Stuart Radcliffe is minister to two Methodist/URC churches in Cheshire. He tells how Heaton Moor United Church, Stockport, is linking with the local pub to develop community links.
It all started when we were thinking about how we could make a difference in our community to remind people that we love them - and God loves them.
In some communities, the way the church can work to meet people's needs is pretty obvious. It is very different where we are in Manchester. Yes there are high levels of deprivation in areas on either side of us but we are actually in lovely, green suburbia where - on the face of things - people are not too badly off at all. Whilst there are those who have the daily struggle to make ends meet, many set off to highly paid jobs in the morning and come home much later that day to their very desirable, four-bed detached homes.
But the thought kept coming to me that appearances were deceptive and that people had lots of problems behind their front doors. On the face of it, they are going out to work and getting a nice salary but they can pay a very high price for those demanding jobs with enormous stress levels. Our question was, 'How can we as a church recognise those stresses and make it clear that we care for the people living with those anxieties?'
At that point we were two churches, Heaton Moor Methodist Church and The Heatons United Reformed Church. We wanted to do something for people during Holy Week so we went out to where they were and gave out coffee and hot cross buns, to those on their way to the railway station. We also gave them a little booklet about Easter and a leaflet explaining why we were doing it. The URC building was about 50 yards away from the station and it was an easy way to break into the busyness of people's lives.
It also made quite an impact on the church members who took part because they understood that they too could start to 'do' evangelism simply by saying, 'Would you like a free coffee?' From that initial idea, working with the community where they are, much has happened and grown. It has been marvellous to share stories and build relationships.
Two years on and we had become one church, Heaton Moor United Church, but the same question remained as to how we might best reach out into our community. The answer came when a few of us including my colleague Rev Richard Parkes were in a local pub, The Plough, and we came up with the idea of having Beer and Carols. Pub landlord Ian was really supportive and so members of the church gathered in the pub and - in between rounds of Ian's festive quiz and fancy dress - we sang praise to God in carols. The result was that I had more conversations about faith than I'd had for months and we also raised £200 for Christian Aid.
What could we do next? Our thoughts turned again to Easter but we no longer had the building by the station for distributing coffees. However The Plough was in a perfect position. All we had to do was persuade Ian to open up at 6am, allow us to give away coffee and receive nothing in return!
Amazingly, Ian agreed and so from Monday to Thursday of Holy Week we met at the pub from very early morning and gave away coffee and hot cross buns and booklets about the Easter story. Social media also had a role to play and we let people know what we were doing via Twitter. I'd just started the church Twitter account and people picked up on three keywords that I used: Heaton Moor, Community, Caring.
That meant what we were doing was picked up by a lot of people doing things in our area about community or caring. At that time the messages were being tweeted to 3,500 people; they are now retweeted to about 7,000 people because we have hit the right networks – these included local radio which picked up on the momentum of church doing something good in the community.
I chatted to Ian about how we might continue to develop these growing links with community. The Plough already hosted a knitting group, Spanish lessons and the history society. I said, 'How about a monthly discussion meeting' and he said, 'what night do you want to do it on?! I want people to come in here and feel that they are sitting in their own lounge, the more we can offer them the better'.
That group is called No Holds Barred and it involves talking over a variety of issues with a Christian input but in a very informal way. We also put the discussion starter details on all the tables in the pub, not just the area we're sitting in, so that people can still consider some of the issues even if they don't join us.
It stands on its own as a specific community. In December the evening was called, 'I wish it could be Christmas every day? How do I cope with Christmas at a time of financial austerity?' Past meetings have seen us look at prayer through the story of footballer Fabrice Muamba who survived a heart attack and we have also discussed trust as a result of the Jimmy Savile investigations.
Some months there have been 10 to 12 people taking part and other times there have been four of us, we've just got to keep at it. We have also had other events, such as a curry and comedy night at the pub. I think we need to give it two years before we assess what happens next. If it's to continue to grow it will look very different than church as we know it today.
We have to think how we can be relevant in our service to people. Maybe they will then see a purpose and later a meaning as to why we do what we do. I have learned a lot from the pub landlord because we Christians need to recognise that the church doesn't have exclusivity in wanting to serve people. I know it's a matter of good business practice for Ian but he also wants to provide a place where the community can come together in different ways. I think sometimes people respect us more as churches in the area when we join in with what others are already doing, such as the local traders' association. We offered to do some carol singing for them and they were really pleased.
For the first two years of my time here, all I seemed to do was have cups of coffee with people. Now I know why. It's because you become friends with them and now, after almost six years, those relationships have started to pay off. The thing is you have to make yourself available. It does mean you can't go for a quiet drink in the local pub any more because people want to chat to you about different things but that's great! It just means you have to go outside the area if you want a quiet might out.
I'm always reluctant to put 'labels' on something like No Holds Barred because it's organic and I don't know where it's going to lead. If it leads us to a fresh expression meeting in the pub I'd be delighted and I'd love that to be the direction that it takes. What I'm starting to learn is that I get more out of it by letting it go where it wants to go but I have no intention of it being an 'outreach' to get people in to our standard church services. That's not its purpose; we have been quite clear with our church about that and they're very supportive of that.
If somebody said they wanted to get more involved in my traditional church community as a result of coming to No Holds Barred then that's fine but the group doesn't exist to be a gateway to 'proper' church. I would say, 'You are more than welcome to come but it's nothing like this.' We have to get away from any idea that we are creating things that will appeal to people in a postmodern way but what we are really asking them to do is to sign on the dotted line and be part of traditional church.
There are lots of questions around fresh expressions but I think financial support is going to become increasingly important. At the moment fresh expressions are predominantly being funded by the established church but there has to be a point where fresh expressions fund themselves in order to continue.
I'm on the FEAST (Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Team) for Greater Manchester and I went on the mission shaped ministry course locally. One of the key things I learned from that was that we have got permission to fail. That means we don't say, 'it didn't work' but instead ask, 'What's the next thing? Just keep at it.' It's also very important to keep open to stopping some things as well as starting them. I'm enjoying doing stuff our way but it's important to discover what will work for you.