Sunday Service Dedicated to Pre-schoolers & Their Parents? Church Growth Lessons from Marcus Gibbs & Bubble Church

Thanks for tuning in to the unSeminary podcast. We have a real treat today. We recorded this interview in person while in London, England with Marcus Gibbs, Vicar at Ascension Church.

Are you looking for innovative ways to reach unchurched communities and serve the next generation?Listen in as Marcus shares the simple yet engaging Bubble Church model and its potential to reach unchurched communities and revitalize struggling congregations.

  • Think creatively. // In London and the UK there are far fewer people who are familiar with Christianity or have any experience with church than in North America. That means churches have to really think creatively about how to engage people there. Marcus explains that unless you can answer the question of how to do church, no one will come through your doors.
  • Open your doors. // Ascension Church set up a coffee shop inside their 100+ year old building that has become an avenue for drawing people in. Since opening Parish Coffee four years ago, it has transformed their outreach efforts. The coffee shop attracts a thousand people a week, and has provided an opportunity for the church to launch several other ministries, including a debt center, a refugee drop-in, and an eco-station. Marcus notes that 85% of his time is now spent ministering to people midweek, rather than just on Sundays.
  • Bubble Church. // During Covid, Ascension Church also started a half hour service on Sunday mornings which is called Bubble Church. Aimed at parents and their preschoolers, the service includes puppets, action songs, a Bible story, and an activity or response. Bubble Church has become a beloved community for families who previously had no experience with church.
  • Automatic onramp. // Not only is Bubble Church a great way to teach kids about God and the Bible, but it’s also a no-threatening way to introduce unchurched parents to the gospel. Kids and parents can get involved with serving during Bubble Church too. And as the kids grow older, it provides an automatic onramp to the next service at 10:30. As a result, Bubble Church has become a model for growth that the Church of England is adopting as a strategy for renewal for struggling congregations.
  • Planning before you launch. // When Marcus and his team launched Bubble Church, there were elements of the service that they didn’t include initially. Marcus said looking back they would have handled differently talking about things such as serving, giving or even an offering prayer in order to normalize them to an unchurched crowd from the beginning. If certain elements aren’t present from the start, they can be hard to work in later.
  • Where is God already at work? // When Marcus first became vicar of Ascension Church, he had his own ideas about the sort of community he wanted to reach and serve. It wasn’t until God opened his eyes and showed him who He was bringing to the church through Parish Coffee that Marcus realized he needed to focus on serving young families. As church leaders we need to recognize where God is already at work and lean into that, adapting to the needs in our community.

To learn more about Ascension Church and Parish Coffee visit www.ascensionbalham.org and explore the Bubble Church model at www.bubblechurch.org.

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Well, hey friends. Welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you are tuned in today. We’ve got a, a special episode; today I’m recording live, which doesn’t normally happen. Normally I’m across a Zoom call, but in the room with my friend Marcus Gibbs from Ascension Church. This is a fantastic church in southwest London—that’s London, England for friends that are listening in—that you should, you should really should be tracking with. There’s some really cool stuff that’s happening here. They’re a Church of England church here in southwest London – that’s below the river, fantastic neighborhood. I’ve actually been here for the last couple days spending some time with Marcus and his team. So it’s been, it’s been just wonderful. Thanks for your hospitality in that. But Marcus, welcome. We’re so glad you’re here. Welcome to the show.

Marcus Gibbs — Oh, it’s great to be here, Rich. And yeah, really been awesome hanging out a little bit, and yeah, just great to be on the podcast.

Rich Birch — Yeah. Why don’t you tell us about the church. Kind of give us a flavor, maybe talk a little bit about the community, talk a little bit about, you know, how long have you been here – those sorts of things.

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah, so I’ve been the pastor here for nine years, and it’s a great community. It’s really vibrant. We’re not in central London, but we’re not far out from the center. And they call it Nappy Valley round here…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — So there’s lots of kind of young parents with young kids. And it’s quite a wealthy area, to be honest. People commuting into London, people working in finance, that kind of thing. And when I took on the church nine years ago, yeah, it it needed a lot of love to be honest. There was a lot of different things that I needed to look at, really practically even to do the whole building, which needed a lot of work. It’s a 140 year old Victorian building, and it, the heating at the time didn’t work, so we had to raise some money to put some central heating in and just to kind of get the place up and running really. So, but it’s, it’s, it’s a great community and I absolutely love it here.

Rich Birch — Well, one of the things I, I love about talking with leaders like yourself who are leading in contexts where people don’t just go to church. You know, like give us a sense of the kind of spiritual makeup. Most of the people that are listening are American, but, you know, there’s a vast less number of people, percentage-wise, in London that attend church. Give us a bit of that makeup. Tell us about that.

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah, no one goes to church. It’s, it’s, it’s like no one, like no one.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — There’s a lot of lovely people. They’re kind of good without God. You know, they’re, they’re, they’re kind of wandering around very, very friendly, very polite. They’ll, they’ll stand in line and queue and do really nice things, but, but fundamentally, no one comes to church here.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — You know, if you open a church here in southwest London expecting anyone to come, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And that means that we have to really think creatively how on earth are we gonna do this thing called church here in this part of London. Because unless you get an answer to that question, nothing will happen.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And I think for us, the, the, the real sort of turning point was when someone in my congregation said, Marcus, we, we need to open a coffee shop in the church.

Marcus Gibbs — And the moment—this guy was called Sandy—he said to me, we’ve gotta open a a coffee shop. I said, you’re absolutely right. I mean, people love that coffee round here. They love their flat whites; they love, you know, hanging out. And actually, it made a real virtue of the fact it was a 145 year old Victorian church. Because sitting, looking up at incredible architecture and stain glass windows, drinking your flat white is something that, you know, the local Starbucks can’t offer.

Rich Birch — Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — So four years ago, we opened the coffee shop, we called it Parish Coffee, and it has transformed absolutely everything. Because we now have around a thousand people a week coming through the church to drink coffee, to hang out. And suddenly we’ve become this church for the community. And I often say to people, we don’t wanna be the best church in Balham. We wanna be the best church for Balham.

Rich Birch — Oh, that’s so good.

Marcus Gibbs — We want to be like a church where people say, if they weren’t there, we’d really miss them. And I think that’s, that’s kind of something that’s happened over the last few years where I don’t think they just miss us because they’ve missed their caffeine. Although I think they would, by the way, But I think what we found is on the back of the coffee shop being open during the week…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …we’ve been able to now launch several other ministries. So we’ve been able to open a debt center to help people with debt problems. We have a refugee drop-in for people who have landed on our doorstep from other countries who need help and support, and so that’s now started. We run a little eco station where people can reuse and refill their kind of empty shampoo bottles and things like that with new products instead of rebuying plastics so that they’re caring for the environment.

Marcus Gibbs — Plus we’ve now become a place where the local sick from college come and visit and, and hang out and eat, eat donuts, and drink coffee. So it feels like this place is now really alive during the week.

Rich Birch — Yes. Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And it’s totally, I mean, it’s ruined my life in the, you know, my life before the coffee shop and before all these initiatives was mainly based around Sunday.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — You know, it’s like you spend the week getting ready for Sunday.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — I’d now say 85% of my time is midweek…

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — …ministering to the people midweek.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — Sunday, Sunday’s great. I love Sundays.

Rich Birch — Yep, yep.

Marcus Gibbs — But actually, it’s the other days that I, I love even more because that’s when we’ve got unchurched people walking in who, who just look around and say, wow. This is awesome. I love it here.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — And I wander around and chat and sometimes get to pray with them. And then sometimes I sort of help by the, by the way, we I forgot to mention, but we do this thing on a Sunday, we do this thing on a Sunday called church.

Rich Birch — Yes. Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And maybe you should try church. And they look at me and they say, oh, yeah, okay.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — Let’s try church. That sounds good.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — So, so it’s been, it’s been a real transformation for me as well, and it has been and continues to be a lot fun.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I love it. Well, the thing, yeah, I think listeners who are listening in, one of the things, I think it’s super critically important that we all learn from leaders like Marcus in context, like in some ways you are peering into the future. listeners. Because every community that, that are people that are listening is becoming more unchurched. And we’ll eventually end up exactly where Marcus’s community will and obviously outside of a dramatic move by the Lord, obviously, but this is what’s happening. Our church, our communities are becoming more and more unchurched. So in some ways, you are looking into the future by listening in today’s conversation and hearing about what, you know, some of the things that have happened at Ascension.

Rich Birch — Now, I, one of the things that I was really excited to come, you know, fly across the pond to come and see was something called Bubble Church. This is a service that your church does first thing on a Sunday morning. I had a chance yesterday to check it out and just loved it. Tell me, what is Bubble Church? Just for folks that are listening, and give us a sense of what Bubble Church is.

Marcus Gibbs — In real simple terms Bubble Church, it’s a half hour service on a Sunday morning, aimed at parents of little ones. I mean, preschoolers kind of up to five, six years of age and, and little kids. And it’s, it’s very simply in many respects, they come in, they sit on a bubble. What do we mean by that? A bubble is a little circular piece of carpet that the family sit on. And like I said, it lasts about half an hour. And there’s puppets, there’s action songs, there’s a bible story that the puppets act out, and then there’s an activity or a response so that after the Bible story, they open a little bag on their bubbles, on their mats, and they open it up and inside there’s maybe a craft activity, or a way of responding to the Bible story. And there’s some words that we use at the beginning and the end, and then all of a sudden, after about half an hour, we say goodbye. And that’s the end of the service.

Marcus Gibbs — So it, it’s kind of family time all together. We kick off with coffee and croissants which is a very southwest London thing to do. And the, the parents and the little ones absolutely love it because it’s a service that is absolutely targeted and designed for them.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — Unashamedly so.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — We’re not trying to reach everyone. What we are trying to reach is is this demographic that we’ve got here of these young families with little kids. They don’t want to be in a church where people look at them and say, shhhh be quiet, you know?

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — So this service is like totally for them. And just a bit of a background is you know, we went from zero people coming to this service, and you, and, and I just wanna reiterate, no one comes to church…

Rich Birch — Yes, yes, yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …here in the UK, or it’s such a low percentage. And within six months we had over a hundred people coming through the door.

Rich Birch — That’s, that’s amazing.

Marcus Gibbs — And 8 out of 10 of these people have never been to church before.

Rich Birch — Right, right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — So just get your head around that.

Rich Birch — That’s amazing.

Marcus Gibbs — They didn’t grow up a Christian, their parents weren’t Christians, they’re coming with their kids, and they have never been to church before.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And so for us, this was like, wow.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s amazing… [inaudible].

Marcus Gibbs — You know, we’ve been trying to get, if, if we could get an extra a hundred people a week coming who had never been to church before, within six months to our normal main service…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …we’d be like, wow.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — And just a bit of background, we launched this during Covid, because here in the UK the government had said they, they clamped down and said, you can hardly do anything. You know, we, we had what was called a lockdown, we could hardly do anything. But one thing we’re allowed to do was to do an hour of excise a day outside. And the other thing was, they said, if you do go to church, you can go to church, but you have to stay in your bubble, which means you have to stay with your close family.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And so we thought, okay, if you can stay with your bubble, let’s call it Bubble Church and we launched this church.

Rich Birch — Love it! You redeemed all of Covid just for that.

Marcus Gibbs — We did. We did.

Rich Birch — If that’s, you know, and that really is what got kicked off and that’s that, and that’s, that was the initial catalyst.

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah.

Rich Birch — How did, how did you spread the word at the beginning? Because to me that’s amazing. Like, the fact that people, is it just, you know, people talk to their friends? Or what, what was it that kind of, you know, that initially got the word out there that people were able to hear about it?

Marcus Gibbs — I mean, launching Covid times was actually a really good thing because people were hardly allowed to do anything.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And so the moment they found out, wow, we can go with our kids to this church service, we’re allowed to do that, that’s one of the things we’re allowed to do. It really helped. And so it gave them an opportunity to do something with their, their, their children. But also, I mean, we did run a toddler group for, you know, parents and little ones during the week, so we told them about it. There’s a lot of WhatsApp groups and FaceBook groups in this area that we advertised on. And amongst parents around here, word gets round.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — You know, if something good is happening…

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — …they’re like, you should check this out. You should, you parents and moms and dads, they all kind of compare notes. And so the word spread and it’s continued to grow. And I’m really pleased to say that even though we are now post-Covid and there’s none of these lockdowns, we’re a little bit concerned, oh, is it gonna continue growing…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …or is it gonna now decline?

Rich Birch — Yeah, cause people…

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah, it, it’s continued to grow. And what’s awesome is the Church of England in this country who really understandably are looking for ways to, to grow the church, they came to us and said, look, we would love for you to roll out this Bubble Church to other churches around the country.

Rich Birch — Right. Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — And so they’ve given us some funding, and now we’ve employed someone whose job it is to basically go and coach and train other churches on how to run Bubble Church.

Rich Birch — Yeah. I love it.

Marcus Gibbs — And I, I’ll just, I just wanna say the, the thing that’s good about it is it is simple.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes, yes.

Marcus Gibbs — It is it is really simple.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — So when you go to explain it to other churches, it’s not like, oh, you need a PhD and you need to have really, like, studied, you know, theology, [inaudible] and…

Rich Birch — Child psychology…yeah, yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …you know, it is, it is really quite straightforward. But for some reason, and obviously I believe that’s, that’s God, the Lord, it seems like we’ve developed a kind of recipe, a kind of way of doing this church service that really seems to work well. And if we can be part of helping other churches with that, then great.

Rich Birch — Yeah. I love it. Well, and you know, I know so I’m not from a tradition that has a lot of liturgy or we have a different kind of liturgy. We would not call it what we do a liturgy. But one of the things that I found interesting about, you know, participating in in Bubble Church yesterday was there are a couple elements that, particularly at the beginning and the end, that feel very liturgical, but actually very much fit if I was watching a children’s television show. Like it’s the lots of kids TV shows do the same kind of thing where there’s like this, this predictability that that kids like. And, you know, as parents, we get to know all those things, which I think is actually super beautiful and amazing. You actually told me an interesting story about that, about the ending, kind of the benediction, for a lack of a better word, that, you know, impact. Tell me about that again. You told me that story yesterday.

Marcus Gibbs — Oh no, it was lovely. We had we’ve had a couple of parents telling us that their kids, when they go to bed at night or at home, act out those words from Bubble Church.

Rich Birch — Yes. Yeah. I love that.

Marcus Gibbs — God is bigger than our fears. God is kinder in the kindest person, and they’re kind of doing the actions and they’re using these words. And they come to us and say, we act out Bubble Church at home. You know, and you see the power, actually. You know, we are not hugely liturgical here…

Rich Birch — No.

Marcus Gibbs — …but just a few words with these actions have really kind of lodged in, in the minds and hearts of these little kids. And it’s just, yeah. It’s beautiful.

Rich Birch — Well, and the, the hope is the beautiful thing about those, I was thinking when you told me that story yesterday, I thought, man, there’s gonna be kids… you know, we always have to have an eye for, we’re not raising children. We’re, you know, we’re raising adults, right? We’re raising people who 30, 40 years from now, you know, I’ve got faith for, there’s gonna be somebody who is in a tough part of their life and they’re gonna remember, you know, God’s big, he’s bigger than my fears. He’s bigger than, you know, and he’s close, wants to be closer than a friend. All of that. It just is amazing. I think that’s incredible.

Rich Birch — Do you have any stories of maybe a family that’s connected through Bubble Church that you’re convinced maybe your church wouldn’t have reached before, you just maybe who hadn’t stumbled into your, you know, your main service or any, any, your other programming that could kind of paint that picture a little bit about how this has helped your, your church reach the community?

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah. Definitely. I mean, there’s this one family who – how can I put it? They’re like uber cool. I mean, they’re like, you know, they’re the most beautiful mother and father I’ve ever seen.

Rich Birch — They got all the, the good genetics.

Marcus Gibbs — Literally when God was handing out, like the good looking genes, they’ve got all of them. And, you know, they’re just lovely people, but I don’t think they would’ve ever have kind of come to church.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And something really funny happened. I I, I just know that, you know, their background was not one of church. And I heard them chatting to a new couple just the other week. And the new couple said, oh, are, are you, are you new here? And they said, no, no, we’ve been coming now for six months and this is our church. And I just…

Rich Birch — Beautiful.

Marcus Gibbs — …kind of overheard them say that. And I thought, wow. Yeah. This isn’t just some event they come to. This really, they see it as their church. This isn’t some kind of little kids group or something. They see it as their church. And they’ve now started to volunteer and help with Bubble Church. And their, their, their children are starting to now help lead the service as well. And this is, this is the really cool thing about Bubble Church I’ve found, is that as the children get older, there’s so many roles that they can get involved in, in terms of serving.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — So we’ve got some of the kids who like, you know, were really little when they started; they’re now a little bit older. They’re now doing the puppets. We get them helping us lead the service on the stage. We get them helping with the refreshments. And they just love it. And so this family who previously would’ve had, I, I think very little to do with church, now see it as their church.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And not only see it as their church, but are serving in that church.

Rich Birch — Yeah. Getting plugged in. Incredible.

Marcus Gibbs — And this is this this is just brilliant. There’s another family, there’s, there’s, there’s a chap called Gary, who I think is a single dad, actually.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Marcus Gibbs — Think a single moms is a single dad; he’s got two daughters. And you know, in the nicest possible way, I think he would’ve found normal church services just too much for him.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Marcus Gibbs — Like an hour and a half or an hour and a quarter…

Rich Birch — Yeah, too long.

Marcus Gibbs — …with his kids, I, I think he would’ve just found the whole experience almost too overwhelming, too foreign.

Rich Birch — Yep, yep.

Marcus Gibbs — Just something he wouldn’t have known about or known what to do, wouldn’t have known when to stand, when to sit.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — Just, it would’ve just not been for him.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — Whereas I think there’s something about Bubble Church. We all sit on these carpets on the floor, right?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — It’s a bit like, it’s like a great leveler.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — We’re all in this together.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Marcus Gibbs — The adults, the kids – we’re all on our bubbles.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Marcus Gibbs — And everything about it requires no prior knowledge…

Rich Birch — Yep. Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …of church, of Christianity. And so I think for someone like him, he doesn’t feel stupid.

Rich Birch — No.

Marcus Gibbs — He doesn’t feel like he’s made to stupid ’cause he doesn’t know where to go to in the Bible when we say turn to this to the Bible.

Rich Birch — Yep. Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — It’s like, because we are doing it for the kids, the parents can learn as well without being made to feel stupid because because we’re explaining it to the kids.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — They can be learning…

Rich Birch — Yes, that’s very clever.

Marcus Gibbs — …without, do you get what I mean?

Rich Birch — Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — Without feeling like, oh, I don’t know what this means, or, you know…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …I don’t know this bit of a Bible or whatever.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — So I think, I think we’ve found that it’s very accessible.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And you know what, it’s just really turned things around here.

Rich Birch — Yeah. I love it. Now talk to me about, I’m sure there’ve been a few times where you’ve maybe stubbed your toe or you feel like, hey, we did stuff that maybe didn’t work. Or like, there was some things that maybe were like, if you were talking to other churches, you’d be like, avoid this. Has there been anything with Bubble Churches you’ve got launched that, that, you know, you would, you would advise people as, as they’re thinking about this kind of thing, you know, to, to maybe do different?

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah, I think—and we’ve talked a bit about this, Rich—I think one of the things we didn’t do at the beginning because we were so excited about people coming through the door, is we didn’t mention giving at all.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — And you know, we just wanted them to be blessed…

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — …and feel like this is, you know, kindness of our hearts.

Rich Birch — Yeah. Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — And, and that was lovely and, and it really is lovely. But I think what I’ve learned is if things aren’t there from the start…

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — …are quite hard to then crowbar in later. You know what I mean?

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Marcus Gibbs — It’s like you know, if we’ve been doing Bubble Church for a year and then all of a sudden out nowhere, we start to include a little slot in that half an hour talking about, hey, would you like to give to the work of our church?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — Suddenly people like, wait there!

Rich Birch — Wait a second, is this a beat and switch?

Marcus Gibbs — You know, you, you, you never talked about that a while ago.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — You now talking about that ’cause we’re…

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — And there’s a few things that I think looking back, not just on money, on, on serving, on, on offering prayer at the end, a few things that we’ve added subsequently. And it’s, it’s been all right. But I think if we baked those into it from the beginning…

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — …I think everyone would’ve gone with it.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — And that would’ve been seen, that would’ve would be viewed as just normal. That’s part of what Bubble Church is. Whereas I think trying to introduce key elements later on…

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — …is trickier.

Rich Birch — Yeah. That makes sense. Now, so one of the things you mentioned was that, which I think is amazing, is that you’re looking at, you know, helping other churches that are asking these questions. And, and one of the things you and I had talked about was, you know, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with some churches that are unfortunately at the, the end of life. They’re in the kind of, they’re in their, they’re death blows. Things are, you know, they’re, they’re, they’re considering closing. And oftentimes I find the saddest, most depressing part of those conversations are the leaders in those churches saying, you know, there’s, it’s been, and they know the date. It’s been 15 years since they’ve been a kid here.

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah.

Rich Birch — You know, it’s been 20 years since we’ve, you know, we have, we have a, we have a, a nursery that’s completely dusty because we haven’t had any kids here in so long. And the thing I I love about this is I do think from a church renewal point of view, like, man, it could be a great strategy. And obviously that’s a part of the story that God’s writing here. Talk to me about what your thought or your vision might be around some of that. Like, how could you see other churches adopting this? What could, you know, how could this fit in? You know, what’s your heart on that front?

Marcus Gibbs — Well, I’ll tell, I’ll tell you the story of my friend Gabriel, who is based in North London. He’s a pastor of church there. And coming out of Covid, you know, we are good friends and he, he just says, you know, I’m really not sure whether I can carry on. You know, Covid had absolutely decimated his con congregation. They were an older congregation. A lot of ’em weren’t coming back. Things weren’t looking good. And he, he basically said, Marcus, can I steal Bubble Church? I just wanna steal the whole thing.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — Can you send me just everything?

Rich Birch — Send me everything! Send me your puppets!

Marcus Gibbs — Send me the slides, send me the puppets, send me the Bible stories. Send me literally everything.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — Video yourself doing it. Just send me the whole thing. And I said, of course. So we sent him everything and we, we look back now and realize he had the gift of desperation, you know, it was that, you know…

Rich Birch — That’s good. I like that. Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …and he, he, he, he, he started Bubble Church. And we do it weekly, but he said, look, I, I don’t have the resources to do it weekly on a Sunday morning. I’ve already got my existing services, but I’m gonna do it monthly. And he phones me every month and just tells me story after story after story of how amazing…

Rich Birch — That’s great. Love it.

Marcus Gibbs — …Bubble Church has been. And how it has transformed his congregation. He’s also now built a whole new congregation with it. But he’s got the most incredible stories. I I, can I just share a couple?

Rich Birch — Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — So one is because he does it monthly, he, he was telling me that one of the dads of the little girl who I think she’s only three or four, asks her dad every week, is it Bubble Church Day? Is it Bubble Church Day?

Rich Birch — No, not today.

Rich Birch — And it’s like, not today. And Gabriel and I were saying we don’t know anyone who asked that question of our main service.

Rich Birch — Yes. Right.

Marcus Gibbs — We have no one who says, is it the 10:30 service today?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — You know yet, yet here we have kids literally saying to their parents, is it Bubble Church?

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And that’s just amazing. And then the other thing, the other story was he had some people who start coming to Bubble Church, and as often happens, London is a very transient place, and he’s in North London, and they said, we’re moving way out of London. And so, you know, we’re gonna be heading outta London. And he spent the next five minutes saying, we’re really gonna miss you. So sorry that, you know, you’re leaving. And they stopped him and they said, oh no, we’re not not leaving. He said, what? He said, we’re gonna travel from where we live outside London every month…

Rich Birch — Wow. To come back.

Marcus Gibbs — …to come back for Bubble Church. And he looked at ’em, he said, are you joking? He said, no, no, we’re gonna come back. And then he thought, yeah, but will they?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And they did.

Rich Birch — Wow. That’s amazing.

Marcus Gibbs — And so, and for me, the joy in this is—and I know you are like this, Rich, as well—seeing our other leaders, other brothers and sisters kind of see the joy of growth and God bringing people into their church. For me, seeing the transformation in his own life, in his own ministry…

Rich Birch — Yeah. That’s huge

Marcus Gibbs — …in his church…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …brings me incredible joy.

Rich Birch — Absolutely.

Marcus Gibbs — And I know sort of, this isn’t meant to be one big kind of advert for Bubble Church, but I’m, I’m just excited about it, because the other thing that starts to happen is, and he’s seen this at his church and we’ve seen this at our church, people then say, actually we’re gonna start to stick around for the next service.

Rich Birch — Yes. Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — And or actually we’re growing out Bubble Church now, so we’re gonna stick around for the next service.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And I have spent seven of my nine years thinking, how do I grow my 10:30, my next service? Right?

Rich Birch — Yes. Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And ironically, the way it’s growing is because we started Bubble Church, which is before it.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — As those families are growing up…

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — …they’re going into the next service…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …and we’re growing our next service…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …but not in the way I thought we would be.

Rich Birch — That’s great. I love it.

Marcus Gibbs — And so actually it provides the sort of on-ramp to the next service.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — And so that’s, that’s just been fantastic.

Rich Birch — Marcus, That’s that’s so encouraging. That’s, I I love that. And I think the thing, you know, one of the transferrable lessons I want people to pick up here is, you know, Marcus, you know, has a passion for, you know, next generation, trying to help you know, families with kids. That, that is like at the core of what growing churches have done for years, which is, hey, we’ve gotta think about that. We can’t, that, you know, senior leaders, you can’t outsource that to someone else. You can’t outsource the passion. There’s parts of it that like at the end of the day, somebody else has gotta run these things and all that, that makes sense. But the passion for it, the like, hey, I’m excited to, you know, for that is, is that’s your role as a senior leader. You’ve gotta be, you know, fired up about it.

Rich Birch — Actually, one of my, my memories that I’ll take for sure from my experience in Bubble Church yesterday was, yeah, I was sitting at the back trying to be the, like, you know, the guy watching everything and checking it out. And then I, I look up and, and Marcus is a, you know, he’s a vicar in the Church of England friends. He’s a, this is a serious man that’s on a serious agenda. And I look up and there we’re doing actions action songs and the vicar’s up there doing actions. And I, that just warmed my heart. I was like, man, that even for those kids to see, here’s a vicar who is willing to do these actions, personally, I think that’s gonna speak volume to generations. And obviously it speaks volumes to the leaders who are involved because they look around, and they can pick up whether they know whether you are actually passionate about this stuff or not. They know if you’re just trying to paint the, you know, just be like, no, no, this is really exciting and you’re not really that excited about it. And you know, I think Marcus is a perfect example of that. It’s just so great.

Rich Birch — Well, when you think about the future of Bubble Church kind of up over the horizon, you know, where’s your, where’s your head go? What do you think, you know, either here locally or in other churches, where, where’s your your brain go? Where do you think this thing might be going next?

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah. I wanna answer that, but I just wanna say on, on that point you said about me standing up and doing the actions and everything, I just want to quickly share that…

Rich Birch — Sure. Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …God had to really break something in me. I, I, I just wanna share this because again, I, I keep repeating. I’ve been here nine years. Bubble Church happened two years ago. And I think maybe for the first seven years I had in my mind the kind of people I wanted to minister to here.

Rich Birch — Oh, good. Oh, right. That’s good.

Marcus Gibbs — I, I, I, I wanted these young professionals. We’re, we’re in London. I wanted these people in their twenties and thirties, probably single, you know who have great jobs in finance up in the city. That’s the kind of thing I did before I moved into church leadership and I, I was pretty much saying to God, look, here are the people I want to minister to.

Rich Birch — Send these people.

Marcus Gibbs — I’ve got, I’ve got some great talks and sermons to give. I can share my experience of when I used to work in London before I was ordained. I, I was pretty much saying to God, you know, I know, I know who my target congregation is.

Rich Birch — Right. Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — And the church wasn’t great.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Marcus Gibbs — The church wasn’t great. And I, I think there was just this moment where insofar as I hear God, I just felt him say to me one day, who are the people I’ve actually given you?

Rich Birch — Oh, that’s good.

Marcus Gibbs — And the people he had actually given me were the people in our coffee shop that I mentioned at the beginning. And when I looked around, they were all there with their strollers, and these little kids and loads of parents and little kids, and that’s the area we’re in. And I said, but God, they’re not the people I want to minister to. And he, we, you know, we did that kind of back and forth that…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — …you know, you hear, and he said, yeah, but they’re the people I’ve put on your doorstep. And in that moment, I think suddenly realized, you’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Rich Birch — No, that’s good.

Marcus Gibbs — You know, I never, I never went into church leadership to do puppets.

Rich Birch — Right.

Marcus Gibbs — I never, I never went into…

Rich Birch — That’s the quote of the episode right there.

Marcus Gibbs — I never went into church leadership to do puppets. I never went into this to do action songs.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Marcus Gibbs — But fundamentally, the, the testimony is this, that since we went with I think the people who God was giving us versus the people he wasn’t giving us…

Rich Birch — Right. That’s, that’s so good.

Marcus Gibbs — …once we started to go with what he was doing…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — …we’ve, we’ve started to see this incredible growth. And like I said, it’s impacting every era of our church. And so for me, you know, I’m just grateful I got there eventually; it took me a few years, but I’m just pleased I eventually got there and realized this was what God wanted to do here in our context, and I’m pleased I kind of finally worked that out.

Marcus Gibbs — In terms of Bubble Church moving forward, you know what it’s not gonna be for everyone, that’s fine. You know, it’s, it’s not gonna be for every context. It’s not gonna be for everyone. But I do believe that because of its simplicity and because we’ve started to see how this works in all sorts of different contexts that it could well be for some people mm-hmm. And if they’re willing to give it a go, I’d say give it a go. And there is just nothing better than seeing a church start to fill up with young people again. So…

Rich Birch — That’s so good.

Marcus Gibbs — Yeah. Our hope is that, you know, we are here to serve. That’s it.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Marcus Gibbs — We want to find ways of helping others launch Bubble Churches around the country here in the UK, but as you know, I’m open to traveling globally, and…

Rich Birch — Particularly to warm climates.

Marcus Gibbs — That’s right. Particularly to places with nice beaches.

Rich Birch — Yes, exactly.

Marcus Gibbs — But no, anywhere we, we, we would love to be able to share what God’s shared with us really.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I love it. Well, and yeah, I just, I just want to honor you though, like, I think, so essentially what you’re saying is, hey, I saw where God was already at work, and I got on board with that. Which sounds really easy, but you actually did it. You actually leaned in and, you know, had the eyes to look and to look around and be like, hey, who, who’s actually here? And having, you know, I spent some time in your coffee shop today. I’ve been meeting with people and stuff, and it’s, it’s amazing. Like, it is like, yeah, these are all the people that you’re talking about. It’s lots of people with strollers hanging out with their kids. And and I that’s another really good lesson for us leaders as we’re listening in, is, is there’s the perception of who we think we want in our church versus who is actually here, or in our communities. And you know what, if you just leaned into who’s actually there, rather than you know, who you wish, you know, God would send you. I, I just think that’s, that’s so good.

Rich Birch — You know, if people want to to track with you, to reach out, to actually connect with you, connect with Bubble Church, cause we’ve kind of talked a little bit about that. Where do we wanna send them online? Like what’s a website or that kind of thing?

Marcus Gibbs — Just go to bubblechurch.org.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Marcus Gibbs — And from there you can get hold of me and you can find out more about Bubble Church. So that’s bubblechurch.org.

Rich Birch — Okay. Easy. Super easy. And the other thing, the other person I wanna honor and all this is our friend or our mutual friend, Carey Nieuwhof. He, so he Marcus and I are both in an online community that Carrey runs called The Art of Church… The Art of Leadership, not Church Leadership, just The Art of Leadership. And I, it’s a fantastic online forum. It’s like a private forum. You have to, it’s like a thing, you gotta pay for it to get involved and all that. But that’s actually how Marcus and I got connected. And man, Carey does such a good job on that, does such a great job of pulling all that together. And just wanna honor him in, in all of that too, cause it, it really is a fantastic resource. If you don’t know about that, you should check that out.

Rich Birch — Well, as we’re wrapping up, any final words, anything else you’d like to say as we kind of close down today’s episode?

Marcus Gibbs — It’s just been great to hang out, Rich, and I really appreciate you. And I just want to add also how much I appreciate Carey and all that he’s shared online and with that network as well. I’ve learned so much, so thank you.

Rich Birch — Yeah, thanks so much, Marcus. It’s been great to spend time with you at your church and, and just, you know, God’s best. I’m just excited to see what happens and, and I really do think churches, there are probably people who are listening in who today this has moved you, maybe even specifically towards, hmm, maybe we should find out more about Bubble Church. I would take action on that. Go to bubblechurch.org. Learn more, take some steps. Marcus is a great guy, very approachablev would love to help you. So thanks so much. Thanks for letting us be here today. Thanks for being on the, the show.

Marcus Gibbs — It’s been great.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.