The first place David Kerrigan, Peter Dunn & Mat Wilson visited on their tour of Urban Expression in Manchester last Friday was a Sure Start centre in Openshaw.  Here Tim Presswood & Clare McBeath were hosting the Living Well project which offers play & craft for toddlers and parents/carers plus free fruit & juice.

Whilst there we met local Mancunians plus newer ‘locals’ recently arrived from Syria, Jordan & Algeria.  Reflections on the issues asylum seekers and immigrants face will be reflected on in more detail in future blogs but here I want to reflect on the situation many Sure Start centres and churches find themselves in.

I guess on one hand the Living Well project is not much different to the thousands of toddler groups run in church halls up and down the country.  Churches have always been superb at running such groups and without them there would be a massive gap in opportunities for parents and children to mix and support one another.  But what makes the Living Well project special is that it is taking what churches are brilliant at doing and making it even more accessible for those who will not naturally enter a church building.  The Living Well project has found a home in a purpose built welcoming centre of community life.

But Sure Start is in trouble.  The budget cuts caused by the recession are biting hard and thousands of Sure Start staff are losing their jobs and thus Sure Start programmes are being slashed to the all but necessary.  In this sad situation there is an opportunity for churches which already have a reputation for positive children’s provision to step in and offer to help sustain these excellent centres.  If a church already has links with their local Sure Start centre it may be easier to begin the conversation, but even if connections need to be initiated from scratch, their assistance, from what I have seen, is likely to be welcomed.

But why shouldn’t churches just wait for the local children’s provisions to close and then woo people into their existing groups?  Well, I guess that is one (selfishly-motivated?) option and indeed parents may well look for other opportunities when their regular programme is disturbed.  But these Sure Start centres are purpose-built places (better equipment than many a church hall play group that I have seen!) and have in themselves become inclusive centres of community life for many.  Perhaps in serving these excellent places and helping to prop up a valuable resource to society (especially valuable to our poorer neighbourhoods) we can play our part in working together to get through the tough times ahead and prove that the church and the Good News is there for all and show that followers of Jesus are prepared to go out of their comfort zone for the benefit of others.

Tim & Clare are both ministers of Openshaw Baptist Church which currently has no building, so the impetus for utilising existing places is high.  As they progress towards creating a new building of their own, the challenge will be how not to lose the exceptional benefits gained by not having one!