Outdoor activities and the gospel.
Canoeing Christianity is making waves for Mike and Julie Ryder, and the team at King’s Church, Warrington.
"I didn’t know church was like this!” said one member of our community who came to our free canoeing session recently.
As a missional community, we are encouraged and given the freedom to shape how we ‘do’ mission at King's Church ... so about a year ago, before the Covid-19 lockdown, we gave birth to a crazy idea, offering families free canoeing sessions on a local canal in Warrington.
Since then we’ve run a forest day, a woodland themed sensory experience at a community fair, and we’re now in the process of planning our next big event in a forest. All completely free of charge.
The format is simple ... people arrive at an allotted time, and they’re greeted with ‘Welcome to King’s Church’. Then they grab a brew and we have a chat. Before they get started with a safety brief, there’s a short talk; light touch but evangelistic, so as they climb into their canoe, or head off to explore the woods, the good news of Jesus is ringing in their ears.
I began working as a minister in training at King’s Church, Warrington about a year ago, and absolutely love being part of a church that has such a huge focus on community and discipleship. It’s also great that I get to use the skills I’ve learned as an outdoor instructor for the past ten years, specialising in Paddle Sports.
I became interested in adventure sports at college after being at a bit of a loose end when I left school. Since then I’ve managed a large Christian outdoor centre and run my own coaching and guiding businesses, as well as being a freelancer.
My wife Julie is a qualified canoe coach, and forest school leader. We met whilst working in an outdoor centre together, about nine years ago. We’ve been married for almost six years now, and have been Christians for about ten. Julie has really come into her own on this mission, while I do a lot of the background work.
The canoeing sessions we run are designed to be a short taster or introduction, just a quick paddle up and down the local canal, a couple of goes on an obstacle course in the woods, or a bug hunt. They’re family-friendly, and full of fun and laughter. People genuinely can’t believe they’re getting to do it for free.
Before they leave, there’s a chance to grab another brew, have a chat and receive prayer, with lots of information about our church and faith to take away. More often than not, it’s during the excited chatter after they’ve finished the headline activity, that we have the best opportunity to have those early discipleship conversations; from a family that had been hurt by the church in the past, and were surprised to find people genuinely interested in them and wanted to bless them, to the tired and anxious mum who picked out a chocolate with a Scripture stuck to it, and said ‘that was written just for me this morning’.
I would estimate that over 300 people have been impacted by the gospel in the last year through these events alone, most of whom we would never have come in contact with otherwise. It’s also wonderful to see several of those people beginning to engage with our church programmes such as our Alpha course, and other activities during the week. We found social media very effective for advertising the events – and it costs nothing. We took bookings via messenger on Facebook and encouraged people to like our social media outlets. It’s a simple way to connect with new people and creates opportunities to share other things we have going on in the future.
Now, I know that we’re in a uniquely privileged position here at King’s as not every church has canoe coaches or forest school leaders. But from our point of view, the activities are the sideshow ... they’re just an attraction. It’s the people who serve the teas and coffees, have chats and offer prayer, who make the biggest impact. That’s why this model of mission is accessible to any church or group willing to think outside the box and draw on the skill sets available to them.
I’m convinced that some-day, somewhere, someone will be sharing a testimony of how their faith journey started one Saturday morning in a woodland in Warrington.
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