Transforming into a space to welcome the whole community

17 August 2023

When Bishop's Stortford Methodist Church made the radical decision to redesign its building, it decided to transform itself into a space that would welcome the whole community, with an emphasis on accessibility and reaching those who were marginalised.  The changes didn’t just bring new people into the building but into the church too!

The redesign followed years of discernment, deciding whether the church should stay in the town centre or sell up and move outside to a new building serving the estates that had sprung up.

“In the end we felt that we are a town centre church and we wanted to mission to the town by inviting people through the door.” said Steve Watson, the Church Treasurer and the District Property Officer.

With COVID in retreat in the summer of 2021 and the church not yet back to meeting normally, this was a good time to undertake the eight-month project to have the building transformed.

“One of our issues was accessibility.  The church and hall were on three different levels making it difficult for those with mobility issues. We wanted access for all and we were lucky enough to have an architect among our members who came up with some ideas,” says Steve.

The old entrance to the church was uninviting and difficult for those who used wheelchairs.  While there were ramps, these were steep and many found them a challenge to use. They were replaced by one long, sweeping ramp that made it easier to get into the building while looking modern and welcoming.  The levelling up of the floors inside was vital to enable people to move around confidently.  Importantly, the new entrance also included a glass front so that people could see what was happening inside and feel less hesitant about coming in.

A facility for adults who may need to be changed during the day has been included in the rebuild.  This was only the second ‘Changing Places’ space of its kind in the town and features a shower, hoist and changing table so that adults can be changed with dignity.

The main church hall was a standard, old-fashioned room and not very inviting.  This has been transformed into a café space called Oasis, with comfortable chairs and sofas and includes a children’s area. Open 10am – 4pm, six days a week, there is tea, coffee and cake to buy for a donation. A weekly plan of activities ensures that the space is well used.

Having a connection between the hall and the actual church was important and a new doorway allowed people to walk through.  A previous project had covered the stained glass windows and these were opened up to provide light for both the church and the hall.

People who discovered Bishop's Stortford Methodist through the Oasis café now come to church on a Sunday morning and one new person, Joanne, has been brought into membership. “I was on my way to the market when someone said to come in and have a coffee,” says Joanne. “I felt so at home here that I became a member.  They took me on for who I am and I’ve never left.”

The Oasis Café has provided a welcome for those with caring responsibilities as well. A professional carer who looks after three women in supported accommodation, two of them who now come to services on a Sunday, commented. “There is a great sense of community here, the atmosphere is of people feeling wanted and loved.”

Bishop's Stortford Methodist also works closely with the nearby Holy Trinity Church where David Perry runs a night shelter for the homeless.  David said; “We provide somewhere for people to stay in the winter months but we can’t be open all the time and the Oasis lounge provides somewhere for people to go that is warm and safe during the day.  We also work alongside the food bank and the church directs people to us if they need our services.”

James is temporarily homeless and a regular visitor to the café space, “Coming here gives me people to talk and have a laugh with and also a chance to be listened to.  Sometimes I come in here to get a little sleep after a night shift.  I didn’t know anyone when I first came here and now I know everyone, it’s like a family.”

“It was not a cheap project,” says District Property Officer Steve.  “The total bill was £800,000. We received generous grants from various external organisations, there was connexional and circuit help and we fundraised ourselves.”

The investment has paid off according to Pat Simpson, Senior Steward at the church, “The works have enhanced the life of the church and now far more people in the town know of the Methodist Church, the welcome we offer, our facilities and activities.  We are much, much busier and we have lots of community groups wanting to use the building saying how lovely and welcoming it is.

“We have built a community here, we know all these people, we know them by name.”