How churches are changing for communities in need
PUBLISHED: 14:28 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 15:01 02 December 2019
Original Art Photography by Joe Lenton
Toddler groups, community lunches and foodbanks are just some of the many services churches offer. Reporter SOPHIE WYLLIE finds out how the role of the church is expanding and adapting in today’s society and becoming more than just a place to pray.
"Churches have evolved. They are more than just a place for hymns and services on a Sunday. We have to be active in the community."
That is one of the views of pastor, Jon Norman, from SOUL Church in Norwich, who admitted that churches had to "step up" in order to help different sections of society.
And that belief is shared by many other churches across Norfolk.
The changes come as plans were announced by the Relational Mission Churches Project, made up of Christian-based churches, to reach 20 more places across Norfolk and north Suffolk over the next 20 years.
The 20/20 initiative might include starting new churches or satellite congregations or sites connected to existing ones to develop toddler groups, support groups, community venues as well as spread the message of Jesus Christ.
Mr Norman, who set up SOUL Church on Mason Road, Norwich, part of Hillsong Family church in 2014, said: "Our job is to make Jesus tangible outside these walls. We have a lot of people attend SOUL Church who are not Christians because they want to make a difference to communities and the church can facilitate that."
The church is open Monday to Sunday and runs a weekly youth club which attracts 100 people a baby and toddler group four times a week and a free weekly community lunch which attracts dozens of people, some of whom struggle to afford a cooked dinner.
It also offers spaces for smaller community groups.
Speaking about the 20/20 initiative, Jon Beardon, who started Wellspring Family Church in Dereham in 2001 and is leading the 20/20 project, said: "We are happily aware of friends in other groups of churches in this region who have similar initiatives that they are planning and launching. It seems there is a new, and for some perhaps surprising, chapter which is about to be written in our day in the story of the Christian church in this region."
He added: "The church is committed to being here for the local community. Funding priorities from the government come and go but the church is enduring.
"If churches did not do community work the collapse of our fabric of society would be a surprise. Most people do not realise what goes on behind the scenes. There are a lot of volunteer hours involved."
The Wellspring Family Centre on Neatherd Road, set up in 2004, supports hundreds of people each week through various activities including a mental health support group for young adults, a monthly support group for people with ME and their carers and a foodbank run by the Mid Norfolk Foodbank.
Mr Beardon said the Wellspring Family Church also collaborated with all the other churches in Dereham, including Dereham Baptist Church.
Anita Clarke, community project co-ordinator for Love Dereham which is linked to the Baptist Church, said: "Church work used to be seen as overseas but that has changed. They are now working in their own towns."
Love Dereham runs other projects including the Dereham Community Fridge, which is open Monday-Saturday in Green Pastures Bookshop and Community Hub on Norwich Street, and gives away food and drink that would otherwise be thrown away to tackle food waste.
Green Pastures also offers a listening service for people who want to talk about various issues called listen up.
"There are huge gaps in provision of all sorts of different areas. The church needs to stand in that gap. There is a lot in our society about isolation and loneliness," said Mrs Clarke.
Beckie Ward, manager of the cafe at St Stephen's Church on Rampant Horse Street in Norwich, said the cafe acted as a space for the community to gather.
"There are people who meet with friends here and charity groups who use it as a base. It is a great space for lonely people who often meet others."
Individuals who use the café include a wide variety of people from the vulnerable and rough sleepers, who can access support through the café, to parents and children.
The Rt Rev Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich, said: "Christians are called to essentially do two things - to love God and to love their neighbours. I admire those who give so much of their time, talents and resources to support this tremendous voluntary contribution to the fabric of our nation."
Police and faith groups to link up
A Norfolk police chief is hoping the county will be a flagship for other areas in terms of linking up forces and faith groups.
Marie Reavey, acting inspector of Norfolk Police and national chair of the Christian Police Association, said the force was hoping to do more focused work with church organisations to tackle issues including homelessness, child sexual exploitation and county lines drugs.
The Faith and Police Together project would start in Norwich but expand.
She said: "I want to find out the real need in areas. We need better communication between the police, faith groups and statutory agencies. Churches are there for the long haul and provide a service that is needed.
"I'm hoping this is a long-term culture change and I want this project embedded across the UK. We want Norfolk to be a flagship area on how we view the faith-based community and what work it can do."
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