Gold on Tour

Sharing the stories of Fresh Expressions is what we do, but sharing good news of Fresh Expressions is what we LOVE to do. When the jungle drums brought news that Wolverhampton Pioneer Ministry (WPM) was awarded a Gold award for their work last November we were rightly made up for them, but also wanted to find out what they’re doing that other Fresh Expressions can learn from.

“For those of us involved in leading WPM, the Gold award from the Christian Funders Forum was a totally unexpected – but very lovely – recognition of the work we do here,” says Deborah Walton, WPM’s leader. “However, for the young people who are part of our community it means much more. Many of them have never received such encouragement or appreciation before, and so this has been a special moment for us as a wider organisation. It is a great confidence boost to people who have received a lot of knock-backs through life.” This sense of community ‘ownership’ of the award has been outworked in several ways. A service of celebration followed by a Ceilidh gave community leaders and members a chance to mark the moment together, but since then – in a creative and contextual plan that perhaps sums up the embedded practice of WPM – the Gold award has gone on tour. “The award is travelling at the moment,” Deborah told us. “Everyone is having a week with it – its currently working its way around a block of flats!”

This tour is not to give everyone their own little moment of glory, but represents the desire at the heart of WPM to ensure that their work has longevity – that there is a legacy which goes beyond this moment and leads to a life-long relationship between young adults and wider structures of church. WPM has now been established for ten years, and this has been an intentional development in its practice. Whilst the Sunday night meeting, ‘Vitalise’, used to see high attendance figures, there was awareness amongst leadership that these young people were mostly drawn from existing church links. “Our mission has always been to those on margins,” says Deborah, “young adults who don’t have support structures in place and who may have had a rough time through life.” Whilst Vitalise numbers have reduced, the community gathering is now comprised significantly of people with no previous church background – and through WPM’s Bluefish Chaplaincy around 400 young adults a week are engaged with and supported.

The challenge that this shift creates is how to embed sustainability into the ministry; young adults grow up, and if they have only ever engaged with one style of church how will they find a longer-term home in the inherited church? WPM are working actively to remove barriers between young adults they work with and wider church experience. “It’s about bridging the gap”, says Deborah, “thinking about discipleship as a life-long journey and building familiarity with inherited church.” Monthly services led by local clergy help build this wider sense of community, and moments to mark belonging within different denominations begin what the team hope will prove to be long-term relationships.

This commitment to long-term discipleship is a distinctive and intentional aspect to WPM’s work, and is perhaps what was recognised through the Gold award. As the trophy continues to tour we are excited to see how things evolve as this pioneering work is sustained and nurtured. The Gold award is a great moment – and we hope that it brings encouragement in every living room its visits – but the work is ongoing and points to a future that will sustain its community members for the long-term. 

Story by Hannah Skinner

Red Church

Ben Dyer tells of the development of a missional community of young adults in Ormskirk.

It is almost two-and-a-half years since my wife, Bethany, and I made the move from York to Ormskirk. I had been part of the leadership team of a church plant from St Michael le Belfrey called Conversations; this was aimed at 18-30s and we met in a bar each week. When that came to an end after five years, I told God, 'I'm never doing church leadership again. It is far too hard work and stressful'. That was in February 2012 but by April/May I felt that God wanted me to be in church leadership again!

After various conversations, we came to Ormskirk Deanery where they wanted 'something for young adults'. I subsequently had a formal interview with the Deanery and they offered me the job with a five-year contract.

Why Red Church? In some Bibles, the words of Jesus are written in red, which stands for what Jesus said. Red is symbolic of the blood of Jesus, which stands for what Jesus did. Lastly, red is short for redemption, which stands for what it means to us. People often ask why we are called 'Red Church' and in our answer we can often tell people the good news of Jesus through just explaining our name. I joke with people that it's also because we are all supporters of Manchester United! However, this is a dangerous thing to say in an area where most football fans would say they follow Liverpool or Everton.

Red Church - Ben DyerI started here in January 2013 and, for the first three months; I basically tried to evaluate the situation. As part of that, I met every single vicar in the Deanery and lots of people in the diocese, including young adults in churches – and not in churches – to see what was going on. Then I presented a vision and a strategy to the Deanery with what I felt God was saying about how we connect with young adults in the area, help them come to know Jesus, and love the church.

There are 18 churches in the Deanery and it is predominantly rural but then we also have a few densely populated urban areas. In York there had been many young adults who were very gifted, very mature in their faith and keen to get involved in things. I came with the same expectations to Ormskirk but soon realised that this was a very different place.

I have found a lot of people who go through youth groups at church but seem to fall off the radar somewhere between 16 and 18. Even if they are living in their home town and have grown up in the church – and actually quite like God, and call themselves a Christian – they haven't managed to engage with church.

The original plan was that we would get together 15-20 young adults in some sort of gathering and attract other people to that. The only problem was that in six months we only managed to find two other people willing to be part of Red Church. So, we then formed a group of the four of us and we'd meet once a week in our house to read the Bible and pray a bit. There were hardly any young adults in local churches. In terms of disillusioned 18-30s, in all 18 churches, I'd say there was under 20 young adults committed to church.

Red Church - groupAfter losing hope, more people started coming along to our house! In June 2013, we had four and by August we had twelve. Sometimes it would be people I came across who were disillusioned with church. One young woman invited a friend who had never been to church at all; she in turn brought along someone else who had no church background either! Some of the people had been in church all their lives but still didn't find themselves loving church.

It was very relaxed, we often watched a Nooma DVD, we'd chat what it was about, find out what was happening in people's lives and pray for each other. It wasn't intense 'Jesus-ness', it was just getting to know each other.

I decided it would be good to do an Alpha course and, because we had outgrown our living room, we decided to move it to a public venue. In September 2013 we set it up in a local bar and ran an Alpha. In my opinion it didn't go very well. We ran the course until Christmas but had a drop-off in terms of attendance every week.

At the same time, we launched a football team which trains at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. Our football team plays in the South Manchester and Cheshire Christian Football League and 90% of those involved have no experience of church. Most of the guys who come along have been invited by their friends.

Red Church - candlesThe fact is that, for most people, coming to know Jesus is a long-term thing. The message we want to give is, 'We're not asking you to say "yes" or "no" to the Christian faith within a certain timeframe; you can just belong with us in some sort of community'.

We believe church is fundamentally about relationships. Relationships with others and a relationship with God. How we 'do church'/our strategy is based on the idea that people generally move forward in their journey with God within community rather than outside it. Our church strategy has five levels with each level looking to attract different people and have a different intensity of 'Jesus-ness'. Our five levels are:

  1. Our lowest level of 'Jesus-ness' is activity-based small groups. We think people generally form friendships and community more naturally and quickly while they are doing something together. We don't shove Jesus down people's throats, we just hang out and become friends. Whether that is through our football team, film club or girls/guys nights – they all bring people together and start friendships.
  2. Red Group is where we introduce Jesus more intentionally. It's still very social but it all relates to Jesus. Red Group takes place every Tuesday evening at a coffee shop in Ormskirk. We generally play a silly game, show a Nooma DVD, or someone may tell their testimony for 5 or 10 minutes. People can ask questions, we have a chat and leave. We don't tell people you have to believe anything, but we introduce people to the idea of faith gently.
  3. An Alpha course. That's where we can explore who Jesus is, why he died and what it means for me. We haven't run an Alpha course since 2013 but we plan to run another one soon. My motto is 'Make It Easy for Yourself' (I have to fight against perfectionism) so we are going to use the Alpha Express shortened videos. I feel Alpha is more about the relationships we have with the people and how the discussion groups are led, rather than giving live talks.
  4. Red Church - gatheringA service where we can encourage and challenge each other, while giving people an opportunity to connect with God. Red Church runs its service every Sunday at 4pm in Ormskirk School, it is not wacky or weird, it has all the main elements of a standard service but in a very contemporary and relaxed way. From 4-4.15 we have drink and doughnuts. At 4.15 we have a game, notices, worship slot, talk and reflection, which is maybe a video or a poem to give people space and time to reflect on the talk or their week.
  5. Our deepest level of 'Jesus-ness' used to be a mentoring network, but this just changed to small groups because creating a mentoring networks turned out to be a logistical nightmare! We share a meal together, open the Bible, talk about the stuff going on in our life, and pray.

People can plug in to whatever 'level' they want, if people want to come to football for the rest of their life they are very welcome to be part of us at that level. However, the hope is that as people build relationships and hopefully become interested in God they will begin to move through the different levels.

Red Church - bonfire night

On top of this, we also have a prayer meeting in a coffee shop at the University on a Thursday evening and we are trying to grow leaders from within our ranks through running the Growing Leaders' course. We currently have 8 leaders, all of whom are at different stages on their journey with God, but we are trying to grow and develop.

We have had a lot of encouragement from the Diocese and most people in the Deanery have been happy with how Red Church is developing, I think one of the reasons for that is for the most part we are not 'competing' with any other church. When I moved here I was shocked to find out most of the students from Edge Hill Uni were going to churches in Liverpool because they didn't find a church in Ormskirk where they felt at home – so it has been good to be able to offer them a spiritual 'home' on their doorstep.

I would say one of the challenges, as a lay pioneer minister, is administration of the Sacraments. That is still being worked out but I pray it will be considered by the Church as a whole because if we are a growing, functioning, worshipping, Christian community we must navigate any obstacles in the way of people's walk with God. It is a major issue.

Giving has been part and parcel of what we do right from the start but it is much easier to deal with the finances now because the Deanery has now set up its own charity for Red Church.

I'm fortunate in that I don't feel isolated in my ministry, which pioneers can often feel (although vicars serving in traditional churches can often feel the same). I think Liverpool Diocese has done a great job in terms of general support and creating accountability – and I am now an Associate in The Joshua Centre. They do recognise that pioneers need a lot of support, but I'm of the opinion that if you want/need support, it is also your responsibility to create your own.  

Red Church - weekend away meal

I see massive opportunity in working with young adults. They are very open to the idea of spirituality, God and real community – not what they see as 'fake' community – but they are sometimes closed to the idea of traditional church. I meet a lot of young adults who are lonely and are earnestly searching for meaning in their life and I feel the church can offer them both real community and answers to some of their deep questions.

I'm an incredibly excited about continuing to see God work in Ormskirk and the surrounding area and I hope that Red Church will still be helping people discover Jesus and church in 50 years' time.

Derwent Oak

Ordained Pioneer Minister Beth Honey tells how she, and her husband Ben, are helping to 'grow oak trees' through their ministry in Derby.

Derwent Oak is growing out of an initiative of the Diocese of Derby to re-engage the community across two parishes on a large housing estate. The Derwent Ward is to the north-east of Derby and has a different make up to the South of the city; in general it's a monochrome, sprawling, post-war estate which is home to about 22,000 people. It's sort of split into three or four areas because of the way the roads run through the place; and it can be seen to be very different to live 'up the hill' or 'down the hill'.

Before we came for interview, we looked at the statistics which highlighted Derwent as a deprived area but, when you live here, you discover it hasn't got significant issues with violent crime; it's private deprivation, such as not eating enough or not eating well, or accepting that life cannot improve. There had been two previous attempts to plant here in a very 'worship first' way, Derby City Mission were aware of the needs too but the para-church work in this area had come to a natural end.

The diocese, alongside the Mission, began to wonder, what do we do here next? So, after several years of praying and planning, the concept of pioneer ministry – being explored in other areas of the diocese – was developed for this area. I am licensed to the council ward and encouraged to consult with the parishes, and this is an ongoing process of understanding each other and developing our different roles.

Derwent Oak - balloons

I would say this area is at least 80% unchurched; yes, there may be a few Christians out there to find and there is a kind of heritage of Catholicism but that's about it. This is an exciting place to begin discipleship; without any expectations of church attendance. This role did not have to be filled by an ordained minister, but I have found it a benefit as the sacramental expression of the gospel has already found a place.

The pioneer ministry started in a relational way, with me and my husband Ben working to get to know our neighbours and listen to anyone who wanted to talk to us about the area – whether those people were from churches, the public sector or individuals stopping us in the street.

There's not a lot of overt community life, it's almost like a tribal network; people look after their own people but it doesn't tend to go much wider than that. Once you get to know a few individuals it really helps, but I reckon it takes an average of 10 encounters with someone here before you get to anything like a conversation and then 25 conversations before they'll come into your house.

Being out and about is vital as lots of life in Derwent is conducted out on the street so we got a dog, and it was brilliant to see the kind of 'God things' that happened as a result. Billy looks like a greyhound on steroids but he's actually a lurcher/Staffordshire bull terrier cross so he has got quite a lot of street cred because of his quite 'tough' appearance. When we first took him out for walks, people would say things like, 'Would you look at the muscle tone on that?!' The irony is that he wouldn't hurt a fly, but Billy's unconventional looks have certainly sparked many a chat we wouldn't otherwise have had. There are a number of neighbours we now count as friends through these haphazard conversations. We really believe that discipleship starts from these first meetings.

Derwent Oak - dog

Our house is next door to a church but the useful thing for me is that I'm not the vicar; we are here as residents and I think that's enabled us to go to new people in a slightly different way. Mind you, I still get asked, 'Are you a vicar or something then?'

I explain it as, 'You know how some nurses work in hospitals and some are in the community? Well, I'm like a vicar who works in the community.'

Fresh expressions language wouldn't fly with the local people here, and so we speak about getting together, throwing parties, having dinner. There are other more formal things we could do – in schools and such like, and we have done a few things but generally we've thought we don't want to spread ourselves too thinly and only organise events or pop in for an assembly here and there.

We have learned that people really do want to gather and celebrate, and most of all want to serve as well as be served. Our community began to emerge after about six months of being here and we have grown into a small group, a team who hold the vision and those who support it; some of us are used to church, some of us are not.

We have discovered that the community is real and welcoming. In our ongoing listening, we have also begun to hear some themes. There is a significant distance from institutions in this area, and what we suspected to be true has become evident on the ground; namely that this cannot be about another project for Derwent, but needs to grow out of Derwent. We also need to avoid being in a hurry. Relationships, rather than structures, will be the heart of anything that grows here, and they simply take time to develop.

As a result of this prayer, we decided to call what we are doing Derwent Oak, after Isaiah 61.4 – 'God will plant oaks of righteousness to display his splendour out of places of mourning and poverty'. We believe that God will not use us to transform Derwent, but that he will, in his grace, use us to help plant the oaks that will. Oak trees are proud, solid, grand, and last a long time… and take a long time to establish!

Derwent Oak - gathering

Twelve months into the first beginnings of this shared life and experiment, we are growing as a community, and have a monthly rhythm of prayer, eating together and planning, as well as seasonal routines emerging. We see possibilities for the future in our partnerships with other charitable and public sector organisations in the area, and we are always looking out for those who start with relationships.

We are based in two Anglican parishes that are fully supportive of community engagement, St Philip's, Chaddesden, and St Mark's Derby. I work under a Bishop's Mission Order, with a five year licence which I am a year into, but I would say, looking ahead, it's a 10-year thing.

For accountability and support, I see the Fresh Expressions Officer for the Diocese, Michael Mitton, once a month and I also see the Archdeacon every term too. Mike is the visitor to three further full-time Pioneer Ministers who are licensed to BMOs in the Diocese. They are Mark Broomhead at The Order of the Black Sheep in Chesterfield; Dave Battison at The Bridge, Matlock, and Captain Tim Rourke of the Church Army who is working to grow a pioneering community for local people living on estates in the southern part of Chesterfield. A lot of people have heard of The Order of the Black Sheep and it's because of Mark Broomhead's hard work in both parish settings, and through fresh expressions, that the Diocese has trusted him – to the extent that this expansion in pioneering work has been possible.

We have experimented with some wider gatherings as we've got to know more people and we are learning that sharing food, working together, asking for help (this is vital in an area where so much help is offered), and relaxing and enjoying ourselves – as much as planning – are the best ways to invite others into making things happen in Derwent. We are also discovering that we don't have to try to bring Jesus into the conversation; he just seems to appear there.

United Network

A new church community is beginning to form in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Pioneer minister Andy Gray explains more about 'a bunch of like-minded people who are exploring what it means to have a Christian faith'.

I have been here since 2011 as an Ordained Pioneer Minister. Previously I worked full-time as a youth and children's worker for 10 years in a couple of churches, setting up youth churches shaped by the young people, before moving to Scripture Union as primary schools worker in Lancashire. Whilst there we joined another church in the North West, and with keen members we formed a fresh expression of church within a church.

Being pioneering is habit-forming! I'm stipendiary and when I started here, I was told that I had the freedom to 'go and make lots of mistakes' by the bishop at that time. St James Church of England Church, Clitheroe – which supports United Network – had just lost their full-time children's worker so they didn't want to miss out on what had already been happening in terms of community contact with children and families. It was great to use those foundations as the starting point for something new.

I started by looking again at the needs of the area. Clitheroe is a small market town of about 16,000 people and, in many ways, it is self-sufficient because there are many facilities on the doorstep but there are also lots of needs and struggles. More than 10% of the population go to church in one form or another and the good thing is that the churches tend to work together in all sorts of ways – such as debt advice with Christians Against Poverty and a foodbank – to serve the people here.

In fact, so much is provided, we had to ask ourselves the hard question, 'What's the point of having a fresh expression in Clitheroe?'

We decided to look at that by setting a ball rolling and looking to God to find out what He wanted. My initial thought, following good fresh expressions practice, was 'Let's get a nice, strong team together'. We prayed and a couple of people came forward who wanted to be part of something new… but that didn't work out. So in desperation I simply asked God who he wanted. This time we didn't approach it from the standpoint of, 'let's find the best team or the strongest team or the most attractive team'; it was based on being open to God and being ready to respond to who we felt He wanted to be part of this thing. This left us a 'not-sorted-out' type of people, but ones with weaknesses that God seems to use.

The next question was, 'What should we do in this place?'

United Network - Clitheroe

Our answer was to start meeting together and see what happened, since everything else seemed to be being done in Clitheroe. We wanted to get the DNA right. Part of that involved the decision for us not to be called a 'core team' – we felt that a core team looks inwards; and a launch team tends to blow apart or see themselves as superior (our interpretation at any rate). That left us with being called a DNA team… it seemed appropriate!

As part of embedding our 'DNA', I then had to teach the team what it means to be a fresh expression. I think I was potentially one of the first people to have a mission shaped ministry course as part of my pioneer training so I had a good grounding in it all, as well as a few years of experiencing it.

From that, we began to look at what God had done so far in our area and how we could join in with that. We also looked at what resources we had available and decided on the approach we were going to take. Instead of trying to do lots and lots of things, we decided to do one, 'tiny' thing over and over again until something happens. That turned out to be meeting together and drinking lots of coffee!

We didn't want to meet in a church building so we started to look for somewhere that was easily accessible with a car park, good coffee, and some space to move around a bit. One of the people involved in United Network has the operator's licence for the coffee shop at the site of Clitheroe Castle ruins and she said we could use the Atrium Café for our gatherings.

At that stage there were three families involved in this, including mine. In all, there were six adults and seven children and our first season as a fledgling community was from January to Easter 2012. At the same time as that was happening, me and my wife and our kids and another of the couples with their kids were still doing the children's work at St James – or the 'big church' as I call it, since it is bigger than what we are doing. That meant we still had a lot of links with many families and part of our thinking was about how we could build deeper relationships with these people and allow our DNA to influence theirs.

From that came a request from someone who wanted their son to be involved but knew that traditional kids' groups were not the right place for him; they were not involved in church life at all and it would have been too strange and alien. We then invited them to come and join us at a 'gathering'.

United Network - Pendle Hill

Right from the start we wanted to offer free coffee and food, 'big church' has been very supportive financially, so we were able to offer great hospitality.

Amazingly, we discovered that the castle is sited in a 'hole' in the parish structure and, as a result, United Network does not 'belong' to any parish. The castle used to have a chapel about 500 years ago so we are re-establishing something here from ancient of days.

It has thrown up some interesting challenges as well. The coffee shop is a licensed secular wedding venue so they are not allowed to have an act of worship there. In response I have said that we are not 'doing' worship as such because that requires the two sacraments of baptism and communion – and we are 'just' meeting together as a bunch of like-minded people who are exploring what it means to have a Christian faith.

Reflecting on who found their way into our gatherings, we realised they tended to be people we already knew through other networks in the area. God kept telling us to focus on building community so we put our efforts into that, and somehow people are growing in faith – it must be God. There is no 'big 5-year plan' or strategy; instead we have to trust that God will send the right people at the right time. Some people have come to us and then found their way to 'big church' but that's fine. As far as we're concerned, we have a very missional intent and are not set up as a conduit, we are church in ourselves.

We started to gather on a Sunday afternoon and the mum and her son joined us. We would have been happy to go for any day of the week but that was the best day for the people we wanted to serve. We now meet there on the first and third Sunday of the month when the coffee shop has closed to the public; when there is a fifth Sunday we plan to go out for the day together.

United Network - streets

You might also find me in Costa Coffee during the week, buying someone a coffee and having a chat. On the Wednesday following a Sunday gathering, we also have a Going Deeper night. Originally that looked at the DNA and theology of fresh expressions but then we moved on to working out what it means to be a disciple. That ran from Easter to Christmas of 2012. In the meantime, we had another couple join us, then two more teenagers, for the Wednesday night sessions, and it continued to grow. We are now starting another discipleship time on Wednesday mornings which will be run along the lines of a book club rather than a Bible study group which means people study at home, then bring their thoughts with them to a less frequent over coffee chat. Coffee plays a big part in what we do, you might notice!

It's all about allowing time for things to unfold. It took three months for one of the families we know to actually make it to a gathering; now they're regulars. I regularly text the people we're linked with to let them know what's happening when, and they therefore feel very much part of the community before they start connecting with our gatherings. Those who miss the odd get together don't feel as though they have been forgotten or that they have dropped off our radar. We even get apologies when they can' t make it. That list also involves those who want to know more but haven't taken that step yet.

We didn't have a name at all for some while, but that can cause problems when you have to describe what you do to the other churches in the area, or to people who might be interested in getting involved. It was at one of our gatherings in September last year that an 11-year-old said, 'Can we be called United Network?' as we sat and described what we had done so far. I wasn't keen at first… there were still only 17 of us, and that hardly described a network! However I was wrong. Everyone liked the name and it has stuck and, to my mind, there's no doubt that we have grown into a network of people talking about God.

At this stage there are 30 of us who regularly come together (if everyone turned up at once it would be 35) but if we include those who form satellite/ad hoc groups and regular conversations, the figure would be nearer 53, and I don't know them. These are people who our community know. They are encouraged to talk about their faith, and to form new communities themselves where they are, rather than feel under pressure to bring their friends to any of the gatherings. They are supported, and prayed for, and empowered. Though the weakness remains a key part.

Our aim is to reach people who don't yet know Christ so if Christians want to come along, I always ask them to speak to me first. The last thing we'd want is for it to become an 'alternative' church for people already going to other churches or who are disenchanted with church.

United Network - baptism

Looking at the dynamics of team working, I discovered quite quickly that we are not people who have got everything 'sorted'. I'd read about 'having a team that works' but we don't 'work' in that way. My feeling is that when you begin as a strong team, you have an inbuilt sense of having something to offer others, doing it for them rather than with them. When you come in weakness, you need everyone around you to help. I have seen that so much in the team for United Network; when coming from that point of weakness, we rely on each other so much more and our attitude to others changes too. Perhaps it comes from my own problems with dyslexia of needing people around me? People seem to just want to jump in and help when they see me floundering, and then when it all comes together they say 'we did this' rather than see me as the person who did it – with God of course!

I'm aware that much still focuses on me as a leader. We get together because I have said, 'let's get together'. At the moment my stipend comes out of the curacy budget, so what happens next when the curacy comes to an end in two years' time?  At a national level, no-one has really solved the problem of what happens once the Ordained Pioneer Minister is not being paid by the curacy budget?

At the end of summer this year, I said to the whole gathering, 'You shape this; you take ownership and responsibility for this'. In our previous fresh expression of church I brought together all the people who had a connection with what we were doing, three times a year to reflect on what God had done so far with us, and where he might be leading us next. Since it worked well, it seemed reasonable to do it for United Network. We gathered as a community, children and all (the youngest were seven for this meeting) for our first 'What next?' meeting, we looked at how we could theologically reflect on what had already happened and re-establish God's vision for us.

During the meeting I encouraged them to think not about what they liked or didn't like, but rather what had meaning for them. Someone once said, for it to be true, it has to first have meaning. Key to who we are is that we are not a community of worshippers, which emphasises the individual, but rather we are a worshipping community, which emphasises our togetherness in God.

United Network - renewing vows

This became very clear recently when one couple asked us if they could renew their baptism vows and marriage vows on the same day. There are no set liturgies for this so we put together two forms of liturgy and set about organising it on the site where the original chapel would have been in the ruined castle. They wanted to be immersed so we bought a 6ft long by 20in deep paddling pool, people brought buckets with them to the ceremony and were running backwards and forwards to fill the pool with freezing cold water. The couple knelt down in it and we poured the water over their heads.

It didn't cause problems with the café and its secular wedding venue licence because we didn't do it in the café; we did it on ground that had never been deconsecrated (to our knowledge at least). It was very special and I would say that was the point where United Network really started to mean something.

Soul Space

Soul Space is an initiative to engage with people interested in Mind, Body and Spirit fairs. URC Emerging Church Pioneer Tim Yau and Anglican Ordained Pioneer Minister Hannah Deaves tell the story so far.

Hannah begins:

I lead a small new monastic missional community called Morph Community. This was formed in 2000 by a group of people in their 20s and 30s who were on the fringes of, or who had left, the church.

The community has 'morphed' a great deal over the years, eventually becoming an alternative worship community of people of all ages who felt a sense of mission to both church leavers and spiritual seekers. However, for the most part we found the people we connected with were church leavers and that it was quite difficult to connect with spiritual seekers.

Soul Space - welcomeWe began to feel more challenged about mission to those seekers and in January 2011 we had a prayer evening to really focus on where God might be calling us in mission. We spent some time exploring our local context, looking at where spiritual seekers were, who were the people attending local Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs and who might be the people we could join with in this mission.

From this, a team of people were gathered together from churches across Ipswich and the Morph Community and we began to meet and explore together. We were aware of the rise in interest in spirituality which suggests more than three quarters of the population would admit to having a spiritual experience – so the people we are connecting with are maybe most accurately described not as 'spiritual seekers' but as 'spiritually open' and seeking wholeness, healing or connection.

Now we are in a community café as Soul Space – offering card readings [see below], meditations and generally just being there and listening to people. As to where this will lead I don't know. We hope that by always being able to tell people when we will be there again and by advertising in the town, people might begin to return and relationships be formed over time.

What opportunities for Christian discipleship might these fairs lead on to? The team at the fairs meet together after each event to discuss if any interest in further contact was expressed, and if so what type of follow-up might be most appropriate.

Soul Space - meditationsFrom these discussions it might be that we hold other more regular events, such as meditation courses, therapy nights, discussion/social/card reading evenings in a pub – or perhaps something completely different will emerge as a way to enable people to explore further. It could be in the development of web-based resources that people could dip in and out of, or meditation cards and objects for people to take home from the fairs. These could well provide on-going prompts for contact points with God. Many will possibly not want further contact other than perhaps attending a future fair, but – over a long period of time – if people keep coming, relationships might be built up and an interest in more regular points of contact might be expressed.

Tim continues:

Our first Soul Space took place in January 2013 and our intention is that it will welcome people of all backgrounds and beliefs to find space, stillness, refreshment and insight at a Christ-centred holistic spirituality event.

Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs are alternative spirituality events where you would find tarot card readers, reiki healing, and crystal therapists. We want to tap into that interest in spirituality to point people towards Christ and, hopefully, develop community through that.

Soul Space - St Lawrence CentreThe Soul Space team involves people from different churches across Ipswich, including myself, Hannah – as an Anglican self-supporting Ordained Pioneer Minister, a parish evangelist, a trainee congregational church minister, several people from Morph, and the leader of Ipswich in Prayer (an ecumenical prayer network). We are a diverse bunch and have all brought different experiences and perspectives to the planning table.

On the day of our pilot event in January we ran three 'stations' in the St Lawrence Centre, a redundant church turned community café space in Ipswich town centre.

  • a rolling presentation of images and quotations on the theme of uniqueness;
  • a table with meditation cards where two of the team were inviting and guiding people on the principles of Christian meditation;
  • Ruach insight card readings. To the uninitiated, these may look like tarot but they are simply images that encourage people to open up and relate their life story to the cards they choose, leading into prayer if the participant wishes.

After a slow start, footfall picked up and 10 people came for card readings with very positive responses. Hopefully this is the beginning of a journey that will reach out to people in Ipswich who may never have looked for answers in the Church or the Christian faith. We don't know where this journey will eventually lead but my hope is that a new Christian community would form out of the relationships that we begin to build through these events.

Soul Space - kids' worksheetsOur second event on in April went very well. Many were blessed through the pamper table and the mirrors meditation on that table – as well as the free samples provided by The Body Shop and Lush. We also had Blessing Teas and Colouring Meditation sheets. There were many good contacts and conversations made. All 200 flyers were given out; we did 17 card readings and most of these people agreed to be prayed for.

At this event we also introduced The Jesus Deck of cards; this provided a useful tool for speaking to people one-to-one about Jesus in a flexible and accessible way.

Our next event is booked for July 13 from 11am to 3pm.

Cringleford Community Project

Heather Cracknell, a pioneer curate near Norwich, is looking to establish a social enterprise café and community project on a new housing development. She hopes it will develop into a fresh expression.

Since I was ordained as a pioneer minister in 2011, the diocese of Norwich has encouraged me to explore what it means to be 'church' in an area of new housing.

Launched in June 2007, the Roundhouse Park development is on the outskirts of Norwich at Cringleford. Building work is still going and eventually there will be 1065 homes. In the next six to nine months there should be a school and eventually a community centre but, at the moment, there isn't a public place to meet at all.

I live in a house bought by the diocese at Roundhouse and my role is split between pioneering there and a traditional curacy in St Peter's Parish Church, Cringleford.

New housing areas are interesting because they have a very distinct culture and don't tend to integrate well with the villages around them. This is compounded at Roundhouse because the development is separated from Cringleford village by a dual carriageway so it's not easy to grow it as one community. Another factor is that the people moving to the new housing tend to be younger than those in the village. Cringleford is near the hospital, research park and university so the new development offers many young professionals and their families a more varied mix of housing.

Cringleford - knittingI have been here for just over 20 months and, in that time, my priority has simply been to get to know as many people as possible. I started by having regular curry nights at my house and, from that, people would suggest different things we might do. This led to 'Stitch and Yarn' which involves people coming together for crochet, knitting or some sort of stitch craft; a cup of tea and a lot of chat. We've also had quizzes, running sessions, picnics and even a 'bake-off' around the kitchens of Roundhouse Park. We are trying to offer as diverse a range of activities as we can but we are still in quite an exploratory phase.

Once a fortnight I host something called Table. People come together for a meal and they're free to explore Christian faith in a safe space. We eat together, have a simple reflection (usually with bread and wine) and get to know each other.

It's so important to try and discern what people are concerned about in the area rather than make any assumptions as to what you think they are concerned about! As part of that, we launched an online community survey in the autumn to find out more about what people wanted and why. The idea was that it would encourage increasing numbers of people to get involved in building community spirit.

We also used the survey to suggest the idea of creating a community project. This involves setting up and running a cafe to provide a place for people to go, spend time with friends, meet others and join in with community activities. It's good to try and get feedback on something like that because there's no point doing something that people don't want in the first place!

Cringleford - occupiedThe café would not only provide a physical focus for activities but, from the very start, be a spiritual hub. For us it's very important that Christian contemplative prayer and prayer stations of some sort would be 'built into' the rhythm of all activities there to give people the chance to explore Christian spirituality in a very familiar setting. It would be part and parcel of what's available and should beg the questions, 'What does it mean to live well? What would that mean to a community of people exploring faith together, meeting in a café space or school?'

The exciting thing is that we already have the embryo of that community at The Table. We are small in number but I can see the beginnings of a prayerful and supportive group of people.

St Peter's Church is fantastically supportive of what I'm doing on the Roundhouse and they have given me time for that. They also recently launched an appeal for various things associated with mission at the church, including updating of the church hall – and my community café project. If the fundraising goes well, then we will go out and find some match funding.

I have been very clear with St Peter's right from the beginning that the Roundhouse work is not about getting people to come along to the traditional church; some may well want to do that and I'd be delighted if they did but that's not the purpose of developing community in the new housing area.

Cringleford - housesAs a giving, supporting, encouraging new community of faith is formed at Roundhouse; that will be 'proper church' too.

It's taking time to develop a team to help me with what's developing at Roundhouse, and a number of local people are involved in helping create the community project planning. They're not necessarily involved in the parish church but they all have a heart for doing something in, and for, community.

I'm trying my very best to create a team but young professionals are understandably very busy. Many of them have got young babies or they're working full time, are in the process of setting up their own businesses, or work irregular shifts – so I am still doing most of the work on my own but I don't think there's any way round that at the moment.

This is an unusual area in that – although we have a German Lutheran congregation which meets at St Peter's – we do not have another church, of any denomination, in our parish. We are fortunate in that we have had some great support from Methodists who are not too far away and they have helped me to link up with regional Methodist projects, but there is no other Christian community on the doorstep.

Officially I have two-and-a-half years to go here but I hope I would be able to stay on as an associate priest licensed to the newer church. I don't know yet whether it will be a BMO but my aim would be to stay on in order to see it through because it is now generally recognised that seven years is the minimum time required to make something sustainable. We'll see!

The Valley Network

Levi SantanaLevi Santana is a pioneer ordinand at St Mellitus College. He also leads a small missional community in High Wycombe called The Valley Network.

I have been in the area for seven years as youth worker at St Birinus and St John's Church, High Wycombe. When I started thinking about getting involved in a fresh expression, the Diocese of Oxford was very keen to see how a local person could start a local ministry via the mixed mode training and stay locally for curacy.

As a result, since starting The Valley, we have had a lot of support from the Deanery which has made our work possible. They give us lots of freedom and even help pay my salary, showing their commitment to pioneer ministry. When I am ordained in 2013, I will also be able to do my curacy here which secures the next four years in the life of the Network.

When I sensed a feeling that God was calling me into pioneer ministry I had to ask myself,

What is God saying? What is the need? What does High Wycombe need as a fresh expression of church?

We decided to focus on people who live in and around the town centre in what is an Urban Priority Area and also students.

We have almost doubled our numbers since Christmas and at the moment we have around 40 people involved in our network which meets in local coffee shops for discussion groups and Bible study, and in a local Anglican church that lets us use their building for worship events. We also meet in homes, and much of our work is based at the local YMCA and University where I am a chaplain.

There is a mix of people, some were already Christians when they joined us and some are completely unchurched (although a number are dechurched).

They come from all backgrounds and nationalities – including white British, Brazilians, and West Indians. I come from a Brazilian background and one thing that's very much on my heart is the international community, I would love to see more racial interaction. I think people from an ethnic background might have felt more comfortable about coming in to the group because I look 'different' and don't fit the traditional image of a church minister. The average age of those coming along is about 25 but we have some older and younger people in the mix – we also have a few people with small children.

It all started because St Birinus and St John's had been involved in the work of the YMCA locally for a number of years. Suddenly the person that led that work left and I found myself in charge. So we went into the YMCA and offered to continue to run the games evening.

We then decided to do something on a Sunday evening and we invited the guys from the YMCA and young adults within the network of the church. It was a hit so we started welcoming people into the church building. By January 2011, we had 25-30 people coming twice a month.

The Valley Network - planning

It was trial and error, we didn't know what to do next but then we started to throw some worship into the mix. In the end, we did it for six months and reflected that we were trying to do too much, we couldn't do worship with non- Christians and couldn't disciple Christians by just doing social activities.

We took time to take stock and to pray and decided that we should concentrate on the unchurched and dechurched rather than Christians wanting to do something a little differently.

We started meeting in a local coffee shop, firstly inviting people from the games night. We don't use any set material but I always make it clear that I'm a Christian though people have to be free to share their opinion – whatever it is. We always start with people talking about the lowlight and the highlight of the past week. One of the girls who comes to the group is going through a sex change process so she came in and said,

The highlight of my week is that I'm going to be a boy.

She had a letter for an appointment in London to see a specialist and what struck me was that she felt confident she could share that letter first with us.

I realised then that this community was effective. We had all sorts of plans for events to reach out to students but what God was calling us to do was simply to respect them and value them and give time. As a result we have seen that group develop into a little family.

Alongside our discussion group we also identified a need for us to gather Christians together in a similar sort of setting in order to go deeper into the Bible and mission. We launched a Bible study that starts 90 minutes before the discussion group. The study is basically for Christian students and some of them stay on for the group, some of them don't.

We had also seen the development of a mums and tots cell group. From October this year we are going to open it up to the public and we hope to run it in one of the churches.

Recently we have decided to link up with Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing who are planting the Latimer Minster church in Beaconsfield; this helps to put our network within a wider group of missional communities. When I knew they were moving into the area, we met up to talk about it all because there's no point in us doing something similar or being five miles apart with no relationship. By linking up with Latimer Minster, The Valley Network will use their charity number and bank accounts and public liability insurance – all of which means that we are very independent but also accountable.

It became quite a big thing to explain over and over again what The Valley Network was all about whereas, at Latimer Minster, the church's DNA is missional and it's easier for us to be understood. They will also release things quickly into the mission aspect of the work and I think it will be a good relationship based on friendship, not structure.

We are also still linked with St Birinus and St John's as they have been very supportive of our work over the years and because we are expected to meet traditional criteria and to obey deanery and parish boundaries though, in practice, we don't function in them.

The Valley has no income from any other source other than its members, but we need more resources to fulfil the vision God has given us. For this reason we are trying to find 100 people who will pledge to raise or donate £100 over a year. This will give us £10,000 that we will use to fund our ministry, run our conferences and events, and pay for our running and administration cost.

We have a high number of musicians and artists in the community so we are exploring different styles of worship and recording some of the songs we are writing. Our first CD/EP will be ready soon and our intention is to sell our music to fund some of the work.

The Valley Network - logoFrom October our hope is to have two Sundays a month where we meet for fellowship for a meal and Communion because I think that's where we truly become a fresh expression of church. At the moment we are clusters of mission but we haven't shared Communion together many times.

There is a lot going on but everything is done very relationally and we have seen a few young people being released into leadership which has been particularly exciting – two of them will give about 20 hours from September!

This autumn will see us host our first Missional Church Conference when we hope to engage local church leaders in conversation about reaching young adults. Debbie Orriss, Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing and Steven Cockram will talk at the October event about how churches can explore different ways of doing things within their contexts. We want to demystify missional communities and fresh expressions to church leaders and to encourage churches not to feel threatened by us because we are not sheep stealing.

It's all very exciting but there are many questions too. How can we honour the opportunities that the Holy Spirit is giving us without spreading ourselves too thinly? What are the real areas of priority and how can we make the most of them?


GraceSpace in Bradford is 'a church for people who don't go to church'. Pioneer minister Colin Blake explains how the community has developed and why eating together is so important to them.

GraceSpace started life in 2007 when the then-minister Andy Bowerman was appointed as a Pioneer Minister, by the Bishop of Bradford. Eventually he and his wife Ali set up the Vicars Café in Saltaire as part of the vision to create a community in the Aire Valley.

The Café, which continues to operate today, provides a safe 'third space' where people can enjoy its hospitality and atmosphere while building relationships and sharing God with those who are interested in knowing more.

GraceSpace - groupWhen Andy and Ali moved to Dorset, the Café became a social enterprise with a board of management and a project manager running it day by day. My wife Katy and I moved here two years ago. I have been in ministry for 27 years and, at 59, I am probably one of the oldest 'pioneer ministers' in CofE history!

It was an interesting start because we arrived having no idea what the project was for or how to take it forward. It was actually very difficult to get hold on it because it meant different things to different people. It was also difficult because there was a four month gap between Andy leaving in July and me arriving in November. The community dissipated to the extent that only about six or seven people turned up at the licensing service to represent GraceSpace.

Many people associated with the community travelled from all over the place in those early years because they related to Andy and Ali very strongly. That was wonderful but it was clear from the time we came on the scene that those people weren't actually relating to each other in the same sort of way. As a result we decided to draw our horns in and not get involved in lots of missional activities initially; instead we wanted to help people to get to know each other.

GraceSpace - girlsMine is a five year appointment and we knew it was vital to get those strong building blocks of community in place right from the start. As a result we moved a lot of events away from Vicars Café and hosted them in our own home. We are fortunate in having a large dining room, kitchen and living room so we began to meet together as a group around meals. Food and drink became the staple of what we were doing and when people eat together, somehow there is a little heaven in the ordinary.

The number has now grown to 25 with many people coming who have either been bruised by church in the past or with no past experience of church at all. They range from families with teenage or adult children through to people in their 50s and 60s. We also have about 10 younger children, aged from two to 12, coming along with their parents. Some came as a result of personal invitation from a friend though many have turned up as a result of the information and publicity we put out through our website.

We believe in operating with a light touch. We don't have an 'official' structure, such as a PCC, but we all meet together every three months for a Summit meeting at which we decide the priorities for the next quarter.

GraceSpace - full englishA real turning point came when GraceSpace came up with the idea of having a different meal theme for each Sunday in the month. On the first Sunday we have Breakfast when people turn up at 10am to help us cook breakfast together; we will then organise a spiritual thought or reflection at some stage while we're eating. The whole thing can run for about three hours as people often want to stick around and discuss things.

The second Sunday is Lunch. This starts at 12.30 and people bring different foods around a theme so we might have a Chinese meal or what we call 'Yorkshire food' which means three types of curry! Everyone takes part; we don't offer separate things for different ages. The children particularly like it when there's a fifth Sunday in the month because that's when they choose what the adults have to do on that day and tell us what the spiritual element is going to be.

The third Sunday is Tea or 'Creativitea' at which we bring along cakes and biscuits and make big crafts together from 3pm. I'm a regional co-ordinator for Messy Church but we don't have enough space to run a Messy Church. However, Creativitea is a variation on the theme because we do have a celebration, activity and food as part of the mix. The adults are keen to join and they are happy to join in with cut and paste but generally they want to make things that will last, something with a purpose.

GraceSpace - ideasThe fourth Sunday is based around supper time at about 6pm. It is called Ikon; this is more reflective and allows people to share what comes out of that time together. Typically they will have bread, soup, pate and cheese at that one.

We also offer Explore sessions during the week on either Tuesday or Wednesday nights. These are cell-church-like in structure but are really about Bible application rather than Bible study, giving the opportunity for a much more interactive approach. Coming from a charismatic, evangelical background myself this has been quite a learning curve for me too because it's all about giving people the freedom to have different opinions. It's no good saying, 'this is the only answer to this passage'. Instead I approach it as, 'I know what I think this passage is about but tell me, what do you think?' It's about trying to step back, not telling people what to think but allowing them to grow.

At the end of November 2011 I was diagnosed with temporal arteritis which meant that all the arteries in my body were inflamed. I have been having treatment for that and hope to be back at work in January but I have been very encouraged to see what has happened at GraceSpace while I've been out of action. The people have been brilliant, offering their homes and their skills to keep things moving along.

GraceSpace - teaThis illness has prompted the devolving, training, encouraging and mentoring of new people into leadership. For this fresh expression to develop we want to create another network of community, a second GraceSpace. For that, we need leaders, though we have also taken a long, hard look at our purpose in all of this. It can't just be to build community. How do we look outside and make a difference?

We have started to look at how we might do that by volunteering elsewhere. Perhaps we could give our support to a community or local Christian project rather than start one ourselves? We are just working out how that might be done because we are a fairly eclectic bunch and people travel from all over Bradford to come to us.

GraceSpace - logo

I have a line manager who offers me pastoral care while the Archdeacon of Bradford provides practical oversight of the project. I work alongside all the other local churches and I believe that my age has greatly helped me in building links with them; I'm clearly not a whizzkid and people seemed to have responded to that because I don't come over as threatening in any way. I'm also not seen as suggesting that GraceSpace has got it right and they've got it wrong. Far from it. We all need each other. Part of my time is spent as adviser on fresh expressions of church to the Bishop and I am a regular at wider diocesan meetings as well as being very much involved with the local churches in our area. Indeed I lead the marriage preparation course team for the local URC.

It's all part and parcel of trying to serve other churches in what we do here at GraceSpace. If we can let them know of the things that have gone well – and our failures too – we are helping them in their own mission. All we can do is be honest that we are working out our faith in fear and trembling and trust God for the rest.

The Anchor

The Anchor - HayleyPioneer minister Hayley Matthews is chaplain for MediaCityUK at Salford Quays and coordinator of The Anchor, the chaplaincy's on site base. The site is associated predominantly with the development of BBC North but The Anchor serves a much wider local 'audience'. Hayley explains:

Everyone always thinks of the BBC when MediaCityUK is talked about but, by the time everything is up and running here, there will be lots of different businesses associated with media and production – people like caterers, set designers, web specialists, costumiers and make-up artists.

There is a lot of interest around the BBC personnel just about to make the move into Salford because some are coming from what was the Manchester base in the city's Oxford Road while others are transferring from London as this area develops into a national, and international, media hub. New businesses are arriving every week. Work is also going on to create a 'new' Coronation St here because ITV is also moving to Salford and the old set will no longer be used.

The Anchor - complexWhen I saw this job description last year I knew it was 'me' but I didn't think there was any way I would get it. I was just coming out of my curacy and was very aware that there were lots of Christian people involved in the media, including many priests, who were very clued up on who's who and how the whole thing worked. I didn't even have a TV but, as soon as I heard I got the job last autumn, I bought one and got Sky installed at my new vicarage!

My office with The Anchor is based in what was an old pie-making factory which now houses full-sized studios. Morning prayer takes place at 9am daily and we celebrate the Eucharist at 12.30pm every Wednesday followed by a time to sit and have lunch.

The Anchor - studiosWhen people begin to move on to the 220-acre site, owned by Peel Holdings, we will also hold some of our worship in the University of Salford building and the multi-faith spaces provided in the BBC areas.

Any new company that moves here has to satisfy a requirement that 40% of their jobs will go to local people. Some of these people will have had three generations of worklessness in their families and MediaCityUK will provide the opportunity for a real change in fortunes. It can be easy to think that the only people working on site will be high-profile broadcasters earning impressive salaries. In fact there will be lots of people on modest incomes.

This is a three year post through Greater Manchester Churches Together with major funding coming from the Diocese of Manchester but, despite its Christian leadership and funding, The Anchor is open to people of all faiths and none. Its role is much 'bigger' than simply serving the BBC buildings and people, important though that is.

The Anchor - insideMy job is very much about creating a sense of community. As part of that we now have a monthly film night at a restaurant in The Quays and I also arrange The Big Business Breakfast, involving the free Big Bacon Buttie, for anyone working on site to meet their neighbours and maybe even swap a couple of business cards first thing in the morning. It's for people on their way into work – otherwise they tend to get immersed in their work and don't come out too much at all.

Outdoors too there is lots of scope with this work. We held a Christmas carol concert on the piazza outside the main studio buildings last year and about 80 people joined in with us on that, even though it was bitterly cold at the time. I'm already planning ahead for this year's event on 15th December when there will be upwards of 2,000 people on site.

The Anchor - plantersBefore then, on June 5, BBC Radio Manchester is making its first live broadcast from MediaCityUK and I will preside while Chris Edmondson, Bishop of Bolton, preaches and a number of other local faith representatives take part. It's all a great opportunity for creating that sense of community by integrating MediaCityUK with the surrounding areas. I have been to all the Deanery churches to preach and preside so they have a contact here because it's all about people feeling that they can come on site to see the regeneration of their own area.

I have also started a community gospel choir so that lots of different people feel they have a foothold in MediaCityUK. The idea of priestly presence is really important in this context so I wear my dog collar wherever I go. Overbury, the developers, even gave me a personalised 'chaplain' hi-vis jacket and hard hat so that I could go on site and be instantly recognisable. I am not there with an agenda or to Bible bash; I am there to support them in whatever impacts on their work.

The Anchor - jacketA turning point for me came when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York both came to bless The Anchor and officially open the bridge which links MediaCityUK with Trafford where the 'new' Coronation St is going up. When I gave my presentation I looked out to see a couple of hundred people there and I had met them all. These are people who really care about Salford and its people and who are working hard to make MediaCityUK meaningful to everyone.

I would very much like to encourage the formation of an ecclesial community here but it's too early as yet. To do anything remotely churchy for the unchurched would be offputting as we are surrounded by churches so people are spoilt for choice as all traditions are catered for. However there is a need for something for those who are perhaps exploring their faith and how it might affect their lives from day to day.

The Anchor - buildingsI'd rather see a catholic, incarnational, charismatic encounter that supports people in developing a rhythm of life that they can take with them into their own routines. This new monastic approach is the direction I'm going in but I'm still at the discerning stage because the commercial outlets aren't open and the people aren't here in any great numbers as yet. It's important for me to have an idea of the ebb and flow of MediaCityUK on a day to day basis.

The sense that I get is that it's not about providing a church on site; instead it's enabling people to be disciples – whether living or working here. There will be a lot of transience at MediaCityUK and some of the people will be based at Salford for just two or three days a week before returning 'home' – wherever that may be. You have to ask, 'Is it going to help them to have a fresh expression here?'

When the people have moved in, maybe the Holy Spirit will say something different; I'm very open to however things may develop!

The Beacon

The Beacon - Bart WoodhouseIt used to be an industrial heartland but the Dartford Bridge area became ripe for redevelopment and housing schemes began to spring up on Thames Gateway sites previously dominated by factories and business. The Beacon came into being when the local Methodist Church appointed Bart Woodhouse as lay leader of a new church plant team.

I moved on to the Bridge development in north Dartford with my family while the bulldozers were still very much in evidence in early 2008 so we were among the first five or six people to be here! At first we simply started just to try and meet anyone else who was around so we’d take our children out and about walking, bump into our neighbours and get some conversations going.

The Beacon - housesAs more and more people began to move on site, I was very keen to start a Residents' Association. We put letters through people's doors and organised an informal meeting in one of the new buildings; about 40 or 50 people come along to it.

We made it very clear that we were a church and that we wanted to work to try and build community here, firstly by getting residents together in that Association and giving them a voice.

That was a really effective way of initially getting the community together and being able to listen to what was going on. In new developments there are always issues with houses and how well the windows keep out water and so on – I was able to actually get some movement on those issues. We saw that as part of our role of building Kingdom. Part of our witness here as Christians was to consider how we could make this place a strong, vibrant and healthy place to be – so very early on we did things like holding a community carol service.

The Beacon - building siteWe then stumbled on the national Big Lunch initiative which encourages communities to get together for food and activities. We had a very popular tug of war, a bouncy castle and a barbecue. We also got local people to bring along some home-made food that expressed something of them and their background – a kind of signature dish. As a result of that we had goat curry and many other wonderful things! About 60 or 70 people come which, from the small community that we are at the moment, was quite a big proportion of the people here.

In our desire to help shape community we'll also be working to help create a community garden on a small plot of land on site that couldn't be built on because there's a high pressure oil pipeline underneath it. The youth club will be involved by creating a piece of art or sculpture for the centre of the garden.

The Beacon - threeWe had quite a small group of people with us when we started and now there is about nine and 10 on a core team. They all have a real sense of call to be doing this kind of work but we are learning again what it means to be community and what it means to be church together. We've also got quite a large and growing fringe group and we are using things like the Y Course and other things to encourage that fringe to maybe explore the Christian faith and then hopefully transition into the cell life of the church.

It has been very much about winning trust, listening, forming real relationships and friendships with people and trying to demonstrate something of God's love to them in a practical and real way.

The Beacon - Learning and Community CampusWe meet on a Tuesday evening in cell groups – or Beacon groups – and then on one Sunday in the month we all have a big meal together, maybe with some sort of interactive prayer time. The Dartford Bridge Learning and Community Campus has been built on site and we have a room there which is just the right size for us. We also launched a celebration service at the new school on the Bridge Development in January.

Some people want to try and argue that what we're doing isn't really church, saying that it's just an extended house group or something but I really would want to defend what we're doing here by saying that we are authentically church; we are a worshipping community together. We are also about God's mission, demonstrating the Kingdom in this place, worshipping him and finding ways that are relevant for us to do that. We certainly are creating disciples in what we're doing and encouraging others as to what it might mean to explore being disciples of Christ in this place.

The Beacon - brochureThere are a number of challenges that I think we face in trying to shape a full and healthy Christian community here. One of them is that I'm a lay person in the Methodist Church and so I'm not able to preside at the Eucharist meal. I think there needs to be a real integrity about these new communities we're forming in being able to celebrate that meal – and all that it means – together.

We aim to:

  • Build a strong church that is rooted in the fullness of God's grace and demonstrates the 'Jesus life' to our community and our world;
  • Always strive to foster a strong and real sense of community, one that isn't invasive but supportive;
  • Discover a pattern of Christian life that is 24/7, not limited or detached from the rest of our lives;
  • Follow Jesus, and by his Spirit, demonstrate his message to others.

Our long term vision here is to create a kind of pattern of church that is so integrally part of this new community and yet is authentically a church expressing all the Kingdom values and living out the message of Christ, seeing people discover faith in Jesus and having their lives changed as a result.