Hay Mills CC

Judith Mbaabu tells how Hay Mills CC, supported by the Congregational Federation, is encouraging a fresh expression for adults with learning disabilities.

Hay Mills Congregational Church, Birmingham, closed down a couple of years ago but conversations about its future took a turn when we spoke to the manager of the neighbouring residential home for adults with learning disabilities.

Many of the adults had loved coming to services and couldn't understand why the church had closed; they were disappointed and wanted to continue to meet together. Meeting the residents, it became quite clear that we needed to open it up in a different way and encourage a new form of church.

One of the many interesting things that came up as we started on this fresh expressions journey was the question, 'Why do you still need to use the church building?' We know about fresh expressions – going out and staying out, forming church where people are and possibly meeting in all sorts of places as a result.

Hay Mills CC - smiles

The answer for us is that this particular building has significance for the people we serve. The residential home is where they live, their 'house'; they like to leave their 'house' and go next door into 'church'. There is something about their connection with that building and, for them, if we said, 'Let's have church in your house', it wouldn't have the same meaning. We have listened to what they've said about that and respect it.

The Congregational Federation's North West Midlands Area is giving its support and the local Ladypool Road Congregational Church is also playing a vital role; we couldn't do it without them. This initiative, which has been funded as a three-year project, is for all the activities associated with Hay Mills as a whole but the emphasis is on the fresh expression for our neighbours with learning disabilities. We are 'building' that alongside everything else we're doing – and planning to do – for people across the community.

Conversations continue about the name of the church. We've looked at all sorts of things like Community Church, Congregational community church, Community hub, Church hub. We are Church. We are Congregational. We are Community.  How we behave is maybe more important than what we call ourselves but our name is the first thing many people hear about us, and their assumptions matter.

Hay Mills CC - Messy Church

We asked our friends with learning disabilities because we are here to serve them, after all, and their views are very important. One lady wanted to call it, 'The church where we make friends'. For now, we have agreed on Hay Mills CC, and people can decide for themselves what CC stands for!

Stephane Vickers, who lives locally, is our Church Development Worker. He has been in post since the end of June 2015 and is working closely with the team of volunteers at Hay Mills.

One of Stephane's starting points was looking at our base as others see it, and opening it up as much as possible. During his early conversations with local people he found that many of them didn't know where Hay Mills Church was – even though they walked passed it regularly!  The church is back from the main road and cars often park in front of it. If people cannot 'see' us, how are we likely to become a presence in the community? There are of course, a number of answers to that question, including going out to where people are and being a living presence through our actions, and working hard to let everyone know where we are through advertising, social media, networking and invitation. But it's also important to get the basics right so Stephane swung into action cutting back trees, power-washing the front, and sorting out the noticeboard.

Hay Mills CC - caring

Autumn is also going to be a busy time. At the moment, we run a monthly Messy Church for the adults with learning disabilities but a launch event for the whole church programme is scheduled for the end of October. We will hope to have a monthly café church and additional all-age Messy Church, for instance, but a lot will depend what people want to have there.

Currently we have a team of about eight, very dedicated, people who enable us to run the Messy Church for adults. Three of them come from Ladypool Road Congregational Church; others travel from Bristol, Gloucestershire, Wales and Nottingham. The Messy Church format remains pretty standard but we adapt it according to the needs of our friends with learning disabilities – between 15 and 20 of them. We have activities and refreshments on arrival with time to chat followed by worship songs, Bible input, and prayer (in a variety of forms), and then a main craft activity building on the worship.

We are now aware there are two other residential homes within the local area so Stephane is getting to know them and say they’d be welcome to join us in what we're doing. It really is a step-by-step process in building the community at Hay Mills CC, we are very much at the listening stage of the fresh expressions journey.

Hay Mills CC - helpers

I read an article on Growing Mature Disciples on the Fresh Expressions website which gave good advice on the importance of being understanding with new believers, walking at their pace, and remembering how patient the Holy Spirit is with you and be patient with them. But how does it work if your companion has no spoken language?  How does it work when your companion has a learning disability, and you have limited knowledge of how they understand the world around them?

To begin to address those questions, we are linking with Prospects – the Christian charity for people with learning disabilities – and they are going to come and do some training for us about the best way we can communicate with those who understand things in very different ways.

The Congregational Federation has funded this initiative for three years and part of Stephane's role is to raise money so that it can stand alone as a church in its own right. Sustainability is really important. It would then become a self-financing, independent church – as are all other Federation churches. The challenge is how to achieve sustainability, but we believe that if God has a plan for Hay Mills, then he will make it happen.

Another question centres on membership; how is that defined in the context of a non-traditional church? This is a question relevant to all of our churches that are moving forward and trying new ways of being church. If you have a Messy Church on a Wednesday afternoon, a café church on Friday evening and traditional church on Sunday morning, each with its own committed 'congregation', what is that people actually become members of?

Hay Mills CC - bear

Membership within all Congregational churches is about commitment to Christ, and commitment to the church, but we have to be prepared to think long and hard about what 'the church 'part of this looks like, and what exactly is it that people may want to become a part of. How do we establish membership with our community; what does it mean to them to belong? It's going to have to be a very different experience of membership. Traditionally the Church Meeting is where the decisions are made so, again, we are going to have to consider carefully what that means for us.

It's very important for us to have a clear plan, with short and long-term goals, and regularly review the work we are doing, revising our mission statement as needed. If you do not know what you are trying to achieve, how do you know if you are making any progress?  For Hay Mills it means:

  • reminding ourselves why we are there;
  • checking that the plans we have meet the plan that Federation Council agreed to (and if not, why not);
  • making sure we have events and activities planned that will allow the Kingdom to grow;
  • enabling the community church hub to become a reality in the lives of people around;
  • becoming a spiritual home for our friends with learning disabilities.

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.