St Michael’s Church is the parish church of the growing industrial town of Sittingbourne in Kent. It is an imposing, historic building on the high street, which is Grade 2 listed but not, as the church community acknowledge, naturally inviting. The parish is ranked in the most deprived 20% of parishes nationally. A couple of years ago, after a succession of changes in leadership, the church recognised a need to develop a greater sense of community.
Through listening to local people, both inside and outside of the church, they found that loneliness and isolation was a significant problem for people in the town. They recognised that the midweek communion was a small congregation of about 10-15 people who gathered for coffee and fellowship after the service. In 2017, the church decided to develop this informal coffee slot into a Place of Welcome, opening the church doors and offering free hot drinks, soup and toast for anyone who would like it, whether or not they attend the service beforehand. This has grown so much that the church has had to buy extra tables and chairs to accommodate everybody who comes; an average of 40 people come each week. It is a buzzing hub of conversation, where friendships have developed and St Michael’s has become known as somewhere welcoming where people can come for a hot drink and a chat, whatever their circumstances.
Volunteers from the church have also responded to the increasing number of rough sleepers in the town centre by opening up the church hall one morning a week as a drop-in for homeless and vulnerable people. They offer hot showers, clean clothes and a warm welcome to anyone who needs it.
The parish is also part of the diocesan Ignite scheme, which funds mission enablers to build community, encourage discipleship and establish a new café-style congregation. There are two part-time mission enablers working at St Michael’s, getting to know people and growing relationships within the wider community before they plant the new Thursday night congregation later this year.