The Ark at Crawcrook

The Ark @ Crawcrook is a church, café and soft play centre near Gateshead. Deacon Tracey Hume and Superintendent Paul Saunders explain the concept.

The Ark at Crawcrook - caféThe Ark opened its doors this month and we aim to help children and adults to talk about God and learn more of Bible stories by providing a safe space in which to explore matters of faith. We look to serve the local communities of Crawcrook and surrounding villages – as well as the wider Gateshead area.

Rev Liz Kent and Deacon Tracey Hume are the ministers there and they work alongside our centre manager Janette Lea. As a venue which can be used for children's parties, and lots of other events, we rely heavily on volunteers and party hosts.

The Ark at Crawcrook - building plans

The Ark, a not-for-profit organisation, has been built on what was the site of the Robert Young Memorial Church in the village of Crawcrook. It is a fresh expression of church which aims to be a place where the community can meet, have fun, be supported and welcomed.

We are inspired by the words of Jesus in Luke 18:16, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these'.

There has already been a lot of interest in using these facilities. SNAP! (Special Needs Access Play) sessions are for children and adults with physical and/or learning disabilities, and developmental disorders such as autism. The play sessions, which are also for their siblings, are run outside of public opening times so that the children and adults can have exclusive use of the playframe and sensory room. We've made sure that all areas of the playframe are accessible via a mobile hoist.

The Ark at Crawcrook - playframeThe playframe has been tailor made for The Ark because we managed to secure the rights to using drawings by popular illustrator and author Mick Inkpen. He's well-known for books like Kipper the Dog and Wibbly Pig but he has also produced many books based on the stories that Jesus told.

We had the playframe designed with these Bible stories in mind and we chose about six images from each story. The idea is that we will take the children into the three-storey playframe and literally 'travel through' a Bible story with them because there will be illustrations in each part of the frame to highlight what we're talking about. There are quite a few commercial play centres in this area but nothing at all like this!

Our play centre and conservatory is open to the public from 9am-3pm, Monday to Friday, for pre-school age children and birthday parties can be booked each evening and Saturdays.

The Ark at Crawcrook - sensory roomOur church centre manager, in a full-time role, oversees the day-to-day running of the centre and takes the bookings for it but is also very much part of the vision. Janette is like a mission partner because she has to work with our partner organisations as well as supervise two part-time café supervisors. Volunteers help us to run the café and keep a watch on the play centre.

We also have party hosts who are going to co-ordinate the events that we will have as a party venue. Most of these hosts are local people and a lot of them are not involved with traditional church at all. We see it as being about the community trying to help the community. That's why we hope to welcome one or two adults with learning difficulties to help in the café as problems in getting employment has come up as an important issue.

One day each week we will close to the public from 1.30pm to 3pm so that local schools for children with special needs and disabilities can come in and use the facilities. We are also looking at doing money management courses and have been approached by groups for ex-addicts who want to use the space; there's certainly a lot of potential and we will keep on listening to what the community is saying to us.

The Ark at Crawcrook - teamOf course we have to cover our costs as well but we are working with the council in an effort to access money to subsidise places for the disabled-only sessions. Our business plan shows that the birthday parties are what pay for the building and the café. The idea is that we cover costs so we can be as flexible as we can.

Our aim is that The Ark will be self-funding, covering its staffing and other costs, in order that it is sustainable in the long term. We are also still seeking some funding for the equipment we will need for some of the more specialised needs of people with learning and physical disabilities.

Play and Praise is just one of the ways in which we are looking to provide opportunities for people to explore faith. We were very aware that we didn't want to predict too far in advance what these opportunities need to 'look' like. There will be free sessions once a month but we are also planning to do café church. We are holding off at the moment because we just want to establish relationships in the first instance but it's pioneering ministry. It's important to listen to the questions that people are asking rather than answer things that people aren't asking in the first place! It's an open book at the minute.

The Ark at Crawcrook - sign

There isn't an existing congregation alongside us in this; we've got a blank canvas, only God know how it will develop! Whatever shape it takes in future, it will be useful for the Circuit as well because they will also be able to explore how to do new things.

This isn't about setting up in competition with anything or anyone else; it's working with people the Circuit have already engaged with very closely so we do not end up trying to meet the same needs. Yes, there will be some overlap and there will be times when families are drawn to us rather than other churches in the area but we can't avoid that. It's simply providing other routes for people to ask questions.

We are a place of worship so we can still do weddings, baptisms and funerals. For some families who find their way into The Ark it may be the only time they come into a church building. If they are then looking for a baptism, for instance, it seems a sensible place to do it rather than going somewhere which seems very alien.

The Ark at Crawcrook - logo

It's important for us to get to know what people's physical needs are as well as their spiritual needs. Interestingly, the developing of partnerships and community links has already succeeded in opening up the eyes of the local council to what the church is all about. As a result, we are now getting quite a reputation for community involvement.

We have learned that it's not about telling them why we are doing something; instead we simply do something because it's the right 'something' to do. They see the difference and recognise where our motivation is coming from. It's a lovely thing to be involved in; it's where God has called us to be.

The Wesley Playhouse

Caroline HoltWho would have thought that a visit to a children's indoor fun centre could inspire church steward Caroline Holt to oversee a dramatic shift in the fortunes of a small West Yorkshire Methodist church?

Caroline made the trip to a commercially-run activity zone with her god-daughter, and wondered why such a venture had never been provided in church buildings? Surely it would bring in countless children – not to mention their waiting parents?

As a member of Howden Clough Methodist Church, Birstall, Caroline was faced with the challenge of a dwindling congregation and a community that appeared to have no need for the traditional church building on their doorstep.

"Seeing all those children in these awful places to play made me really stop and think," says Caroline. "I thought, 'why don’t we do something like this at Howden Clough?'"

Wesley Playhouse - the play houseHer dream has become an amazingly successful reality – thanks to the efforts of a dedicated volunteer team, key sponsors, and a church willing to take what was seen as an enormous risk. "As far as I'm aware, nothing like this has ever been done anywhere else in Britain," says Caroline. "We now have 3,000 sq ft of play area, a café that operates alongside it and a supportive local community who have taken it to their hearts and now use The Wesley Playhouse as the venues for birthday parties and celebrations. We've even had several Christenings there as a result of people feeling so much part of what has very much become their own fresh expression of church."

Since its launch in 2007, the project has seen over 24,000 people come through its doors. It's a long, long way from the days when the pre-Playhouse Howden Clough Church had just 10 members attending regularly.

Wesley Playhouse - serviceCaroline explains, "There was no doubt about it, we were facing closure. We had tried various attempts to get local people into church but nothing seemed to work so in 2000 we decided to leaflet the community and find out what we could do to serve them.

"When I put the idea of the Playhouse to our members they were mainly supportive, though some people obviously did have concerns because it's quite a difficult thing to imagine in a Chapel building that has been around since 1871! But, God bless them, they backed the idea and it all snowballed from there."

Wesley Playhouse - open for businessFinance was the first major hurdle. The church needed to find £120,000 to get the scheme off the ground, and they had £3,000 in the bank. But the money came rolling in – thanks to the Methodist Circuit, District and Connexion providing £78,000 in loans; individual supporters; and £50,000 from the Biffaward landfill community's fund.

Twenty people from different churches across the area came forward to offer their staffing help for the project, and Howden Clough began its transformation into multi-coloured Playhouse and The Ark Café. Work started in February 2007, with the Playhouse opening in October of the same year.

Services take place in a room re-designed as a chapel downstairs every Sunday morning, and a Playhouse Praise is now a regular event on the first Sunday of the month. The young visitors, their families, and older members of the original congregation share the facilities on offer, and Caroline is now working to bring them even closer together.

"It's fantastic to see how many people have struck up friendships and are happy to be part of this community," says Caroline. "People have asked to have their babies christened here and been amazed to discover that we can do this in The Wesley Playhouse. I explain that we may have climbing frames and all sorts of things all over the place but we are a church, and we’re here because we love God and we love them."

And the ongoing challenge? Caroline is clear: "At the Playhouse itself, it's to lead people to faith and disciple them; to help them find out why we've done what we’ve done with this project and encourage them in their own walk with God.

"Personally, I'd love to see The Wesley Playhouse 'brand' go nationwide and be part of making that happen. Maybe other churches in similar situations to us are wondering how they could get something started along the same lines. I want to be the person to help them do that, and with God’s help and blessing, I will be."