Robin Eastoe describes his parish’s strategy for reaching out
‘How do we attract younger members to our church? How do we engage people who do not come to church?’ Are those questions familiar? I have found that almost every church of whatever shade of churchmanship asks those questions. They are reflected in the vast majority of parish profiles I see as parishes look for dynamic new incumbents to lead them forward.
Here in Heavitree – the Eastern part of Exeter – we face those problems like everyone else. We have not found the answers, but maybe it is worth setting down some of what we have done in two particular parts of our church life; not because we have wisdom denied to others, but because this might encourage others to write about what they are doing. An exchange of ideas on questions we are all asking seems a very good use of New Directions space! The two areas are the development of a Sunday service aimed specifically at children and families, and our ministry on the estates of the parish.
Each Sunday we have a service titled ’30 Minute Worship’. Twice a month it is a mass, and twice it is non-eucharistic. When it is a mass, at least two-thirds of the congregation, child or adult, will receive a blessing rather than the Sacrament. This is a service where instead of the usual one ciborium and two chalices, we need two priests because of the number of blessings but require only a single chalice.
30 Minute Worship has to move fast. We have only one reading – the Gospel, a short Creed, and an address that needs to be no more than five minutes long. We begin the service by getting a child to ring a handbell (33 times, one for each year of Jesus’ life), and for the address we get the children to come and sit out the front with the priest. We have two hymns or songs, chosen from a fairly limited range so children get used to them. But all the elements of a mass are there. We have a confession, we sing Kyries, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei – all to the Israeli Mass setting from Celebration Hymnal. There are a few Glorias we use, but the most common is the Peruvian Gloria because it has lots of response and is easy for children. The Gospel is properly proclaimed. We have a full eucharistic prayer. It holds attention and creates a reverent atmosphere. But at the same time it also allows children to be children, and families seem to be at home. Although it is a service where children could make a noise or run around, in fact they rarely do so because the service engages them. It requires a certain amount of skill to take the service, but then that is true of any service and such skills can be learnt.
Numbers vary, but no one can say this is a church with no children! There is no reason to think that parents bringing their children to 30 Minute Worship would bring them to the more formal Parish Mass. The service has grown gradually, but now regularly outnumbers those at the Parish Mass which follows it. Not the answer to every problem, but a definite attempt to meet the needs of an area with no more, but no fewer, families than you would find elsewhere.
So what about the estates in the parish? There are four estates, which were originally social housing, though now a significant proportion are owner-occupied. Exeter has many large, thriving churches, and I often meet parishioners who tell me they attend them. But on the estates they do not tell me this – very, very few worship anywhere. We have tried various ideas; one of our churches with a large estate behind it has held open-air coffee mornings on some of the green spaces. In the same church we have a monthly film evening. We have tried open-air services, carol services, events in schools, Messy Church in a children’s centre. There is little response. So do we give up? Certainly not!
We are at present advertising for a Team Vicar who will minister on estates. Our hope is that someone will feel God’s call to minister sacrificially to people who are among the poorest not only in Exeter but in the whole county. We have weekly assemblies in two of the schools which serve the estates, so Bible stories are told and enjoyed. We seek to work with other denominations, for no one finds estate ministry easy. Above all, when some money from the sale of a property was available, we made the decision to employ a Community Worker in one of the estates, so that the church could be seen to be serving the community, not just looking for likely converts. This has made a big impression, and hopefully the appointment of the Team Vicar will enable us to develop this much further. Estates make up roughly half the population of the parish; they deserve 50% of our time, resources and priestly ministry.
So we have found some answers to attracting children and families. We have found no answers to ministry in estates, but some valuable guidelines. We have struggled with the challenges, but have not given up or felt overcome. My hope in penning this is that others will respond – with ideas that have worked or failed, with insights and suggestions, with accounts of their own joys and sorrows. In Acts we read of a Church which did spread but also met with opposition, persecution and failure. In a humble and small way, we follow.
Fr Robin Eastoe is the Team Rector of Heavitree and St Mary Steps, Exeter, and one of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s Representatives in the Diocese of Exeter.