No Holds Barred - update Aug13

Wednesday, 14 August, 2013

Stuart Radcliffe updates the story of No Holds Barred in Stockport.

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Stuart Radcliffe: When I first came to this church as minister, it was actually to a single United Reformed Church just down the road from where the church currently is and we came together as a Local Ecumenical Partnership between ourselves and the Methodist congregation that meets in the current building that we're in. 

When the two churches came together, we realised straight away that what we couldn't do was to continue to do things the way that we'd always done them and just somehow hope that we'd get a different outcome from our activity. We needed to look at a new way of being a church so, from doing that, we wanted to explore the kinds of questions, the kinds of needs that people in our community had. 

The community in which the church serves is relatively affluent so we thought, 'Well how can we respond to their need?' And myself, along with my colleague Richard Parkes, decided that one thing that would be good would just be to acknowledge some of the issues that people have and to respond in, almost in an act of random kindness to say to people that you are loved for who you are and for what you do and, as a church, we recognise these stressful lives so out of that was born the idea to hand out coffee in Holy Week – not as an act to say, 'Here, have a cup of coffee and please now come to church' but just as a response to say that people here love you and we want you to understand that God loves you also. 

Female voice 1: Well. What we do in the bag is there's a cup of coffee or a fresh orange juice and obviously there's milk and sugar and stirrers and a Hot Cross Bun and then generally what we've got in there is a leaflet about the Easter story and a leaflet saying who we are and why we're doing it. And just wishing people a happy, a good, day.

The first day they're always a bit suspicious about what we're doing, they can't quite believe that it's something that's free. But as the week goes on people realise that we're there and then, on the Thursday when we say, 'Oh it's last day today', their reactions have changed considerably. They say, 'Oh we're going to miss you next week!' But mixed messages, you know, generally, when we're handing out the coffee. 

Female voice 2: I think a lot of people think that you've got to do something in order to get it rather than just kind of be given it. I don't think it happens very often does it?

Stuart Radcliffe: The other thing we did, alongside starting the coffee, which is just a yearly event; we wanted to do something that was a little bit more tangible within the community - something that was a little bit more lasting. So we decided to form a deliberate partnership with the landlord of the local pub, The Plough, and looked to build on the relationship that we had with him. The pub itself is a very community orientated pub so it has Knit and Natter, the local history society meet there; they have community Spanish lessons which meet in the pub so I, joking, said to Ian – the landlord – so how about a community Bible study group or a community church group? And he said, 'That's brilliant. What night would you like to do it?' which called my bluff a little and took me by surprise! So we began to have a more purposeful conversation about what we could do. This was in about the October and we decided that at Christmas we would come together to do Beer and Carols so Ian supplied the beer, we supplied the carols, and together we had a great night here. It fitted around their Christmas quiz, people came in fancy dress and we got together and we sang carols. And actually what we discovered in that night of singing carols, we had more conversations with people about God, what their understanding of faith was, the issues and difficulties they had in their lives; that people were really keen on having informal conversations over a drink where they could go, 'Oh well that's enough now', walk off and go and have another conversation and this was really good. 

And Richard and myself got really excited about the prospects of what could develop from this evening, from these conversations. So our very first evening of a group that we decided to call No Holds Barred, one of those conversations and arguments that you've always wanted to have with people; we had our first evening looking at whether it was acceptable to swear or not. And four or five people came along within the group that was talking and had a really good, open, frank discussion that left different people from the conversation surprised by other people's point of view. And that was a really encouraging start to the evening in very difficult and trying circumstances. And as well as the group that meets to converse and to chat and to get to know each other, we also hand out the information across all the other tables in the pub so, of course we never know, there could be other conversations around this topic for five minutes, for 10minutes, perhaps for the whole evening. We don't know. So it's also enabling other people to join in with the conversation if they don't want to come and sit at the table where we are.

Ian, the landlord at The Plough, has been a great supporter from the beginning – even when the idea was still in its embryonic stage. He has encouraged us to explore possibilities. When we hand the coffee out in Holy Week he opens the doors at 6.30am in the morning to do that for us and has really encouraged us in all our ventures. 

So we're going on to plan new things, to do comedy evenings with Christian comedians, and his support has been invaluable. 

Landlord of the Plough: It was great because it meant the church and the pub were working in the community together. We've done Christmas carol services; we've done Easter again in the pub which is great because it's the same for both of us. We're both pillars in the community shall we say, for a better word. We're part of the community and have to work in the community – that's what we do. And it's as simple as that. It's just my church is a public house, his church is a church. They're both the same things, they are just part of the community, a room within the community that people use.

Stuart Radcliffe: People have questioned the motivation for doing No Holds Barred. Is it just to bring people back into an established form of church, to bring people into our 6.30 evening service on a Sunday? And I think if we were to do that, those people that came in wouldn't last because what they would find on a 6.30 is nothing like what we do in the pub. If people decide they do want to come along to our more traditional service then I'm quite happy for them to do that but it's not going to be the same as the conversations in the community that meets in the pub. 

One of the things we had to learn very quickly in the pub was that if you are half way through a conversation and somebody drinks their pint, they walk off and go and get another one. And that was a challenge to suddenly realise that that's acceptable because the rules of engagement have changed. We're not in a church – be that in a sanctuary or in a church hall. We're in a pub and, being in a pub, we have to abide by the rules of engagement that take place in pubs. So when people have finished their drink, they get up. If people wander off the subject that we're talking about and start talking about something else, they're allowed to. If something they suddenly want to watch comes on the TV, they go and watch it. If somebody's eating food, they eat the food. And actually we quickly got round that idea so now this is a deliberate attempt to form a community within the pub itself.

3rd male voice: When No Holds Barred came along, I kind of jumped at the chance really because it was a chance to be away from the traditional environment of the church but be able to be involved and be interactive I guess really in terms of the things we actually talk about at No Holds Barred. It's a real way of moving your faith on. I think you kind of feel when you're sitting around in a table in a pub, it's almost just like being there with a few mates, you're chatting about things, you're chatting about things that have happened in the world, things that are relevant to you and I think things become more relevant when you are actually talking about them in this kind of environment. 

Stuart Radcliffe: Some people would be part of the community that forms in the pub as well as the community which meets in the established church. For others, the pub I'm sure will become their established church, their engagement with the gospel really – to be challenged by some of the ideas and to allow it to challenge their lives and how they live it. So what happens with the community is it makes disciples, people who can consider the words of Jesus and decide how they're going to act upon them within their lives. 

It is very early days. Some months we can have eight, nine, 10 people there; some months we can have one or two people there. It's very fluid still at the moment but the nature of this kind of church is fluid. I'm not sure that Jesus came and said to us, 'Let's build a church that meets at half past 10 on a Sunday morning and half past six on a Sunday evening.' I think Jesus said, 'Come and look at my life and live as I am and love people, love your neighbour as yourself' and I hope that that community that meets in the pub will start to challenge people to do that.

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