Pioneering Baptist minister, Simon Goddard, explains how RE:NEW grew in rural Cambridgeshire.
Lode is situated about eight miles north east of Cambridge and the Baptist Chapel serves five villages in East Cambridgeshire. The membership of Lode Chapel has been declining, but is currently stable at just over twenty members. The majority of these are professional couples with families, although around a third of the members are retired.
I was called to part-time ministry at Lode Chapel in September 2005, with a particular focus on pioneering. Lode Chapel held a summer holiday club which was a well attended feature of the church’s outreach. Despite positive contact with a large number of local families, there had been very little follow-up to the club. This became an issue we discussed with the local Anglican vicar and we ended up talking about the possibility of a monthly 'Kids Club'.
So in September 2006, 'Sunday Club' was launched with personal invitations for each of the sixty or so children that had been to the holiday club, and adverts in the village magazines and through the schools. It was advertised as a 'holiday club on a Sunday' and this meant that there would be video, games, craft, action songs, a creative prayer activity, and a very short talky bit focussed around a memory verse. A number of families from the holiday club joined us at the first event and although a few didn't return, many continued to come each fourth Sunday.
Initially resourced only by the Baptists (who cancelled their Chapel service on that Sunday), sustainability was an issue. Fortunately, however, the vicar had been approached about having a curate, and had asked me to meet him. Jonathan, and his wife Emma, were excited about what was happening with 'Sunday Club'. They were keen to get involved, and from September 2007 they joined me in planning and leading the events. Graciously, on those Sundays, the vicar allowed them to be free from responsibilities in his five parishes to be able co-lead.
We recognised the weakness of our individual churches in sustaining mission and the need for us to work together. As Jonathan shared with the parish churches news of what was happening in Bottisham, one of his other churches, in Swaffham Bulbeck, asked whether it could start something similar. I was invited to be part of discussions about this possibility right from the start, and when, in May 2008, this new event started, it was scheduled for the second Sunday of each month partly so that the 'Sunday Club' families would have the opportunity of attending something twice a month.
This development, however, was not how the members of Lode Chapel had initially envisioned 'Sunday Club' progressing. The fellowship’s hope was that 'Sunday Club' would provide a way for the main Chapel congregation to grow, but although one family had come to a few services, they had not stayed. Families were still coming month by month to the school event, but Chapel services were so different from 'Sunday Club' that it seemed such movement was unlikely. To me, rather than being engaged in an outreach activity, it seemed that we were now involved in planting a new congregation. Although it was difficult for the Chapel members to understand, I felt that my commitment to this new initiative was critical.
The first few Swaffham Bulbeck events attracted a good number of new people, mainly families from that village. Although it was also based in a primary school hall, the feel of this event was quite different. Tables were set out in a café-style (rather than the 'Sunday Club' rows) and there was deliberately a less churchy feel (for example, no singing) to make it more accessible for those with very little, if any, church experience. The hope was that it would be a relaxing and enjoyable place for families to spend some time together doing something fun as well as thought-provoking. The parish church congregation didn’t cancel its morning service but came afterwards to the school (which is next to the church) for shared refreshments at the start of RE:NEW. This was a particularly busy but rewarding time; we were making positive contacts with a number of families who were coming to the school events, and slowly but surely our churches were become more engaged in mission.
There have been some challenges as we've slowly realised that the two styles of event connect with two different groups of people. Whilst the Swaffham Bulbeck event was accessible for the 'un-churched', many of those coming to the 'Kids Club' could be described as 'de-churched' – having some previous, but not current, connection with church. But as we've clarified the vision there have been some exciting times too as a growing number of people at Lode Chapel have grown in commitment and enthusiasm to this mission activity. Many members have a more active role in the 'Kids Club' which is now accompanied by a 'RE:NEW Café' where parents chat over a coffee and watch a Nooma DVD. Jonathan and Emma, whose particular calling is to work with the 'un-churched', are now taking a leading role in organising social events and 'community blessing' activities.
The three of us, along with the rest of the leadership team, see the need for us to be building this fledgling community as well as supporting those who are coming to faith through Alpha and the other small groups that are developing. Recognising the mission opportunity, the Baptist Union is providing a grant that has enabled me to be in full-time ministry since 2008, but nonetheless there is still uncertainty in terms of the future of the congregation and the personnel involved. We are therefore also exploring the possibility of a Bishop's Mission Order, and our prayer is that resources will be found which enable someone to be appointed specifically to oversee the future of RE:NEW.