Oakwood Forest Church

Emma Major is Licensed Lay Minister at St Nicolas, Earley. She tells how three friends from local Berkshire churches started Oakwood.

I became a Licensed Lay Minister (our local equivalent of a Reader) four years ago and, right from the start, have been pioneering. I'm not what you might call a 'standard' Licensed Lay Minister (LLM)!

I have been at St Nicolas for 11 years and I had my calling while I was there; they supported me brilliantly through my training which was in the evening and at weekends though the Oxford Ministry Course. I was previously a civil engineer, running Government workshops, but I have always been interested in pioneering.

Oakwood Forest Church - leaves

Oakwood Forest Church all started when three of us were talking at a joint churches' event about how close many of us feel to God when we're in the countryside; how he feels less removed from our prayers and he seems more alive in our hearts.

The general thought was, 'If we could worship outside, that would be amazing'.

In the summer of 2013 we were in the Maiden Erlegh Nature Reserve when this seed of an idea grew a shoot of a plan. The reserve is a lovely green space, which includes eight medieval oaks, in the middle of a 1970s urban area.

We decided that we could meet together in the reserve to worship God differently; meeting people where they are already finding the source of their belonging. That became Oakwood Forest Church (OFC) and, over the last 18 months, we have met every month to walk, explore and pray together at the reserve. We have grown in number to 30 adults and 20 children who attend at least four times a year.

Oakwood Forest Church - walking

It's important to say that, while we love the creation all around us, we are not worshipping it – we are worshipping God as the creator. We are very Christ-centred in our programming at Forest Church; always coming back to Scripture and prayer. We generally pick up a Bible passage that relates to the season and take it in turns to plan our time together. It's particularly encouraging when young people and teenagers are asking if they can lead sessions or elements of response which we describe as 'Mossy Church', a title I know others are also using.

We started out by putting details on Facebook of what we were planning to do and we got 20 people coming along. Then others started to ask us questions about Forest Church as we were walking around and some dog walkers joined in! There has been quite a mix of people coming along; we've had people who have been separated from God for so long but said, 'This is church for us, we don't want to go into a church building'. Others have wanted to go into a church building again and some have said they want to do both. All of them, whether they've had experience of church or not, don't see Oakwood as 'just' an event – they all recognise it as being far more than that.

Oakwood Forest Church - thumbs up

Facebook and all the social media give us the opportunity to keep on connecting, we are 'meeting' every week in that way and, as a result, prayer for each other – and the Oakwood community – has grown out of it.

This spring, four of us who feel called to lead OFC over the next few years, got together to pray, plan and prune. We reflected on what had been going well and made changes necessary for the ongoing growth and strengthening of this fresh expression of church. We decided to reduce our meetings to five times a year, linked to Christian festivals at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Summer and Harvest, in order to ensure the sustainability and depth of our services. We also made the decision to hire the Rangers' Interpretation Centre at the nature reserve in order to make OFC more accessible and allow us to have a fixed base to worship and share a meal together.

Everybody loved it from the moment we started to use the centre because it felt like a home or us. Personally, I have developed a debilitating illness so I can't walk too far any more but knowing that I can stay at the centre and pray – while others are responding more physically – is broadening the accessibility of Forest Church.

Oakwood Forest Church - cross

Word is beginning to spread about what is going on here and we have people from other churches, schools and individuals nervous of the institutional church, asking what it's all about.

We are so blessed because we have such support. Our local Churches Together love it and The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, has said that he trusts us in our planning for this while our priest at St Nicolas', Neil Warwick, tells us, 'Just go for it!' I feel so lucky to be part of this and to be alongside people as they come to faith through Oakwood Forest Church.

I'll be part of the team involved in the Thames Valley mission shaped ministry course, starting this month, and I'm looking forward to reflecting on what is happening here as part of that. During the summer, Oakwood Forest Church will be providing prayer stations at local church and community fairs. We trust God to lead us as we continue to grow and evolve.

Saturday Gathering

Linda Maslen is one of the lay leaders of a growing community of new disciples of Jesus in Halifax.

The Saturday Gathering story began with a foodbank and a group of Christians acting on Jesus' words to feed the hungry. The Halifax Food and Support Drop-in has been running for five years and it is supported by over 70 local churches – as well as schools, local organisations, businesses and individuals in Calderdale.

The churches and organisations work in partnership to provide a weekly Drop-in point, allowing vulnerable people many with often chaotic lifestyles to collect a free food parcel. These include the homeless, destitute asylum seekers, those suffering from drug or alcohol misuse or individuals experiencing extreme hardship.

The Drop-in takes place on a Saturday morning from 9.30am to midday at the New Ebenezer Centre in Halifax, formerly Ebenezer Methodist Church which closed down as a church a couple of years ago. The Methodists decided to keep the building, make it an ecumenical venue and rent out its rooms to the community.

Saturday GatheringIt's in Halifax town centre and the areas that we draw from are urban priority with the church itself sitting in one of the poorest parishes in the UK.

As time went on with the Drop-in, more and more of more of our guests started to ask for prayer. When they began to see those prayers were being answered, they came into a relationship with God but settling people into existing churches proved difficult for our new family members and the congregations.

I saw this at first hand when someone came along to the church I go to. It is a friendly and family-orientated place but it was still a very alien environment if you have had no previous involvement with church. It made me stop and think about everything we take for granted and how we treat someone who has come in from the 'outside' and who doesn't know what you're 'meant' to know.

We need to be aware that people with varying backgrounds and life challenges may take a step forwards in faith but might then take a couple of steps back. I find it very sad if Christians don't want to walk with these new converts when they're going through a 'downtime'. Sometimes it seems that they're interested in the stories of coming to faith but not the struggles that many people then face.

Saturday Gathering - leafletAll of this made me think about church not working properly for newcomers who didn't 'fit in' and I knew we had to do something different in order to prepare the way for them.

We tried a couple of things that didn't work out but, 15 months ago, Saturday Gathering was born. It takes place in the same venue as the Drop-in from 7pm-9pm on Saturday evenings. That's when we all have a meal, share stories from the Bible or use DVDs to prompt discussion, and pray and sing. God has done so much in our time together; we've seen chaotic lives changed, addictions broken and relationships healed. We started with 12 people and now have about 60. Some people move on into more traditional fellowships and we encourage that, but others very much see Saturday Gathering as their church – though that was something we struggled with for some time.

For probably the first nine months of Saturday Gathering's existence, we said, 'We are not a church, we are a gathering' but the thing was developing at such a pace that we had to seriously consider whether we were a missional community, a fresh expression of church or something else entirely!

Saturday gathering - baptismOur community had already decided because they were referring to Saturday Gathering as church. This was underlined on Saturday (11th January 2014) when the Bishop of Pontefract baptised and confirmed 19 of our new family members, all of whom wanted the service to be in the place that had become their spiritual home. We now describe it as a church that is both dependent – and interdependent – on other churches.

Numbers continue to grow. More families are coming to the Drop-in and to Saturday Gathering as well. We're particularly seeing a lot of single dads who are looking after their children at weekends; all they have to live on is £35 a week in benefits so by the time the children come there is nothing left. We're told that for many of them the highlight of their weekend is coming to Drop-in and Saturday Gathering for food, warmth and for the friendship and love they receive.

In September, we launched a Family Gathering to support the children that come to the Drop-in. That runs at the same time as the Drop-in on a Saturday morning and we get local council money to do that.

There are three of us involved in leadership of Saturday Gathering. We are all lay people, none of us are paid for what we do there but I also work full-time and am in the second year of (part-time) ordination training with the Yorkshire Ministry Course at Mirfield. We are very fortunate to have a lot of volunteers drawn from various congregations and one of the local vicars has provided us with great spiritual support. We work hard at building and maintaining relationships and Saturday Gathering has encouraged many of the local church leaders – with most of them are playing a bit of a part in it.

Saturday Gathering - baptismI will do everything I can to encourage indigenous leadership but that really does take time – unless God provides people out of the blue! Something that has proved to be helpful is the involvement of a few of our guys as 'watchmen' at Saturday Gathering. It's quite a male concentrated community so the 'watchmen' keep an eye out for anyone trying to bring in alcohol or drugs of any kind. They also watch over what's happening and are happy to go and pray with anyone who is on their own. Being a 'watchman' gives them bit of authority that enables them rather than constrains them.

Looking to the future and the council has been talking about giving us a lease on an old Sunday School building next door. It would be brilliant because we'd then have a base for our community 24/7. At the moment everything has to be moved in and then out again but there we would have proper catering facilities and a café.

One of our discussions is whether we should go for a BMO. However, we are in the Diocese of Wakefield and are going through the diocesan merger so I'm not too sure at the moment. We may well end up with Saturday Gathering coming under the wing of another church; that's something to be considered – as long as it retains its independence to grow organically.

I'd also like to see small groups running during the week. If we get what would be called The Gathering Place in the building next door, we could run those small groups in an evening without the additional cost of renting rooms.

Saturday Gathering - baptism candlesFinancial support has come from some interesting places. Not long after we started Saturday Gathering, the police got in touch to say they had got some money they would like us to apply for because we were taking their worst culprits off the streets on a Saturday night! Saturday Gathering running costs are £100 a week for food and renting of the room and, up to now, the community fund the police recommended to us have given us about £2,500 – so they have basically funded all of our food.

Saturday Gathering sits under the Christians Together charity in Halifax and we gather funding separately for the different elements of what we do. If donors want to give money for Christmas dinner, for instance, we can show them that it went specifically to that. Some are happy to support the Drop-in but not the openly faith-based Saturday Gathering.

Saturday Gathering - baptism candlesSuch a lot has happened in a relatively short time, and we thank God for all He has done and is doing. It is a real privilege to be able to join in with what He is doing. But I'd want to say that what has happened here can’t just be replicated. Saturday Gathering, as it is, is unique to this area but I really pray that we may be able to share some of our learning and ways of doing things with others praying about what might be applicable to their own context.


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!

Heathfield cafechurch

Plans for a cafechurch came about through Churches Together in Heathfield and District, East Sussex. Follow their journey as they prepare for 'opening night' on Friday 26th April 2013.

It was a coming together of ideas when a Costa Coffee shop opened in Heathfield High Street and cafechurch network advertised a training day in the area.

Members of the 12 churches represented in Churches Together in Heathfield and District wanted to find out more about what might be possible as a result of these two 'coincidental' events. Three people attended the Network's training day last year and were inspired to look at building on what had already been happening in the community.

Five years previously, Churches Together in Heathfield and District had set up a Street Pastors initiative under the auspices of the Ascension Trust which initiated the national Street Pastor movement. The small town does not have late night bars or clubs but it was suffering increased levels of vandalism. Street Pastors started to be available in and around the town's car parks, skate park, playgrounds and streets from early evenings on Fridays. They built up good relationships with the teenagers and young adults they came across and started to ask, 'but what happens next? How can we reach these people we wouldn't normally reach from our own church settings?'

Heathfield cafechurch - teamThe cafechurch is now seen as the next move in these ongoing relationships with individuals – and the wider community.

In November 2012, 130 people attended a Churches Together supper at the Beehive pub, Heathfield, when Sue Mumford – one of the cafechurch planning group – spoke about the vision surrounding its launch. More than 20 people signed up to be involved.

The cafechurch is focusing on attracting 18 to 35-year-olds though all ages will be welcome if they are looking to engage with a new form of church.

Sue Mumford says,

Heathfield is a lovely town but there is very little for teenagers to do here and our churches are sadly lacking in young people. We realised that it was right to try and go to them rather than sit back and hope they would come to us. We have listened to what they have told us and – through prayer – we believe it's right for us to step out in faith in this way. 

We have no idea what will happen but we just have to make a start.

Heathfield cafechurch - signKeith Miller, another of the planning group, adds,

If you have never been involved in church, going into a church building is quite an ordeal. A coffee shop, on the other hand, is a very familiar, very safe, very relaxed environment. This may provide a step towards church – or it may not. It may lead to a new way of doing church or it may fade away. We'll have to wait and see.

We are fortunate to have several, very good independent coffee shops in the town,

comments George Dearsley, Vice-Moderator of Churches Together in Heathfield and District,

but they were a little too small for what was needed to get this off the ground. We have already seen that the teenagers and young adults are accustomed to going to Costa – but, personally, we'll certainly continue to make good use of all of the coffee shops in Heathfield.

Heathfield cafehurch - venueA coordinator provides prayer backing, both in the development of prayer partners in each of the link churches involved and on site. A 'dress rehearsal' for young people from local churches was held last week in order to give the planning group an idea of timings and practicalities.

Friday's session will run from 7pm (for 7.30pm start) until 9pm. Watch this space…

Fridays in Faith

Annandale Churches Together in south west Scotland ran summer holiday clubs in a local secondary school for many years. Very few of the children involved had any relationship with existing churches. Pam Mellor and Deborah Steele explain how Fridays in Faith has helped to bridge the gap.

The holiday clubs in Annan were really, really successful. They took place in an Academy and attracted about 150 children on average but they seemed to disappear as soon as the clubs were over.

Then the questions started, 'Where do they go afterwards? Why don't they come to church?' We said, 'Maybe church is not the place for them. Maybe we should ask if there is something else we should be doing.' Amazingly it was as if everyone had the same thought.

Fridays in Faith - parachuteWe had a team of 60 helpers for the holiday clubs and we all started to think about what this alternative would look like. After discussion, thought and prayer we thought about going back to the Academy on a Friday night to run something which would incorporate a lot of the key components of a holiday club – things like fun and food and games – but for all ages. The Academy costs about £150 to hire so we went to the churches and asked for their support in this.

Fridays in Faith is backed by Annandale Churches Together, an ecumenical group that includes Annan Old Parish Church, St Andrew's Parish Church linked with Brydekirk Parish Church, Annan United Reformed Church, St John's Episcopal Church, and St Columba's Catholic Church.

They were fantastic, simply saying, 'It's a great idea and we will support you!'

Fridays in Faith - groupsOur first step as co-leaders and co-planners of Fridays in Faith was to find out whether the people themselves actually wanted us to do something. We recognised that those who were coming along to the holiday clubs were not anti-church: it was simply that church wasn't even on their radar. In saying that, there were a number of kids from church families at the holiday club as well so we could see there were great opportunities for those within our churches – as well as outside – to grow together as a community.

On the final day of a holiday club with an Olympics-type theme of Going for Gold we did a 'closing ceremony' when nearly all of the children's parents came along. At the end of the session we stood up – very nervously – and said, 'We would like to ask you all something. We recognise that you love your kids coming here and you are enthusiastic about it all. We also recognise that church isn't working for you for whatever reason. Would you be interested in joining us as we would like to offer something for the whole family? We would set up and run the whole thing but would you like to come along on the first Friday of the month?'

Fridays in Faith - notesThe answer was clearly 'yes' with more than 140 people coming back for the first Friday night session. We read out a statement on that first night to set out what we were there for and we often remind ourselves of it to help us keep focused on the work in hand.

The statement reads:

If what we do here tonight, helps you to find faith, or helps you get to know God better, then that's what we're about.

Faith is a journey and people have helped us on our way. That is all we are trying to do – give people a little bit of help on their faith journey.

These evenings are about fellowship, fun and faith in a new and different way.

We hope that you will have a good time with your own family and with each other, that will be great.

If in time, in coming here, we all become closer to God, then that will be a wonderful blessing. Thank you all for being here and journeying with us.

Each session has a biblical theme running through it. Everything is centred on different activity tables and many of the people who helped with the holiday club became table hosts. Each table works as a team, moving from one activity to another throughout the evening. But on that first night they didn't have time to complete the activities before they had to move on to the next thing. It ran for two hours and we simply tried to cram too much in to the programme!

Fridays in Faith - faceSo we cut back on the time to 90 minutes and allowed a breathing space in activities. Now people have the opportunity to sit and talk during supper time.

We also have a time of prayer, when people are free to join in with us or not.

In terms of planning for the sessions, we meet every week. We set a theme for the year and follow it through each month. This year we are looking at travel, with Peter's journey as the Bible thread.

We told people that we would be looking at faith as a journey and that we'd imagine it as a journey in a car. For the first session we asked, 'How do you go about buying a car?' We thought about listening to people, listening to other opinions, having a look at what was available, counting the cost of it and getting in the car and having a test drive.

Fridays in Faith - ropeAn interesting process involved stringing up a very long washing line on which we had pegged A1 sheets with various statements written on them about where you were on your faith journey. At one end of the line we had, 'I don't think there is anything' through 'I think there is something but I'm not sure what' through to things like 'I do think there is a God but I'm not involved in church' and 'I really do believe God is in my life'. There were also blank sheets of paper in between so that people could mark where they thought they were on this washing line.

What was so interesting about that was the fact that so many of our church helpers felt they could be really honest about how they actually felt on their own personal journeys of faith.

The sessions went on to include the MOT for which we looked at the Beatitudes; and Breakdown – which was our Easter session.

Fridays in Faith - breadWe set out on this journey to do 3 months and we have just come to the end of 3 years! We recognise that there are still many questions as we go forward and many issues for us to consider, such as offering the Sacraments. We have broken bread, but recognise that this is not Communion.

All of these issues of leadership and Sacraments come up again and again. We have to stop and think, 'Are we leaders? Are we getting it right?' Sometimes we both wrestle with that a great deal.

It's also difficult when people ask us whether it is 'church' or not. The label of 'church' can be a very real stumbling block to people, we want it to be a place of God's Kingdom where people can cry, ask questions and be real. We didn't know the word 'intentionality'; we didn't know the word 'incarnational' – all we thought about was, 'These are our families. How can we connect with them? How can we make faith more relevant and more real? How can we move them on in that faith?' We're still not sure whether we're going to run Alpha because once you introduce a course like that the concern is that you're imposing something that doesn't quite fit with the context and culture of your emerging community.

Fridays in Faith - ballFor the future, we realise that we have limits as co-leaders and some people have already stepped forward to get involved in various aspects of the work. Our funding runs until the middle of April next year and we continue to listen to God as to what he wants for Fridays in Faith. However, if our Presbytery wants to do something else, we have to be ready for that – if Fridays in Faith has served its purpose in helping the people in the churches to see what's possible by looking at things differently, then so be it.

For now, we continue to be excited at what God is doing in Annan and are blessed to be a part of it.