A West Yorkshire Methodist church has transformed itself into the Wesley Playhouse where faith and fun are the order of the day
A 3,000 ft adventure area for kids, a community café and a 24ft Noah’s Ark now grace the space where worshippers once used to sit in rows on a Sunday morning.
Worshippers still come to Howden Clough Methodist Church for Sunday services, but the rest of the time the church is home to the Wesley Playhouse where Christians live out their faith in service to people in the community.
“We live in obedience as Noah did by offering a place of hope for those who come through our doors,” says Caroline Holt, who came up with the idea for the Wesley Playhouse after going to one of those soft play activity centres for kids with her goddaughter.
“I was thinking what awful places they were and wondering why there wasn’t a Christian alternative. I then looked on the internet and other places to see if there were any. There were none as far as I could find.”
Howden Clough Methodist Church had a membership of around 10 when Caroline first came up with her suggestion. “We were facing the reality of probable closure and so I put the Playhouse idea to them.
“To my utter surprise they all said yes and were fully behind me doing it. There was one family who struggled with the idea at first, but they didn't oppose the project as it went forward.”
Getting the Playhouse off the ground was no mean feat. “To start with we had £3,000 in the bank and needed £120,000. God answered the need through individuals, the Methodist Circuit, District and Connexion who came up with £78,000 in loans, and the Biffaward gave us £50,000.”
The next hurdle was finding the staff, but more than 20 people from different churches in the area came forward to help.
It looked as though there was going to be another setback when local residents complained to the Council about parking issues. “The Council said we had to apply for change of use. God then answered our prayers as the Council backed off and said it was ‘not in their interest to pursue the case’ – a real battle won.”
Caroline says one of the biggest challenges for the church now is to find opportunities to share the Gospel. “We are trying very hard, but want to do more. We’re looking for opportunities to run Alpha, and counselling opportunities still need teasing out.”
The church meets as normal for Sunday morning services in the Playhouse and runs a ‘Playhouse Praise’ on the first Sunday of the month. “We have 34 coming at the moment, so our challenge is to move them forward and bring them to faith.
“More than 18,000 people have come through the door over the last 18 months. It’s an amazing result that I could never have imagined when I started,” says Caroline.
She says one of the most heartening experiences has been seeing the elderly members of the congregation getting involved. “They read with the children and talk to people about how the Playhouse got off the ground. Some say the Playhouse has given them a reason to get up in the morning.”
Other highlights include witnessing the amazement on people's faces when they have seen what’s been done with the church, and being given gifts by non-churchgoers who have been bowled over by the care and service they have received.
“It has given people a vision they can follow,” says Caroline. “It’s a good news story that the press have picked up on. People have told the story to friends saying, ‘This is a church doing something for us’.
“But perhaps the greatest achievement I could ever have hoped for was when a man rang me from Luxembourg to say he had become a Christian through the website. I am so grateful to God.”
As told to Sharon Barnard
The Wesley Playhouse was nominated by Ruth Cole of Bailiff Bridge, W Yorks
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