“We never realised there was anything wrong. Everything seemed to be ordinary,” said a neighbour.
A little child dies in a tower-block flat, and a long history of hidden abuse is revealed. Round the corner, a couple have grievances that are destroying their marriage. A knife has been brandished and a court order served on the husband. The wife is pregnant. A few streets away, a skip stands outside a front garden buried in corrugated iron and assorted junk. The elderly house-owner has been hoarding anything and everything for years. A neighbour has complained and the local council has served notice on him to clear it.
What’s the connection between all these people? They’re from different ethnic groups and of different ages. They don’t know each other. But two things they do have in common: They all live close to an evangelical church. And none of them go there.
How can a church develop a biblical ministry to people who live in tough council estates or run-down inner-city districts? How can a church make contact with the problem-families, the addicts, the homeless? How can we reach out to the other side of the tracks?
Take a good look around you!
In order to minister effectively to them, we must actually ‘see’ them, becoming well-informed about their lives, needs and religious condition. What’s it really like to live in a tower block, to be unemployed, to have kids who belong to a gang, to be afraid to walk to the local post office, to have a brown skin in a white country? Many church leaders and members have sub-consciously retreated into a Christian ghetto and don’t understand what it’s like to exist in that ‘other world’ that may be just down the road.
A local church should look long, carefully and sympathetically at its neighbourhood, getting to know the people and their needs, praying intelligently for them, and looking to identify opportunities for ministry to them. Some of them may not speak English; some may not read. They may have a Roman Catholic background. They may have been to college. They may play football and know nothing about rugby. Like Paul in Athens, we need to walk around with our eyes and ears open, asking ourselves, “Who are these people? What do they make of life? What can I use to get through to them with the gospel?”
Begin in your own backyard
We must tackle our towns and cities district by district, defining a small, manageable area, and confining our labours to it. Faced with the enormous size of the city, the church has often tried to reach it through a few large congregations. These may end up drawing in lots of people - but from a widely-scattered area. The ministers/leaders are kept busy visiting their members, but have no specific ‘target area’ for evangelism. But a church should identify a manageable district containing no more than a few thousand people, including or close to the area where its own members live. This becomes, in effect, the church’s ‘village’. It gets to know the people of that district, and to become known by them. It may send visitors systematically and repeatedly through that district. It concentrates its efforts.
Thomas Chalmers, a pioneer of modern urban evangelism, listed some of the advantages of this approach: “The worker will feel a more powerful urge to go forth among the families, as he will feel a sense of ‘ownership’ in his district. His task will be finite and manageable, instead of paralysingly indefinite. He will waste less time in travelling far and wide, and so be able to visit more frequently.”
So, if there are homeless people in your neighbourhood, minister to them! But if there are no homeless people, what about single mums? Or housebound and lonely senior citizens? Or immigrants whose wives spend all day at home and don’t speak English?
Go for it! Go to them!
The basic strategy must be one of GOING to the un-churched people of our district, rather than of waiting for them to COME to us, or trying merely to ATTRACT them to meetings and services.
Closely connected to the previous principle, this insists that our job is to GO to people – visiting their homes or work-places, or meeting them on the streets. We buy things in their local shops – and chat to them while we’re doing it. We join local clubs, societies and gyms, and send our kids to their schools. We go door-to-door visiting regularly (it works well in poorer districts, and even entry-phones need not be a barrier). So we become familiar faces on their door-steps, hoping to be invited in, and working towards opportunities to share the gospel. We may (and will) run a range of meetings and activities at our church, but these will never be allowed to ‘tie us down’ so that we lose contact with outsiders. Instead, they will provide follow-ups to contacts made by our visits.
Do them good in every way you can!
Faced with the human and physical needs of the poor and marginalised, we must not only proclaim the gospel, but must also show practical care for those needs. So our ministry is in ‘words and deeds’.
Because we follow Christ’s example, and work under the commands of James 2, and Galatians 6 v 10, for example, we must do what we can to help people’s physical, social and personal needs. Early London City Missionaries got involved in campaigns to abolish child labour, helped found ‘Ragged Schools’ to provide education and food for poor kids, and pioneered a host of other schemes from sewerage piping to assisted emigration. Perhaps more familiar to us are sports clubs and games evenings for kids, lunches for the elderly and cafes for everyone. There’s a real danger that such activities may distract us from proclaiming the word, or even to squeeze it out altogether. But there’s also an opposite danger, that a comfortable church may withdraw from social concern altogether, perhaps because they simply don’t see any need, or perhaps because of a shallow understanding of the Bible. Church leaders need to face up to both these dangers, and to reject both (unbiblical) extremes. We continue to minister to the needs of people in any way we can. But we do so as ambassadors of Christ, who want to proclaim the ultimate mercy of the gospel, and to lead people to face up to their greatest need of all.
Hang on in there!
Because of the complex consequences of sin, the range of problems that people face, and the spiritual ignorance that abounds, our work is a long-term one. Churches must take time to win the confidence and respect of the people, to teach and disciple them and to develop appropriate ministries in these tough neighbourhoods.
In a society increasingly concerned with ‘quick-fixes’ and instant remedies, a biblical church recognises that its work cannot be done quickly. ‘Mission’ isn’t something which can be started and completed in a week or two. Someone said: “Mission is going where you’re not wanted, until you are wanted.” Our work will take time – to overcome prejudices, to develop friendships, to teach basics, to disciple converts, to train local leaders. In many ways, our mission is one of community development. One writer has spoken of this taking a minimum of 15 years – the time it takes to raise a generation from primary school level to adult leadership!
All join in!
Like all gospel ministry, reaching out to tough neighbourhoods is best done in teams. And those teams need to have appropriate giftings, training and support. Working in a council estate or an inner-city neighbourhood, for many evangelical Christians, is just as much a cross-cultural ministry as is being a missionary abroad. Special sensitivity is needed to speak the right language, to relate to a different culture, and to adapt without any sense of superiority. Better to do nothing, than to try to start a work with unsuitable people.
But, on the other hand, it’s not an impossible ministry! Humble believers, with a passion for the salvation of all their neighbours, and a willingness to adapt, can make a huge impact. Chalmers put it like this: “It is a very great mistake, to think that any other peculiar power is necessary for such an operation, than peculiar pains-taking. It is not with rare and extraordinary talent conferred upon a few, but with habits and principles that may be cultivated by all, that are linked our best securities for the reformation of the world.” Through good training and shared wisdom the whole church can be involved in this work.
Build the church of Jesus!
If people are poor and hurting, failing to cope with the pressures of life, then the place above all others where they need to be is inside the church of Jesus Christ. It’s Christ’s hospital, his healing community, his life-changing school (1 Thessalonians 5 v 14-18).
We shouldn’t be building ghetto-churches, but rather bringing Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, rich and poor, slaves and free, into a community that exhibits the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, and demonstrates to our hopelessly divided world that there is one God and Saviour. We may need stepping-stones along the way, with special ministries and special events for different groups of people. But we’ll never lose sight of the goal, and we’ll incorporate ‘oneness events’ right from the beginning. So we may run a soup kitchen one day, and a businessmen’s banquet the next. But the next Sunday, we hope there will be businessmen and the local long-term unemployed sitting together at our church lunch. And the preacher’s expositions of Luke 15, Psalm 72, and James 2 will have a new edge to them.
“You’re wasting your time with him,” says the woman to the missionary who has just spent an hour squatting beside the local alcoholic who’s slumped up against her fence. “He’s been like that for years. Lots of people have tried to help him, but he’ll not change.” But has he (or the people we mentioned at the beginning) ever really encountered the gospel, embodied in a patient, humble, caring, biblically-thoughtful bunch of believers?
The London City Mission runs many outreach ministries in the council estates and inner-city communities of London, assisting churches and church-plants. If you would like to know more about this work, to investigate what training materials are available, and how key people in your church could spend time ‘on-the-job’ with experienced LCM team members, please visit www.lcm.org.uk