alive and kicking

Monday, 17 January, 2011

alive and kicking is a fresh expression of church for young people of high school age in Kinver, South Staffordshire. Ben Clymo, one of the leadership team, explores how its history is shaping its future.

alive and kicking - drinks

Kinver is a large rural village of about 6,800 people on the edge of the Black Country surrounded by farms, fields and beautiful greenbelt countryside but only two miles from the edge of the West Midlands urban conurbation.

It is a predominantly middle class, prosperous area though there are poorer pockets within the community. The population is largely middle- to old-age but, having hung on to the full range of schooling in the village, there are also a fair number of younger families.

alive and kicking - mosaicThe story of alive and kicking goes back to 1991 when the Methodist and Anglican churches in Kinver organised a week-long Rob Frost mission. Out of this came a drop-in event at the church hall called 'Hole in the Wall' for the young people who hung around the church premises in the evenings. Shortly after this, another group had to be started as an alternative for the church kids who felt threatened at Hole in the Wall and, in the end, the behaviour of young people at Hole in the Wall became such that it had to be stopped.

The group for the church kids continued. Led by members of both churches, meeting in their front rooms on a Sunday night, it was named 'alive and kicking' from a throwaway comment by one group member about how the church wasn’t...

alive and kicking was a great success as a church youth group – and indeed brought me to faith, baptism, church membership and later, leadership. At the end of the 90s, I and the last of the original members left for university and the original leaders gradually stepped back and handed over to a new team. The group continued to draw in new members, mostly from the churches' work with infant and junior-age groups, and still met in the leaders' homes.

alive and kicking - hutThat was to change when numbers got too big to continue in front rooms and the group moved into the church hall. However numbers were very soon low enough to move back into front rooms! So in 2001, we had a look at other possible venues and fixed on the newly-refurbished 'youth hut' – located on the edge of the school premises and run by the County Youth Services. They agreed to gives us free use of the building. We're now part of the management group set up to maintain and run the venue after the Youth Services let it go.

The move to a fixed, accessible venue familiar to the young people was a definite turning point. We make a big thing of meeting every week without fail (unless it's Christmas Day!) so that group members know they can turn up and we'll be there. At the same time we also started printing a termly programme as a reminder of what was on week in, week out.

Our pattern is that we open at 7pm – we'll usually have a ball or Frisbee to throw around though others will just chat with friends. Around 7.15pm we’ll have a whole-group game, preferably something which involves getting to know each other better or working as teams. Around 7.45pm we have a break for drinks and any notices and then 8-8.45pm we have a teaching and discussion time. This can be very varied but the main focus is on exploring a theme, topic or Bible passage in as creative a way as possible, with a strong emphasis on the young people being able to ask questions and explore the material in a way that is relevant to their lives.

alive and kicking - sparklerWe finish with a prayer time. Again, we try and vary the way we do this to give as broad an understanding of prayer as possible and allow people to find the way they can best build a relationship with God. One of the things we're keen to avoid is running a youth group and shoe-horning in a five-minute 'God slot'. Instead we want to try and model Christian community in all that we do; some of our best conversations about what it means to follow Jesus in our whole lives have come on the football pitch or over a drink.

Our young people come by word of mouth and invitation from friends. We do try and have a presence at the high school open evening, our village fair and other community events and we visit the junior school at the end of each school year. There we give out publicity fliers to all the school leavers inviting them to our welcome barbecue at the end of the summer - but one invite from a young person who feels that alive and kicking is 'their' community is worth 100 fliers.

alive and kicking - fancy dressAlready in 2001 we were seeing fewer churched young people coming and more young people who were not regular churchgoers. Indeed we're now at the stage where the majority of young people who come don't go to church, a significant number have never been in a church and several have to go back to their grandparents for any church experience. It also became increasing obvious to us that, despite our best invitations, most of the young people who came along on a Sunday night would not make the transition to a Sunday morning church service. The key barriers seem to be didactic teaching with no opportunity to interact or question, not feeling valued or part of the community, the timing of services, and seeing it as irrelevant. As a result we have explored different ways of building elements of church amongst the alive and kicking community.

One of the biggest challenges of working with young people is the pace of change between groups. What is best for one group of 16-year-olds may not be best for a group of 13-year-olds and may not be best for those 13-year-olds when they reach 16 either. So we've evolved an approach of working with groups that emerge to put on something for a while that helps them deepen their faith whilst ensuring that it remains open to others – recognising that it may only be for a time.

alive and kicking - crossWe ran a couple of small groups for 17 to 18-year-olds where they could build friendships and explore more adult questions than were appropriate on a Sunday night. We've tried several different sung worship 'praise' events such as 'akpraise' and 'Worship on Wednesday' which were very good for a time. A Sunday morning event called 'eleven' also ran for a couple of years, attempting to bridge the gap between the Sunday morning congregations and the Sunday night alive and kicking. None of these were long-lasting, but all were extremely useful for those that were part of them, all of them helped people grow in discipleship (which couldn't have been done just as part of the Sunday night meeting) and all of them contributed to the ongoing story of building God's community.

Our year is structured around the school terms with summer holidays being given over to games and sports to give us a break from planning content. We run an annual weekend away which has proved critical to discipleship as an opportunity to take young people away and immerse them in fellowship, worship and teaching. An all-night event at Easter sees us share a meal, play games, have a midnight worship event and then walk to the top of the local beauty spot to share in a 6.30am 'son-rise' service with Christians from the two churches in the village and beyond.

alive and kicking - ballOne of the tensions around alive and kicking has always been its place in the Christian life of the village. We don't see alive and kicking as a church, but some of the young people who come would consider it their church. The two traditional congregations in Kinver have often struggled to understand how young people meeting off church premises can be part of the Church in the village and wondered why they're not seeing any new 'recruits' to the pews.

In terms of structure, we set up an independent Christian charity called ad33 to oversee the Church's work with young people in the village. It has a board of trustees drawn from the alive and kicking leaders and the two churches, giving the work a clear accountability and support structure which wasn't possible when trying to report to two different church councils at the same time. We have clear vision and values underpinning everything we do and potential new work is measured against that vision and values. A pastoral support and prayer team drawn from the two churches pray for the work and are available to the leadership team for whatever pastoral support is required.

alive and kicking - horizonOur current leadership team, nearly all of whom came to faith as young people through the work of alive and kicking, meet together for an evening every week to plan and prepare for the coming week's session and, equally importantly, to share in prayer, fellowship and food! One of the interesting things has been how community has developed amongst those who have been involved in leadership over the years. A couple of house groups now running started from these weekly leadership meetings.

Last year we appointed our first paid youth pastor. This full-time appointment, which took four years to put in place, runs for five years initially. Our volunteer team all have other jobs which meant that doing work in the village high school was very difficult despite a great eagerness on the part of the school for us to be involved in lessons, assemblies and lunchtime activities. We also recognised that we needed somebody who could focus on pastoral care and strengthening discipleship among the young people of the village. Having a full-time paid worker as part of a flat leadership team has brought its own set of challenges, both in terms of fundraising and team dynamics, but it has opened up new areas of work as well as strengthening our existing ones.

alive and kicking - logWe know that alive and kicking will only ever reach some young people. Many just don't want to engage in organised groups for instance, and for them it's never going to scratch where they itch. For others, a games and discussion format doesn't engage them. Our current vision is to start a network of small activity-based groups alongside alive and kicking to broaden the ways young people can encounter God. We've started a photography group and there are plans for a drama group to start soon with several more in the pipeline. The aim of each of these groups is to explore what it means to encounter God through their activity – how, as people who really enjoy photography or drama or sport or cooking, can we relate that to God – and how can we relate God to that activity and our wider lives.

We want to explore how we use the things in our hands to glorify God and to serve him. We hope that young people will come both because they want to explore their existing faith more and enjoy the activity, but also that the activity will be something that brings friends and others along – and that connecting it to back to God will be something that draws people into new relationships with Jesus. We also want to explore doing some detached work amongst young people who congregate at the bus shelter and elsewhere in the village.

alive and kicking - EasterOne of the dangers of having so many small groups is that they all head off in their own directions and we build a load of small ghettos so we want to connect everything with a new monthly gathering called 'breathing space', which draws together people from all the different small groups, from alive and kicking, from the leadership team, the house groups and the traditional congregations. We plan to meet over food in an informal setting to worship, to build relationships between groups and generations and to have fun. Whilst individual groups may only be for a particular niche, with breathing space we want to build a place were people from the whole diverse body of Christ can meet together.

We don't believe that breathing space will be a church on its own - nor the small groups, nor alive and kicking. But all together they are a fresh expression of church. It's messy, we don't have a strictly defined membership, groups change, people come and go. But (with the traditional churches in the village) we form a community of people – with some at the core, some on the edges – seeking to follow God.

alive and kicking - weekend awayAs for the future, we're excited to see how the new small groups and 'breathing space' take off. No doubt some will last, some will change and some will be for a short time only. We also have a dream for a Christian youth drop-in space in the village somewhere – an idea which echoes the original 'Hole in the Wall'. It has not happened yet but the thinking and praying about that space is what shaped our vision and values, led to the pastoral support and prayer team, the establishing of a board of trustees and many other aspects of the work.

Updates to, and learning points from, this story

Monday, 1 December, 2008 On Demand clip

Rachel Matthews speaks to Ben Clymo, Peter Clarke and others at the annual weekend away of alive and kicking, a fresh expression for young people in Kinver, Staffordshire.