A waterfront café in Ipswich has become home to a community of people keen to develop faith and friendship. One of LINK's organisers, Roger Eyre, explains more.
I wasn't around at the beginning - about four years ago - but LINK founders Dan Jolley and Scott Huntly had a vision to do some sort of cafe project. They wanted to reach out into the community and be very relationship and community focused, providing a place where non-Christians would feel very welcome.
I got involved when Heart for Ipswich contacted me. This group aims to link Christians from many different churches to work together more closely to help meet the social and spiritual needs of the people of Ipswich. It is run on a voluntary basis by a small team of lay people. Heart For Ipswich got in touch to tell me about this new café project idea. My vision had been about putting music into cafés and using it as a way of outreach. In spite of living in the same town, I didn't know the other guys at all so it was important to hear from an organisation who had an overview of everything that was happening. We spent three or four months getting to know each other; we became friends and spent a lot of time together after which it became clear that we very much wanted to develop a Christian project based on relationship.
At first we thought it might be a stepping stone for people moving on to church but we quickly realised that the sort of church our community now called LINK would be prepared to go to didn't really exist. For a handful of people I'd say that LINK is their only contact with Christians and they consider it as a place where you can discuss all sorts of things; however they probably wouldn't describe it as church.
We are not trying to do church in a café as such but two people have come to faith through a journey which included LINK. There are others who have definitely made enquiries and are searching. The good thing is that LINK has reached deep into people's lives and relationships have been sustained over three years.
The experience brought by people to the team is very important. There's a wide variety, such as people who have led youth work in churches and a teacher - while I've done a lot of music events and gigging. Some of us have been brought up in church and had a very purposeful vision for what we are doing; namely reaching people who felt they could not walk into a church building and also providing a place for Christians who had been hurt by church in the past. They still had belief but did not want to be part of religion.
We started to form connections with people and things have just grown organically. We usually plan no more than 2-3 meetings ahead and our LINK nights are primarily music-focused with opportunities for discussion. One of the key things that we have is unity across denominations in the team and those that attend. This is also how we draw our governance, from a group of wiser Christians from different church traditions. They are also people who have held a lot of responsibility either in church or in business.
LINK is widely known in Christian circles in the town. We did operate weekly for about two and a half years but there is only so much a small team can do. We now run from 7pm to 9pm on the first Monday of the month, at Coffeelink café on the Ipswich Waterfront. It has been quite a roller coaster ride along the way. People will turn up at any time between 7 and 7.30pm, then we have some light music or it may be a full gig night. Otherwise we might have a talk or some sort of 'interview' with different contributors. We also do practical stuff as well; a local charity might come in and give a talk on their work or a particular challenge they're facing and we will give them some ideas. The networking side of things is important as well. There is always more than one thing going on; we don’t want to just put on music events.
We were also looking at ways of anonymously requesting prayer or asking questions. We'd seen the Post It idea done many times in other organisations when people come up with ideas by sticking the notes all over a wall so we did it at LINK and it was a great way for people to find out more or ask for support without putting themselves in the spotlight.
We have had about 50-60 people, on a few occasions nearly 100 people turn up. Now we have anywhere between 10 and 50 depending on the night; we had a massive peak of initial interest, then things tailed off before climbing back again to reach the plateau where we are now.
Our age range is anywhere between 18 and 60-65 though primarily it's people in their 20s and 30s. It's a blessing to us but we don't pitch it for a particular age group. We don't particularly want under-18s to come because most churches are well equipped with groups for that age.
We are right in town next to the new University Campus Suffolk. We now have pioneer minister Tim Yau working with us, the only ordained person on the team, and we're hoping he will be able to get to know people at the university and develop contacts.
Apart from Tim, we are all lay people with full-time jobs. We have all held, or hold, responsibility within church but not as a pastor or elder. LINK is not led by ordained leadership and we do not affiliate to any one Christian denomination.
I know lots of people who lead but they are not paid pastors; they have full time jobs and they still do church and that's a great model. If someone has worked recently then they are 'real', they understand the current job market and the pain and the politics of work. I think that's a good thing and should be encouraged.
One of the biggest things for the future is for churches to learn to put aside differences and work together. In some cases they have to be prepared to sacrifice their own personal goals for a joint goal. Sadly there are some people who still want to do their own thing; they want to have their church brand on it and not work across churches.
But when you are prepared to take a risk together it can lead to wonderful things. We had a community waterfront festival in Ipswich near the beginning of LINK, three years ago, when we wanted to make LINK known a little more. We thought, 'Why don't we go there and take our lounge out to the people instead of waiting for them to come to us?' So we took our sofas, a lamp, table, and boxes of pizza and cake down to the waterfront. It was great.
The café where we meet is run by a guy who is from a Muslim background who is open-minded about faith and providing a forum for its exploration. He lets us use the venue for free and he only gets coffee money out of it. The important thing is to find people who can broker these sorts of relationships with people in the community; we need these people because they are catalysts for change.