Fancy a Takeaway?

Who can forget last summer's Ashes cricket? Even our American friends found themselves caught up in all the excitement. Alas, they still struggled to grasp the meaning of such words as googly, leg-break and Yorker! Recently I came across a new word: 'retreatant'. There it was in the opening line of an ad for a church retreat house in the annual publication Retreats.

Whether its called a Retreat, an Away Day or a Family Day, taking a church group away can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a congregation. In my five years at Totley Rise Methodist Church we organised four Church Away Days, the most recent being last October. While there are elements common to all four, each had its own distinct character. As you look toward 2006 your thoughts may be turning to the idea of a Church Away Day. The following may prove helpful in deciding upon the type of Away Day that best suits your congregation.

When choosing a venue practical questions abound. Is there sufficient parking, a PA system, space for group work, a crèche, room for children's activities, exclusive access, resources on site? The less equipment you have to take the better, although this may increase hire cost. The day's format inevitably has a bearing on the location. A timetable that includes an afternoon walk or a catered meal immediately steers you towards a certain type of venue.

The spiritual atmosphere is a key factor. Last year we booked Whirlow Grange, an attractive Christian retreat centre on the outskirts of Sheffield recently refurbished and boasting an enthusiastic, supportive staff. The place alone leaves a person feeling refreshed. However, 15 months previous we booked Tigers Rugby Club, arranged through one of our stewards who was a member of the club. We enjoyed modern premises, good refreshment facilities, ample parking and two large expanses of grass for the children to commandeer. With some prayer beforehand and a cross at the centre the group soon felt at home. Don't feel restricted to Christian sites especially if the day's overall format doesn't require it. The rugby club was chosen partly in the hope that some on the fringe of the church might attend. This proved to be the case during the talks and even more so for the evening barbecue.

Another question to ask is how far away is the venue? The longer travelling, the less time for the day itself. If the chosen setting is that good why not turn it into a Church Weekend Away?

Who will lead the day? The minister and various members of the church? An outside speaker or team? My personal preference would always be for a guest speaker. Someone not directly connected to the church can say/see/suggest things that those within the church cannot. It also lends the day an extra edge; this is not simply an extended Sunday service. The speaker/team you invite and the day's main aim are very much two sides of the same coin. You want the church members to get to know each other better? Then find someone well versed in this area. The Lord has put it on the church's heart to get to grips with certain scriptures? Then invite someone accomplished in Bible teaching. In June 2003 we used the Church Away Day as a springboard into the autumn's 40 Days of Purpose course. Our speaker was a Baptist pastor whose own church had recently gone through the Rick Warren book.

There is a temptation to cram the day with several laudable aims. On two occasions we decided not to include workshops. For some the idea of workshops is a reason not to attend. They can also put a pressure on time. A workshop-free day means more space for the invited speaker. Interaction can still be enjoyed during the talks conditional upon it being well controlled. We even started one Away Day after Saturday lunch, aware of how many commitments church members have at the weekend. The day was bolstered by an evening meal, partly sold on the no cooking/washing-up promise! A day accomplishes more when seeking to achieve less. There's always follow-up, underlined by the need to involve those who did not attend.

Finally, other hints which may prove useful:

  • Name badges Never assume everyone knows everybody.
  • Running order. Don't be straitjacketed by the day's timetable. If the Lord wants to extend worship let him. At the same time remember your speaker has traveled some distance with some vitally important truths to impart.
  • Children Include a slot towards the end when they can share what they have been doing in their sessions.
  • Short reports Slips of paper with the invitation, 'Write your thoughts on the Day (in no more than 15 words)'. This can be completed over a coffee.
  • Digital camera/recorder Pictures or video shown in the following Sunday's worship gives a taste of what occurred for those unable to attend as well as serving as a pictorial reminder to those who did.

What next? Don't feel pressured to produce a grand vision for the church as a result of the Away Day. Often the effects are gradual and not immediately discernable. That's not to say something of great magnitude shouldn't come out of the day.

What I hope is evident is that there is no set formula for a successful Church Away Day. Moreover, someone else writing on this same subject might concentrate on areas I have not even touched upon. After all, no two churches are the same. In the end find what is right for your congregation, and believe that 'if you book it, they will come'!