What happens when you are a growing church, but you can’t tick the boxes on the forms? You’re neither a ‘fresh expression,’ nor a ‘Flourishing Church.’ The people of Meppershall felt just that. Meppershall is a growing village in rural Bedfordshire, and like others they are seeing an influx as housing developments pop up. The unusual thing about St. Mary’s Meppershall is that it is at one end of the village, not the centre – you could spend years there and never actually discover it. So Rev. Roni and her team decided they needed to actively engage with this evolving community, not be necessarily doing something new, but by looking at what they had, playing to their established strengths, and moulding something to fit their growing village community.
‘Welcome and outreach’ is at the heart of what they do. It is estimated that over the past six years around 200 houses have been built there with a further 250 approved. The welcome the church offers is vital. Parishioners visit those moving in with welcome tote bags including tea, coffee, and information about church. They’ve discovered the positive impact of this while running a stall at the village fair and heard how the gesture of the welcome bag had made people feel accepted. One family said that, given the rise in new homes, they weren’t sure if they would be welcome. As a result, new people have sought out the church itself, one now helps cut the grass in the churchyard and has expressed an interest in joining the Parish Council.
The stall they ran at the village fair attracted much interest. People’s experience of church generally has been of places which always wanted something; that always needed money. Here, the games were free, and they were giving away things – small gestures attracting big interest.
Meppershall’s ‘Living Advent Calendar’ also draws the church into the village, and the village into the church. Each day a different house creates a display, and by encouraging people to visit the beautiful advent windows a new dynamic is seen in the community culminating in the final crib display in St. Mary’s Church.
For the past three years village Advent preparations have begun with hot chocolate, mulled wine and a local storyteller performing ‘A Christmas Carol’. This is so popular that in the summer they will be introducing a performance of ‘The Wind in the Willows’. These events have created a beautiful for the Meppershall community.
Church members handwrite Christmas cards for every household, which get delivered by Santa, and their service of Nine Lessons and Carols always includes community groups, rather than readers from the congregation.
The village Scarecrow Festival, now in its third year, also helps people to discover the church building. Following a map around the village they find amazing scarecrows, ending up at the church for afternoon tea, gift day celebrations and prize givings. The church is a place of fun and joy (and scarecrows!) as much as it is a place of worship.
The latest evolution in worship at Meppershall has been a Cafe style church led by a Lay Reader. Morning worship starts as usual, but after the readings they break for refreshments, followed by discussion of ‘The Question of the Day,’ related to the lectionary. Attendance has doubled, and more importantly, has created a space to encourage people to explore and discuss the bible together.
The villagers gather monthly for an afternoon walk which sets off from the church yard (the church is dog friendly and open to humans and canines alike all the time!), while Rectory Teas, which was intended to be a once a month gathering, multiplied into a second monthly meeting called ‘Getting Serious’, which gives the opportunity to ‘go deeper’ and follow the Puzzling Questions Course. These activities, along with the usual elements of parish life have seen the development of the first Alpha course to run in seven years. Also many of the families attending the hugely successful Holiday Club ‘SPARKS’ (which is run for over 80 children over four days every summer) are not from church and so the parish has started a ‘SPARKS-style’ service on the 4th Sundays 4pm, aiming at developing interest from this group.
Although always trying to find new ways of reaching people in Meppershall, the church is also developing what they already do to accommodate the changes in people’s lives. At the heart of this is their Mission Action Plan which they use as a spiritual tool – always evolving – and guiding them forward.
Using new and established ways together – the people of Meppershall are reaching new people.