The Lab

Monday, 5 September, 2011

The Lab is a missional community of young adults in Newport, South Wales. Team leader James Henley explains more about its ministry and the development of its work as a fresh expression on the Alway estate.

We want people to feel that they can be part of The Lab no matter where they're from or what they believe. We try to be as welcoming and open as possible for people who are exploring their faith or who aren't used to church at all.

The Lab is made up mainly of people between the ages of 18 and 30, many of whom are students. We would describe ourselves as an experimental form of church but basically we're still a group of people trying to follow Jesus together.

The Lab - Rainbow bridgeThe Lab was initiated by the Bishop of Monmouth five years ago in order to develop a church community of students and young adults in Newport who would otherwise not have contact with a traditional parish church. It involved trying to be church in a different way. At first we used to meet in a pub but now our gathering takes place on Sunday evenings in the hall of St Paul's City Centre Church in Newport City Centre. We also have a weekly community meal in which people take it in turns to cook and serve each other.

Things developed four years ago when The Lab began work in the Alway estate on the edge of Newport, identified as one of the most deprived areas in Wales. According to the 2001 census, nearly 50% of the population of Alway and the surrounding area is under the age of 25. Our aim was to form a residential community of young adults who would invest their time in the local community and build relationships with its young people.

The Diocese of Monmouth offered us a vicarage there and in September 2008, a group of four of us moved in and started to develop links with the community. At first there was suspicion because the local people found it very odd that we should want to make our home in Alway. Slowly but surely they grew accustomed to us but it has been hard at times. Unlike the approach of traditional evangelistic thinking we have not put on big events and asked people to come along to them. Instead our mission strategy has always been to be as pragmatic as possible and simply join in wherever we see God at work.

The Lab - basketballFor instance, the parents of younger children in the area asked us if we could run some sort of summer holiday club. We did, and lots of families came along to join in. As a result we've had a lot more contact with the mums and dads.

What we do in Alway is constantly changing and expanding as new initiatives are developed and old ones are expanded. At the moment we are involved in youth work and a chaplaincy project at the local high school; primary and secondary school assemblies and RE lessons; youth and children's work in partnership with Bishpool Methodist Church and detached Youth Work. St Teilo's Church (Church in Wales) and Bishpool Methodist Church have been tremendous in working with us and building up contacts on the estate.

As a result of the partnership between these two different denominations we are accountable to both of them through different structures which have been created to support us. We also love to work closely with and support other local churches as well. The Lab is supported financially by the Church in Wales and the Methodist Church, though we also receive grants and funds from various organisations with further donations coming from Lab members and supporters. I am paid by the Diocese to work full-time as project leader.

The team has grown since we first got off the ground. Four people are now based in the old vicarage; me and my wife now live just down the road in another 'Lab' house. From September we will be taking on another youth work student who will be with us for three years and we also have funding for two gap year students to work full-time with the Lab.

The Lab - teamOne of the challenges we have encountered is people being interested in spirituality and faith – but as individuals not as part of a group. We think that perhaps this is the direction youth culture is going, as we seem to be meeting lots of young people whose reliance is not on a particular friendship group.

The other challenge is to marry up the gifts of the young adults who join us at Alway with the needs of the estate. Different people bring different skills so it's important to monitor who's doing what and where because things change. Our missional intention has always been to form relationship; if something looks like it's stagnating we are not afraid to put a stop to it and try something else.

In the next year or so I'd really like to see us developing some kind of church or forms of church with the groups of young people in this area. I'd also like us to build on the work we have just started with families. The long-term vision that we are exploring is what it would look like to plant a second Lab community in another area of Newport.

Part of the Welsh religious heritage is that the country was originally evangelised by small missional communities of monks. It seems fitting now that we are attempting to be part of a new wave in mission by essentially doing the same. That's inspiring and challenging!