Moving out of a church building into a tower block may not be everyone's idea of progress but The Sunday Sanctuary in Portsmouth is proving to be a hit with newcomers to this fresh expression of church.
Revd Mark Rodel, Portsmouth's city centre pioneer minister and associate priest at St Luke's Somerstown, Southsea, led the way when the 20-strong congregation set up base at Wilmcote House to encourage newcomers. And encourage them they did. In the first month, 24 extra people came to get-togethers at the 11-storey high-rise. Mark is encouraged but aware of the challenges ahead.
This is about taking seriously the call to be where people already are, rather than expecting them to come to us. We often expect people to cross the threshold of our churches and immediately start singing or speaking words that they don't yet believe or understand. Our gathering is much more conversation-based.
We don't always judge our success or failure on the basis of numbers, as the quality of relationships is also important. But I'm very encouraged; we moved locations specifically to encourage local people to join us, and they have. Several of them have been more than once. And the people we're meeting seem to be genuinely open to what it is that we're doing.
In fact, we had thought people might pop in and out for just a few minutes of our morning get-togethers. In fact, many of them have stayed for the entire morning.
We had a trial run at Wilmcote House on four successive Sundays earlier in the year. As a result of that, one family - who live in Wilmcote House - decided to join us. At Christmas we had the Wilmcote House Nativity. All ages were welcome and children had the chance to dress as an angel or shepherd to hear the Christmas story, enjoy a free breakfast and take part in some craft sessions.
Our vision is to be a mission community that plants congregations, and ultimately we'd like to see a network of small, local congregations in this area. In the meantime, this is a massive step and there is excitement and trepidation. We recognise that it's a risk, but we think it's a risk worth taking.
Worship is continuing at St Luke's church building from Monday to Saturday, and the venue is still being used by community groups. There are lots of other things going on in the area too. Across Portsmouth diocese, there are multi-media 'Blessed' Eucharists at St Thomas's Church, Elson, in Gosport; Messy Church at St Wilfrid's Church, Cowplain; meditative alternative worship called 'Ethos' at St Nicholas Church, North End; and a Café Church will launch in Waterlooville's Costa Coffee from January 2010.
I have also started a new thing on Sunday nights when I offer a chance for 'spiritual-but-not-religious' people to meet up at a local pub to talk about faith, spirituality and life over beer.
Weatherspoon's kindly set aside a table for me at the Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub from 8pm-10pm. The evenings are called 'Sanctuary' and are publicised as 'spirited conversation and skinny ritual'.
It isn't a church in a pub. There's no worship or preaching involved. It's just a chance for people who would feel uncomfortable in church to talk and think a bit more deeply about what they do believe. My aim isn't to get them into church, but simply to give them space to explore these issues. So far I've chosen some fairly broad discussion topics, like life after death, or what things we might regret.