Monday, 5 May 2008
Over the road from Maori Hill Presbyterian Church is the old Coronation Hall, a place where little girls learn ballet or drawing and where the local people gather to hear school concerts or protest about sewage. Four years ago, responding to a dream to 'let down their nets on the other side' a group of about ten people from the church began an 8:30 service there called B@tCH - Breakfast at Coronation Hall. The idea was to provide an informal place where people who had become alienated from the usual sorts of services, or perhaps those who had never been at home in any kind of church could find a place to express themselves spiritually. By all accounts it seems to have worked. I've always been curious about it, but yesterday, having no obligations of my own to fulfill, was the first time I have been able to attend.
Coronation Hall is large, and although it is airy it is also somewhat dark. It has a sort of lived in shabbiness, with childrens pictures all over the walls and one of those bare echoey wooden floors. Yesterday at 8:30, even with the heaters on it was still cold enough to leave my coat on. There were tables and chairs set out in about 2/3 of the hall, and in the front some old but comfortable theatre seats lined up facing the stage. Down the middle of the hall was a large table laden with a most inviting looking breakfast: a fruit salad that didn't come out of a can, Danish pastries, muffins and real coffee. The food came from a local supermarket and was the sort that needed a minimum of preparation. It was also food that was worth getting out of bed for. There was PLENTY of it.
The place was filling with people when I arrived: people from all age groups, and, surprisingly for a church service, about equal in the numbers of men and women. I was greeted warmly. I'm known in this neighbourhood, but that wasn't the only reason. I learned later that they have a 12 second rule: every stranger who enters must be greeted by a regular within 12 seconds of arrival. I sat with a small group of people who knew me and we were joined by others. Nearby was a table of teenagers. On the other side of the room a children's area had been set up with a range of toys and activities and young families were congregating around it. There was a buzz of conversation and of children's voices. 8:30 may seem like an odd time for families to be up and about but, on reflection it makes perfect sense. There's no dress code at B@tCH. People get out of bed, throw on the clothes they will wear for the rest of the day, and stumble off down to Coronation Hall for a breakfast that someone else has prepared, knowing the service will be over in time to let them have a whole family day to themselves.
A middle aged woman I sat with told me she was a confirmed Anglican but she had not been in a church for years. She had come along to B@tCH about 3 years ago in response to a letterbox drop and had been every Sunday since. She told me that most people were like her: they had not come from other churches but were lapsed Christians of one sort or another or had no previous church background at all. As the congregation had grown past the 100 mark however this had changed, and now people were leaving other churches to be there. This was worrying to the organisers.
At about 9:00 people were invited into the seats at the front. The coffee pots were refilled and left steaming within easy reach. People ambled slowly to their seats, clutching the last of their pastries as a music group began to sing, surprisingly, the old standard 'Praise To The Lord The Almighty The King of Creation'. This set the tone for the rest of the event. I was surprised at how liturgical and how conventional the service was. It was well led by the local ordained minister, Barry Kelk whose enthusiasm and energy held the whole thing together and gave it direction and shape, but, in terms of what happened, it was not that different from anything that you might see in many other Protestant churches on a Sunday morning. There were votive candles lit. There was a children's talk on Noah's Ark which involved singing that old Irish Rovers song about the green alligators and long necked geese. There was an extremely competent sermon encouraging reflection on the next stage of growth at B@tCH - which may prove to be the development of small group ministry. Music came from a variety of sources and was well led by a music group I would be very pleased to have in my own church. The atmosphere was unhurried, relaxed and casual. I left impressed. This was not something that my church could easily imitate, even if we wanted to.
What impresses me most is that a congregation of over 100 has been built from a very small seed group in just four years and these particular sheep haven't been flogged from anybody else's flock. Other congregations in the city have grown larger and faster, but inevitably by shuffling around the population of Dunedin's existing church goers. I was also impressed by the absence of an offering. There was a collection box by the door, but I had to ask someone where it was.
I am interested that much of what my own denomination has been putting a lot of energy into over the last couple of decades was notable by its absence. There was no apparent cause de jour. Worship and theology were essentially quite conventional, albeit conducted casually and with humour. This was not Mutual Shared Ministry. It was definitely a team effort - a lot of people worked and organised hard in order for the whole thing to flow so smoothly and so apparently spontaneously but paradoxically, it had all the marks of decisive leadership and visioning from the minister. There was no sign of adherence to any pre-set programme or method. This church was, after 4 years, still in the process of being invented within the walls of Coronation Hall. The best part, was the strong sense of forward momentum. B@tCH is still growing, still progressing, still figuring out how to make God accessible to those who want to know him but who are put off by the way we have packaged him in the past.