More than 2,000 parents and children are flocking to the UK's first 'Bible based play centre' set up on the edges of Manchester.
The Hidden Treasure Discovery Centre was founded by Ruth Lancey and her husband Andy who sold their travel business to invest everything in the project. In the first month alone 620 individual adults registered and returned to the centre, bringing with them 1,400 children and 215 babies.
Quoting the words of Jesus, who refers to the kingdom of heaven being like hidden treasure buried in a field (Matthew 13:44) Ruth told Christian Today: 'If we don't help people discover that hidden treasure, who will? And some of us need to re-discover that hidden treasure for ourselves. It's worth sacrificing everything for.'
She said: 'It's a place where children can engage with faith and discover the truth in the Bible for themselves through play and fun activities. They can discover stories in the Bible which point them to Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to work in them and help them to really understand and grasp the gospel.'
A year ago the vast 170,000-square-foot premises above Partington Shopping Centre in South Manchester was an empty shell with no services. Ruth said: 'We were blessed with a lot of volunteers from the local community. We are enormously grateful for their support, they have helped to transform this huge space into a place of welcome.'
Phase One, called The Hideaway, is now complete. Sitting among the tree tops the light and airy play centre has a contemporary café and is packed with a wide range of quality activities for children of all ages.
'We differ from many play centres in that children of different ages can play side by side in the same space, on different equipment. We're finding that families really value that and can relax here,' said Ruth.
The families who currently use the centre every week are also benefitting from the care and attention they receive from the staff and volunteers who are on hand for a chat.
Husband Andy Lancey, who is general manager at the centre, said: 'We've had a lot of positive feedback from our visitors about how attentive the staff are. We have 1,500 likes on our Facebook page, and 47 reviews, of which 41 are five star reviews. These Facebook reviews have been a great encouragement, as well as just hearing from people while they are here.'
The centre currently employs 16 staff and has 10 volunteers working various shifts across six days. Ruth added: 'Three partner churches have signed up to help us and the next stage is to recruit and train our befrienders who will be around to chat to people. There have been many meaningful conversations so far between staff and users but we're expecting that number to grow rapidly over the next few months.'
With Phase One now complete, Ruth spoke to Christian Today following a dedication service at the centre.
'The purpose of Phase One has been to prove that we can get people through the doors and to try things out. For example we've tried out "Jesus story time" to see if parents will still want to bring along their children to that and it turns out they do!'
Andy added: 'We also pipe Christian music through the centre, and everyone is perfectly okay with that too.'
The centre engages with families from all walks of life, from the local community and from further afield across Greater Manchester. 'Nobody minds the Jesus music in the slightest, because they're in a place where people don't look down on them, don't judge them, we just love them, and they keep coming back again and again and again,' said Ruth.
While serving both the local churches and the local community the centre functions as an interface between them both.
Explaining why she began the venture, Ruth said: 'I meet lots of people who won't go into a church. We're not a church, we're a play centre. I've never met a single family who won't go into a play centre. So unlike churches who might struggle to build relationships and struggle to get people through the doors we have this opportunity to reach families because they don't have preconceived ideas about what we might be. This gives us a massive and unique opportunity to build relationships with them in a context where they're comfortable and it feels familiar to them.'
Phase Two will see the current space transformed. Designed to feel like a film set, it will have a large play area divided into zones themed around classic children's Bible stories with custom built play equipment. There will also be a small Roman style amphitheatre for story, song and drama time.
Ruth said: 'Hidden Treasure will be a place of faith, we'll have a programme of faith based activities each week. We won't shy away from talking about Jesus, and we won't take any funding that stops us from sharing Jesus. This place will be a resource for the wider church, it is part of the church, but it's not a church. Our prayer is that we love people of all ages into the kingdom of God.'