28 March 2022
An alternative form of church at St Stephen’s Gardenvale has proved extremely successful, growing the church sixfold in two years.
“Service on the Sofa” developed out of an Alpha course and is held in the church’s cafe-lounge area every Sunday evening.
The format is similar to Alpha, with food, a guest speaker, informal discussion, breakout groups, prayer, scripture and worship music.
Harry Potter actress Miriam Margoyles is due to speak in November, while past guest speakers have included Bishop Paul Barker and children’s author-illustrator Mitchell Toy.
St Stephen’s vicar Paul Carr said the church’s growth had been largely down to the new form, which attracted people who were from multiple faiths, age ranges, who were unchurched, new to church, and returning to church, as well as traditional worshippers.
Mr Carr said Service on the Sofa began about two years ago with five attendees and now attracted over 30.
He said it had grown the church from around 20 people in 2017 to more than 135 across the week.
“It is accessible, reflective, informative, and interactive in conversation and testimony – a real deep dive into faith exploration and wrestling with key issues that faith presents,” Mr Carr said.
Mr Carr said the church provided food and drinks, while each event includes worship music, a discussion theme, and a testimony anchored by scripture. Breakout discussions link the evening’s events together.
The group always prays, while the church offers communion once a month – which many of its guests have never experienced.
Mr Carr said he usually hosted the evening himself, with the guest joining him on the sofa. The guest usually has a connection with the theme, and the relevant scripture. The discussions among other guests are supported with video material, or a real-life narrative.
Recent topics have included “Your life matters,” “There is power in your story,” “You too, can change” and “God works even through our mess.”
Mr Carr said he was amazed at the diversity of people who attended Service on the Sofa. He said some were traditional Anglicans while others had never been to church. Some were anti-church, others wanted to reconnect, and some some were from other faiths, he said.
Mr Carr said people from all age groups had attended, and some guests had come from as far away as Geelong, Footscray and Mount Martha. A Zoom audience will often join from interstate, or in the United Kingdom.
“Some have come as atheist, others agnostic, and some simply wondering, ‘What is church really?’ and ‘Who is this God?’” Mr Carr said.
Mr Carr said Service on the Sofa began out of an Alpha Course offered by the church.
“In swept a stream of new people asking big questions about faith and life,” he said.
“That group didn’t want to separate once the course ended, so they formed as ‘BETA’ – a new and growing group, a fresh expression of church.”
The BETA group journeyed together through the Freedom In Christ discipleship course and then became “Sundays,” a new Sunday evening service.
Mr Carr said the service, held in the comfort of the newly-designed church cafe and lounge, attracted more and more people over time.
He said the cafe environment modernised the approach and accessibility for some people – especially those entering church for the first time – to feel comfortable, bringing church to what was a familiar surroundings.
It’s a format that’s drawn in visitors from across the denominational spectrum, including Baptists, Anglicans, Catholics, Uniting church members, and people who would consider themselves Evangelical, high church, and low church.
“When people from other churches come, we all recognise the deep desire that we share – to be connected, to feel welcomed,” Mr Carr said.
“When we are together, we simply worship and gather in God’s name. We talk and debate big issues of faith together, share narrative, pray for each other, support and encourage each other and some even keep coming back.”
Other guest speakers have included the director of the Open Haven women’s refuge service Sabeel Burgess, mental health practitioner Fiona Whitecross, local grammar school headmaster David Nettlebeck, and Christianity Today journalist Jeremy Dover.
Sunday on the Sofa takes place at 5pm, at St Stephen’s Gardenvale.