Want to run a course at your church but not sure where to start? Christianity has hints and tips to make your course the best it can be, plus a guide to the best of what's out there
Drive past any church noticeboard anywhere in the UK, and you’re likely to see an advert for a course they’re running. I’m not just talking about The Alpha Course, which is probably the most well known, but about a quiet revolution that’s been taking place over the past decade in the way churches engage with their congregations and their communities.
Churches have always been storehouses of wisdom and focal points for the community. By offering courses, churches have been empowered to take this one step further, giving their communities a holistic service alongside the usual hatches, matches and dispatches.
The popularity of the course format is a testament to their success. A recent Ipsos MORI survey indicated that nearly four million British adults who have not done The Alpha Course have a level of interest in it. But it’s not just outreach courses that are on the rise. Christian organisations offer materials and training for churches to run courses on relationships, social issues, mission, discipleship, money, and a whole host of other subjects.
But how do you decide what’s best suited to you, your congregation and the people in your local community? And how do you make sure it’s a success? Here are some simple steps to help you.
1. Choose carefully
Choosing the right course before you even begin is crucial. Think about who the course is aimed at – is it for your congregation, or the local community? If it’s for your members, select a course that reflects your church’s focus and that will suit the kind of people who come to your services.
Rev Mairisine Stanfield of First Presbyterian Church in Ballynahinch, County Down ran Tearfund’s Just People? course. In her feedback she said, ‘We wanted our church to concentrate on mission – both global and local. The course was a good solid biblical tool that’s easy to understand and that has demystified mission for us.’
If you want to reach out to your local community, try to tailor what you choose to the needs in your area, or make it an extension of the ways people use your church already. So, if your church hosts lots of weddings, offering a marriage or relationships course is a natural way forward. If your church hosts a mums and toddlers group, do you hear the parents talking about how they’re struggling with discipline? Perhaps these mums might value a parenting course.
There may be many different types of courses available, but remember – they’re designed to fit into the existing life of the church. Think of them as a way of extending existing relationships and activities, rather than a brand new enterprise.
In short, run a course for the people you already know, that’s relevant to them, and they’ll be more likely to come.
2. Prepare properly
Running a course isn’t like building an Ikea bookshelf – you can’t just guess how it might fit together and work it out as you go along. Many of the organisations who run courses run training sessions, so get fully equipped with skills and ideas, as well as resources, beforehand. Then appoint group leaders and train them, too.
Find out as much information as you can, and begin to get the church ready by clearly communicating your plans. Explain when the course will start, who it’s for, and why you’re doing it. Running a course might have a significant impact on your Sunday congregation. If you run something for the community, you may be reaching out to a different demographic which, hopefully, will filter into your regular church gatherings. Is the church ready for this? An influx of mothers and young children to a largely elderly Sunday morning congregation, for example, will require some adaptation, so it’s important to make sure the whole church is on board with what is happening and why.
Giving your congregation information also allows them to see how they can get involved. Be flexible and split up tasks into smaller chunks so that more people are able to participate.
Sharon Coward, from St Nicolas Church in Newbury, Berkshire says, ‘We found that involving people in helping to prepare refreshments, and setting up and clearing away after the evening is really useful, as well as having admin support to collect information from the people registering for the course, and following up if someone doesn’t attend.’
3. Plan the practicalities
When would be the best time to run your course, and where? There’s no single right way to do this – but make sure you’re thinking of your audience and their needs. If it’s an early-ish evening course aimed at people who are working, consider providing a simple meal. If you’re hoping to appeal to single, non-working parents, try running your course during the day, when children are at school and childcare isn’t a problem.
Try to choose a venue that’s familiar and unthreatening to the people who are coming – this might mean using someone’s home, or hiring a space in the local community centre, or using a part of the church that is a welcoming space for your guests. South West London Vineyard in Putney meets in a high school building for its Sunday services. Instead of hiring another space at a different time, the church decided to run a parenting course in one of the school’s classrooms once a month at the same time as the sermon. Church leader Neil Woodward explains why: ‘We’ve found that one of the biggest pitfalls running any course can be gathering people to come. Even with everything in place, if it’s not clear who you’re running the course for, it may be doomed to failure! This is why we decided to run our parenting course on Sunday mornings. It’s an important subject, and we wanted as many people as possible to benefit. People who already attend our church would only miss the sermon one week in four, and unchurched people are more likely to have free time on Sunday mornings. Since we already have an extensive and excellent Vineyard Kids programme, we could easily accommodate more children if new people attended. We hope as they come to find out about parenting, they might also encounter Jesus.’
4. Execute it excellently
No course is a one-week wonder, so it’s important to make sure people want to keep coming back for more. If your venue is dirty, cold or untidy, or people feel unwelcome, they won’t come back for a second week. Make a commitment to run your course as well as it can possibly be done. And don’t start until you’re ready to do that.
Produce good quality publicity materials. Lots of courses have their own flyers and posters that you can buy, and it’s worth investing in these. Give the people you’re inviting the impression of a quality event from the first moment they hear about it. A black and white photocopied flyer that’s not been guillotined straight isn’t going to be as appealing as a professionally printed colour one.
Rev Jenny Ellis, spirituality and discipleship officer in the Methodist Church, cites this as one of the reasons courses she has run have attracted guests. ‘I designed an attractive flyer, which I handed to anyone who had been on any course I had run before. I advertised it in the local churches and in the circuit and parish magazines, as well as handing it to anyone I thought might be interested. This meant I very often picked up a couple of new people who just happened to see the flyer and wanted to come along.’
It’s often the small things that get overlooked, but it’s those things that make a big difference to people’s first impressions. Put tablecloths and flowers on the tables, make sure there’s soap in the dispensers in the toilets. All these things will make people feel welcome, and like they’re enjoying good hospitality.
5. Follow up
Hopefully, from the planning stages on, whatever course you run will fit into your existing church programme. A course should never be an instant cure-all, the answer to evangelism in your church, or a one-off hit-and-run venture into the life of your local community. But they are ideal ways to build long-lasting relationships, and to bring about long-term change.
So, get feedback about how people found the course, if they’d be interested in doing another, and if they’d bring a friend to do the same course again. Give people opportunity to talk about their ideas and share their thoughts in the final session, and hand out simple questionnaires – the simpler the better – to collect as much feedback as possible.
Think in advance about what course you might run next, and be prepared with information and sign-up sheets to give out at the end of a course to maintain the contact. And brace yourself for the impact that these newly enthusiastic, informed and empowered people will have on the ongoing life of your church.