How do you start worship that people might want to come to? What would you do, and not do during your time together? That is one of the questions buzzing around my head as we consider a few different options for Sunday afternoons.
Last week, the latest issue of Encounters on the Edge, a quarterly publication about fresh expressions, dropped through my door. The subject was an in depth study of River Community Church on new-build developments on the outskirts of Telford. As I read, I realised that I had met the minister, Rev Steve Kelly and his wife Maggie before, at last year’s HTB Leadership conference.
So, I called him up and arranged to visit their monthly Sunday café church, initially aimed at seekers but which is moving on a little. On two of the other Sundays each month they have a more recognisable contemporary service followed by one Sunday of rest per month. They hit on the café church style instead of doing all age services. The idea was that families could learn together in a few different ways and attack a theme from a number of different angles whilst also interacting with others. This was the format for the afternoon:
2:15pm. Steve and his team turn up to the local primary school to set up. When we arrived at about 3pm, there were five little clusters of chairs gathered around tables, in a café style. On each table were some leaflets, a plate of sweets, and a menu card which detailed what was going to happen throughout the day. The theme was written in bold on the front of the menu: We’re in a Battle. At the back of the room was a welcome table with information, newsletters and books, and another table serving coffee and tea. On the far (side) wall was a line of tables with craft materials set out, which would be used in the prayer time later. At the front of the hall, the band had set up on the left and a small area had been sectioned off out of school benches, behind which was a candle, a small cross which had ‘Jesus’ written on it, and the big screen for projection.
3:00pm. The band have set set up – two guys in their 40s start practising a couple of songs. People start arriving and having coffee whilst the band practise. As they have just bought a new electric piano and this is their first time using it, the volume is a bit high. People are friendly and start chatting to us. The families worker comes over, noticing we have a toddler. She is giving the talk today and just wanted to warn us that she was using the battle clips from ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ which are a little bit violent. By the time the service starts, there are about 25 people including children. The kids range in age from 5 to 13. Our son was the only pre-schooler.
3:30pm Steve gets people’s attention, asks everyone to sit down, welcomes everyone and gives a few notices. He then hands over to the band who teach us a new song. It’s a little hard to sing but people get it by the end.
3:40pm An Ice-Breaker. The children’s worker and another lady act out a few different types of battles and the congregation have to guess what they are. This is followed by the first clip from Narnia.
3:50pm Another song. This one is more well known. We all stay seated but most people joined in. Drums were handed out to the kids for the chorus – this is something they had been practising in this song for the last few weeks. Our toddler was given a drum and enjoyed hitting it almost in time.
3:55pm A few verses from the Bible read by a child. Then the childrens worker who is speaking takes the floor for the 25 minute teaching slot. During this time, she showed another few clips from Narnia and elsewhere, demonstrated one of her points with a physical visual illustration, and speaks. The way she has set up the talk means that she is not speaking for more than about 5 minutes without a clip or illustration. She finishes off the talk with a bit of personal testimony. The take-home-point: We’re in a battle but God is with us in it, alongside. I would have preferred more discussion of what the nature of the battle is.
We were the only people with a toddler in the service, and he remained fairly engaged until about half way through the talk. He enjoyed the interaction, the drum, the music and the first video clip. After that he was running around outside the room and only briefly regained attention during a craft activity for the prayers. Steve did admit that whilst they do have a number of families with children, they do not have any pre-schoolers currently attending.
4:25ish. The prayer time was introduced. There were two crafty activities available – one was to write a persons name on a paper hand, place your hand over it and say a prayer. Another was to write a prayer on a cross shaped paper and put it at the front at the foot of the cross. People were also welcome to pray silently in place or with others around their table. The theme of the prayers was for those who are struggling or ‘in a battle’. During this, the band played.
4:45ish The prayer time was concluded with an invitation for people to gather around one of the congregants who has been struggling. A final song was sung.
The service time was over, there was plenty of time to chat with others over more coffee and tea and also some cakes and chocolates. Some games were set up for the kids in a corner. Again people were very friendly. Sometime after 5pm the chairs began to be cleared away.
We then went out to a local Pizza Hut, joined by Steve and Maggie and had a most helpful conversation about the service, what they were trying to to and what we are trying to do in Northampton. Steve made some points about the service:
- It was set up about 3 years ago for seekers. At that time there would have been more interaction around tables and they wouldn’t have started with sung worship. Any songs they sung would have been performed – only to join in if you want to. Also, the themes would have been lighter.
- They found after a couple of years, the congregation numbers started to plateau. Less new people came through the door. They decided to then take this congregation a little deeper. Steve is currently in the process of envisioning the congregation for new ways of reaching new people.
- The current state of the church is to start empowering the congregation to take the lead, with Steve and Maggie taking a step back. They can then start to think of the next way of reaching people.
The issue of Encounters gives a lot more detail about this and other aspects of the church and is well worth reading.
What can we learn?
This is clearly an example of a seeker congregation starting to go deeper in discipleship, something that every fresh expression has to come across. As we think of starting monthly worship, the question has to be, who do we want to reach? What are the objectives for us?
We do want something that is for the unchurched, but not yet. There are things that I think we need to do first. I would like a Messy church or something similar for families up on a trial run by the end of the year. Before doing this we will have to develop a team.
More pressing, I feel we need to start worshipping together as a core team. There are currently 15 of us, including kids, and another few committed and fringe Christians who might come along to worship. This would help us:
- get all on the same page
- start receiving deeper teaching together (something that some of the current core team are unable to do);
- allow to all meet together – at the moment those who work during the week are excluded;
- you never, know, one or two more Christians might come out the woodwork and start worshipping with us and join the team.
- Monthly worship like this would be open to all, but essentially for us. it would not be the focus of our work, which remains reaching out to the development, but would allow us a focus by which people, who are not mums or not free in the week, can find us if they want – a point of entry. It would very quickly provide an answer to the regularly-asked question, “So where do you meet?”
What would we do during our time together? Again it depends on the objectives. I would want sung worship and some deep biblical teaching. Hopefully this could be done in such a way that allows for questions to be asked, and is interactive and relevant. We would need to have children’s groups running during this so that the adults can receive this teaching well – we already have someone in mind. A very simple format of sung worship, discussion, talk, prayer and response would suffice. In order to build to relationships and community, we could serve a simple sandwich tea afterwards.
The problem of venue has been hanging over us for a while. Where would we hold such a service? At the moment, we either have to go off development or to start in our home. This latter idea came through discussions with Steve. Before yesterday, I couldn’t quite imagine what a service in our home would be like. But if it is just for us mainly, why not start slow and move it when a location becomes available or we get too big?
We might need to knock through the wall between our living room and dining room, but that is another issue and, I think, fairly easily solved.
This video gives you more of a flavour of the cafe church at River Community.