What do belly dancing, Bollywood, Loose Women and Come Dine with Me have to do with a fresh expression of church in North Yorkshire? Revd Sue Sheriff, vicar of Tadcaster, gives the lowdown on Divine Divas.
It all started when one of our church members won the use of a hot tub for the weekend in a church raffle. She used it for a birthday party and we wondered, 'why is it that we can invite other women to this sort of party but we find that we can't really invite them to church?'
I wasn't sure if it was just me or if the other women felt the same so the first thing we did was have Women Who Lunch and Pray and I asked a small group to come together early last year for lunch to talk about some of the women we cared about and think about the type of leisure activities we could invite them to.
We then invited Christian women across the area to a Pudding and Prayer meeting so that we could discuss it in more detail. As a result of this, we decided to put on an event for women, one that was clearly Christian but not off-putting. Divine Divas was born with DIVA standing for Dynamic Inspirational Vibrant Adventurous women. Our first meeting was an experiment, and we decided to go for belly dancing…
We wanted to be very open and honest about the fact that there was the church element, we didn't want to get people there under false pretences and so we decided the topic and invited a friend of mine – a wonderfully 'DIVA' vicar, Laura McWilliams from Scarborough – to come and tell her story and it was great.
People seemed to go for the whole thing immediately. The venue we use is licensed and I think we set the tone by inviting them to bring whatever they wanted to drink. There are always ethical issues around these questions of course and we don't go so far as to provide the drink but we felt it important that they could bring in a bottle of wine if they wanted to. So far we haven't had any problems with this, people seem to respect what we're doing and only drink in moderation. If it was causing any sort of distress, we would obviously think again.
We didn't want to exclude people by always organising active events so we next organised a Loose Women panel. On the TV, they've discussed prayer and spiritual items several times and we thought it great that we could talk about anything and everything. I chaired it with three very lively Christian women who made themselves very honest, very vulnerable – all with a good experience of life. It was such an open and frank debate and I think an eye opener for many in the audience. Cosmopolitan magazine was taken as our source of information in the first half of the evening so that meant we had Christians talking about things like How to have the Best Sex Ever.
We set our age limit as being old enough to discuss childbirth without cringing and young enough to have a go at belly dancing. It's more of an attitude than an age limit but we tend to get 20 to 40 somethings made up of about 25% churchgoers and 75% non- churchgoers. Attendance has never really dropped below 40.
Bollywood Nights featuring Bollywood style dancing was another one that made the programme. It featured the testimony of a young woman, a Muslim convert to Christianity, who told us some of the complications that decision had brought about in her life. People were really moved when they realised the personal cost of being a Christian; that was the event when people started saying it was 'their'church. There had always been relationship stuff going on but that event was certainly a turning point.
Our next event is Come Dine with the Divine Divas. This is a women-only event so the men will help with the cooking and wait on the tables but once they have served the meal, they have to get out! Three of the fellas from church said they would ask some of their friends and they have now got a group together to do just that. We're calling them the Divine Men. They think this is a fun idea because they are doing something rather than coming to something – it could provide a longer term offshoot for the men.
A core group of seven of us is involved in the planning; there is a big denominational spread as we operate across a joint benefice. There are lots of us who are very conscious of the very worldly things around which we are weaving Christian themes in our events. Divine Divas doesn't seem to be a clear bridge to bringing people into church because, for some of them, Sunday church is not appropriate or convenient for them or they don't really relate to it. At the moment Divine Divas seems to be developing a community in its own right but it's very much at early stages.
The whole thing begs the question about what does church mean? What I hope that will come out of this is that people will develop a relationship with Jesus. I do find that, for instance even now with our friends they will ask us to pray and on occasions even non-churchgoing friends who have no particular claim to faith will text and say 'pray for me, this is happening' – sometimes even to sit and pray with them especially when it's something very emotional to do with family.
Similarly in conversation we'll chat Bible stories and talk about things like the woman at the well who had been married however many times and the man she was with wasn't her husband. So much of it relates to people's experiences today so I'm not sure – if Church were to be taken in its 'tight' term – that we will evolve into having an organised liturgy and singing hymns. However if we're talking about evolving to a place where people are happy to pray and to chatter about the Bible then I think it could easily evolve into that. I guess as we chatter together you could call it a cell group or a Bible study or church but I'm not sure we'd be too keen to try and pin it down too much.
Some of the more mature members of my traditional congregation are now coming along to Divine Divas and thoroughly enjoying it. People have been very supportive and they're just genuinely pleased to see people involved with church in its wider sense.
In future I would like to see Divine Divas growing in numbers. It would also be wonderful to see a change in the little slot where we invite a speaker. Instead of bringing in someone from the outside I would love to be able to say to the group, 'so has Jesus done anything for you? Has God made a difference in your life this week?' and the Divine Divas themselves would just stand up and tell their own stories.