'Growing our Church' is a series of events and activities that St Stephen’s, East Hardwick, has undertaken – all designed to get them out of the church building and into the community to be with people who might not come to church very often, if at all.
St Stephen’s is a small church in a village of less than 200 people with a regular congregation of between 20 and 25 people.
A Strawberry Tea at Hundhill Hall, the Wednesday Walking Group, a summer picnic, a singing group and a monthly stall at Pontefract Market are just some of the events.
Barbara Pollard, Treasurer and member of St Stephen’s explains more:
“We are a small community with a small congregation and there is always concern about numbers, especially when many of us are getting on a bit in years and, sadly, we have lost some friends over the past few years.
“Because the village is so small, and we have no amenities (shops, pubs etc) it is important for us to keep the church alive as it is literally the centre of our village life. So we are constantly thinking about how we can encourage more people to come and join us.
“We also heard about Fresh Expressions last year and were interested to hear how the focus for that project is going out into the community, rather than expecting people to come to us. Whilst we didn't think it was appropriate for us to start a Fresh Expressions group, we did want to find ways of connecting with more people. We had already been putting on events such as the summer and Christmas fairs which fulfilled that role to some extent but we knew we had to do more.
“The Diocese publishes articles etc on church growth including the Growing your Church newsletter.
“Our Vicar, Shelagh Stacey and the PCC decided that it was something we wanted to think about so we put it on our agenda to talk about what we could do to connect with people in our area, especially those who don’t come to church regularly. We came up with a list of possibilities and then chose the activities we thought we could resource from our small group and it went from there.
The Strawberry Tea is an annual event hosted by Nigel and Paula Griffiths at Hundhill Hall in the village. They put a lot of time, effort and their own money into organising the event for us and our congregation all take part in baking, preparing food, serving the refreshments, taking money at the gate, selling raffle tickets, etc.
This is our biggest fund raiser of the year - without it we would struggle.
“But it is so much more than a fund raiser” explained Barbara:
“People come from all around the district and it is lovely to see everyone getting together and enjoying themselves.
“We notice that, whilst we are serving the strawberry teas people often approach our Vicar, Shelagh Stacey and some then come along to events in the church too.
The Wednesday Walking Group was specifically set up to encourage people from outside the church group to join us. Organised by Trevor Nichol, a member of St Stephen’s PCC, it meets every second Wednesday of the month. Trevor arranges a walk, roughly 6-7 miles, which starts at St Stephen’s and takes people around the local area, getting to see and hear about things they didn’t know were there - local history, legends etc.
“Anyone can come along. We’ve held three walks so far and there are about twelve people who have been on a walk with more people enquiring about future events.
"Once again, it’s just the time to enjoy being with folk, chatting about anything and everything whilst enjoying the beauty that is all around us."
A summer picnic was held in July in St Stephen’s Churchyard.
This was an event for families. There were games for the children using the big toys from the Diocesan Resource Centre, Pimms for the adults and everyone invited to bring something scrummy to share as food.
So - a kind of come, bring, share, play time.
“Our congregation is aware that there is a growth theme and, at the end of each service we use this prayer which is also on the Diocesan website.
“That has been, in a large part, the inspiration for our efforts this last year:
“It wasn’t any one person’s idea but sprang from the Diocesan mission for growth and we looked at how we could be part of that and bring growth to our own community at St Stephen’s.
“There are other things we do as well at different times of the year including a group of handbell ringers and a singing group.
“Our singing group has members from our sister church, St Michael’s in Carleton as well as St Stephen’s and also some people who don’t come to church regularly. Because they sing in church for special services - Easter, Christmas, Harvest, Confirmation etc - it brings people into our church where they might never set foot in a church otherwise (apart from weddings and funerals). They bring their families and friends and some have started coming to services.
“One woman spoke to me after such an event and said ‘I love this church because things go wrong and no-one minds’. Well, she’s right about things going wrong but I like to think that what she’s actually saying is that we are a group of very caring and enthusiastic people who praise God in ways that don’t have to be perfect but are heart-felt.
“If we just say to people ‘come to church’, they might think ‘I’m not a church-goer’ but if we invite them to join in an activity, then they get to know us as a group of people who are Christians and who share the same things that they enjoy and bring the love of God along with them.
“Next month we have a stall in the market at Pontefract. We sell things but also it gives us a chance to speak to people in the town about St Stephen’s. The stall is in Pontefract market and everyone knows the Pontefract churches but, because we are outside the town, we are less well known. Over the last few years, however, we have started to get people from Pontefract and further afield joining us for events and occasionally for worship.
“When I started thinking about what we do and how these events fit into our mission throughout the year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to realised how much we manage to do with such a small group of people.“