Traditional church doesn’t work for everyone. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact.
There is now a generation or two of people in New Zealand that have grown up with no church input.
To place these people in a traditional church service is to put them in a foreign environment—one that may seem completely unrelated to their everyday life. Even many of those that have grown up in the church are finding that, on a number of levels, traditional church just doesn’t work for them anymore.
So how do we connect these people to our communities of faith? How can we do ‘church’ in a way that does work, and that relates to everyday life? Hamilton City Corps, under the leadership of Major Anthony Stone, is attempting to build such an environment. It’s church, but not as you might know it.
In November 2011, Hamilton City Corps launched a new mission initiative called ‘the gathering’. Tom Jewkes, who attends the gathering, describes it as ‘a community of faith where we seek to explore more of God, build encouraging relationships, and share in each other’s joys, challenges and triumphs in a relaxed, non-threatening, coffee-drinking context.’
So what does that look like? Well, the gathering takes a slightly different format each week, but always features three key components: we enjoy coffee, connect with people and explore God.
If you were to walk through the doors of the Hamilton City Corps at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, you would walk into a room set out like a lounge. There’s a bit of work each week that goes into setting out the couches and coffee tables, but creating a relaxed environment is important to us, because when people feel at home, meaningful conversations flow more easily.
After time for coffee and catching up, there is usually a time for sharing. Anyone is invited to share.
Children share certificates, people read poems they’ve written, sing songs, and simply reflect on their week. We enjoy getting to know a bit about the people who are there and what’s happening in their lives.
We always have opportunity for prayer. This takes different forms: praying in small groups, handing in prayer requests anonymously, and praying during a ‘sharing time’ as people indicate what is going on for them. There is usually some kind of interactive teaching time. This also takes different forms, from speakers and DVD clips, to personal reflection times, or small and whole group discussions.
No one is under pressure to participate, but people are invited to say what they think, ask questions, share their stories and explore God together. Realness is encouraged and the differences in our personal journeys are celebrated. From time to time, events are organised. These have included volleyball, Christmas carolling, gardening, and cooking for the sick and elderly.
Families are very important to us. During the teaching time, the children usually go to a separate room and learn about the same topic that the adults are discussing. One of our highlights is when the children come back in at the end and tell the adults about what they have learnt. The family-friendly nature of the gathering makes it really attractive to people.
Johanna Bouter attends with husband Hans and their children Stephanie (5) and Joe (3). She says, ‘We attend because the time of day is great, the set-up works well for the kids and we like the relaxed format.’
The gathering is still in its infancy. While the concept of a simple, relaxed, interactive service is fixed, the details as to how that looks are still evolving. Things are being tweaked each week.
On the big picture side of things, the gathering is helping the corps achieve its objective of ‘making and maintaining disciples’. It is also exciting to see the diverse group of people that make up the gathering and enjoy it as their church. From retired officers, to Community Ministry families, to people who had drifted away from church.
As Corps Officer Major Anthony Stone says, ‘The concept of “the gathering” has been a real plus for the corps. “One corps, multi-congregations” is an empowering concept.’
Check us out
Please visit ‘the gathering’ website and check us out for yourselves, go to www.thegathering.org.nz.