“A typical Presbyterian church trying something different”
is how the Rev Jon Parkes describes Ripple Effect, a Wednesday night gathering at St David’s in Richmond.
It targets people in their 40s and 50s who Jon describes as “post church” – they might have once been involved but found church didn’t answer their questions.
Richmond, near Nelson, has a population of just under 12,000, with an unusually high proportion already attending church. Jon says local ministry leaders combined their weekly attendance figures to estimate that 20 percent of the community goes to a service on Sunday.
“We don’t want to take people from other churches.”
St David’s has between 50 and 60 people coming along on a Sunday morning, most of them over the age of 60. “There’s a realisation that the church needs to do something different.”
Jon knew that he couldn’t both start something new and maintain existing pastoral visiting, and the parish council discussed this reality, while spending time in planning workshop to develop a new strategy.
So Ripple Effect has its own leadership team and is coordinated by Kay Jones, a church member who is also studying full-time for a Laidlaw College theology qualification through Nelson’s Bishopdale Theological College.
Ripple Effect’s launch was publicised through free community paper advertising and a letter box drop, which has been repeated.
“Every time the flier goes out, we get a new person coming along,” Jon says.
Every Wednesday at 7pm, about 12 people gather for coffee, dessert and discussion. Kay uses an ice breaker, then includes a poem or reading before posing a couple of questions for discussion; first in small groups, then in the larger group. At about 8.30pm, she wraps up the discussion and closes with a prayer, though often people stay on to discuss the topic further.
Four weeks are spent on each theme, followed by a guest speaker then a movie night, before the next series starts.
Kay says there are about 20 regular participants, with people not necessarily coming along every week. Four people attending haven’t gone to church for many years, if ever, she says, which shows that they are reaching their target audience.
Jon describes Ripple Effect as “a church you can wear jeans to; you can be relaxed”.
“People can say what they want and they’re not shot down in flames. I’m conservative in my theology but I’ve got no qualms with that at all,” he says.
“I think God’s grace is bigger than that. Sometimes we leave with no answers. Is that good or bad?”
Jon says he’s always been interested in the different pathways by which people are called to God.
Church needs to embrace key elements of local culture, he says, and if people’s weekends revolve around sport, family or work commitments, week nights can suit them better.
Jon says Ripple Effect is a separate church, and the idea isn’t to get people eventually coming along on Sunday morning.
Most the Sunday congregation’s response to the new initiative has been positive. “It’s hard when we hear some people thinking ‘when are they going to come to church?’. But I’ve been really blunt about that; this is a new church. It might even start meeting in a café or pub.”
Ripple Effect has to have a mission of its own, Jon says. “My job is to encourage them to develop that.”
“We haven’t got it all sorted as a church. Any church can do this. But there needs to be a realisation that New Zealand’s culture has been changed and Sunday morning isn’t necessarily the time for church anymore. People do different things in the weekend now.”
Jon hopes to also launch a breakfast church along the lines of Dunedin’s B@TCH later this year.
Kay says she’s happy to talk to anyone considering something similar to Ripple Effect for their church.
“We have to cater for the people’s needs, and I think the people’s needs are changing,” she says.
“This isn’t a replacement for Sunday morning, it’s something to complement it and attract a different type of person.”
By Amanda Wells