13 February 2024
South Kent Methodist Circuit: a thriving church for children and young people
Since the pandemic Eurostar has ceased stopping at Ashford but this town in the South-East Methodist District is expanding with new homes and young families. Sensing an opportunity to reach out and bring people together, the South Kent Methodist Circuit has organised activities for children and young people that have been growing in popularity.
The waves were crashing on the shore as the seagull’s cries punctuated the laughter of children who were running around and building sandcastles on the beach. Each year, the circuit arranges a trip to the seaside for families that cannot afford holidays, with tea-time cakes and beverages provided by the local Methodist church.
“The first time away we had beautiful sunshine, the tide was out so we had a sandcastle competition. But sometimes it rains the whole time, yet everyone still comes because they want to be part of the community. It isn't about going to the beach as much as it is about being together,” says Tom Lewis, Community Chaplain.
In 2018, the then-District Chair launched a project to reach out to newcomers in the freshly built housing estates of Ashford by hiring three housing missioners. The South Kent Methodist Circuit appointed Tom in February 2020, but his work was slowed by the pandemic.
As Tom had significant experience in youth work, the circuit decided to play to his strengths despite the lockdown. Tom began taking goodie bags to residents, joining social media and WhatsApp groups and he started an online ecumenical Youth Club.
“As the pandemic waned, they looked for activities to do with children and young people. It seemed obvious to us to bring the church to the John Wesley School. The location is at the intersection of three housing estates which allows the church to reach out to the different communities. We move to where the people want it to be, rather than waiting for them to come to us,” explains Revd Helen Hollands, Superintendent Minister in the South Kent Circuit and Assistant Chair in the South-East Methodist District.
The online Youth Club with its five to eight teenagers evolved into an ecumenical youth Alpha course over 10 weeks that attracted around 40 young people. They now have a youth group with 20 to 30 young people coming every week from eight different churches.
One of the first activities organised by Tom was a toddler group to respond to the needs of the young families on the estates. Increasingly, Tom and his team of volunteers became more involved in the life of the school and decided to hold a children's holiday club there in 2021.
“It was amazing. In the morning, we gave the flyers out at the school and by five o'clock that evening the group was full. The parents asked us what was next. We decided to relaunch Messy Church, this time at John Wesley School, after it was paused due to the pandemic,” adds Tom. It was another success, with about 50 people attending on the first day. It reinforced Helen and Tom’s view that there is not much for young people to do in the area, so Helen started a young leader program that encouraged teenagers to run activities at Messy Church.
“When you live in a community, you want to work with them in organising activities or events, rather than assuming that, because we're the church, we need to go there and do this “thing” to them. We want to find out what people need and want and facilitate that,” explains Tom.
3Generate, the Methodist Children and Youth Assembly, is a big part of children's and young people's agenda. “They meet people from all over Great Britain and explore the myriad of activities offered,” says Helen.
What’s next? Helen and Tom would like to organise a united all-age worship at the school on the fourth Sunday of every month. The ecumenical nature of many events has led to interesting discussions on how the Methodist Church is inclusive, particularly relating to gender fluidity, sexuality and accepting people for who they are. “Young people love to say they're part of a faith tradition that is so inclusive and celebrates diversity. That’s been really powerful for them,” concludes Tom.