Emma Major tells how she followed a fresh expressions 'journey' to develop People, Prayers and Potatoes (PPP) Messy Church.
People, Prayers and Potatoes at St Nicolas, Earley, does what it says on the tin – we bring people together once a month at midday for a Bible story, craft, activities, worship and prayer before sharing a jacket potato meal. Since we started four years ago, we've served up over 2,200 jacket potatoes!
I will tell how it developed through the fresh expressions' journey of Listening, Loving and Serving, Building Community, Exploring Discipleship, Church taking shape, Doing it again.
After completing my training to become a Licensed Lay Minister I spent a year in formation discerning what God wanted me to do at St Nicolas, Earley. Being a mum in the playground at the local primary school it became clear to me that there were many families searching for something 'God shaped'. I was forever being asked things like, 'What do you believe in?', 'Will you pray for me?' I encouraged them to come along to St Nicolas, and for their kids to join the thriving Sunday School, but the majority of the families had never come to church so this was a step too far.
Our standard 10am service at St Nicolas is quite formal so it's just not the right place to bring people into a church environment if they've never known it before. It really wasn't attracting the people who don't have a background in church.
Loving and Serving
Over several months of prayer and conversations with the unchurched families, the concept for People, Prayers and Potatoes evolved. Over the years I've found that God tends to speak to me in images and it was at this stage that I got an image in my mind of people sitting down and eating together, I then wrote what I thought that was all about in terms of exploring faith.
It sounds incredible but, within two weeks, I knew how it was going to work in practical terms and I'd chatted it all through with my vicar, Neil Warwick, who was really supportive. A friend offered to come and cook a jacket potato lunch for whoever was going to turn up and we'd see what happened.
With the help of a few keen teenagers, and two expert cooks, PPP was born as a place where families could come and meet God, many for the first time. Interestingly I only discovered Messy Church, and its resources, after about a year of us running PPP! So I did not have that model in my head and we are not exactly like a Messy Church because there is no set format each month but it gives a verbal shorthand for the type of thing we do.
PPP takes place on Sundays at mid-day. If children are involved in football on Sunday mornings, the matches have finished by then so it seems to be a good time. We don't try to make something that suits everybody because you can't but we keep it very simple with a talk, doing something with the kids, go into the church for some worship and prayer – and, of course, eat together.
All we did was ask people we knew from the school and the community to come and join us. We told them that we didn't really know how it was going to look but that we'd have a God story in one way or another and that it would be a type of church. The line was, 'Come and try it. What have you got to lose? We'll feed you lunch!'
I thought no-one was going to come but People, Prayers and Potatoes, as a Messy Church, was popular right from the start and six families turned up for the first one. It was all very informal and unthreatening. Within three months, those initial families had brought friends who also kept coming; and families approaching St Nicolas for baptism came to PPP to explore faith as a family. Now, four years on, we regularly have 50-60 children – and their parents and carers – who worship together. We've got babes in arms, children at every primary school level and four teenagers who are part of the leadership team.
We have a jacket potatoes rota where the families volunteer to cook lunch for everyone else and we also have a craft team who come up with wonderful ideas every month. PPP is truly a community of families exploring and growing in their faith together. Two years ago I started the 'Mums and More' group to which a dozen mums from PPP belong; this is a group which explores prayer, the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. We also ran a nurture course which fed them further.
I am a person who likes to take the risks and start something new; I want to keep pioneering and you can't do that until you help what you have started to grow to be sustainable. In saying that, PPP is extremely cheap to run with the food costing about £30 and the craft materials no more than £10. It's also interesting that the families who come along now take it in turns to do the jacket potatoes; they say it's their gift to the community of PPP – others might donate some craft resources for use in our activities. That culture of giving is already there.
Church taking shape
We have never had a huge team but have grown a planning and leadership group of three from the families who call PPP their church. Over the last two years we have had three Messy Church adults' baptisms and we are thrilled that six of the PPP mums will be confirmed in a Messy Confirmation at the start of September 2015. People, Prayers and Potatoes is truly a church in its own right at St Nicolas, Earley.
Doing it again
I am now in the process of handing over the leadership of People, Prayers and Potatoes – partly in response to the fact that a decline in health means I need to step back from those particular responsibilities. That's OK with me because I never wanted to hold on to the reins too tightly. When you step out to do something, you should create space for others to flourish and I've already been fortunate to see that happen. The leadership team have run three PPP services to great acclaim alongside the clergy worship team. They are gaining confidence in planning the year ahead and it is a joy to see their faith grow as they lead others as they were led. I have no doubt that People, Prayers and Potatoes Messy Church is in extremely safe, motivated and enthusiastic hands!