CCX: What is Activate?
Revd Chris Kennedy: Activate is a sport and activities ministry which seeks to encourage wellbeing and faith through fitness, health and community. We’re a deanery-based project, so Activate runs in the Deanery of Hampton within the Kensington Area of the Diocese of London. Currently most of our activities take place in Teddington and the local area around Bushy Park.
Our hope is to use sport and wellbeing to meet people where they are, support them and build bridges between the local community and churches. We want to create wellbeing hubs that are contextually missional across different communities to promote physical, mental and spiritual health in people of all ages and backgrounds. We’re supported by local churches and the local borough of Richmond as well as other partners in the area.
What initiatives have you started so far?
We launched Active! Church on Sunday 15th March, which was National Sports Sunday. It’s a bit like Messy Church – a service of worship using sport and dance, aimed at young people and their families. A young boy who attended the Active! Church launch service shared that he had not been able to take part in physical activity since receiving a cancer diagnosis. Coming along to Active! Church was an opportunity for him to return to gentle exercise in a fun and supportive environment.
We run worship sessions at 12pm during the week, and our plan for each day is to have a different focus, such as a communion service, silent prayer or Psalms and Stretches, a movement class combining exercise with meditation on scripture from the book of Psalms. There are also weekly Soup and Stretch sessions which support people with mobility difficulties. Another venture has been our community cafe, which has specialist sessions such as ‘Tea and Empathy’ for those going through a bereavement or ‘Memory Cafe’ for people living with memory loss. We want to reach out to those who are vulnerable or isolated, providing them with supportive relationships and community.
How did Activate start? How did you research and identify opportunities in your local community?
We began by looking at the local area and demographic. A huge part of the deanery is taken up by Bushy Park and sport is the main thing that happens there. The Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe, and our previous area dean, Joe Moffatt, saw an opportunity to create a sporting outreach. My background as a parish priest who loves sport (I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury’s cricket captain) and a physiotherapist who’s passionate about the local church fitted in with this idea.
I have an amazing set of trustees who realised that a lot of young families weren’t coming to church on a Sunday morning because of sport. Our starting point was a desire to create a space where young people could enjoy both sport and church. Then the pandemic hit and people started engaging more with their wellbeing. Activity and mental health became hugely important. Community partners started asking for our help in supporting those who were vulnerable or isolated. Now we’re in conversation with all the major charitable institutions in the area and working with social prescribers. I see Activate as a bridge builder between the local community and the local churches.
What is social prescribing and how can it help churches to reach out?
Social prescribing is a national project where health care professionals can refer people to local services in the community to support their wellbeing and health. There’s a great video about it here. When I was a parish priest, I always wanted to connect with those who were isolated but I didn’t know how to do it. At Activate, we’re excited to work with social prescribers to understand the unique needs of our communities and help local churches meet these needs. Being contextual helps us to be incarnational – reaching out in specific ways to bless our neighbourhoods. For example, if there are mums in a particular area who are struggling with postnatal depression, we’ll work with local churches who run parents and tots groups. We can give churches or volunteers specific training, and then GPs and social prescribers (or link workers) can refer women to their groups.
My advice to anyone who wants to explore how this might work in their area would be to delve into your specific context and connect with the social prescribers and needs of your community, whether it’s homelessness, mental health, or unemployment. Social prescribing is nation-wide and it gives us a gateway to ‘find the lost sheep and connect them with the ninety-nine’. We’ve just completed the task of mapping all the groups and support that churches in our deanery offer, which means that social prescribers can now start connecting with these churches and in turn, send people to them.
How are you seeing individuals and the community impacted by Activate?
This month, we’re delivering holiday hampers or food parcels made from surplus food to 14 families who need support, which is over 50 people. We started this during the lockdowns and it really helped us to build relationships with the local charities and social prescribers.
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There have definitely been challenges – we ran our first holiday club which was hugely unsuccessful! Although 13 families signed up (mainly those who were eligible for free school meals) only four turned up and it was really hard work. Despite this, some wonderful things came out of the club. One day a mother turned up late and we asked if she needed any help getting here. She had problems with her hips, so she’d been given a tricycle by the council but she’d never learnt to ride a bike. We taught her how to ride her tricycle while her kids were at the holiday club and it’s completely transformed her life. She can now keep up with her two lively young girls who cycle everywhere, cycling to church or taking her kids to school – it’s amazing to see her tearing around the streets!
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The heartbeat of pioneering is serving – sometimes a very specific calling to a particular group of people or a wider calling. I think that when we share our lives with people, they naturally start to ask questions. This is the heart of the incarnation – Christ came to serve and meet our deepest needs. Evangelism follows naturally as part of this.
Pioneering is also the capacity to cope with failure. When you’re trying to do something new and step out of normal frameworks, there will be stumbles and sometimes your first or second attempts might not work. The art of pioneering is how often you can get up and try again, maybe adapting your processes as you go along.
It’s really important for churches to understand this too. People’s lives are messy, especially those on the fringes, so our programmes might look messy too. In our messiness, we find Christ and we start to rely on his strength in us.
We need the local church to draw alongside pioneers, pray for them, encourage them and then release them again. Pioneering reminds me of a diamond in the rough – it takes a long time for a diamond to shape. It’s timely and it’s hard work – there’s a cost in discipleship and it’s not an easy win. But it’s hugely rewarding when it works.
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What are your hopes for Activate in the future?
By the start of next year, we hope to start Fit Church which will involve 45 mins of high intensity interval training (HIIT), a 25 mins church service and then a Pilates session, with a creche running alongside. In a very fit and active community, it feels like this service might connect with families and people who are interested in exploring faith.
In Bushy Park there are seven sports clubs and there’s been a huge issue with mental health, especially in the men’s groups. Tragically, the biggest killer for men under 40 is suicide. The sports clubs contacted us to ask for support so we’re creating a trust fund for men, which the clubs pay into each year. As soon as they spot someone is struggling, we can get them instant counselling and support mechanisms to help them out of the crisis. It’s amazing to work together as a community to improve mental health. Long-term, we’d love to use our base in Teddington to create a counselling service for men and young people. We’d also love to support other local churches to start wellbeing hubs in the next year so they can find new ways to meet the needs of their community in a contextual way.
To find out more, visit www.activatechurch.org.uk
If you’re inspired by Chris’s story of pioneering a new worshipping community, find out how CCX could support you.