Susan Sadler, lead evangelist with Christians Against Poverty and leader of Life Church, Newton Aycliffe, tells how the community grew from 10 to 100 in just over a year.
I have to be totally honest, this is something none of us expected; but we know that God has given us something very special because nearly all of the people who come through our doors have not been church attenders before.
Amazingly, it's only about 18 months ago since a group of us from a small house church started to reach out into the community a little bit more. With very limited resources, we set up a charity called Lifeline Community Action in order to develop some work within a five mile radius of Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, where we're based.
Lifeline Community Action was the catalyst for a 'Helping Hands Project' for which people would be referred through various agencies and organisations. Some of the people we were coming into contact with wanted to know more about why we were doing these things and what this Christian faith was all about, so we started to meet together on Thursday evenings in someone's home to explore that in more depth.
We are part of the Acts 435 initiative which helps people and churches to give money directly to those most in need. I noticed that, as I was going out and about delivering goods and care parcels, people kept talking more about the Thursday night gathering than the help they'd received! At that time, hardly anyone described what was happening on Thursdays as 'church' but it had definitely become an accepted gathering place.
Just over a year ago, our Bible study gatherings got too big for a living room. We realised that we'd have to find another venue because this is an area which suffers economically so we knew that the housing stock would be too small to accommodate the people wanting to come along.
In the end we decided to step out in faith and rent somewhere. I emailed three places and the room we found, in a local centre, could take 25 people. We thought that was fine but, a few weeks later, we had outgrown it with 32 people. Then the opportunity came up to go to Greenfield School where they had a room available in the week that had space for 50. Again, that sounded perfect but when we moved in, we took 49 people with us.
Soon after that we moved into the school hall because our membership now stands at about 100 and we'll generally have an average of 70 attending most weeks. I lead what is now known as Life Church and we have a couple of elders from the West Auckland Vineyard Church who come and help us.
Most of the people who come have never been part of a community like this or had any previous experience of church. Some, but not all, of them came to us through Christians Against Poverty (CAP). We had a CAP centre here for quite a few years so I've known many people in the area; it has been good to see some of them get involved in Life Church but I'd say that the majority of our regulars were not previously involved with CAP.
When people want to know more of the Christian faith but have never previously been involved in church life, it can be difficult for CAP centres to know how to respond. Many churches do a great job of discipling people – and often in significant numbers – but not everyone feels at home in a more traditional church setting. That's when something different may come into being, something that is appropriate for people in their particular Christian journey.
Life Church attracts a wide range of people, including some who are quite challenging in their lifestyle and behaviour. It's great to reach gang leaders and children expelled from school, of course, but it brings its own problems and I have been criticised for that. I've been told, 'You encourage these people, Susan' and my critics are quite right, I do encourage these people and I will always encourage them!
I have worked for CAP for twelve years and have seen people become Christians, go to church for a few weeks and then give up on it because – for one reason or another – they struggle to thrive in that environment. The vast majority of churches are welcoming and caring but some people can still feel overwhelmed by it all; I'm so grateful to God that Life Church has become a place where many have settled down to explore their faith. Thankfully, we keep seeing the fruits of that; in summer 2013 we baptised ten people.
If you just look at the growth in numbers, you can miss the fact that this is massively challenging work to be involved in – you really do need the heart to do it. Our outreach into the wider area is because we are committed to God, to each other and to the community. That's the pecking order.
We are also very fortunate in that the local churches have been very supportive of us, including St Clare's Church of England parish church, Great Aycliffe, and West Auckland Vineyard Church.
All churches want to disciple people in a way, and with resources, they can understand – and we're no different! Our attitude at Life Church is, 'you don't opt in, you opt out', so unless people definitely say that they don't want to be involved in something we assume that they will be. I say to everyone, 'we are all "in" unless you tell me otherwise'.
At CAP, our basic resources for discipleship are a Discovery Steps course and Discovery Breaks and I have been, and continue to be, involved in these resources as part of my work with Christians Against Poverty. The Lord very clearly gave me the vision for both of these and, basically, 'downloaded' the information to me some years ago!
Discovery Steps is an introduction to Christianity course which not only looks at such questions as 'What's life all about?' and 'Why should I read the Bible?' but also covers things like, 'What about my worries, my anger?'. Discovery Breaks came about when I asked CAP's UK chief executive Matt Barlow, 'Could we take some people away to help them find out more about themselves and about God?' That was ten years ago and we took 70 people away. There are now 14 Discovery Breaks up and down the country every year and probably about 1,000 people each year will benefit by being on one.
These breaks take place at different places up and down the country but a venue tends to be no more than two hours maximum from where they live. Generally they are full board. The programme is a holistic one; for at least one of the sessions they will hear a main gospel message and have a prayer time, but we also see it as a time of relaxation and fun, things like games and trips to theme parks and pampering sessions. Discovery Breaks can be life-changing but it's also important to do the regular things well at grass roots level when we're back on home territory.
What we make available at Life Church is very much like some aspects of what's on offer through the Discovery Breaks. If anyone new comes to the church for instance, we always offer to take them out for a meal. We've also had a 'getting to know you' event at the Rockliffe Hall and Wynyard Hall Country House Hotels in County Durham. Most of our people will never have had the chance to go to a luxury hotel but we want them to know how special they are and how precious they are individually.
Every single one of church members will get weekly texts or phone calls from us. If they couldn't get to church for one reason or another we'll send them a message to say we've missed them. We also have Spot Prizes where people can nominate others for a gift every week; if it's anybody's birthday we'll sing to them and if there happens to be a few birthdays we'll sing happy birthday to each one of them personally. We want to make the point that we are all, individually, important to God and to each other. This year, many of us are going to France together for a week's camping holiday. We are also taking about 70 people to the Jonas Centre in Leyburn, Wensleydale, for a retreat in August and recently we took the ladies of Life Church to a Christian conference.
It's no surprise that Life Church celebrates whenever someone turns to faith but some might question, 'Is this a real salvation because it's in a different sort of church?' The answer's 'Yes it is. To have people turn to Christ in any setting is a wonderful thing and we thank God for it.'
We don't have a church building of course so our costs, for the rooms that we hire, amount to £30 a week. Life Church doesn't have any paid staff yet; we take an offering and standing orders – and every penny that comes in goes back into the community.
Our format is flexible. We don't have a worship band so we sing along to worship songs on YouTube and always get people involved in whatever's happening; we don't want them to feel like spectators while someone else, usually me, leads everything from the front. It's much more like a sharing group. We also have a youth group and a children's group.
I am the main church leader at the moment. I'm not ordained and my job with CAP is a national one so, if I go on tour, I try to make sure it's from Saturday to Wednesday so I can be back in time for church on Thursday. Thankfully I have support at Life Church from a core team and then we also have four trustees for the Lifeline Community Action charity. I do have a few people who help me, a former teacher who has now retired and the elders from West Auckland Vineyard Church. We do leadership training at Life Church and we are praying that people will come through from the community but I also know there are a lot of people who have a pastor's heart but couldn't lead Life Church with its challenges.
I think of it as having a lot of little fish in a holding pen. Some, in time, may decide to leave that pen and go and join another church, and that's fine, but there are an awful lot of people who won't. We continue to pray that our church community will help people on their journey towards Jesus and that they will be drawn into closer relationship with Him.