Peter Grant tells how a fresh expression of church has developed from long-standing work among young offenders.

The ministry of Reflex, as part of Youth for Christ North East, ran for 15 or 16 years but changes in the prison system relating to young offenders brought changes in the ministry too. Such a lot of great work was being done but things had to develop in a different way to serve the needs of those coming out of prison so, just over 12 months ago, we set up our charity – The Junction 42 Foundation – to develop our work with ex-offenders, their families and friends in the community.

I've been working with men involved in issues of offending and domestic violence for over 20 years and what we started to see were real openings with the gospel in prison but it all broke down when the men were released and tried to get into the community through church. It just didn't work because the cultural difference was too great to make that step.

As a charity we started to run a couple of groups in the community, one for men and one for women. We also set up some mentoring training and got some people involved from local churches. The guys' group had around 10-12 people coming along; some were just out of prison while others were mature Christians, some with an offending background in their past.

Connect - kitchenWe ran an Alpha course in May last year and ended up with about 40-45 taking part and 11 people being baptised. It was incredible to see people inviting their families and friends in a really natural way; it seemed to be a bit of a magnet for them. When we got to the end of the course, we knew we couldn't simply say, 'Well, that's done now so go and find a church.' We also knew we couldn't remain in the Alpha format because of the increasing, and very welcome, challenge of the sheer number of people wanting to worship together – and so Connect came into being.

The key for us is that it started really small, started from relationship not from structure. We read Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens by Neil Cole and it resonated with what we saw God doing with us.

A sense of ownership is something that has always been part of all that happens here. Right from the very start of Alpha, people went into the kitchens and started helping and then tidying up afterwards, they didn't have to be asked. That kind of 'come and be involved' approach is part of who we are and what we do; it's all about doing things together and not for. Connect is not something that's 'put on' by the church, instead that sense of ownership prompts many people to share their testimony and has encouraged people to discover – and use – their gifts.

Every week we see new people coming in, God is doing amazing things. Over the last year, we have seen many, many come to faith for the first time. We probably have about 60 'regulars' now –  though the number would be closer to 100 if everyone involved in Connect all came at the same time; it really has grown very quickly and the core of it is growing stronger.

Christians come to us from all sorts of church backgrounds, including Baptists, Anglicans and Free Churches and a retired Methodist minister who's helping us too. A lot of people are particularly getting involved in mentoring so that's something we are looking to use and be fairly intentional about it.

There have been a number of signs of growth. Our women's group, which meets on a Thursday, grew out of one of them saying, 'I want to start a sisterhood'. These are young women in their early 20s, passionate about their faith, who look at the Bible and focus on teaching. We also have about 20 people going to another weekly Bible study – from which we are seeing an emerging leadership team.

Connect - full roomWe are not affiliated to any one Christian denomination though we do meet at St Luke's Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the vicar – Robert Ward – is a great supporter of what we do. Robert heads up a network of church leaders in Tyneside and there are a few people now going to his church who started with us here. However, the majority of new Christians say that Connect is their church.

To be honest, we kind of resisted the whole idea of calling ourselves church for quite a long while but when others started calling it their church we thought, 'Well if they are happy with that, we will too.' We are not so bothered about it now.

I have been a Christian for most of my life but this is like nothing else I've come across before. Yes, the discipleship issues are generally more difficult than what most churches see because they might involve drugs and other addictive behaviours, re-offending and so on but now a wide range of people are now being drawn in so we are beginning to get away from the idea of us being seen as 'an ex-offenders church'. About 25% of those now attending have been in prison, 50% are people who have come through a connection with ex-offenders, either as family or friends, and 25% are from local churches lending their support too.

We don't have kids with us but we have quite a mix of ages, including a number of retired people who have a lot of wisdom. People are invited to come as guest speakers and some really understand about speaking into our culture, for others it is quite a new experience but they always tell us that they are greatly encouraged by being there. Again, as part of this strong sense of ownership here, we are very open to visitors and people are very welcome to come and see what we do.

We see partnership as being really important and so we are working with Christians from other areas who want to do similar things. Sunderland is just about to launch a Connect and we are also in touch with people looking to develop one in Durham. Our aim is operate as a network; we don't want oversight of them but to help them.

In terms of oversight, there are now seven or eight of us involved in that, including people we have seen emerge as leaders here. We used to meet with Robert and Alice Ward regularly but now our leadership is moving towards being more inclusive in its structure – something not necessarily run by the charity.

We meet on Tuesday nights, arriving at 5.30pm to cook and set up and starting at 7pm. We try to finish at 9pm but people tend to leave at about 10!

The biggest surprise to us here is the worship. It was during our third session of Alpha that we decided to introduce the idea of worship at Connect. The worship leader used to be a prison governor. We were unsure how this would go down with people unfamiliar with church but simply said that 'This is what Christians do'. The worship leader said he'd play a song through once so everyone would get the idea of what it was like.

It was 'How Great is Our God' and it was just amazing. After the first verse everyone was on their feet and going for it, it was such a God 'thing' because it could never have been organised, or had such an immediate effect, if it had come from us. It was very, very, very different than any other kind of worship I have ever come across. It was raw. Our musicians are very talented but they are not polished; we have guitar, drums and sometimes piano. Our singers are young women, with incredible voices, who became Christians with us and they sing with a couple of guys. We are now very passionate about music as a community, the worship band has come into prison to lead worship in the prison from where Connect first grew, and it's amazing to see and hear it – the guys there love singing. It sometimes sounds like a football chant. The closest description I would have is a kind of Geordie version of a black gospel church.

Our format is pretty flexible but generally we have:

  • some worship as people gather;
  • about 20 minutes of worship;
  • eat together;
  • news of what God is doing in people's lives, including testimonies at times;
  • speaker for 20 minutes maximum;
  • discussion around tables;
  • prayer and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are very much up for networking and not being isolated. That's why we have made connections with local Tyneside churches; St Thomas' Church, Philadelphia in Sheffield; and Reflex's links with The Message Trust.

Now, we are excited about linking in with Fresh Expressions and being part of a network of fresh expressions of church; we don't know how things will develop but we do know that God is in control.


Playtime at Philadelphia is for mums of children under 5 in Sheffield that has evolved out of a flourishing mother and toddler ministry of a large church.

St Thomas' Philadelphia has three well-established Playtime groups meeting on different days of the week. Due to their popularity, the larger numbers mean that opportunities for prayer and discussion with those interested in finding out more about the Christian faith is limited.

In January 2009, Space4Me was begun as a joint venture between Playtime and Restore (the church's ministry to vulnerable people). Space4Me is aimed at women who are interested in exploring more about God but struggle to 'fit' into a usual church setting. Meeting weekly in term time, those with children are able to drop them at the crèche provided and enjoy an hour and a half exploring self-esteem through spirituality together. It is deliberately kept small to enable friendships to deepen and discussions to take place.

After an opening prayer, the group eat lunch together. This is followed by a craft activity on a theme relating to self-identity/esteem (through card-making, treasure box, jewellery-making, clay, photo frames) and chat. The group then turns to sharing time with the offer of prayer for those who would like it. To finish, there is 15 minutes of gentle input on a Christian theme relating to how God sees and values them. Mums and their children meet up once a term to have celebration time together.

Divine Divas

What do belly dancing, Bollywood, Loose Women and Come Dine with Me have to do with a fresh expression of church in North Yorkshire? Revd Sue Sheriff, vicar of Tadcaster, gives the lowdown on Divine Divas.

It all started when one of our church members won the use of a hot tub for the weekend in a church raffle. She used it for a birthday party and we wondered, 'why is it that we can invite other women to this sort of party but we find that we can't really invite them to church?'

Divine Divas - foodI wasn't sure if it was just me or if the other women felt the same so the first thing we did was have Women Who Lunch and Pray and I asked a small group to come together early last year for lunch to talk about some of the women we cared about and think about the type of leisure activities we could invite them to.

We then invited Christian women across the area to a Pudding and Prayer meeting so that we could discuss it in more detail. As a result of this, we decided to put on an event for women, one that was clearly Christian but not off-putting. Divine Divas was born with DIVA standing for Dynamic Inspirational Vibrant Adventurous women. Our first meeting was an experiment, and we decided to go for belly dancing…

We wanted to be very open and honest about the fact that there was the church element, we didn't want to get people there under false pretences and so we decided the topic and invited a friend of mine – a wonderfully 'DIVA' vicar, Laura McWilliams from Scarborough – to come and tell her story and it was great.

Divine Divas - BollywoodPeople seemed to go for the whole thing immediately. The venue we use is licensed and I think we set the tone by inviting them to bring whatever they wanted to drink. There are always ethical issues around these questions of course and we don't go so far as to provide the drink but we felt it important that they could bring in a bottle of wine if they wanted to. So far we haven't had any problems with this, people seem to respect what we're doing and only drink in moderation. If it was causing any sort of distress, we would obviously think again.

We didn't want to exclude people by always organising active events so we next organised a Loose Women panel. On the TV, they've discussed prayer and spiritual items several times and we thought it great that we could talk about anything and everything. I chaired it with three very lively Christian women who made themselves very honest, very vulnerable – all with a good experience of life. It was such an open and frank debate and I think an eye opener for many in the audience. Cosmopolitan magazine was taken as our source of information in the first half of the evening so that meant we had Christians talking about things like How to have the Best Sex Ever.

We set our age limit as being old enough to discuss childbirth without cringing and young enough to have a go at belly dancing. It's more of an attitude than an age limit but we tend to get 20 to 40 somethings made up of about 25% churchgoers and 75% non- churchgoers. Attendance has never really dropped below 40.

Divine Divas - handsBollywood Nights featuring Bollywood style dancing was another one that made the programme. It featured the testimony of a young woman, a Muslim convert to Christianity, who told us some of the complications that decision had brought about in her life. People were really moved when they realised the personal cost of being a Christian; that was the event when people started saying it was 'their'church. There had always been relationship stuff going on but that event was certainly a turning point.

Our next event is Come Dine with the Divine Divas. This is a women-only event so the men will help with the cooking and wait on the tables but once they have served the meal, they have to get out! Three of the fellas from church said they would ask some of their friends and they have now got a group together to do just that. We're calling them the Divine Men. They think this is a fun idea because they are doing something rather than coming to something – it could provide a longer term offshoot for the men.

Divine Divas - churchA core group of seven of us is involved in the planning; there is a big denominational spread as we operate across a joint benefice. There are lots of us who are very conscious of the very worldly things around which we are weaving Christian themes in our events. Divine Divas doesn't seem to be a clear bridge to bringing people into church because, for some of them, Sunday church is not appropriate or convenient for them or they don't really relate to it. At the moment Divine Divas seems to be developing a community in its own right but it's very much at early stages.

The whole thing begs the question about what does church mean? What I hope that will come out of this is that people will develop a relationship with Jesus. I do find that, for instance even now with our friends they will ask us to pray and on occasions even non-churchgoing friends who have no particular claim to faith will text and say 'pray for me, this is happening' – sometimes even to sit and pray with them especially when it's something very emotional to do with family.

Similarly in conversation we'll chat Bible stories and talk about things like the woman at the well who had been married however many times and the man she was with wasn't her husband. So much of it relates to people's experiences today so I'm not sure – if Church were to be taken in its 'tight' term – that we will evolve into having an organised liturgy and singing hymns. However if we're talking about evolving to a place where people are happy to pray and to chatter about the Bible then I think it could easily evolve into that. I guess as we chatter together you could call it a cell group or a Bible study or church but I'm not sure we'd be too keen to try and pin it down too much.

Divine Divas - TadcasterSome of the more mature members of my traditional congregation are now coming along to Divine Divas and thoroughly enjoying it. People have been very supportive and they're just genuinely pleased to see people involved with church in its wider sense.

In future I would like to see Divine Divas growing in numbers. It would also be wonderful to see a change in the little slot where we invite a speaker. Instead of bringing in someone from the outside I would love to be able to say to the group, 'so has Jesus done anything for you? Has God made a difference in your life this week?' and the Divine Divas themselves would just stand up and tell their own stories.

Heyford Chapel

A church community on a former US air base turned housing estate has separate age-related congregations.

We are a growing, worshipping community and are thinking about the way and how we meet together,

says Ian Biscoe, Church Army officer and leader of Heyford Chapel since its foundation in 2002.

Each of the four congregations has its own leadership team.

Kidz Church, for any child up to the age of 11, meets on Sunday afternoons in the former military chapel used for much of Heyford Chapel's activities. Worship and prayer are mixed with games.

HeyU for younger teenagers meets in the chapel on early Wednesday evenings, while Revival, for older teens, meets in the chapel later on Wednesday evenings, with a half-hour gap between the two.

Unity church for adults meets in two cells on Tuesday and for worship and small groups on Thursday evenings, beginning with refreshments and chat. A social evening, Fusion, happens on Fridays.

This growing worshipping community of between 100 and 120 members is working out ways to meet the differing needs of its members whilst maintaining a sense of being part of a whole.

Cameron House

Cathy StoneRevd Cathy Stone is a deacon in the Diocese of Toronto and executive director of its Rural Outreach Committee (ROC). She describes how helping those on the edge of society has led to blessing for herself and the inherited church.

We have always worked closely with Cameron House, a shelter for women in Peterborough, Ontario. Cameron House staff answer the Rural Outreach Committee's crisis line at evenings, weekends and holidays and it is not uncommon for us to share cases and information.

During one debrief, a member of staff mentioned to me that it would be wonderful if I could "bring church to Cameron House." I asked permission from Bill McNabb, executive director of Brock Mission – which owns and operates the shelter. Trent Durham Bishop, Linda Nicholls also gave me the green light.

I first met a group of six to eight ladies at the facility two years ago and they all expressed a strong desire to learn more about Jesus and God. Although a few had attended church in the past, they really had no idea of why they were Christians. They acknowledged that they were burnt out, sad, and hoped that there was something "out there" in the way of spirituality that might help them.

We began with a basic Christianity course, which I adapted especially for our group, and we took time for prayer, worship, bible study and discussion. It then became clear that most (if not all) of the ladies had suffered from sexual, physical or emotional abuse as children, and also later as adults. Many had addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. They had families that they could not connect with or who didn't wish to connect with them. Others had been "hurt" by the Church and didn't trust the corporate church system or church people.

Cameron House with bibleWe worked our way through further courses and a Christian friend bought us 12 Life Recovery Bibles. By that time our group had grown to 10. The results have been wonderful and we have seen God at work in these lives again and again.

At first we would meet around the dining room table at Cameron House (not always perfect because other residents tended to walk in and out to use the fridge), but now we have our own beautiful room. It is our "God space." The house itself has changed too. Where it was once quite messy and dirty, we now see women helping each other to organise rooms and tidy things up. Instead of blank stares or frowns, I notice smiling faces when I drive up to the home of what has now become my second family.

One woman who was homeless and poverty-ridden when I met her in 2008 has now received funding to complete her Masters of Social Work; three of those who met with us have been baptised; another requested that her new apartment be blessed; still another revealed to me recently that she has stopped drinking and smoking and will be attending a recovery programme as well as continuing on with our group. It is not just the residents we help, but those who find shelter elsewhere continue to come back on Wednesday evenings to learn more about God's word and how it is relevant in our everyday lives. We share very personal concerns around the table and what is said in the room stays in the room. This has built a strong bond and trust with each other. We laugh, cry, pray, discuss theology, study the Bible and sing worship songs.

Cameron House laughingWhen I first told the women that I was an Anglican Deacon they were amazed. One Sunday, a lady asked me to take her to one of our traditional church services. During the drive there she told me that she was a crack addict and had only stopped using the drug two nights ago, but she still wanted to go to church. We had no sooner arrived than she needed to use the bathroom to vomit. I helped her up from her knees, washed her face and took her up to church, but she was just too sick to stay so I drove her home. Afterwards, when I returned to church for coffee, one parishioner told me of her own problem with alcohol and another spoke of an adult son with addictions. This lady's presence at church had helped others open up about their own struggles.

This fresh expression of church can help not only society's outcasts, but also society itself, by offering those who live on the edge a second chance to become healthy members of our communities and to bring to them the Good News of Jesus Christ in a safe environment.

The church family at Cameron House is a beautiful thing to witness and I feel blessed to be a part of their lives.