Cafe church in rural Worcestershire

On Sunday, the cafe church in Wichenford had its second anniversary: we had 50 people of all ages, enjoying fresh coffee, bacon butties and an informal service. This has been one of the major highlights of my time as a curate here, so I thought this anniversary marked a good time to reflect on it in this blog.

Cafe church in Wichenford

Cafe church in Wichenford

Gail and Amber do the reading

Gail and Amber do the reading

One of the attractions of cafe church seems to be that it works for all ages. It’s designed to be family friendly, so we have a regular kids’ activity (in the style of Messy Church) to one side, and kids are free to wander during the meeting. This is one of the things that helps to give it a lively atmosphere.

But we’ve also found that it works for older folks whose preferred style might be the Book of Common Prayer – because it’s an excuse to leave the house, have breakfast out and meet friends.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

The cafe church format lends itself to creativity. In some of the months we’ve had sketches provided by some of the young people, and we’ve had a singing group a few times as well.

The bacon butties being served

The bacon butties being served

It would be completely impossible to do this without a dedicated team of helpers, and one of the essentials has been to identify those who are willing and able to commit time to being part of the hospitality teams. I’ve been really encouraged by the way team members have shared the vision of what cafe church is about, and have helped to create a welcoming culture.

The cafe churches in Wichenford and Martley are just two examples of the Fresh Expressions of church that are taking place around the country. Each one is an attempt to enable people in the 21st century to connect with Jesus Christ in a new way, with less of the baggage that traditional church is perceived to have in today’s post-modern culture. Indeed, the ultimate goal is not primarily to have large numbers at a church event – encouraging though that may be; it is for more people to recognise that Jesus Christ is alive today; and moreover, to realise that relationship with him is meaningful and powerful for their own lives.

Kids' activity in progress

Kids’ activity in progress

All photos (except the third) taken by Mark Wild, who retains the copyright.

Getting inspiration from the right source

Last week I was up in Harrogate for a few days at the New Wine Leaders’ conference. Never having been to one before, I was unsure what it would be like – but it was actually very inspiring.

Christy Wimber at the New Wine leaders' conference

Christy Wimber was passionate about leaders keeping God as the top priority of their lives

Christy Wimber’s opening talk stressed how important it is for leaders to get their joy and satisfaction primarily from God. If we don’t receive from the Lord enough, we risk placing too much pressure on those around us. Then we are in danger of things like burnout and disillusionment – and we end up as one of the many leaders who fail to finish well. God’s voice has to be the one which is loudest in our lives.

For me Christy’s talk set exactly the right tone for the rest of the conference – but I was surprised at the number who just didn’t connect with what she was saying. I did wonder whether this reflected the fact that too many leaders fall into the very trap that she was warning against…

Jon Tyson was advocating thoughtful cultural engagement

Jon Tyson was advocating thoughtful cultural engagement

One speaker who made a big impression on most people was Jon Tyson, an Australian pastor at Trinity Grace Church in New York. His passion is for churches to engage thoughtfully with the surrounding culture. Too often, evangelical Christians have rejected secular culture where a more intelligent engagement would be far more constructive. He rooted this in a critique of the prevailing theology: evangelicals have held to a truncated view of God’s plans for the world, emphasising the Fall of man and God’s redemption, while neglecting God’s creation and his plans for restoration. This resonated with me because I have read NT Wright making the same basic point.

The most handsomest dude in Harrogate. Who else would I want to photograph?

The most handsomest dude in Harrogate. Who else would I want to photograph?

In practical terms, the seminars on church planting (in one of the ministry streams) were particularly helpful. Michael Moynagh gave a talk based on research that he’s done on Fresh Expressions – and he enthused about their effectiveness at outreach. Thus he found, from studying those in ten dioceses, that 40% regularly attending Fresh Expressions have had no significant church experience before.

One of the central achievements of Moyhagh’s talk was not getting ensnared by the big church versus small church debate which clouds much discussion on this and similar issues. He pointed out that the traditional church planting model – of a large church sending out a team of about 50 to a new area – is highly effective, under certain limited circumstances. Nevertheless, the model which is probably most broadly applicable is one which relies on smaller teams of 6-12 moving into an area, serving the community, listening, and demonstrating God’s love by practical action.

New Wine is seeking to become more effective at resourcing pioneer ministry. I found both Moyngah’s talk and the subsequent one by Gareth Robinson very helpful in enabling me to think through these issues.

The three days there were most enjoyable. There were of course other delights while there – not least sharing enormous naan breads at a local Indian restaurant with Geraint and Debra Hill from CFM in Dine’s Green!

Michael Moynagh enthused about the effectiveness of Fresh Expressions

Michael Moynagh enthused about the effectiveness of Fresh Expressions

Renewal in the countryside

Last week I went to an outstanding conference run by the Fresh Expressions organisation, on renewal in a rural church context. What made the conference so good was that it was highly focussed and very practical, and struck a good balance between talks, discussions, and free time to mix and mingle.

At the start, the keynote speech was given by Jerry Marshall, on “Applying entrepreneurial leadership to rural mission”. He defined an entrepreneur as “a person who habitually sees how the world could be better in some way, and then brings the resources together to make it happen” – which was a stimulating idea for those wanting to bring renewal to a rural context! Three points particularly stood out for me:

  • In planning new initiatives, we need to start by looking for the need, rather than the solution. We then look for the resources to meet the need.
  • It is essential to decide on the goals – and then agree to pay the price in advance. I think ‘price’ can be understood not just in terms of finances, but particularly in terms of the time and resources of all concerned.
  • People and passion are vital!

We then heard from other practitioners about actual examples of Fresh Expressions in a rural context. One of these was Sally Gaze, who is now a vicar in Norfolk, and was one of my predecessors as curate in the Martley area! Simon Lockett from Herefordshire captured the imagination with several ideas: in order for the vicar to be seen to belong to each of the villages, he now camps in each one for a week in the year – in a yurt! He’s also in the process of developing an outreach project based around a pizza van.

The ample time for discussion in small groups meant that we could process what we had heard, and then think through how to apply it. One entertaining session was when we discussed key values for renewal in the countryside: three words in particular recurred across the  groups, which were ‘prayer’, ‘messy’, and ‘passion’ – which probably says something revealing about those of us who were there!

I got a huge amount from the session on “Youth discipleship in the countryside” – and not just because of the content. Peter Atkins, a church leader who was one of the conference organisers, recognised that two of the 19-year-olds in his church, Emily Harrison and Catherine Ward, would be the ideal people to lead most of the session. Doing so exemplified how people thrive when leaders relinquish some of their control, and enable others to step into the limelight. Emily and Catherine’s top tips for youth discipleship were: to be relevant and relatable; to keep it relational; and to persevere.

Throughout my time there, I enjoyed being with a group of people who are all restless with the way church is usually done in the countryside, who have no illusions about the current predicament, and are passionate for renewal. It was an inspiring conference.

Wichenford Cafe Church

Our own Fresh Expression: Wichenford Cafe Church (Photo: Mark Wild)

Wichenford Cafe Church

Wichenford Cafe Church (Photo: Mark Wild)

Fresh

So – what should we do to revive the Church in this country? That was the underlying question for the week-long “Fresh” course I’ve just completed in York with about a dozen others, four of whom were also from Cranmer.

The Spurriergate Christian Centre and cafe

To answer this question, we looked at a variety of “Fresh Expressions”, or different ways to be doing church. I’ll highlight a couple that were particularly good.

Just down the road from where we had the course was the Spurriergate Centre – which looks, on the surface, just to be a former church which has been turned into a cafe. Indeed, it was de-consecrated for that purpose, and it is certainly successful in that role. What makes it different, though, is that the centre also provides pastoral counselling and prayer for those who need it. Through the conversations staff have with customers, a number of enquirers groups have taken place. As a result the centre now opens on a Sunday to worship God and have fellowship around a full meal – so that the church which was converted into a cafe is now morphing back into a church again!

We also visited the Gateway Christian Centre in Acomb, a suburb of York. The cafe theme is important here as well, serving a large shopping centre. They’ve taken over a former primary school building which has been renovated over the past ten years. They run a number of ministries as well – probably the most significant is the debt counselling service, which is run as an extension of CAP (Christians Against Poverty). This is having a major impact on individual lives; people only tend to seek this ministry when they are “pretty much sunk”. They discover that God cares for them, even when they are in the mire.

Paul & Liz Holgate with Jessica, in front of their courgette plants

One of the delights of the last couple of weeks in York has been to make new friends – none more so than my hosts, Paul and Liz Holgate. Some years ago, while they were still in South Africa, they planted a Vineyard Church in a pub. They found it a very effective environment for leading people to Christ who have little experience of the church. Actually it doesn’t take long to realise why they were good at it – they are very warm and hospitable people, who naturally make one feel welcome. Since coming to the UK they ran a deli for a number of years, so they have the expertise and gifting to be able to run a cafe venture again.

Fresh