The Wesley Playhouse

Tuesday, 22 December, 2009

Caroline HoltWho would have thought that a visit to a children's indoor fun centre could inspire church steward Caroline Holt to oversee a dramatic shift in the fortunes of a small West Yorkshire Methodist church?

Caroline made the trip to a commercially-run activity zone with her god-daughter, and wondered why such a venture had never been provided in church buildings? Surely it would bring in countless children – not to mention their waiting parents?

As a member of Howden Clough Methodist Church, Birstall, Caroline was faced with the challenge of a dwindling congregation and a community that appeared to have no need for the traditional church building on their doorstep.

"Seeing all those children in these awful places to play made me really stop and think," says Caroline. "I thought, 'why don’t we do something like this at Howden Clough?'"

Wesley Playhouse - the play houseHer dream has become an amazingly successful reality – thanks to the efforts of a dedicated volunteer team, key sponsors, and a church willing to take what was seen as an enormous risk. "As far as I'm aware, nothing like this has ever been done anywhere else in Britain," says Caroline. "We now have 3,000 sq ft of play area, a café that operates alongside it and a supportive local community who have taken it to their hearts and now use The Wesley Playhouse as the venues for birthday parties and celebrations. We've even had several Christenings there as a result of people feeling so much part of what has very much become their own fresh expression of church."

Since its launch in 2007, the project has seen over 24,000 people come through its doors. It's a long, long way from the days when the pre-Playhouse Howden Clough Church had just 10 members attending regularly.

Wesley Playhouse - serviceCaroline explains, "There was no doubt about it, we were facing closure. We had tried various attempts to get local people into church but nothing seemed to work so in 2000 we decided to leaflet the community and find out what we could do to serve them.

"When I put the idea of the Playhouse to our members they were mainly supportive, though some people obviously did have concerns because it's quite a difficult thing to imagine in a Chapel building that has been around since 1871! But, God bless them, they backed the idea and it all snowballed from there."

Wesley Playhouse - open for businessFinance was the first major hurdle. The church needed to find £120,000 to get the scheme off the ground, and they had £3,000 in the bank. But the money came rolling in - thanks to the Methodist Circuit, District and Connexion providing £78,000 in loans; individual supporters; and £50,000 from the Biffaward landfill community's fund.

Twenty people from different churches across the area came forward to offer their staffing help for the project, and Howden Clough began its transformation into multi-coloured Playhouse and The Ark Café. Work started in February 2007, with the Playhouse opening in October of the same year.

Services take place in a room re-designed as a chapel downstairs every Sunday morning, and a Playhouse Praise is now a regular event on the first Sunday of the month. The young visitors, their families, and older members of the original congregation share the facilities on offer, and Caroline is now working to bring them even closer together.

"It's fantastic to see how many people have struck up friendships and are happy to be part of this community," says Caroline. "People have asked to have their babies christened here and been amazed to discover that we can do this in The Wesley Playhouse. I explain that we may have climbing frames and all sorts of things all over the place but we are a church, and we’re here because we love God and we love them."

And the ongoing challenge? Caroline is clear: "At the Playhouse itself, it's to lead people to faith and disciple them; to help them find out why we've done what we’ve done with this project and encourage them in their own walk with God.

"Personally, I'd love to see The Wesley Playhouse 'brand' go nationwide and be part of making that happen. Maybe other churches in similar situations to us are wondering how they could get something started along the same lines. I want to be the person to help them do that, and with God’s help and blessing, I will be."

Updates to, and learning points from, this story

Monday, 29 July, 2013

Caroline Holt, project leader at The Wesley Playhouse, updates the Playhouse story.

Friday, 1 January, 2010 On Demand clip

Caroline Holt reflects on how a visit to a children's indoor fun centre inspired her to start The Wesley Playhouse, a fresh expression for children and their families in Howden Clough.