Sanctus on Saturday

St Mark's, Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent, is the home of Sanctus. Team Vicar Sally Smith tells how it has now developed the Sanctus on Saturday fresh expression of church.

Since its launch, Sanctus – a support group for refugees and asylum seekers – has provided hundreds of people with a listening ear, help with bureaucracy, a friendly face, emergency accommodation and assistance with food, clothing, translation services – and spiritual care.

There is a heavy demand for its services as Stoke-on-Trent is one of the government's 'dispersal cities' for newly arrived refugees.

Sanctus meets each Wednesday morning from 10.30am-12.30pm. Men, women and children are all welcome, though we do have a meeting room which is for women only, as for some women, a mixed environment can be a hindrance to their participation. There is also a creche for pre-school children.

The drop-in sessions are supported by a team of committed volunteers, staff from the local Children's Centre, Sexual Health Services, Mental Health Asylum Support Team and other voluntary organisations.


Hassan Elvan, refugee from Gaza: Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. Never see peace. Thirty three years in Gaza, I saw too much blood in the streets.

Sally Smith, Team Vicar, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent: Stoke-on-Trent is a dispersal city for the Home Office which means that lots of people who are seeking asylum, once they've claimed asylum, get sent to Stoke-on-Trent because we've got a lot of cheap housing. What we were finding is that there were great needs in the community so we started to open the church door and basically welcome people in and several ministries have grown out of that; one of the most flourishing is Sanctus – which is our support group for refugees and asylum seekers.

Female voice 1: Ingushetia is a hot place. It's nice to live there, but if you have some political problems – like my husband did – it's difficult to live there and very dangerous. For that reason we left Ingushetia.

Sally: The people who have made it to Stoke-on-Trent, or to the UK, are people who had the resources actually to get here in the first place so they were people who were able to pay agents or traffickers. Probably the poorer people, the more working class people, haven't had the opportunity to do that.

Female voice 1: I worked for five years in the roads' department, like an accountant. My husband worked in a construction company.

Sally: And then when they get to Stoke-on-Trent they are finding that they are not able to have an outlet for their creativity, for their skills, for their talents, for their gifts.

Hassan: I don't like to stay at home and just sleep in and take benefits weekly. I doesn't like that system. I'd like to make new life, family. Very difficult with me, because refugee I am. Everything sometimes about my situation, difficult too much, for government not helping sometimes.

Sally: One of the things that we're trying to do is work with other agencies to provide opportunities for them to do that. And we are currently having conversations with the Chamber of Trade to see if we can provide volunteer placements in companies at the level at which people were used to working in their own country and in their own profession. We work with the local National Health Service nurses, with the Citizens' Advice Bureau, with the Children's Centres, family support teams and provide a holistic service – spiritually, practically, emotionally.

Hassan: And the church is making everybody very happy. The church is helping everybody. You're helping refugee, you're helping asylum seeker, you're helping about clothes, you’re helping children. Flashbacks make me too upset, make me nervous too much. I came in here four years ago. Different mental health, very difficult. I tried to kill myself 18 times, 18 times. I go into hospital, very dangerous time. I came in here, my life changed.

Sally: Since the new people have started to come into the church building during the week for our drop-ins, we're finding that many of those people are wanting to come and worship with us and some are coming on a Sunday morning so we're having a lot more baptisms, a lot more confirmations. And our recent confirmation services were looking very, very diverse, which was wonderful. It's been quite difficult for some people in the traditional congregation, I have to be honest, and a few people have left.

However, something new is emerging so that the fresh expression that we've started on Saturday – which is Sanctus on Saturday – we're getting lots of people from Iran and Iraq, Eritrea, all over the world, who may not necessarily turn up to church on a Sunday morning but are very keen to be involved in the life of the church. And working with Philip Swan, who's the Cross-Cultural Mission Enabler for our Deanery, we've been able to develop a fresh expression of church where many of the people who come on a Saturday afternoon to share worship, to share food, are hearing about Jesus for the first time. Our Bible reading, particularly, has to be quite interactive because many people don't speak English or English certainly isn't their first language. And the really interesting about that is that we get the people who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu – people from all sorts of faith traditions – who really want to be part of the Bible reading and to play out that part.

So, at the last Sanctus on Saturday, a lady was really keen to play Mary; we were talking about journeys and Jesus getting lost in the temple, Mary was actually a Muslim lady for our reading so that was really quite interesting and it feels quite messy around the edges because a lot of the people don't really fit into what we would think of as fully paid up, signed up Christians. But it's a great privilege to work with these people and to see what God's doing among them and now some Muslim people are wanting to come and help with the worship, help with teas, coffees, refreshments; help in the crèche.

When we're sharing with people from other faith traditions, one of the mistakes that we can quite easily make is thinking that it's about academic understanding so we've started to offer people the opportunity to receive the laying on of hands, prayer, and the wonderful thing about that is we've discovered that people from all sorts of religious backgrounds are really happy for us to lay hands on them and to pray for them in the name of Jesus. And then we'll talk about experiencing Jesus' peace and knowing that Jesus was there with them and, for me, it's not really about that we put someone through a test and 'can you say this' and 'do you believe that?' It's about 'come and meet Jesus, come and feel the difference that Jesus can make in your life, come and let Jesus touch you, come and kneel at our altar and let his Spirit come and wash over you and take away that fear and that anxiety and let Jesus give you his hope'. Not about what I can tell you is true or what I expect you to believe but 'come and experience the reality of the living Jesus, the living Lord'. And that's what's making the difference.

Hassan: Like that light, every time, like angel, like Jesus, like Mary, comes to visit me, make me stronger, pray before sleeping every day, make me too happy. I'm very, very happy if I'm talking like Holy Spirit is coming with me.

Sally: You know that we feel we're really at the beginning of something really quite exciting.

The Stowe

Wichelstowe is a new housing area on the outskirts of Swindon, Wiltshire. Baptist pioneer minister Ali Boulton describes how The Stowe Church has developed there.

On 17 January 2008, in a Baptist ministers' prayer meeting, I was asked to pray for a yet to be built housing estate. As I bent my head to pray, I had one of those overwhelming encounters with God which left me with a sure sense that God was calling me to move to the estate to holistically serve and bless the community and plant a church.

That was the start of the journey which has resulted in the emergence of a new church and positive engagement in a new community.

It is hard to share everything about the last six-and-a-half years in one article so I have picked out some key events and principles. The first one the importance of 'calling' I have already shared.

The next key principles are prayer, partnership and discernment/preparation. The first step in my journey was to join the ecumenical prayer group which was made up of church leaders of the churches surrounding the planned new estateand the town's chaplain. Prayer for the estate started before I joined the group and I feel that prayer has made a huge difference – prayer and listening to God has unpinned the whole process.

The Stowe - housesPartnership has also been key. My first partnership was with the ecumenical group. We worked together on some foundational elements of the project, if I can call it that, we did not however move forward with a local ecumenical partnership in mind, but rather within a framework of a lead denomination. Personally, I think this has been key in allowing a new missional churches to emerge. Not everyone agrees with me but I hope that other denominations will take the lead in other new housing areas within these light touch partnerships based on relational support and prayer.

As well as specifically Baptist organisations, I also partnered the local housing association and the council. The housing association were keen to work with me as soon as they realisedI was going to move into the area because this demonstrated a level of commitment which interested them. They approached me before I moved in and offered me a grant to be able to deliver some of things I felt God was calling us to do – which was amazing! The relationship with both the housing association and the council has deepened over the years and become a really fruitful partnership. We have partnered many other organisations too – including churches, and charities such as those working with victims of abuse, metal health, and children and families.

This all formed part of the 14-month discernment and preparation leading up to moving into the estate. We also built up a team during this time of three other Christian couples who, alongside my family, were committed to unconditionally loving, blessing and serving the new estate. This included a retired Anglican priest, his wife, and two young couples from different church traditions. We covenanted to one another agreeing to be missional together and not seek to be spiritually fed and also to move onto the estate within two years. Unfortunately this last covenant promise has not been met fully as it has been financially impossible for two couples – however we are all still serving the community alongside each other. During this time of discernment and preparation, I constituted and formed a community group – with the other church leaders as trustees as there were no residents at that point. Also, as Churches Together, we applied for a council grant and planning permission for a portacabin on site, and I worked alongside the West of England Baptist Associationfor some help to buy a house and to apply for a special ministries grant from Baptist Home Mission.

The Stowe - welcome basketAnd so in April 2009, my family and I were the first to move on to the estate with a vision to unconditionally holistically bless the community and to seek to join in with the work of God's Spirit. The importance of living on the estate and being there right from the beginning was really significant, as was the call to bless in all areas of life.

It was the time of the credit crunch and so we lived alone on the estate for a month before the next residents moved in. Also because of the credit crunch, all the social houses filled up first. This was high priority social housing, so there were some quite vulnerable people in the first residents.

For the first year, I visited everyone as they moved in and gave them a welcome basket. It got crazy after a while but I would have liked to do it longer. As I met with each new resident I introduced myself as 'I'm Ali, I'm your neighbour. I'm a Baptist minister but I'm here to serve all faiths and none. Let me know if you have ideas about what we can do together.' My visits and the welcome baskets were unconditional – I told them about me but didn't ask for anything in for in return.

I felt that God had said some specific things to us:

  • first, I felt that God had said not to talk about him. It seemed like a strange missional strategy but more people came and talked to me about faith than ever before in my Christian life, which was amazing! Later, when we had some opposition to the Christian presence in the area, people commented that I had never imposed my faith on anyone. This was important as, by then, people had become Christians and a church for the unchurched had emerged.
  • secondly, I felt that God had said that he would tell us what to do through the community. This became very significant as time went on. I guess we just set about making friends with people. Some people wanted to exchange numbers, meet for coffee and set up a Facebook group. We organised a community fun day alongside the housing association and in response to our neighbours, organised community games.

The Stowe - venueAfter the community day, more people got in touch. Within a few days I was contacted for the first time by someone on the brink of suicide – this has become a key part of my ministry on the estate.

I also had some women come to my door saying, 'We loved the community day; will you organise a Halloween party next?' We struggled with that as none of us believed in celebrating Halloween but God had told us to unconditionally bless the community – all faiths and none – he had also told us that he would tell us what to do through the community. After much prayer, and the verse from Acts 10 telling Peter not to call things unclean which God has made clean, we did the party. One of my teenagers commented, 'Mum thinks she has claimed backed pumpkins for God; he thought he had them already.'

It was at the Halloween party that someone said, 'Do you know what I'd like? Wouldn't it be lovely if you did us a nativity play with all the children?' This ended up as a big outdoor community event. If we had said no to Halloween, I think that would have shut the door. The Halloween party is now an annual event.

We continued to serve the community in response to, and alongside, the people around us. Mostly starting in our house, we set up a toddler group, coffee morning, a toddler lunch club, a youth club, an after school club and amazingly we were asked to start a God club for the kids on a Sunday afternoon. There isn't space to share that whole story!

The Stowe - prayer walkingOur first Easter there, in 2010, was amazing. Some people were chatting about Easter and in response to some comment I made, I was asked if Easter was a 'God thing?' To cut a long story short, we put on some activities on Good Friday morning to explore the Christian story of Easter in the portacabin. We expected a few kids or families but about 50 people with no church background came along. It was a very special time. As a result I invited people to join us on Easter Sunday morning and 35 people joined us.

We thought we would do it again at Pentecost – but God reminded us that he was in control and would tell us what to do through the community. So ten days after Easter, someone said she had enjoyed church on Easter day at our house so much, could she come every week? Of course we didn't have a church but as I tried to think what to say she filled in the blanks! '10.30, your house on Sunday?' 'Sure!' And so the next Sunday, church began. The lady who asked me has never been, but that first Sunday, two families came and we saw our first person become a Christian a couple of weeks later on 24th April. We saw her life transform and she was the first to be baptised. Praise God we have seen others come to faith and be baptized too.

As we continued to work in the community the number of people exploring faith grew and we moved out of my house, first to the new school hall then into the community centre. We became a recognised church called The Stowe and part of the Baptist Union of Great Britain at the start of 2013.

We have continued to seek to unconditionally love and bless the community and we have worked alongside people of all faiths and none to establish a charitable community association and build healthy partnerships between the community and wider bodies such as the council and developers. The line between church and community is very blurred but we believe God is in it all and we have seen him bless this estate. This is very encouraging as the current houses are just the first 875 of 4,500 so we have a long way to go yet.

The Stowe - baptismI'd love to share more with you about how God has worked in the local community – through giving us a word to wash the feet of the community, resulting in regular pamper nights, and another word about an empowerment course. I'd like to tell you more about the people who have come to faith, about healings, and lives that have been changed. I'd love to tell you about our community activities, community trips, church camping weekends, our schools' work and my years as chair of governors in the new school and our new work with children, youth and families. But there isn't space for it all!

One of the greatest blessings is seeing new Christians grasping the vision to love and bless this community, some even taking on leadership.

This is particularly significant now as I've now been appointed the Pioneer Mission Enabler for the Southern Counties Baptist Association (SCBA). I'm supporting communities and projects already taking place in the region,helping people to build on mature church traditions and explore what pioneer mission looks like in their context. I'm working alongside people engaging with existing communities and helping to identifying new housing areas, make connections with other community stakeholders and create partnerships. It's exciting to see opportunities already developing.

It's a half-time role so I'll still be at The Stowe and I see the new job as being very much connected to the practical work on the ground. The words 'teaching hospital' come to mind because when people come to visit to see what we're doing here and join in, God seems to inspire them to go and love and bless their own communities. Also some of the community here are keen to support other churches locally; it's part of them being connected to the wider church.

Of course there are and will continue to be many challenges within the Stowe and SCBA as we seek to pioneer. New churches are fragile – people who explore faith come and go as the parable of the sower tells us. But God has done more than we could have asked or imagined and I look forward to joining in with what he is continuing to do both locally and regionally.

Eagles Wings

Eagles Wings - groupEagles Wings is a church plant and community service ministry on a housing estate in Northamptonshire. It was founded by two neighbouring churches.

Two Northamptonshire Church of England churches were running a community ministry on a nearby council estate. A children's club and a family activity were each held monthly, while a team of 17 met every Tuesday evening to pray, worship and plan. Every member of the team lived outside the estate, but there was a growing desire to develop the monthly activities into church.

In 2005 the Diocese of Peterborough invited Richard Priestley and Mandy Priestley, of Church Army, to live on the estate. The Priestleys inherited a team, which they had to get to know.

Our first task was to live and to listen, to try to understand the team and to share a vision for how the church might look,

says Richard.

The vision was to create a community church, where a shared life might become evident.

Richard and Mandy along with the team spent the first year on the estate learning how to model Christian community. Richard and Mandy operated an open door policy to their home, encouraging the team members to eat with one another and setting the example by inviting members to eat with them regularly.

We opened ourselves up to them,

says Richard.

We tried to make the regular gatherings more social. We encouraged prayer for one another as a group, not just for the events and mission. We were modelling a fresh expression of church.

Eagles Wings: 'A place of refuge, a place providing spiritual food, help for practical problems and a listening ear'

The team began to share a vision for a church that would be

a place of refuge, a place providing spiritual food, help for practical problems and a listening ear.

One of the team's families moved house to live on the estate, while a few estate residents began to join in with the team's Tuesday night meetings.

Two types of members were forming in the now growing team: those living on the estate and those living outside, a development which caused Richard to experiment with dividing the team into two along these lines.

This caused some tension, but it helped us all to understand the needs of the estate,

Richard reflects.

We talked and listened through the problems and produced a different approach.

Two groups were formed but with mixed membership.

The process was helpful for community building and awareness of incarnational ministry, a focus of the mission itself,

Richard adds.

Some members left the team, partly as a result of this time of change, which proved a turning point in members' realisation of their commitment to Eagles Wings. While some wanted to continue, others realised that their time of involvement with the new community was over.

They left with a blessing,

Richard says.

We gave permission for the tired members to stop, and we ended one of the events as it was not working in the way it was intended.

Eagles wings - tableEagles Wings is now heavily involved on the estate. It runs youth work and children's activities and partners with other groups such as a Neighbourhood Learning project, which runs cookery courses for low income families, among other things.

Mandy and members of Eagles Wings run a breakfast club at the primary school, which makes contact with parents on the estate, and there is a partnership with a bicycle recycling project. A weekly Sunday tea reflects its vision for sharing and socialising with the local community. Held in a parish hall with around 55 participants, it has taken on 'an identity and a life'. Members have a chance to lead and contribute to the input.

A time of reflection is followed by tea. For a short period of time they tried once a month to have a reflection extending to half an hour of worship as 'a bridging event' for those who are drawing nearer to full participation in church life. This experiment did not work and was not continued. Other ways to bring people to worship are being sought. Small groups take place on alternate Tuesdays, with a central meeting for teaching and worship on the other Tuesdays.

Our vision is for a growing church, but our method is organic,

Richard says.

We want to be a community of faith that by its nature draws people to God, nurtures disciples and sends to mission.

Generation Project

Matt Caldicott leads the Generation Project, set up in 2011 by Rugby Deanery to connect with 20 to 30-year-olds in the area. Matt tells of the story so far, including the launch of Park Pastors.

I started in post in July last year and my brief was to connect with young adults. It was very much a blank sheet of paper and I thought about trying to reach this 'missing generation' in pubs and cafes but it was July, and quite sunny, so – on my first day – I went to the park!

I had previously visited Caldecott Park with my own kids but I didn't really know it that well. It underwent a nine month Heritage Lottery Fund restoration project in 2008/09 and it's a beautiful place, a little piece of heaven in the middle of Rugby.

Generation Project - park

I started to visit it three times a week to prayer walk and meet people. After a week or so, I thought it appropriate to tell Trevor, the park ranger, that I was a Christian hoping to connect with people there. His first reaction was, 'There's a better park down the road for you to do that!' But our friendship has grown over time as our relationship has deepened and now we work together from a position of trust.

My first aim was to meet people of peace and I made contact with many of them during the summer, including:

  • deanery clergy and other local ministers;
  • those involved in local specific mission focused ministries so as to try and not 'reinvent the wheel' and repeat something that's already happening;
  • people with no links to church at present.

An interesting, and positive, challenge in this area is that Rugby churches are connected through the Revive network. This means that church leaders from all denominations meet and work together regularly, renewing vision for the church's mission in the area and the emergence of new projects. As I was coming into such a strong environment of Christians doing all sorts of things across the town, I asked myself, 'How can I start something new with such a lot going on? Where are the gaps?' The park has been such an answer to prayer because it offers a unique base for ministry.

A turning point came when Trevor and I started to chat about the possibilities for the park's Café which had been closed due to the economic downturn. The original idea when the park re-opened in 2009 was that it would become a community hub, but that project had never been realised. We started to dream dreams about, 'What if it reopened as a joint venture; a council-church-run community café that connects with people in various ways? I proposed that we would offer Park Pastors, running along the same lines as Street Pastors, as a spiritual thread to that. We would be based at the Café.

Generation Project - café

During my times of walking the park I had a real sense of it being a place of peace and restoration and I wanted to work on that theme of the peace of the place. We could ask people the question, 'If there are things in your life that are broken, how can we help you to be restored?' Ultimately the idea is to grow missional community out of that.

Rugby Borough Council welcomed the idea of opening up the Café again, put in more than £20,000 for catering staff wages, and even provided us with Park Pastor t-shirts and sweatshirts to signify our 'official presence' within the park. We will be running a pilot 'year' from April to October and the aim is to work towards establishing it as a charity so we can attract funding. My appointment currently sees me running the project for three days a week with the rest of the time spent in pioneer ministry training with the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training Course.

Thankfully I also have a colleague, Aaron Lincoln, who is working alongside me on this. As a church planter he had been called to the area three years ago but he really felt God calling him to get involved in something new – not the traditional church plant he had done before. We started to meet and it has developed from there.

Park Pastors plan to launch at Easter, when the Café is scheduled to re-open, and I would seek to have a mixed-age team. We will welcome all we come across but we do also hope to focus on young dads. There are lots of places for young mums and their babies to go but we want to put the park on the map as a good place for guys to come too, somewhere they can meet other blokes that understand the pressures of family life.

The council has also provided us with a wooded area of the park to install a permanent outdoor labyrinth and we will provide guided meditations for iPods. Hopefully that will be ideal for people working in the centre of town who want to get away from it all for a while at lunchtime.

In another development, I have also become chaplain at Rugby College of Further Education; it is relationship building time at the moment but I can see that in the winter – when we can't be in the park so much – we will be able to base our missional community there.

I have been thinking very much of the theology of the guest: God is here, now, with us and in the conversations we have with people but – in the park – we are on someone else's turf as well. We have been so privileged that the council said yes to us; we are guests in this environment. It turns the tables on what we think about mission and shifts our perception of who holds the power.

If we adopt the attitude of a guest, it takes away some of the barriers as to what is expected of us. It will help us think creatively about how we approach mission and focus us on collaboration, both with the council and the people who visit the park. The very word 'pioneer' can have some very difficult connotations attached to it; I don't like the theology of 'claiming' – it’s too Gung-ho for me and speaks less about Jesus than we might think.

Joining in with what is already happening in a community means that you don't have to try and make people jump through hoops to do things or go somewhere they wouldn't naturally connect with. As Park Pastors, we can offer an added dimension to what is already going on in the life of the park, and hopefully illuminate God's presence through missional community drawing alongside the people we meet.

We have to bring the gospel into new places but when you're invited into someone else's environment, you can't make all the rules, you have to adapt. We need a mixed economy, to be flexible and connect in ways that surprise people.