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.

The Upper Room

Upper Room - Kim HartshorneHope Cirencester opened The Upper Room in 2008 with the aim of reaching out to people who had never been to church to show them that Jesus loved them in a way they could understand and relate to. Leader Kim Hartshorne tells how a cup of tea and chat can lead to a world of opportunities.

We provide a welcome and a place of acceptance. We felt that society has become quite fast moving and many people are isolated, not heard or noticed by anyone, especially those who are vulnerable. We felt Jesus would want to welcome them and so we became his hands and feet for that. We try to demonstrate Jesus' love for people – that they are each unique, valuable, precious and made in God's image.

Listen to Karen Hartshorne discuss The Upper Room with Karen Carter.Read the transcript

We run a drop in space called The Upper Room above a shop in the Market Place, Cirencester. This is open on Monday and Friday mornings and that's when we listen and welcome everyone with a cuppa. We run meditation classes, eat out together and support local people and charities. Many people who find their way to us have never had any background in church and so we gently offer to pray if they have a problem, explaining that Jesus does care about the small things of daily life. We try and chat in a relaxed way about what the Bible says, but always offering space for disagreement or conversation. We are helping people start their faith journey and travel alongside them as it develops.

Upper Room - paintingWe have seen some amazing answers to prayers small and large. It is noticeable in the past year however that we have seen our visitors suffering greater pressures than anything we've seen before in the areas of finance, family issues and mental health problems.

As a registered charity, Hope Cirencester's aims are to show the love of Jesus and alleviate need and distress in Cirencester and elsewhere. It all started when a group of us we were praying for our town and we were really hoping to take church out onto the streets and just get involved in a missional 'day to day' sort of way with our community. We were praying for a building on one of Cirencester's estates but we didn't find one so we kept on prayer walking and calling out to God, 'Where do you want us to do this?'

Eventually an estate agent contacted us to say they had a set of three rooms right in the market place so we asked him for the keys and brought a team of about 12 people here, including some church leaders from other churches in the town. We prayed in the building for the morning and very much sensed the presence of God here so we felt that this was the place to be.

The Upper Room is accessible to those who wouldn't necessarily do traditional church because they feel it wouldn't be for people like them, saying it's only for people who are clean and neat and have nice clothes and drive big cars or whatever. A lot of our visitors are homeless or people with addictions, severe depression or mental illnesses, those who have perhaps suffered abuse in the past, people who just find it very difficult to access things that they just consider to be for the well-educated. Perhaps church is too 'intellectual' for them and they need to 'see' the Gospel demonstrated practically in order to grasp it.

Upper Room - bibleSo they come in for a tea or coffee and to talk to us about what's going on in their lives. We offer to pray with them, signpost them to other agencies, and go with them where they need to go or advocate for them if they need us to. Social justice is really connected to the gospel and so when Jesus comes to someone, you would expect to see changes in every area of their life – and that's why we just try and look at where Jesus really would begin to work in their life and we follow on from that. For example we have supported mums learning to read for the first time, sent someone away on holiday for a break, we supply starter boxes to people moving into a refuge and fill up flasks of coffee for homeless people in the town.

The Message translation that says, 'The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood', is talking about Jesus transforming whole neighbourhoods when he comes. So we work really collaboratively with all the other churches, charities, Citizens Advice, local council – everybody that will have a connection with us in order to go and try to build bridges for the sake of the Kingdom.

I'm inclined to say The Upper Room is like a mini branch of social services combined with a prayer room and a coffee shop; just like the church in the Victorian era built schools and eradicated slavery, and Anglo-Catholic revival 'slum priests' ministered to the poorest people. Instead of a binary way of thinking that is 'either/or', for us, it's 'all/and'. That to me is a sacramental view of life – everything belongs to God and so we are 'being' church in everything we do.

Upper Room - hotelWe don't have a Sunday expression at the moment but it seems that the Spirit is leading us to consider that and we're really praying and brainstorming and just waiting on God to see what will bubble up. I'm sure something is coming, we don't know what it's going to look like yet, our team is still waiting – but God has gone ahead of us and has a plan.

Our people seem to want things that lead to belonging, they want to be together with each other and be together with us so people will say things like, 'Why don't we go out for a curry?', 'Why don't we invite some people in?' or perhaps we'll have a birthday party for someone. On Easter Sunday we gather at my home for a BBQ to celebrate our belonging – to Jesus and to one another. We're open to all of that because belonging is a big deal in today's society; belonging is such a huge part of faith to me and if we can help people to belong and to feel safe, to join in community and in family together we'll have already done so much of the journey towards the gospel, towards Christ.

The Junction

The Junction, drawn from the work of Hexthorpe Methodist Church, has much to celebrate but it faces many challenges too. Donald Reasbeck explains.

Hexthorpe is an evangelical Methodist church in an area close to Doncaster town centre, and is in the Doncaster Circuit and Sheffield District. We also have strong links with Methodist Evangelicals Together (MET). Hexthorpe is an old railway community of about 4,000 people.

The area has deteriorated rapidly over the past 14 years or so; we now have all the problems of an inner city area but on a smaller scale. In 1991/92, we drew a line across a map of Hexthorpe and became aware that all of our church members – except one – and all the children, came from one side of the line. Half of Hexthorpe was virtually untouched by the church. We started a drop-in in the church hall on a Thursday morning. Surprise, surprise, no-one came. A church building is threatening to many people. So we bought an old butcher's shop to use as premises for a drop-in and appointed a manager in 1993. That's how the Junction started.

In 2004 we opened the Rising Sun pub nearby and we have still got both premises. Previously we did try to go out and about; after Hexthorpe's evening service we'd sing in the streets and one of us would speak. Very rarely did we see anybody. Then we started knocking on doors and asking if people would like us to pray for any problems they might have. We got various responses and then we thought, 'It's alright praying, but what are we doing?' We knew the message was getting through when the Junction manager opened the door to a woman with two children, who was clutching a carrier bag containing all her worldly possessions. She had been given a house to stay in which was no more than a hovel and she said, 'Can you do anything for me?'

The Junction - drop-inIn August 2010 our monitoring and evaluation report included details of numbers using the Junction facilities over the previous year – 1,218 enquiries were dealt with and an average of 36 people a day dropped in. Issues dealt with included benefits, bereavement, housing, crime, addictions, health issues, harassment and bullying, form filling, relationships, domestic violence, child protection, unemployment, letter writing, homelessness, work permits, CVs, education, food, debt, anti-social behaviour, violence, utility supplies, asylum matters and bogus callers.

The challenge in serving local residents of a wide range of nationalities – including Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe – is a constant one. We have good links through one of our volunteers, who also works with the church's Farsi congregation, and our Careforce worker, who has a weekly session in the local school. Forty percent of the children do not have English as a first language and some 26 different languages are spoken at home.

In a Government survey of three years ago, Hexthorpe was 23rd out of 34,000 so-called Super Output Areas in the whole country. These measure deprivation by certain indices. Therefore we are convinced that it is essential for us to continue to provide the day-to-day facilities – a safe place to sit and meet with others and talk or just be quiet, a drink of tea/coffee, a prayer.

An exciting new development for 2010 saw the starting of a weekly lunchtime service which complements the weekly bible study and the occasional celebration evenings. The Junction also hosts a Christianity Explored group for men. Our aim is to continue to develop the sense of Christian community and to present the gospel in words as well as in actions.

We have been strongly supported by the Doncaster Circuit. They are most generous in the grant they give towards the salary of our operational manager's salary.

Our funding raft continues to consist of contributions from the Methodist Church – local, town and district level, the private charitable sector and the statutory sector. We still draw in an income from the rents of flats above the Rising Sun pub, in which we provide accommodation for those needing a secure environment. For the foreseeable future we have to look for external funding to help with salaries for staff. Therefore the continuing support from the Methodist funds is essential if our work is to have a firm financial base.

Money from the Doncaster New Deal for Communities has come to an end after a decade of support. An initial grant towards renovation costs of the Rising Sun has since been followed by financial support towards the provision of computers, various goods and, vitally for us, two contributions towards the manager's salary.

The Junction - coffee

We must continue to seek funding over the next year from both private and statutory sectors. We have two paid posts, a full time manager, and – for the last four years – a managerial administrator, shared by two people. In addition there are nine volunteers. We cannot sustain the salaries without support.

Our work with young people has been very challenging. Some are excluded from school and are at a loose end most days. Others when not at school would sooner be outside rather than at home. On occasions violence has been threatened against staff or property but generally they respect our discipline, although there are moments! The Junction is not a youth centre, but the need for provision for these youngsters shouts out at us because there is no provision at all in the community for young people.

We will continue to keep the provision for young people under constant review because resources – human and material – are limited and we must be careful not to overreach ourselves by spreading too thinly. However, the situation is really critical.

We will continue to support all initiatives that seek to help the community and bring lasting benefits. The Junction endeavours to see that the community is consulted and involved from the beginning. Local people don't like to be told what they need by the experts!

During the coming year the Hexthorpe Methodist Church hopefully will have begun their major scheme for building new premises. We must develop our thinking so that the Junction can fully utilise the new facilities.

People should beware of using terms such as success or failure. If God has called us to a work then we have to be faithful to that calling. Yes, monitoring and evaluation is important but in the end the question is, 'Have we been faithful?' What is success or failure? The world thinks in such terms. Jesus healed 10 men with leprosy and only one came back to praise God. Was there then only a 10% success rate? Obviously that can't be the case. There was a 100% compassionate heart. Encouragement is essential. Yes, talk about encouraging signs, but if none is forthcoming, still be faithful. Headline success stories have a habit of coming back to bite you. If one is asked to talk about the work, tell it as it is – warts and all.

Planning is essential. Working towards objectives is helpful and necessary, but there has to be flexibility. New challenges emerge and we have to be prepared to take them on board. If necessary we have to be willing to change course. Care must be taken not to overstretch; resist the temptation to get involved in empire building.

We are not a branch of the social services, we have a Christian distinctiveness and that distinctiveness has become increasingly less of a barrier to the accessing of secular funding. Relationships and trust are so important in this area. The spending of grants for their designated purpose and the diligent keeping of records and accounts are appreciated by outside funding agencies. Resist the temptation to compromise on your Christian emphasis in order to attract grants – it usually doesn't work anyway and can have a negative effect.

Catch the vision first. Don't say at the outset we can't afford it. Dream the dream, put flesh on it, and then consider the costs and possible sources of finance. If you begin with finance then that could be the end of the dream. If it is of God then the way will open up; but only after much prayer, thought and hard work.

The Junction - puppets

Any project must be an integral part of the life and ministry of the church. The prayer and support of the whole church is essential. It is not just for a few enthusiasts.

Leadership must be anchored in and responsible to the local church. We have learned that what we do must have a scriptural base and that many times events drive us to reflect in Scripture. There are many social schemes around. The church should not provide yet another one. Any outreach must be part of the life of the church. We are not just another project but we are the living body of Jesus; we offer life in all its fullness.

You have to listen and respond but we have learned from our mistakes. Our belief in the gospel and the power of Jesus to change lives has not changed whatsoever, but we have discovered that there are various ways in which people come into that truth.

Over the last 18 months we have developed a regular lunchtime service with an average of 15 of us sitting around a table. We will have a song, a reading, a talk and discussion followed by sandwiches and a cake.

Eighteen years ago our vision was that the Junction could be a new kind of church that we found hard to describe at the time. Some people do regard it as their church – though we are very much part of the local church. We would say it's essential to be part of the local church. We are not separate; it's not the Junction and the church. We lay great emphasis as a church on teaching and preaching but we have learned that you can't make assumptions. We learned that when after a service somebody asked, 'Who is this bloke Paul that you keep talking about?' We are not quite certain who is going to be there and we are never quite certain what is going to happen.

We should never stand still. Once you do that you become institutionalised, then fossilised, then closed. We are constantly looking to see the direction we should be taking.

It would be marvellous if all of those who come to the Junction became Christians but it's not conditional. We love and serve them all. Sometimes we're asked how many people have come from the Junction into the life of the church and how many have become members. In terms of outlay has it been 'successful'? Has there been a good return on the investment in them? Thankfully we don't think in those terms. It's great when people do come to faith, but we are just called to do what we do. We can do no other.