The Marlpit - update Sep13

Monday, 9 September, 2013

Katie Miller shares the story of six ministries on the Marlpit estate, Norwich.

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Katie Miller: I think when people think of Norwich and certainly of Norfolk, they think 'rural', definitely, and they think of a beautiful market town, a city with two cathedrals, a marketplace. Obviously it's a full, bustling city. It has estates, like here on the Marlpit; it has suburbs, it has a big university - so quite a mixed community.

The Marlpit is where we are for church and it has some 1930s housing and some 1960s housing. It's mostly council owned; typical Urban Priority Church area and it's part of a number of estates that are in this area. The original church building was built in the 1960s and it was actually built by the community; the community paid for it and actually physically built the place. But over the years I think it had become less connected to the community directly and in 2007 the building was actually closed so we were left in a situation whereby we felt very strongly, the few of us that were attending the Marlpit church at that time, that we still wanted to have an expression of church on this estate.

We didn't want to feel that everyone who wanted church had to go somewhere else so we did actually start in the community centre and more recently we've moved into the school and tried to build up something that was very indigenous for the Marlpit, for Marlpit people, rather than people coming from the outside because they particularly liked the churchmanship - which was something that had happened in the past.

This is a real community; it has a primary school, it has a pre-school, it has a health centre, it has shops, it has sheltered housing. It definitely is its own community and we felt it was very important that a community of this size had its own expression of church. And actually it's been a marvellous thing to lose the building in many ways; partly it's one of the reasons we're self-funding – which is quite unusual for a fresh expression in an Urban Priority Area – because we don't have all the bills of keeping a building going. We don't have all the worries of, 'is the building being vandalised?' We don't have all those on-going costs, we simply pay for the time we use in the community and we use many different buildings in the community.

We've used the Baseline Centre, we've used the school, we've used the community centre and each one of those different buildings that we've rented has built a new relationship and these relationships have been very key with making us more a church for the Marlpit. So instead of having our building on a hill where people came to us, we came to people, and said, 'We need somewhere to meet, we need somewhere to be.' And I think that powerlessness, that coming to the community in a position of powerlessness, actually built relationships in a way that saying, 'We have all the answers; come to us' never built those relationships for us.

We always say we have six ministries, one of which happens to be having a church on a Sunday morning. I think that's how we feel about it really. Sunday morning is just one of the things that we do. Probably our most popular ministry is the community choir. We've tried to call it the Marlpit Community Choir but it's known locally as 'Choir-oke' because we simply sing to backing tracks! We have about 30 people and everyone brings friends and it's extremely popular and we've built some great relationships through that. Some people have come to church, for some people that's just becoming their church in a way. They're people that we meet, we get to know; we always make sure we have a coffee time so we hear how people are doing, hear how their lives are going.

We have two carers' and pre-schoolers' ministries. We have regular toddlers (group) but then we felt also, we were talking to a lot of the mums and they said they would like to bring their children to church but Sunday was a really awkward time because maybe the children are with the dad or it was a time they were expected to be with families. So we started up Butterflies, our second ministry, which is 'Come back with your lunch and have a Bible story and a prayer and a song'. And it's unequivocally Christian, it's non apologetic; it's 'this is about giving Christian teaching to your children' and that's proved very popular. It ebbs and flows a bit but we've had a lot of families and, for some of them, that is the only church that they do.

Bex Toft: [reading from Bible story book] He told us one very special golden rule. Now that golden rule is to treat others like you like to be treated.'

Katie Miller: St Michael's in the Marlpit meets in Valley Primary School which is the primary school on the Marlpit estate. We meet every Sunday morning, 10 o'clock, usually for about an hour and 'all welcome' is what it says on the sign and all do turn up!

Teaching is probably what is uniquely different in that we will break into small groups and do stuff; we may play games, we may paint something together, we may collect things, we may have a quiz. We quite often share in small groups, maybe about someone who was a good father to you and then whoever's leading will gather that back together and bring it into the lesson. It always starts with people, it always starts with people's experience – whether their experience of what we are doing on the day or their stories, their story of their life, of their faith and we tie their story into the wider gospel story. So it's not someone from the front telling people what to think and believe, it's drawing out people's experiences and then relating those to the gospel. So it's quite scary because you never know if it's going to work! Sometimes your point is not made because however the activity went shows the opposite thing but it's always good and even the quiet members of the congregation are comfortable with that.

We have some sort of safety rules; you know if you share something in a small group you don't have to share it with the whole congregation if you don't want to. So the people feel comfortable but mostly it's very rewarding and I can honestly say that you come away, even as the person leading the service, having learned more and seen more and more angles to a gospel story than you could possibly have seen for yourself because you start seeing the gospel from the point of view of every individual in the church and that is enormously enriching.

Female voice: My friend asked me to go to the Community Choir and I loved it, and then she went to church so she asked me to go along. I didn't at first but, in the end I did and I love it.

Male voice: We all know each other, we all share our problems, everything – it's so lovely to be there. And, as I said, I've been to some churches where you felt like you were going in to some forbidding place or something but this is just like coming home.

Male Voice 2: This really is our home church now and probably this is the first time, it's been a real incarnational feel of church in that it's felt real in the sense of it's a real community church, the people who come along come along because they want to feel part of a community church rather than – without being derogative – sometimes it's felt like we've been putting on a bit of a show for the community with people coming. So whilst it's been a bit more charismatic in the past, I use charismatic with a small 'c', this is probably more New Testament church with the people who come along want to be there and enjoy the worship and the love and care we all offer.

Katie Miller: Leadership in St Michael's is very corporate, it's always been corporate. There are four lay leaders, I always feel I'm only nominally the head of it because I'm a licensed lay Reader but really the four of us do share; we'll pray together, we'll meet together. We usually either have bacon butties on a Saturday morning or go out for a meal and it's a very honest time. In fact actually there are now five of us, we've just incorporated Bex – a local girl – into that group.

Bex Toft: I was a single parent with a lot of mental health issues and I was really struggling with life; it was just me and my girls on our own. We'd been homeless previous to when we got placed. I then through hard struggles, went and found the playgroup which is how I met the leader Katie and how I got involved with the church. The first time I was asked to lead, it was very nerve-wracking but I felt very good as well because somebody actually wanted me to be a part of something. They felt that I was capable of taking on something like that, which was a very big feather in my cap if you like, and it made me feel a lot better as well. I was going through some troubled times and when I was asked to lead, it meant to me I'd got through that enough to be able to take on a group with small children. So, yes, I was very grateful for the offer.

Katie Miller: I immediately said from the start because I think an important thing with handing over leadership is, 'Don't do it my way, do it your way'. The key thing is that everyone feels welcome when they walk in that place. We set the core value but how you work out that core value I think it's extremely important to let go of when you're handing leadership over and I hope that it doesn't look exactly the same as when I led it. I hope it's new and different and better and reflects more the Marlpit and we're constantly seeking ways to have everyone involved, to have as many people as possible reading, leading prayers and so keeping it simple and sharing the load and also not worrying if it doesn't work, if it goes a bit wrong. I mean we've been in church for a communion service and realised we've got no bread! You know things like that and nobody worries or we'll turn up and the person who's doing prayers isn't there and we go, 'Well, somebody can pray' or  the person doing coffee or we haven't got any milk so we run down the shop and just not worrying about the show and the performance but always keeping that focus on people being the most important thing and letting everyone have a go - and it's amazing how much that lifts the load, especially if you don't worry if they don't do it your way.

Once people come here they realise that people are people, you know people may have attitudes about a place like the Marlpit but once you meet the people you realise everyone has the same goals in life, everyone wants their kids to do well at school, for them to be safe and happy, everyone here wants to get on with their neighbours. You know, we're no different and I think the key thing that breaks down any attitudes and prejudice that people might have about any community is meeting that community so the more opportunities we can make for the rest of the church to come and meet this community, they (attitudes and prejudice) dissolve immediately – any ideas people had about what they might expect just go out the window and they see these are great people that they get on with, that share their same goals and aspirations in life, have the same troubles, have the same joys. So I think getting people together is what breaks down any prejudice that may exist.

If people say that we're doing anything brave or noble I just tell them I'm having the best fun! Honestly I find the people on the Marlpit just so great; they're so honest. You know if people are having a bad week they come in and go, 'I'm having a terrible week'. I find that so much easier to deal with, I remember a good friend of mine who's a minister on the next estate saying to me, 'I hope this is the sort of church where if my wife walked off, I'd want to go to.' And I think actually St Michael's is that sort of church, that even if something dreadful happened, you'd want to go because people would be there for you and we can't fix everything. Some people have got some quite difficult and complicated lives but, to me - and I think this is also the key why people feel you burn out - we are not trying to fix' people. Once we let go of saying, 'We're the answer for people,' I think we're just a place where 'Well, we'll be here with you while you go through that and we're really sorry and we'll pray for you and we're always here'. I think once you move from fixing people to loving people, it just gets a lot easier.

This story is an update to:


First heard about you in Fresh From The Word. I feel our church is at a crossroad. We are an ageing church in a town centre. We have a daily coffee bar whose modest income covers the cost of a caretaker and little else. We have contact with a few homeless people and minister free drinks and toast. There is little prospect of any young people coming through to take over from older people (I am 70 - one of the younger members!) Our church building is 200 years old and eats money for maintenance. Have you any words of wisdom for a church consisting of 50 elderly members?

Martyn, it is worth talking to regional leaders in your denomination and see what advice they have or what their strategy is for churches like yours - and you are not alone. In the meantime have a look at this story on our website. It's about a fresh expression which started in a church with just a few (under 10) older members.

Martyn, this is quite a common situation nowadays. But your town centre building can be a great mission asset. Fresh Expressions of Church definitely offers some of the best hope for the future. Two opportunities occur to us immediately.
1) To extend the reach of your existing demographic among the elderly...there are a number of fresh expressions aimed at the retired, and retired people have more time available. One exciting initiative we know of is "Natta Church" pioneered by John Marsh at St Thomas in Sheffield. Contact: John is hoping to resource others who catch this vision.
2) Messy Church is multiplying all over the country and draws in whole families - including the grans and grandads. And the thing is that retired folk are well able to lead and facilitate it. We recommend you visit the Messy Church website: and contact your regional facilitators for Messy Church who should be able to visit you and help you decide if it's for you and how to take first steps.
We do hope this helps.

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