Neither Young Nor Old

Matthew Edwards and Julie Ferguson lead Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO) in a sheltered housing complex in Aberdeen.

NYNO aims to create fresh expressions of all-age church amongst older people, particularly, but not exclusively, those who live in sheltered housing accommodation. The title was inspired by Galatians 3.28, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus'. In Christ Jesus there is also Neither Young Nor Old.

Stockethill Church of Scotland had been conducting monthly worship services in a couple of sheltered housing complexes for some time. Matthew Edwards, a lay member of the church had been involved in one of these, Stocket Grange, a complex where about 60 residents live in bungalows and flats.

Matthew Edwards begins the story:

NYNO - teamWe had been there for some time but I began to wonder if there was more that could be done. We made several attempts to form something new, including a small group that met for midweek Bible study. That was very important to those involved in it over the years – but we were still asking the question, 'How can we take it further?'

Challenged by the minister to put down on paper what an experimental project might do to answer this question, I put together a funding proposal for the Church of Scotland Council Emerging Ministries Fund (now part of Go for It!), which gives grants to projects for church planting. Within the month, our newly titled project, Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO), had received significant funding.

The challenge was then to actually get the project off the ground, something which took another 18 months because we had to get a management team together, look for further funding and then advertise for two project workers. The project began in earnest last July.

One common traditional approach of the church in its engagement with older people, particularly those in sheltered or supported accommodation, has been to care for them through visiting and, if possible, a short, monthly service. We felt there were real limitations to this:

  • it perpetuates the form of church that, in many cases, has already been rejected over the course of a lifetime by many people outside church circles. As a result it has limited missional impact.
  • older people are 'cared for' in this approach, they are not included in the full life of the church or treated as having a valuable contribution to make or part to play.

NYNO - handsIn NYNO we aim to see new all-age church communities come into being that are accessible to older people and that develop their own identity, teaching, spirituality, leadership, mission and care. The families of older Christians in particular may also find the NYNO congregations to be places of welcome, care and support for their relatives and for themselves.

I think there should be a lot of hope in older people in the Church. If anything new is going to happen, it is generally assumed that it's going to come through engagement with younger people. A consequence of this can be that the significance of older people is minimised inside and outside of the Church. If people do look to the young – and youth culture – all the time as the answer to church decline, older people are left out in the cold which is something which potentially leads to the church being divided against itself. At NYNO, we are determined to work against that.

Julie Ferguson adds:

In one way or another, I have always been involved in care of older people, particularly those living with dementia. I didn't see myself as a church planter when I first saw the job advert for NYNO, although it seemed like a great idea in bringing together community and older people. I wrestled with whether to apply or not for some time, but in the end felt God calling me.

NYNO - entranceIn the complex where we work, we have to build community with people from a wide range of backgrounds and churchmanship. Instead of 'parachuting in' to lead a service, we talk a lot about making this community into a spiritual 'home'. We are all about participation and emphasising the role that everybody can play with the focus on encouraging the laity as much as we can.

In addition to our monthly Sunday gatherings, we meet most weeks on a Thursday for Bible study and a chat. About 25-28 people come on Sundays and there's usually about eight on a Thursday night.

Every now and then we'll also put something on to reach those with no church background at all. This Christmas Eve we hosted a gathering open to everyone, particularly to make sure no one had to be on their own over the Christmas period. We put leaflets in all of the bungalows and flats to advertise our 'soiree' and we had egg nog, mince pies and cakes! It was great to see people who don’t come along on a Sunday – residents, family members and staff.

Matthew and Julie continue:

NYNO - communion

Something that has proved a challenge is the fact that we are lay, not ordained, leaders. Having got into the theology of the body of Christ, we wanted to make Communion central to the worshipping community but, for obvious reasons, there are limitations to the way we can do this and we find ourselves bumping against the divide between laity and clergy.

We are very fortunate that Ian (Aitken) the parish minister comes in every second month to celebrate Communion. On the positive side, as Stockethill Church oversees us, there is a sense – when Ian comes to Stocket Grange – that we are all joining in with something much larger as we gather together for Communion.

There are lot of preconceived ideas about churches with older people in them. We sometimes get responses like, 'So, you sing a lot of hymns then?' In fact, people are up for singing songs they've never sung before; they don't mind having a go at something new. For some people, it's all new because they didn't attend church as a child and are not familiar with what others might assume they knew. But more importantly, we're trying to foster the growth of churches where styles of worship are really seen as peripheral. The most important thing is the diverse body of Christ, old and young, worshipping together in community.

We are looking forward to being able to tell more of what's happening in the lives of the community in which we're involved but this is a journey that can't be rushed. In moving from a 'service' model of church to more of an emphasis on community and participation, we're involving people in change. We can only do this one step at a time, at each stage trying to involve people so that we go on this journey together.

NYNO - local areaIf we find that a community grows that is sustainable and reproducible, we hope we'll be able to share more about what we've done and help others to do the same. As things stand we're always interested in talking to others with similar ideas.

The Church of Scotland has been very supportive in giving us partial funding for two years with potential for another, but we have found it very difficult to access money from elsewhere for church planting. In the end, the project started by reducing the planned number of paid hours.

We're supervised by a management team of five people from different churches across Aberdeen: a missions worker, a lady in her 80s, a retired teacher and a youth worker. We appreciate the diversity of experience represented here. It's important to have that given the type of church we want to see grow. We all meet every few months or so and this team really helps us not to lose sight of why we set up the project in the first place.

Church of the Good Shepherd

Trish Calvert explores the story of the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Shrewsbury Methodist Circuit and their desire to serve the mission and ministry needs of housebound older people, ‘congregating in a new way’.

In 2006 the Shrewsbury Methodist Circuit birthed a new network church called the Church of the Good Shepherd, aimed at older people. The vision centred on addressing the needs of a growing number of elderly and housebound people. I was employed as the Circuit Pastoral Worker to housebound people for two days a week. The aim of this ministry was to offer prayer, comfort and spiritual support in addition to that given by pastoral leaders, and to take the church into the homes of members who were no longer able to attend church. Opportunity to receive 'extended holy communion' was to be an important part of this ministry.

Several months were spent, simply visiting and getting to know new people. Listening to them and discerning their needs was a vital part of this process, together with letting them get to know me. The giving of prayerful support and encouragement was all part of building relationships within the network of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Within the first year a quarterly service of extended holy communion was offered to everyone who wanted it, in their own home (most people who live in residential accommodation already have the opportunity to receive communion from local ministers). I make a point of giving special attention to the detail of extended communion. We produced specially printed service booklets containing a message from the Superintendent Minister, a starched lace cloth, a cross and a proper communion set. All serve to make this a special occasion.

Church of the Good Shepherd

The introduction of hymns and carols (using CDs and a portable player) to begin and end the service has also been enthusiastically received. On these occasions, I can often bring together small groups of friends, family, neighbours and pastoral visitors who all add to the fellowship of the occasion.

During the first year, special prayer cards were made and circulated to all the housebound members. These contained topics for prayer as well as a specially written prayer based on words from John 10. This prayer is often incorporated into our extended communion services.

During the second year, I introduced a quarterly newsletter to help keep the members in touch and informed. It is called 'the Flock' and members contribute short articles and testimonies about themselves and their experiences on a regular basis. We also share special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Through the information contained in the newsletters we have enabled many of the housebound to participate in other Methodist circuit events such as a 'Pray without Ceasing' event and a week of prayer. I am always looking for ways we can include the housebound in the life of the local church.

The housebound members are also encouraged by me to use the Methodist Prayer Handbook which they can order through me. This is also one of my most used resources when visiting.

For the future, we are planning a special one-day event during the summer, to which we shall invite the more able and mobile of our elderly members. It will be a day of fun, fellowship and entertainment, in a lovely venue with all meals provided, and an opportunity for church fellowships to be involved in supporting this day.

Cove Church (the Gathering)

Pastor David Swan tells how a growing community on the south side of Aberdeen is part of the Church of Scotland but is also exploring fresh expressions as part of its ministry.

I was originally a church planter with OMF International (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) in Thailand but then I felt God was calling me into the Church of Scotland. All the way through my training, I knew I wasn't going to be a traditional parish minister and – by the time I came to be interviewed for the position at Cove – I could tell them that they would be employing me as a planter rather than a church minister because my ministry was more apostolic than pastoral. I've been here for eight years now.

In Scotland, at that time, the concept of fresh expressions of church was not one we were overly familiar with though we did have the Church of Scotland's A Church without Walls report and there was increased focus on emerging ministries.

Cove Church - settingThe first three years were quite challenging due to the history of how Cove Church had come into being but it has been a journey of redefining our aspirational values and asking ourselves, 'How do they work out in practice?' A key element of that was always to have 'home churches', bringing them all together on Sunday as a Gathering – which I feel is a good culturally appropriate Scottish way of talking about assembly or ecclesia.

So we now meet together in café style on Sunday mornings at Loirston Annexe in Cove and, during the week, some of us meet in smaller groups in homes in and around the town. In saying that, in Aberdeen there has been resistance to folk meeting in homes due I think to value put on privacy in this part of the world – being a Glaswegian and having worked in Asia that is something I have found hard to comprehend.

However, we now have two of these home churches and people now love and appreciate them for how they follow the model of welcome, worship, word and witness to:

  • have fellowship together;
  • support and encourage each other to explore what God is saying to us.

Cove Church - settingThings are changing; we are now becoming a parish grouping with our sister church – South St Nicholas – which means that we 'share' Dan Robertson as our new community minister for Cove and Kincorth. Dan began as Associate Minister for South St Nicholas Church in September 2010 and much has happened in the time that he and his wife Stef have been there.

It is interesting that, as time has gone on, the congregation has changed dramatically in terms of its make-up. Although we are part of wider Presbyterian network, they don't see their primary identity as Presbyterians – however, they would say that being part of the Church of Scotland adds a certain local credibility and gives reassurance to many that we are not a sect!

Some things have developed and then stopped, including a youth and family charitable outreach project called Blue Horizon, which we developed with 2 other partner churches. The project did much to build bridges in the community, and show care and encouragement to teenagers and the parents of teenagers. We are sad to see the project fold this year but we can see a positive legacy of relationship building that we hope we can develop towards more intentional mission. Beyond Blue Horizon we want to continue to bless, encourage and serve the families and young people in Cove and Kincorth.

Cove Church - singingOn Sunday (29th September 2013) we launched a new initiative called engage to seek to bless our community in any way we can think of – we will start by welcoming people to new homes being built in the area and saying thank you to the heroes of our community. From there, we want to expand and share ideas to get out and about and be a blessing to others and worship God not just with words but by kind acts and works of service. engage will run on the last Sunday of every month and will start by meeting together at Loirston Annexe at 10.30am as usual, and then we'll take it for there.

We do have a lot going on at the moment. Our children and youth programme (Blast) meets as part of the Gathering every Sunday while our teen home church gets together every month for fun, food and an open conversation of what it means to follow Jesus as a teenager in today's world.

For the more mature in age, Seniors is a relaxed, friendly group which also meets monthly at Altens Community Centre. We start the afternoon with a catch-up over tea and coffee and have a theme for the day which is usually of a spiritual nature.

The way I describe all of this is that we are on a journey to be what we always said that we were – but we weren't. We want to be a true fresh expression of church but we're not yet.

Cove Church - groupIn the Church of Scotland, we need to have a new 'language' to describe what churches like ours are doing. Some people think we are 'playing at being church' and there can be little recognition of the values involved in being a different form of church. The thinking is along the lines of, 'You are a little, experimental church but eventually you will grow up, become like us and settle down again'.

Here, the normal procedure – after a period of years – would be for us to go for what we call 'full status' but we don't want to do that as an independent church. Instead we will begin as part of a parish grouping and explore how to structure ourselves slightly differently in the way we do things.  We do need to have a mechanism where a fresh expression church is recognised within the wider church – as any parish church is recognised by the wider church.

From the end of May to the beginning of July I was on a study leave programme looking at fresh expressions of church in England. During that time – and as part of a reading week in Glasgow and prayer week walking the West Highland Way – I was surprised that God was speaking to me more about discipleship and making disciples the way Jesus did. It should seem obvious that we make disciples the way the master did it – so why don't we?

At Cove, we really want to take on that challenge. What does that look like in this area in the 21st century? It's important to keep on asking those difficult questions.

Regenerate-RISE

Praise@Platt is a time of worship that has evolved for all those involved with Regenerate-RISE, a charitable organisation that cares for all those who would otherwise be housebound or isolated, living in either high-rise flats in Roehampton or the more wealthy area of Putney. RISE facilitates outings, activities, lunches and a support service with practical help, home and hospital visiting, along with emergency shopping and prescription collections.

Held on a Sunday afternoon, Praise@Platt is low key, simple and about 45 minutes in length. It includes Bible readings, prayer, a time of reflection, worship with members playing musical instruments to modern songs and a short talk. The Gideons have provided large print New Testaments, and the words of the songs – from Songs of Fellowship for Small Groups – are on the wall via an overhead projector. CDs or DVDs are played as musical accompaniment, with appropriate sound levels for the hard of hearing. 

The service is followed by a meal of sandwiches, crisps and cakes, whilst the worship songs continue to play in the background. Each time, the members are given a picture postcard with a Bible verse representing the theme of the service to think about during the week. This is because the majority who attend do not have any basic Christian teaching to fall back on. 

One member of RISE was recently baptised, whilst other members cheered and clapped when he gave his testimony as to how he became a Christian, and a 92 year man was confirmed after giving his life to the Lord at a specially adapted Alpha course. Praise@Platt hopes to expand in the near future to welcoming older people from the local community to encourage them in their faith and give them a new experience of church.

Sunningdale sheltered housing

Sunningdale is a community of 108 self-contained, warden-assisted flats all occupied by elderly people. Lesley Bailey, a lay-reader at Christchurch, with four others began church services here eighteen months ago.

Lesley says she is well known now among the residents. Some will join in for the end of worship cup of tea even though they don’t attend the rest of the worship. Others will ask for prayer.

There is much to give thanks for at this stage:

  • over ten percent of the community are already in the congregation;
  • members are fully involved in the worship;
  • the entire community being personally invited to each service.

Some members of the congregation are able to lead prayers and others feel comfortable reading the Bible. They may not have done this in a larger church.

Several have rediscovered their faith since services began at Sunningdale. One struggled for several months to overcome her agoraphobia so she could attend the services that are held in the residents' lounge. Now she reads the lesson with enthusiasm and commitment.

Lesley is very excited about how the church is developing. She hopes the next step will be a more in-depth study of the Bible for those who are interested.

Berkswich Luncheon Club

Barbara Rigg reports on a fresh expression for older people in Stafford.

We should never assume that only in deprived inner city areas is there a need for the church to have neighbourly concern and involvement. In our experience at Berkswich Methodist Church we have found that in a relatively affluent leafy suburb of Stafford there are many people who feel isolated and lonely.

Forty years ago many young families moved into new housing in this area. The children are now grown and have flown the nest, leaving residents who, though elderly, still are eager for life and have much to offer.

We at Berkswich hope that in some small way we are helping to address the situation. Let me introduce: Berkswich Luncheon Club

Berkswich - banjosIt was about five years ago when two or three of us, quite independently, thought that a church luncheon club would be a good idea. Our minister, Jeff Reynolds, was enthusiastic. Some of us youngsters (we're all over sixty) who were to become the cooks attended the local college to gain qualifications in food safety; and we were ready to start.

We now have about sixty members and have had to start a waiting list, as we cannot physically cater for more. We serve a three course meal of good home cooked food at a cost of four pounds. (Our generation does not need Jamie Oliver to tell us what's good for us).

We have after lunch entertainment; very often provided by our own members. In school holidays grandchildren entertain with dance, juggling or magic tricks. Highlights of our year include the birthday celebration, a summer outing and a traditional Christmas dinner. Each year any excess income we give to a worthy charity.

Our guests are by no means all members of our worshipping community. Referrals and requests come from many quarters. However, we view the Luncheon Club as more than just a social gathering for the community. It was set up to be church in a totally different setting. Our aims are to be a church congregation that meets monthly on a Wednesday lunchtime and to offer the challenge of the gospel through our hospitality, conversation and service. For many of our regulars, the Luncheon Club is their church and we hope that it will continue to grow into an established church community within the existing church structures.

Berkswich - table

For the future, first of all we'd love a new kitchen. We would like to start to have a lunch fortnightly with two groups of guests; there are many people who could benefit and we don't like to have a waiting list. We have also thought of tea dances (after all we are the Victor Sylvester generation).

Our neighbours, the local comprehensive school are interested in sending some of their older pupils to help, as part of their social awareness programme.

Some of our members say:

Christian care and compassion; fellowship, conversation, entertainment; good food at a reasonable price; fresh flowers, real tablecloths and much more.

A monthly 'High Day' with delicious home cooked food served by lovely helpers in an atmosphere of warm friendship and good fellowship.

A welcome opportunity for us oldies to meet old and new friends. We are greeted by smiling workers in caps and aprons. We are grateful to all involved, including the men who give lifts when needed.

L’Oasis Christian Fellowship

L'Oasis - Peter MasseyBased in Provence, L'Oasis Christian Fellowship, Lorgues, serves the predominantly elderly ex-pat community. Peter Massey explains how it started.

In 2OOO, after a badly needed holiday in Provence, we had a real sense that God was calling us to France to provide a place of shelter and rest; a place for people to spiritually charge their batteries. It seemed such a crazy idea but shortly after returning to Ireland where we lived, I was made redundant. As a result we started to explore the possibility that God was saying something to us.

Watch Peter explaining how L'Oasis began.

The dream was that we try and find a house with space for people to come and stay and that our home was to be open to people from all denominations and none and be an oasis of calm in a beautiful and restful part of the South of France. Needless to say there were many difficulties and hurdles on the journey and it was tempting at times to give up, but God always stepped in and opened doors.

Becoming accepted by the local church was difficult at first. There was an understandable wariness of us as 'these people from Ireland who had just parachuted into the area wanting to start a sort of church'. This was complicated by the fact I am an Anglican minister but eventually we were welcomed and now our ministry has been accepted by the Diocese in Europe and that has helped.

We first learnt about fresh expressions in 2006 and this gave us a real sense of belonging, not just to the church, but to something new and exciting that seemed to understand and reflect our own experience and walk with God.

L'Oasis - eatingOur Sunday worship is based around Communion but is informal in character and is always followed by a shared meal which, in true Provencal style, may go on till 5 or 6pm as people share fellowship together and catch up on each others lives. We meet twice a month, once in our own home in Arc-en-Provence (or in the garden in the warm summer months) and once in a local chapel which is part of a retirement home where we are made very welcome.

When we came to France, we were unaware of the vast numbers of retired ex-pats who either live or have second homes here. There are many needs within this elderly and vulnerable group of people and a third of our fellowship is widowed. Loneliness, low self-esteem and lack of mobility are all growing problems but God has blessed our fellowship with many gifted people of all ages and our Sunday club for the children is growing as well.

L'Oasis - meetingL'Oasis comes under the ARK association – this exists to assist the English-speaking communities of the Var in areas of pastoral care where there may be need of compassionate care or personal support. We work both independently and alongside other agencies who share a similar concern for the welfare and well being of the resident ex-patriot community in this part of France. The ARK is established as a French Association which has a similar status to a UK charity. It is guided by a steering group of professional and dedicated people who live and work in this part of France and share the concerns for the needs of the community. This work is endorsed and encouraged by the British Consulate in Marseilles, the Anglican Diocese in Europe and the British Association.

L'Oasis - kidsIt is an unusual but rewarding 'mission field' and the potential is enormous for communities such as ours to be fostered throughout the south of France, and that is part of our vision. Our focus is on encouraging fellowship and sharing the gospel through action and pastoral care; to be a place of healing and growth and simply offer ourselves and our home for the Lord to use. We seek to be church without walls, Christ-centred, people-focused and Spirit-led.

Barney and Judes

Tim Sanderson leads a café church for 18-30s at St Barnabas and St Jude's, Sandyford, Newcastle. Organisers feel they have been 'running to keep up with God' since Barney and Judes got off the ground in 2010.

One year ago, we were exploring closing our building in this community as the Sunday service had seven regular attenders and building costs were mounting.

Barney and Jude's - MosaicSandyford used to be a family-based community but in recent years has become a place known for cheap student houses, a place where 83% of the local community is aged between 18 and 30. Working with the existing church membership and in partnership with Holy Trinity Church, Jesmond, we converted the building into a cafe space to reach that 83%.

Our aim was to establish a fresh expression of church for those unchurched 18-30s in Sandyford by creating a welcoming and vibrant living space; planting and growing a worshipping community and serving that community.

Renovating the existing facilities has resulted in the cafe-style venue, comprising a warm, relaxing 'lounge' for those in multiple occupancy dwellings. The flexible area, where coffees and cakes are served, is furnished with sofas and offers free Wi-Fi. Students and other young adults are invited to drop in and use the space for chat, performance, art and so on whilst building relationships with the team.

Our café style fresh expression of church runs on Wednesday nights and we have a parallel new work amongst seniors called 'vintage' on Thursdays. The café space itself opens from 4pm to 11pm every weekday evening. We also have teams going door-to-door in the community offering to clear up front gardens and remove graffiti. These teams are drawn from Holy Trinity and Agape student ministries – and a few local residents.

Barney and Jude's - foodWe feel we are running to keep up with God and are delighted at how well the work has started. In a community dominated by multi-occupancy dwellings where no-one has a lounge any more, we are providing one! As part of a community in which seniors and students clash over noise issues and untidy gardens, we are working with both groups and pray that Barney and Judes will become a venue for communication and reconciliation. It's early days, but the first signs are promising.

The Wednesday night fresh expression is intentionally missional and is becoming a new congregation for unchurched and some dechurched. At this stage it's just a small number but they are attracted to the café space and the team who run the fresh expression. We offer many alternative worship opportunities at Holy Trinity in the next parish and have been encouraging any Christians who turn up at Barney and Judes to go there rather than stay with us.

Barney and Jude's - crossNewcastle has a number of large student/young adult churches which do great work but we are interested in the students and young professionals who are put off by large church initiatives, or who would never think to go near them, even when invited by their friends. These are people who struggle with hierarchies and up-front driven programmes. Taking a café style approach seems to be working; it means we not only come together as a fledgling community but also keep in our small groups around tables. This distinctive and focussed missional approach means that regular use of the venue by other church-based student/young adult groups is not encouraged.

We really want to engage with what is called the 'Urban Intelligent'. That title comes from a socio-economic analysis system known as MOSAIC which classifies UK households by ward or postcode. The April 2010 MOSAIC profile of South Jesmond ward, indicates that 83% of the population are ‘Urban Intelligent’: these are students or young professionals living in multi-occupancy dwellings (42% short term student renters; 29% economically successful singles; 15% well educated singles and childless couples). They are the dominant constituent of the local population and therefore the primary focus of mission.

Some 15% of the population here are active older people. The current inherited churches between them cover an extensive local network of seniors. This is a secondary focus of mission.

Barney and Jude's - posterThe church centre is still faithfully used on a Sunday morning at 9.30am by a small group of older ladies – three of whom have just celebrated their 90th birthdays. That operates as a completely separate congregation. What is fun is overseeing a mixed economy in the same building. I'm also interested in how the two congregations might talk together in future about some of the inevitable tensions between students and seniors in this area.

We want to continue planting and growing a worshipping community within the context of a weekly meal, grouped around small group discussion, creative worship opportunities, and some input from the front. Collaborative working is at the heart of this venture. The congregation of St Barnabas and St Jude's have offered significant finances to help with buildings improvement and the part-employment of a parish assistant, but personnel for this venture has been more widely drawn from two main sources: Holy Trinity Church, and Agape Student Ministries.

I lead the small steering team representing all three partners which reports back to each meeting of the PCC of St Barnabas and St Jude. The wider diocese has offered a level of financial support and is kept informed as the initiative develops. The steering team is committed to work flexibly, holding structures lightly and engage in regular review/assessment of the work. In that way we want to model flexibility and openness – in all that we do.

Barney and Jude's - Band

Knit and Natter

Knit and natter - ladiesA fresh expression of church for knitting fans in Ellesmere Port has inspired several similar groups to pick up the needles and wool. One of the organisers Mrs Chris Crowder tells how the original vision has blossomed.

My 89-year-old friend Dorothy was terminally ill with cancer when she received a knee blanket from a church craft group in New Zealand just before she died. I thought of that precious blanket a few weeks later when I visited Somewhere Else, the 'bread church' on Bold Street, Liverpool.

I sat next to Anna Briggs from the Iona Community who runs two secular knitting groups in the city. She had a Knit and Natter bag on her knee; we got talking about what she did and that sowed the seed. Our Minister then met her too and we went on to have a get-together for interested parties at church. I searched the internet for copyright-free patterns and a couple of months later, in September 2008, we opened our doors for the first time to Knit and Natter in the reception area next to the Church.

Knit and natter - hatsIt wasn't long before we had so many members we had to move to the hall and now our members meet every Tuesday afternoon in term time from 1.30pm–3pm. Over the past two years, have posted off more than a quarter of a tonne of knitted jumpers, hats, scarves and blankets to people in need at home and abroad. These have included the homeless, lonely, ill and bereaved of Chester and Ellesmere Port. We have also sent goods to South Africa, Haiti, Kosovo, Nepal, Kenya, Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, as well as having the pleasure of being able to knit for children by name at an orphanage in Swaziland.

At the start of the meeting we put out a cross in the centre of the room on a table covered with Dorothy’s blanket and members put their completed knitting on and around this table. We also place a collection plate on the table as we take donations rather than subscriptions. Our postage costs are covered by the monies donated: just like the feeding of the 5000, there is always enough.

Our meetings end with short devotions which, initially, we were rather nervous about, but how wrong we were! We were so wary of the missional side of things but it is now at the heart of what we do. Although the majority of our members are not regular churchgoers, they readily ask for prayer and acknowledge answers to those prayers. On the Knit and Natter membership card, it has this from Matthew 25 v37-40: 'When Lord did we ever see you naked and clothe you? I tell you that when you did this for one of the least important of my family you did it for me.'

Knit and natter - babyKnit and Natter isn't just a knitting club making clothes for charity – it is a fresh expression of church which works on many different levels, giving people a purpose in life and sending God's love around the world. There is no doubt at all that many of our members see Knit and Natter as their church, they recognise the fact that we are meeting together in community and God is there.

A team of four of us usually co-ordinate it and we all play to our strengths: the other three are wonderful cooks and make delicious cakes whereas my efforts are rather hit and miss! They are also very adept at setting up the hall and clearing away afterwards. I lead the devotional time and try and write a prayer that's meaningful and pertinent to our particular theme of the day. In that respect, the members tend to think I'm the leader but there is absolutely no way I could run the group without the invaluable support of the others.

We usually knit at the beginning, have cake and tea at about 2.15pm and then have notices and devotions for the final quarter of an hour. I start passing round the prayer list about mid-way so it is complete by devotions time. We finish every week with the Lord's Prayer. We sit in a circle so that all are included and there are no separate cliques; it's as part of this community that concerns and questions are raised.

Sometimes we will have 45 come along, at other times we have 30.  If one of our team can't get to a person who needs a sympathetic ear or to a new member who needs to be made welcome, we know that one of the established members will take on that role. Just because most of our members are older in age doesn't mean that they are immune from problems: one lady suffered suicidal thoughts, but came to see Knit and Natter as a reason to go on; another had lost her husband when she first came to us and was very low in spirits – however, she is now talking about approaching the local hospital to ask if she can start a Knit and Natter Group there to help people with mental health problems.

Other members do come to church but haven't been coming for very long and Knit and Natter provides contact with the regular church members and helps them to get to know us. A group come from the other Methodist Church in the town and we have got to know them really well – this has strengthened the bonds between us. We also have some members from other denominations and have also invited several speakers from different church backgrounds.

Knit and natter - boyKnit and Natter has inspired people to start similar groups in Northolt, Bromborough, Lymm, Kettering, Little Neston, Heswall and Chester. The latter is an Anglican group that is going to approach the Methodists to see if it can be run jointly – again strengthening bonds between churches. We have even been Club of the Month in Simply Knitting magazine!

I'd encourage people to look at their own communities, listen to them and decide if there is an opening for a group. If so they should know that it will grow and mean more work than they initially anticipated but it's also gratifying and wonderful. I feel it's where God wants me to be because it's practical Christianity.

We let members knit what they want. I even have a couple of ladies who can only natter rather than knit, but they have proved a real asset in their contribution to the group.

Looking forward, we have been approached by the local Academy to see if they can bring a class of 14-yr-olds to join us to learn to knit and crochet and the local Women's Refuge is also very interested – it's all very exciting!

But for me the most important thing is not how much we produce in terms of output but it is the love that exists between our group both for one another and for the world at large.

Knit and natter - knitting

Loving Hands

Sue JacksonKnit one, purl one, create a fresh expression of church in the Warrington Methodist Circuit. Support worker Sue Jackson explains how the simple idea of knitting groups has led to a loving community wanting to help those around them and find out more about faith.

How wonderful to be paid for something you love doing, what a gift from God! To start off, we had heard of a similar initiative operating in Ellesmere Port and we visited it. We were amazed by what we saw because it was so vibrant. We developed the resources they gave us, and incorporated the devotional at the end of the time together. Now it's simply church on a Thursday afternoon, and we love it.

Loving Hands - knittingIt's fantastic to see that church taking shape as people come together, enjoy time together and with God, and create something that really makes a difference. I get my knitting devotions by going online; Christians around the world are doing similar things and there are some inspirational studies to use.

People's lives have been transformed by Loving Hands. One of our members, Robin, first came along with his wife Eileen. She duly gave him some needles and wool to knit a square, but he quickly moved on to lacy blankets and all sorts of things. Robin is well known locally as a choirmaster but found himself unable to conduct while awaiting hip replacement surgery, he was glad to put his hands to good use by knitting instead.

Loving Hands - bagA lady turned up and asked me to teach her to knit. I helped her to cast on, and she told me that I wasn't doing it correctly! She then said she had been a knitter when she was younger but hadn't done anything for years. Next time I saw her she was knitting quite a complicated basket weave blanket. Now the lady who 'couldn't knit' is on the internet all the time learning new stitches and teaching them to everyone else.

When people arrive they have a rummage through the wool and needles and patterns we've got and then decide where the results of their efforts are going to go. We've done things for the Mission to Seafarers, and the Children of Honduras Trust, but we've also knitted lots of fingerless gloves for all the local ministers…

Loving Hands - jumperWe meet on alternate weeks at Lymm Methodist Church hall, Eagle Brow, Cheshire, and the Ryfields Retirement Village, Warrington. One 95-year-old lady, who is registered blind, said she hadn't knitted for 'donkey's years' and feels her life has been transformed by this simple act. We've also got a knitting corner in the coffee shop at Padgate, where people knit squares for blankets while they chat, eat and drink.

If we know of anyone who has been bereaved or ill, or could do with a bit of comfort, the Lymm group make them a scarf and send it with a card. Every time they are feeling lonely or desperate, they wrap these scarves around their necks or cuddle them.

Loving Hands - dollOne lady took three scarves to friends who were unwell. She said to me:

Now I understand. I knew we were a group knitting things for charity, but I didn't see the bigger picture until I took those scarves to people who needed them. One of my friends wrapped it around herself straight away; it was so comforting and meant so much to her. It's not the knitting, it's not knitting at all, it's God.

Methodist minister Revd Jackie Bellfield is thrilled at the church's development.

Knitting is one of those things that used to be very commonplace, and every family had someone who could create that much-needed jumper or baby outfit. Then it went out of fashion as people bought ready-made items off the shelf but now it's making a comeback, and Loving Hands is part of the revival.

What started as an opportunity to create knitted goods for charities and community groups has developed into a place where people talk, share their problems, pray and take part in a short devotion. Church in a new sense has emerged, and it’s about a lot more than people getting together and having a chat.

The group makes all sorts of things, including items for the local premature baby care unit, and the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, Sands. As a result of that, some of the women in the church have talked about miscarriages and stillbirths they suffered 40 or 50 years ago. These are things they have never talked about before, and would never have talked about to this day without Loving Hands. That can only come from God.