The Story of ‘Sunday Club' known as RE:NEW. An ecumenical Fresh Expression in a rural context
by Simon Goddard of Lode Chapel Lode is situated about 8 miles north east of Cambridge city and the Chapel serves five villages in East Cambridgeshire: Lode with Longmeadow, Stow-cum-Quy, Swaffham Bulbeck, Swaffham Prior and Bottisham. The membership of Lode Chapel has been declining, but is currently stable at just over twenty members. I was called to part-time ministry at Lode Chapel in September 2005 whilst I undertook three years of church-based theological study at Spurgeon's College.
As a consequence of a mission consultancy that had taken place prior to my arrival, there was awareness amongst the fellowship that some sort of worshipping presence was needed in Bottisham, the largest of the local villages and the natural hub of the area. We started slowly holding three ‘trial' services in the hall at Bottisham Community School - it was a space that local children and parents were familiar with, and was within walking distance for many of them. These first three services had a slightly more informal and interactive format than a Chapel service, but disappointingly for the fellowship, very few non-regulars attended these services, and the next step was unclear.
At the same time Lode Chapel was preparing for its biannual summer holiday club. In the past despite positive contact being made with a large number of local families, there had been very little follow-up to the club. This became part of our preparation discussions, and was raised at one of the local fraternal meetings that are held every six to eight weeks with the local Anglican vicar. In that meeting we ended up talking about the possibility of a monthly ‘Kids Club' and there was a real sense that this was the way forward for us. It was interesting, given subsequent events, that the idea arose in this context, but at this stage the ‘Kids Club' was to be just a Lode Chapel activity.
So in September 2006, ‘Sunday Club' was born. There were personal invitations for each of the sixty or so children that had been to the holiday club, and adverts in the village magazines and through the schools. It was advertised as a ‘holiday club on a Sunday' and this meant that there would be video, games, craft, action songs, a creative prayer activity, and a very short talky bit focussed around a memory verse. A number of families from the holiday club joined us at the first event and although a few didn't return, many continued to come each fourth Sunday. The hard work put into preparing each event, including transporting the newly purchased sound and video equipment to and from the school, seemed to be bearing fruit.
Unexpectedly many parents chose to stay with their children and as a result of this there was pressure from the church meeting for ‘Sunday Club' to be more accessible to the adults. Slowly the format began to change and ‘Sunday Club' started to move away from its initial vision. In addition, there was soon a disappointment amongst the church members that these families were not starting to come to the Chapel services on the other Sundays of the month as well. To me, rather than being engaged in an outreach activity, it started to seem that we were now involved in planting a new congregation.
Early in 2007 the vicar was approached about having a curate, and asked me to meet the prospective ordinand as part of the decision-making process. Jonathan, and his wife Emma, had, like me, previously worked as primary school teachers, and were excited about what was happening with ‘Sunday Club'. When they arrived they were keen to get involved, and from September that year they joined me in planning and leading the events. The close friendship that had developed through the regular fraternals had borne fruit, and there was a real commitment, at least at a leadership level, for us to work ecumenically. We recognised the weakness of our individual churches and the need for us to work together. As Jonathan shared with the parish churches news of what was happening in Bottisham plans for a similar venture in Swaffham Bulbeck were suggested, and RE:NEW began in May 2008 and took place on the second Sunday of each month. The first few of these events attracted a good number of new people, mainly families from that village. Although it was also based in a primary school hall, the feel of this event was quite different. Tables were set out in a café-style (rather than the ‘Sunday Club' rows) and there was deliberately a less churchy feel (for example, no singing) to make it more accessible for those with very little, if any, church experience.
Jonathan, Emma and I were working well as a team and we co-ordinated and led the 2008 holiday club together. That summer, after completing three years at Spurgeons I was ordained and began full-time ministry with Lode Chapel. There was a sense, however, as this new phase started, that we needed to clarify the vision. To this end we set aside a day of prayer and discussion at the beginning of September and we were joined by the vicar and the elder from Lode Chapel. This was a very positive occasion with some honest conversation and debate about the encouragements and challenges of what was happening. One of the major issues was that, for a variety of reasons, none of the leadership team were likely to be around for more than two or three more years - how could we ensure that what had been started could be sustained and didn't remain dependent upon particular people? At the end of the day there was a real sense of unity about the need to develop discipleship and a sense of belonging for the people in these new congregations, and the way forward was set out in a ‘Declaration of Intent'.
As the established congregations discussed these proposals, the events seemed to be going from strength to strength. The new contacts made at the holiday club meant that more than eighty people, including more than thirty children, were present at the event at the end of September 2008 - more than double the usual Chapel congregation. In addition, a few of families who had been attending ‘Sunday Club' and ‘RE:NEW' starting to take a real interest in the Christian faith and undertook Alpha. Our prayers were also being answered with regards to expanding the leadership team. Five committed Christians, some of whom who had recently moved into the area, joined the team and these included an ordinand at the local Anglican theological college on placement with us and a local hospital chaplain.
Following the ‘Declaration of Intent' we had started to meet with a Regional Ecumenical Officer. The possibilities of a Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP) were discussed, but soon it seemed that the most suitable path was to seek a Bishop's Mission Order (BMO). Under the single name of RE:NEW, the plan is that this fresh expression of church will become a distinct congregation of Lode Chapel as well as being the recipient of a BMO. This process is ongoing, and although we hope that denominational recognition will help ensure the mission project's longer term sustainability, there are other challenges that we are facing along the way.
The story continues with a RE:NEW slideshow: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rmo6lol4Oo