The children usually rush in ahead of the adults and go to one of five or six areas laid out in the church hall: craft, construction, snack zone, imaginative play, jigsaws, baby corner, garage. Parents quickly head to where intravenous coffee, tea and biscuits are available at the hatch from our kitchen team. Other helpers are on hand to chat with both parents and children.

At about 10am we do the notices and remind people of future activities. The children are then allowed into the sanctuary area for ride-ons, tunnels, dressing up and more. This area becomes a big, open space, enabling children and parents to move freely between rooms.

Most Thursdays see between 30 and 40 sign-ins – a carer (parent, grandparent, childminder) plus one, two or more children. As families sign in, we offer them a term-card which also signposts our guests to other seeker-friendly events organised by the church. At £1.50 per family, those on low incomes can still attend, and we provide free termly passes for families we meet at the foodbank or the hostel nearby.

Every two months or so we tell a Bible story to the children in the sanctuary area. Between 10 and 15 parents and their children listen to the story, mainly told with toys and artefacts rather than read. It is interactive and the children, many of whom haven’t started any formal education, listen well. The craft that week links to the story – we have had whales, sheep and lions, as well as lost things.

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There is more of an extravaganza at Christmas, with children donning nativity outfits and encouraged to join in the story as it unfolds. Each child is sent home with a copy of the Christmas story appropriate for under-fives and an invite to the crib service. At Easter we tell the Easter story, using pictures from the book they will receive. We order 60 – 70 books and only one or two are deliberately left behind each time.

This year, owing to the coronavirus lockdown, the Easter story was told over eight days in the manse window next to the church. Pictures were uploaded onto our private Two by Two Facebook group, with each one being viewed more than 70 times. Ascension was tricky, but Pentecost was a huge success.

Church parents at the Countess Free Church in Ely, Cambridgeshire, set up our Two by Two baby and toddler group for their children and others more than 15 years ago. It has now seen thousands of children come through its doors, and we estimate that at least 75 per cent of our families are not church attendees. What an opportunity to connect with families in our community and be an effective Christian witness.

From the start, the toddler group has been undergirded by prayer, with at least two church groups considering Two by Two to be their outreach prayer focus. Prayer is important to us, and we start the morning with a few minutes’ prayer, asking God for protection, wisdom, safety and stamina. We have some non-Christian helpers who are encouraged to pause at this time. We pray again at the end, thanking God for those we have met, and we pray for individuals.

Are we going to start back after lockdown? We prayed about it and, yes, we are going to try. Many say Two by Two is the best playgroup in Ely. It is obvious to the parents, carers and guardians that we like children. We provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. We encourage, affirm and support parents who are often exhausted, some of whom are at the end of their tether. We hope it’s not just because we are nice people but because we know Jesus.

We are trying to talk the talk as well as walk the walk. It is Jesus who sustains us on what can be a very long morning (9am-12pm). Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14) to keep going. Our non- Christian helpers, who are experienced parents, are sympathetic to the Christian faith. Praise God we have seen them change, too, as they have experienced the gospel of grace.

It is interactive and the children, many of whom haven’t started any formal education, listen well.