role for me?

We are all partners working in Wellwood together. The adults now know there is no 'side' to us; it would never have worked if we did. We say, 'we are here to help you', because it's all about working alongside people so that they are finding out for themselves.

How many people are coming to our church? That's not what we are about. We have seen change in the community and have built up trusting, open relationships which leave the way open for deeper conversations to arise naturally. All the children in the village had contact with J in the park and the SU group and now have a grounding in the Bible stories and, we hope, an understanding of who Jesus is.

We've encountered some ministers in the wider church who do not have much understanding about what we are trying to do and don't seem to be 'buying' it. But that's OK, we just try and remain faithful to what God wants us to do with the people in this area; we leave everything else up to him.

Neither Young Nor Old

Matthew Edwards and Julie Ferguson lead Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO) in a sheltered housing complex in Aberdeen.

NYNO aims to create fresh expressions of all-age church amongst older people, particularly, but not exclusively, those who live in sheltered housing accommodation. The title was inspired by Galatians 3.28, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus'. In Christ Jesus there is also Neither Young Nor Old.

Stockethill Church of Scotland had been conducting monthly worship services in a couple of sheltered housing complexes for some time. Matthew Edwards, a lay member of the church had been involved in one of these, Stocket Grange, a complex where about 60 residents live in bungalows and flats.

Matthew Edwards begins the story:

NYNO - teamWe had been there for some time but I began to wonder if there was more that could be done. We made several attempts to form something new, including a small group that met for midweek Bible study. That was very important to those involved in it over the years – but we were still asking the question, 'How can we take it further?'

Challenged by the minister to put down on paper what an experimental project might do to answer this question, I put together a funding proposal for the Church of Scotland Council Emerging Ministries Fund (now part of Go for It!), which gives grants to projects for church planting. Within the month, our newly titled project, Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO), had received significant funding.

The challenge was then to actually get the project off the ground, something which took another 18 months because we had to get a management team together, look for further funding and then advertise for two project workers. The project began in earnest last July.

One common traditional approach of the church in its engagement with older people, particularly those in sheltered or supported accommodation, has been to care for them through visiting and, if possible, a short, monthly service. We felt there were real limitations to this:

  • it perpetuates the form of church that, in many cases, has already been rejected over the course of a lifetime by many people outside church circles. As a result it has limited missional impact.
  • older people are 'cared for' in this approach, they are not included in the full life of the church or treated as having a valuable contribution to make or part to play.

NYNO - handsIn NYNO we aim to see new all-age church communities come into being that are accessible to older people and that develop their own identity, teaching, spirituality, leadership, mission and care. The families of older Christians in particular may also find the NYNO congregations to be places of welcome, care and support for their relatives and for themselves.

I think there should be a lot of hope in older people in the Church. If anything new is going to happen, it is generally assumed that it's going to come through engagement with younger people. A consequence of this can be that the significance of older people is minimised inside and outside of the Church. If people do look to the young – and youth culture – all the time as the answer to church decline, older people are left out in the cold which is something which potentially leads to the church being divided against itself. At NYNO, we are determined to work against that.

Julie Ferguson adds:

In one way or another, I have always been involved in care of older people, particularly those living with dementia. I didn't see myself as a church planter when I first saw the job advert for NYNO, although it seemed like a great idea in bringing together community and older people. I wrestled with whether to apply or not for some time, but in the end felt God calling me.

NYNO - entranceIn the complex where we work, we have to build community with people from a wide range of backgrounds and churchmanship. Instead of 'parachuting in' to lead a service, we talk a lot about making this community into a spiritual 'home'. We are all about participation and emphasising the role that everybody can play with the focus on encouraging the laity as much as we can.

In addition to our monthly Sunday gatherings, we meet most weeks on a Thursday for Bible study and a chat. About 25-28 people come on Sundays and there's usually about eight on a Thursday night.

Every now and then we'll also put something on to reach those with no church background at all. This Christmas Eve we hosted a gathering open to everyone, particularly to make sure no one had to be on their own over the Christmas period. We put leaflets in all of the bungalows and flats to advertise our 'soiree' and we had egg nog, mince pies and cakes! It was great to see people who don’t come along on a Sunday – residents, family members and staff.

Matthew and Julie continue:

NYNO - communion

Something that has proved a challenge is the fact that we are lay, not ordained, leaders. Having got into the theology of the body of Christ, we wanted to make Communion central to the worshipping community but, for obvious reasons, there are limitations to the way we can do this and we find ourselves bumping against the divide between laity and clergy.

We are very fortunate that Ian (Aitken) the parish minister comes in every second month to celebrate Communion. On the positive side, as Stockethill Church oversees us, there is a sense – when Ian comes to Stocket Grange – that we are all joining in with something much larger as we gather together for Communion.

There are lot of preconceived ideas about churches with older people in them. We sometimes get responses like, 'So, you sing a lot of hymns then?' In fact, people are up for singing songs they've never sung before; they don't mind having a go at something new. For some people, it's all new because they didn't attend church as a child and are not familiar with what others might assume they knew. But more importantly, we're trying to foster the growth of churches where styles of worship are really seen as peripheral. The most important thing is the diverse body of Christ, old and young, worshipping together in community.

We are looking forward to being able to tell more of what's happening in the lives of the community in which we're involved but this is a journey that can't be rushed. In moving from a 'service' model of church to more of an emphasis on community and participation, we're involving people in change. We can only do this one step at a time, at each stage trying to involve people so that we go on this journey together.

NYNO - local areaIf we find that a community grows that is sustainable and reproducible, we hope we'll be able to share more about what we've done and help others to do the same. As things stand we're always interested in talking to others with similar ideas.

The Church of Scotland has been very supportive in giving us partial funding for two years with potential for another, but we have found it very difficult to access money from elsewhere for church planting. In the end, the project started by reducing the planned number of paid hours.

We're supervised by a management team of five people from different churches across Aberdeen: a missions worker, a lady in her 80s, a retired teacher and a youth worker. We appreciate the diversity of experience represented here. It's important to have that given the type of church we want to see grow. We all meet every few months or so and this team really helps us not to lose sight of why we set up the project in the first place.

Cove Church (the Gathering)

Pastor David Swan tells how a growing community on the south side of Aberdeen is part of the Church of Scotland but is also exploring fresh expressions as part of its ministry.

I was originally a church planter with OMF International (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) in Thailand but then I felt God was calling me into the Church of Scotland. All the way through my training, I knew I wasn't going to be a traditional parish minister and – by the time I came to be interviewed for the position at Cove – I could tell them that they would be employing me as a planter rather than a church minister because my ministry was more apostolic than pastoral. I've been here for eight years now.

In Scotland, at that time, the concept of fresh expressions of church was not one we were overly familiar with though we did have the Church of Scotland's A Church without Walls report and there was increased focus on emerging ministries.

Cove Church - settingThe first three years were quite challenging due to the history of how Cove Church had come into being but it has been a journey of redefining our aspirational values and asking ourselves, 'How do they work out in practice?' A key element of that was always to have 'home churches', bringing them all together on Sunday as a Gathering – which I feel is a good culturally appropriate Scottish way of talking about assembly or ecclesia.

So we now meet together in café style on Sunday mornings at Loirston Annexe in Cove and, during the week, some of us meet in smaller groups in homes in and around the town. In saying that, in Aberdeen there has been resistance to folk meeting in homes due I think to value put on privacy in this part of the world – being a Glaswegian and having worked in Asia that is something I have found hard to comprehend.

However, we now have two of these home churches and people now love and appreciate them for how they follow the model of welcome, worship, word and witness to:

  • have fellowship together;
  • support and encourage each other to explore what God is saying to us.

Cove Church - settingThings are changing; we are now becoming a parish grouping with our sister church – South St Nicholas – which means that we 'share' Dan Robertson as our new community minister for Cove and Kincorth. Dan began as Associate Minister for South St Nicholas Church in September 2010 and much has happened in the time that he and his wife Stef have been there.

It is interesting that, as time has gone on, the congregation has changed dramatically in terms of its make-up. Although we are part of wider Presbyterian network, they don't see their primary identity as Presbyterians – however, they would say that being part of the Church of Scotland adds a certain local credibility and gives reassurance to many that we are not a sect!

Some things have developed and then stopped, including a youth and family charitable outreach project called Blue Horizon, which we developed with 2 other partner churches. The project did much to build bridges in the community, and show care and encouragement to teenagers and the parents of teenagers. We are sad to see the project fold this year but we can see a positive legacy of relationship building that we hope we can develop towards more intentional mission. Beyond Blue Horizon we want to continue to bless, encourage and serve the families and young people in Cove and Kincorth.

Cove Church - singingOn Sunday (29th September 2013) we launched a new initiative called engage to seek to bless our community in any way we can think of – we will start by welcoming people to new homes being built in the area and saying thank you to the heroes of our community. From there, we want to expand and share ideas to get out and about and be a blessing to others and worship God not just with words but by kind acts and works of service. engage will run on the last Sunday of every month and will start by meeting together at Loirston Annexe at 10.30am as usual, and then we'll take it for there.

We do have a lot going on at the moment. Our children and youth programme (Blast) meets as part of the Gathering every Sunday while our teen home church gets together every month for fun, food and an open conversation of what it means to follow Jesus as a teenager in today's world.

For the more mature in age, Seniors is a relaxed, friendly group which also meets monthly at Altens Community Centre. We start the afternoon with a catch-up over tea and coffee and have a theme for the day which is usually of a spiritual nature.

The way I describe all of this is that we are on a journey to be what we always said that we were – but we weren't. We want to be a true fresh expression of church but we're not yet.

Cove Church - groupIn the Church of Scotland, we need to have a new 'language' to describe what churches like ours are doing. Some people think we are 'playing at being church' and there can be little recognition of the values involved in being a different form of church. The thinking is along the lines of, 'You are a little, experimental church but eventually you will grow up, become like us and settle down again'.

Here, the normal procedure – after a period of years – would be for us to go for what we call 'full status' but we don't want to do that as an independent church. Instead we will begin as part of a parish grouping and explore how to structure ourselves slightly differently in the way we do things.  We do need to have a mechanism where a fresh expression church is recognised within the wider church – as any parish church is recognised by the wider church.

From the end of May to the beginning of July I was on a study leave programme looking at fresh expressions of church in England. During that time – and as part of a reading week in Glasgow and prayer week walking the West Highland Way – I was surprised that God was speaking to me more about discipleship and making disciples the way Jesus did. It should seem obvious that we make disciples the way the master did it – so why don't we?

At Cove, we really want to take on that challenge. What does that look like in this area in the 21st century? It's important to keep on asking those difficult questions.

Hot Chocolate

Charis Robertson is the Acting Director of Hot Chocolate Trust in Dundee. She tells how the city centre youth work organisation is seeing the signs of a developing church community.

Hot Chocolate started in 2001 in the heart of Dundee. There is a shopping mall built around The Steeple Church in the city centre and, in front of the church, is a grassy area which became a meeting place for young people from the 'alternative' culture (ie. those dressed in black with piercings and tattoos and skateboards and thrash metal music etc).

At that time, there was a young woman on placement as a part-time youth worker with The Steeple who was looking outside the church, saying,

There is a community inside the walls of the church and there is a community outside the walls.

Hot Chocolate - outside churchShe went out with a small group of volunteers and they had no agenda other than to go and meet young people on that grassy area. Within a few months, there were quite a few significant relationships developing. We are called Hot Chocolate simply because that's what the volunteers took out with them and the young people themselves started calling the encounters, Hot Chocolate. The name just stuck.

Then we started to ask the young people, 'If you had a bit of space in the church building, what would you do with it?' The answer was that they wanted some rehearsal space, a place they could just crash out and be themselves, and so we ended up with some thrash metal bands come to rehearse in the sanctuary of the church!

Since the outset, it has been the young people who have made the decisions about how, when and what happens. These roots remain totally foundational to who we are and the way we operate today.

It all grew very organically and was very relationally-based. We became an independent charity in 2004 and we now have six paid staff (two of whom are full time) and around 35 youth work volunteers each year. We work with about 300 young people in the course of a year and do lots of things, including group work and one-to-one sessions but we don't preach at them or do anything that would be seen as typically 'churchy' in any way. Instead we get alongside to support them and are always asking the question, 'What do you want to do?' We've got good facilities, including a sports room, kitchen and chill-out room so we have the space to accommodate lots of different types of activities.

Many of the young people are from difficult family contexts and some have been in and out of young offender institutes. The young people we encounter hear from so many sources that they are bad, stupid, worthless, and will amount to nothing. Giving as much of the responsibility and ownership of Hot Chocolate to the young people as possible has resulted in a deep commitment and respect for both the place and the relationships around it. Creating a space that is truly owned by the young people has been vital to this. They most commonly describe it as their 'home', where they can make their own cup of tea, hang their art on the wall, and find a place of belonging. Hot Chocolate is not here to do things for young people or to provide a service for young people, but instead to grow a community with young people. That actually makes all the difference. 

Hot Chocolate - group

We've found too that language can also play a huge part in unhelpful power dynamics, and Hot Chocolate works hard to be thoughtful about this. For example: we are not a service. We do not have clients, customers or service users. We are a community, and the young people are young people. We do not have staff and volunteers, we have team. We do not try to fix the young people but walk alongside them, open to learning as much from them as they might from us.

Our approach is not that of a typical church based youth work organisation. We don't do God slots, but we share our lives, and those of the team who have faith share our faith when the time is right. A lot of the young folk are interested in spirituality and it is not difficult to get spiritual conversations at all.

As time has gone on, some of the young folk have found faith. That has often coincided with them coming onto team and experiencing a more explicitly Christian part of the community. As the former young people find that sense of belonging amongst the team, it opens up all sorts of questions. One young person started coming when he was 13 or 14, became a Christian along the way and is now one of our key volunteers. Not all of the team are Christians, but all are open to exploring and all feel that the Christian ethos is very important. We also often attract team members who are disillusioned with mainstream church – especially artists and social activists especially who feel they haven't found their place. 

Hot Chocolate - feet

What they tend to describe as their 'church' time is when we're sitting around the dinner table together, three times a week. Before opening for any youth work session, the team has a meal together and shares some sort of devotion – and that's where they find belonging and faith. We want to develop specifically around that time, and help grow an indigenous Christian leadership. We feel uneasy about importing worship resources that are not appropriate to our context so we have started writing worship and prayers of our own. In a way, everything that has happened so far in the way of church community is completely accidental, and so tends to be quite different to intentional church planting models and approaches. (This is not a bad thing, it is just different).

Hot Chocolate has never been about getting the young people into church on a Sunday morning and it wasn't even about starting a youth project. It was simply about building relationships and seeing what might emerge, motivated by the love of God. It seems that every couple of months we stop and say, 'What are you up to now God? It's changing again!' We know we are very strong on belonging, on community and activism; we are not necessarily great at discipleship but we are learning.

Hot Chocolate experiments: not recklessly, but without anxiety of failure. There is a strong culture of reflection, vulnerability and learning together, even when we have made mistakes.

Hot Chocolate - logoWe've learned a lot about the God of mission. It's God's mission to transform the lives of the young people and not ours. God is already at work doing this, and so our job is to get alongside him, not the other way around. This has been a liberating, challenging realisation.

In terms of challenges, when you work for a charity, finance is always going to be a challenge but we do have support from various agencies, including the Church of Scotland's Go For It Fund which aims to encourage creative ways of working which develop the life and mission of the local church and are transformative for both communities and congregations. We have had some major staffing changes in the team in the past couple of years too, but we have just appointed a new director to start in January so we are looking forward to starting the new year with a leader who is very missional-minded, someone to help us grow this amazing community together.

authentic (?)

Alex SmeedA docklands regeneration project in Glasgow is now home to hundreds of people – and The Glasgow Harbour initiative known as authentic (?). Church of Scotland minister Alex Smeed, one of the authentic (?) leaders, explains how churches in the area set it up in response to a call for new ways of 'doing' church.

We started by asking ourselves the question, 'What does living out God's kingdom look like for the people here?' The 'how' of listening led us to observe and investigate our surroundings through an 18-month mission audit – not only to understand the culture of individuals moving in but also what their homes, cars, and the type of local shops being built said about them.

authentic (?) - flatsThe audit firstly focused on qualitative data which included us intentionally spending time in the area itself to try and ascertain who the residents were, what kind of culture they came from, what hours they kept and where they worked.

The second, quantitative, aspect was a much more book-based analysis. We looked at old Ordnance Survey Maps of the area, researched history books as to previous land ownership to glean how it had changed over many years and to see where we could go in the future – to find what were the 'keys to the gospel.'

One of our key questions was, 'How do we take the mission audit's conclusions and turn them into a positive reality?' A hankering for community was identified as important but the design of the buildings, with many security features for residents, actually inhibited community – particularly as there were no communal meeting places in the development.

authentic (?) - walkingSome of our team moved into a flat in the harbour to have a place on site where people could be invited for a meal and generally practice hospitality. We continue to explore ways in which they can gather people together, including the launch of our authentic (?) curry house as a 'pop-up restaurant' and the development of a greater internet presence in order to promote online community.

The authentic (?) curry house runs one Saturday night in every month from 8pm to 10pm, usually at The Annexe in Partick, where there's room for 30 people to have a four-course vegetarian meal and drinks. We charge £10 for the food and drinks, including our home made mango lassi and chai! I am the chef and my wife Sally does everything else.

authentic (?) - lightsAs authentic (?) we're also looking at things like having a regular running community. We would also love to offer free, organic, fairly traded beautiful coffees to people as they leave for work in the morning. All these sorts of ideas are things that we are pursuing, we believe in a God who blesses and so we want to pursue that, we want to embody that in everything we do.

Eventually we hope to grow the team to round about eight. Those who do join spend quite a long time with us as sort of a journeying process, making sure that we share values and vision and that our basis of faith is common before we start working together. We like to be very close within the team, that we spend a lot of time in one another's company and nurture and care for each other but we also want to maintain our outward focus and keep that missional outlook in everything that we do.

authentic (?) - plateWe are doing all of this hand in hand with other Christians in this area so that we can be as effective as possible, living out the unity of that body. Part of our vision is to see people reconnected with God, seeing that relationship restored and so we're going to be intentional about the way that we invite people to experience God, to live a life that is transformed by a relationship with him. It's about having the integrity to talk about that, to invite people into a place where they can explore in a contextually relevant way what it means to follow Jesus in this area.

If you feel you might be being prompted into a new missional context and would like to find out more about joining the authentic (?) team, contact us on

Tulloch NET

Tulloch Net - teamThe vision for Tulloch NET came into being in 2004, three years before its official launch – and charitable status. Its Community Development Officer, Revd Richard Higginbottom, outlines Tulloch NET's development and future plans in north west Perth.

The aim has always been to develop a fresh expression of inclusive and indigenous church in Tulloch and for that church to be based on relational networking – not traditional ingathering.

We reach out to the Tulloch community which is an area of mixed social and private housing with a population of around 4,000. In partnership with several denominations and supported by Church of Scotland seed-funding and grants from various agencies, we have been working hard to build up relationships within the community before setting up any sort of worship centre.

Tulloch Net - row of peopleOur ethos is to have an innovative, creative and fluid relational approach to social and spiritual needs in Tulloch, listening always to God and engaging in a sustainable way with the community, especially the disadvantaged. Tulloch is classed as an Area Based Initiative; this is a local authority designated area for re-generation and help with deprivation. We do this through social action, prayer, liaison, visiting, listening, occasional events/Sunday activities, projects and hospitality. On our promotional material we say that Tulloch NET is a Christian network offering practical help and spiritual support to the people of Tulloch.

After mission audit research in 2004/05, organised at the request of the local Church of Scotland parish minister, I felt called to pioneer a fresh expression in Tulloch in 2006 and received the necessary permissions to start a pilot project on secondment from my then CPAS employers. We recognise this is a 'long-haul' initiative – at the start of it all approximately 10 to 15 years were suggested for the establishment of this new expression of local church. So by 2020 we will be looking to see what's happened!

Tulloch Net - kidsStarting with attempts at addressing perceived local needs through parenting seminars and partnerships with the local primary school and Council, we formed a team of volunteers and a small inter-denominational reference group. Some initial funding came from personal supporters and from the Church of Scotland, Baptist Union of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church (Diocese of St Andrews) are also our ministry partners – along with Crieff Baptist Church, Perth North Church of Scotland, Tulloch Worldwide Church of God and Perth Knox Free Church of Scotland.

Visiting local people, networking, experience and further research showed that local deprivation and social issues required a different approach which had to be long-term. A management group was formed, further funding was sought and eventually, I was appointed Community Development Officer at the end of 2008.

Tulloch net - planting

Ongoing networking and visiting is carried out by myself and an initial voluntary team of six (we now have 11), while traditional pastoral support is provided by the North Church – though bereavement care may sometimes form part of our brief, by arrangement.

We ended up initiating the Tulloch Lade environmental project in 2009 after local consultation, which had revealed the current neglected state of the Town Lade (an ancient man-made canal running through Tulloch) as a key social concern. We've been involved in all sorts of associated activities, including tree-planting, creating a community orchard and meadow, eco-exhibitions, wildlife habitat improvements and litter clearance.

Tulloch Net - shopSince 2007, we've also organised 'spiritual events' such as a Christmas carol service, a Songs of Praise and Christian stalls at school celebrations. These have had limited effect but our big breakthrough in 2011 has been to secure – in partnership with other Christian agencies – former shop premises as an incarnational base in Tulloch which we're developing as a community drop-in for local needy folk, including addicts. We opened in May and have since attracted an average of 20 visitors per week; a part-time Welcomer has now been appointed there. We have maintained regular local prayer-walking throughout our project history and a prayer box for specific prayer requests is kept in our Hub.

Tulloch Net - paintingOur core virtues remain Relationship, PRAYER, Creativity, Humility, Commitment, Bridging the Secular/Sacred Divide, Restoration, and of course… Jesus. Creativity under God is not based on strategies, but depends on moves of God. Our project is all about Jesus and Kingdom: it involves patience and God's timing.

As far as our timescales are concerned, our mid-term goals include the appointment of a second worker – possibly next year, strengthening of the volunteer team and the creation of cell groups as a nucleus for a new local community of believers.