New Song Café has been running at Bold Street Methodist Church, Warrington, for three years. Jackie Bellfield traces its story as a fresh expression of church.
It's amazing to think back to how it all got started and what our intentions were with it. The whole point was for it to be a stepping stone to some sort of gathering in a local Costa.
We did not anticipate that people would come in the numbers they did and we still welcome new people every month to the Bold Street Mission's church hall but we're not in Costa… yet! We're currently up to 125 and we'd struggle to fit more people in at the moment. About 30% of regular attenders now see New Song Café as their church and that number is increasing all the time. It's because New Song Café is offering them vibrant Christianity while creating community, building relationship and providing opportunity to explore issues of faith in a friendly, non-threatening environment.
New Song Café meets on the 4th Sunday of the month from 7pm to 9pm. In saying that, it never starts on time… we have local preachers who come along and point at their watches because people are still chatting to each other and having coffee at 7pm. They say they're ready to start but we tell them that we have already started because the chatting and the coffee and the being together is all part and parcel of it. That's what community is.
In a way, we are a bit unusual as a fresh expression in that the whole thing for us is about focusing on worship as the heart of what we do. Many fresh expressions discern that introducing worship may be later down the line for them in their development because so many people have so little experience of what it means to worship. For us, in our context, it is different.
When people arrive they'll get a coffee or tea and select from what is normally a mountain of cake on offer! They'll have a chat, I'll welcome them in – particularly anyone new, we may have a short video clip or something but then a worship band will lead us in singing 12 songs during the evening. We'll have a giggle and I'll tell a few stories and have a joke with people as we go on because it's important to celebrate people's presence.
We recently welcomed a special guest – Wolfie, the mascot for the Warrington Wolves rugby league team. People queued up to get a photo taken with him. Everyone really enjoyed that – except for fans of the club's local rivals, the Widnes Vikings!
Our band comprises drums, trumpet, keyboard and guitar. They really get things going and it's fantastic to see all the ages taking part – our oldest regular is 89 and the youngest participant was six days old. We've now got every age in between. There's also a great denominational mix among those with current and previous church links – mind you, some of those links have been very fragile; some have mums or dads who go to church but they have been fringe members themselves. New Song Café has helped them to get engaged on their own terms because of its very open environment.
We'll sing six songs, including two new songs every month, and then we'll have a break of about 25 minutes before singing a further six. In the past three years we have learned over 300 songs. If people are not accustomed to singing in public with others around them, they can be a little puzzled at the start of it all – but that's OK, we'll just give people time and space to get used to what's happening. After just one song, I can guarantee that the feet will start tapping and there maybe tears or they will be singing. People are really responding to the worship and those not linked to traditional congregations or fellowships now see New Song Café as their church.
We need to consider what we do next with New Song Café because we are at the critical stage of thinking about how we move it forward. One thing that is going to happen is that we will grow the New Song network to include a New Song Breakfast to again offer a very different style of church – though still in the context of worship. There will also be New Song Pub Church.
Some of those who come along have been disenfranchised or hurt by traditional church but they are seeing New Song Café as their future. In feedback from them they say they know they can also bring their non-Christian friends along with them because they know it's going to be consistently good and it helps them to start having godly conversations along the way.
There's no doubt that New Song Café is becoming a very loving and caring church. A key decision as things unfold is whether to create New Song Church as a separate entity or continue to operate under the authority of Bold Street Methodist. At the moment we decided to continue with the latter. This has been great and has really enabled us to see mixed economy in action; the established church has been really fired up because they see New Song Café developing. As a result they see the future of Bold Street – now part of Sankey Valley Methodist Circuit – as being more secure because of what we are doing. It really is mixed economy in action.
I love the traditional, I love the inherited but that alone is not going to be sustainable in its present form for the next 50 years. What will carry Bold Street through is the network of church communities developing. New Song has grown beyond what we ever imagined. Thinking back to the original idea for it all, we might well end up going into Costa and we have an invitation to do so but the next thing is Pub Church in a local bar on a Sunday night.
There are still so many questions of course. How do we grow this? How do we nurture it bearing in mind that some of the people feel disenfranchised with institutional church? How can we adapt our denominational system so that we can be more flexible in structure when things are developing? Could worship leaders, for instance, be licensed to a circuit rather than to a church? At the moment there are quite a lot of challenges around these things and it can be quite frustrating at times.
Sankey Valley Circuit has brought together the former Warrington, Widnes, St Helens and Prescot, and Ashton and Makerfield circuits. Its purpose is to release us for mission and it's wonderful that New Song Café certainly does tell others about Jesus. However, we know that New Song Café is not for everybody and that will also be true when we start up the Pub Church but we're happy with that because we are simply looking to create opportunities for godly relationships.
We have also set up discipleship evenings and between 18 and 25 people now come to that. Thirty five people also came on an away day to explore more about faith. People are being transformed by singing worship to God and the tears of freedom and liberation are phenomenal.
New Song Breakfast is just about to start from 9am to 10.15am at Latchford Methodist Church followed by a traditional Communion service. There will be half hour of bacon butties and then there will be a couple of video clips to prompt a discussion time. The same theme will be used for the New Song Breakfast and the Communion that follows.
Looking ahead, we have been discussing our strategy for future development and 20 people have made a commitment to the New Song Network. We are now exploring the future and are developing a variety of roles in leadership. To be honest, I'm just trying to keep up with it all. We've just given out a New Song calendar detailing what we hope to achieve in 2012. It says, 'Keep calm and pray on!'