THOUSANDS of churches open their doors each week for mothers and toddlers to spend a few hours drinking coffee and playing together.
A rarer sight is a group of fathers enjoying time with their children at church; but it is one that a growing number of congregations are seeing thanks to a project that has just marked its 15th birthday.
The project, Who Let The Dads Out (WLTDO), began in March 2003 when a member of Hoole Baptist Church in Chester, Mark Chester, realised that his church had little to no contact with any of the fathers of the children who attended their popular mums-and-toddlers group.
Switching the coffee and cake for bacon sandwiches and newspapers, the first meeting was attended by 20 fathers, 18 of whom were not churchgoers attend with their children. The movement has now spread to more than 250 churches who reach 8000 fathers each month.
“What we run as churches is brilliant with engaging with all sorts of sections of the community, but we’ve never been great at engaging with men and fathers,” Mr Chester said last month.
Many groups for “mums” have been renamed as parent and toddler groups in recent years, but language alone was not going to persuade many dads to take part, he said. “If we want to engage with fathers, we have got to be very specific: so Who Let The Dads Out is very clear as there is ‘dad’ in the title; there’s no get-out.”
Society offered few opportunities for fathers to spend time with their children so Who Let The Dads Out groups filled an important niche Mr Chester said.
In fact, he believes that there is a “golden opportunity” to redraw the rules of parenthood. “In the past, our physical strength was needed in the workplace, so society said ‘You’re not needed at home, that’s the mum’s job.’ But those days are past.”
Now, fathers could be more involved with raising children, and mothers were freer to rejoin the workplace: everybody won, Mr Chester said.
Many of those who attended the first group in Chester are still friends, even as their children have grown into teenagers, some continue to spend time together on camping trips or playing football.
Although not overtly evangelistic, WLTDO groups can provide opportunities to engage men who would never attend church on a Sunday with questions of life and faith, he said. “There’s something about becoming a father which opens the heart and gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to gain a foothold.”
Some men had, over time, become intrigued enough by conversations started at the Saturday-morning groups to attend Alpha courses and ultimately become Christians themselves, he said.
“Others, it’s more a slow-burn development. What group leaders find is you have got to be in it for the long haul.”
Two follow-up courses on parenting and spirituality — Daddy Cool and Soul Man — have been developed by the Bible Reading Fellowship, who run WLTDO for any fathers who want to dig deeper after attending their local group.
And, for some, WLTDO simply offers the perfect space to spend precious and rare “normal” time with their children after a divorce or separation, rather than just going to a café or the park.
Mr Chester said that the success of less-structured, community-focused outreach such as WLTDO should be a lesson for the broader Church.
“There are still pockets of the Church which think, if it doesn’t result in more people coming on a Sunday morning, then it hasn’t been successful.
“We need to learn from things like WLTDO and other things, like Messy Church, which do bring non-Christians through our doors, and look at why is that working and how could that affect other areas of our Church.”
The Church Times review of Mr Chester’s books, based on his experiences of creating Who Let The Dads Out, was published in 2012 (Books, 15 June 2012).