The Bishop of Burnley’s challenge to the Church has set me thinking about my experience of church in the North West and in London. These thoughts led me to consider ten practical ways we can create divide-defying love in our churches:
1. Preach the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ
It is easy for those of us from more middle-class backgrounds to fall into a patronising attitude towards people who are marginalised and feel like the greatest need is a tangible one - food, money, and education - which helps to make life sustainable. The woman who has been abused and ends up on the streets certainly needs a roof over her head, but patiently and sensitively she also needs to know that she is loved, that she can know forgiveness, and she can be part of God’s family with a heavenly Father. Christians are never to be less than loving, but always to be taking the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus.
2. Repent of favoritism…
…and fundamentally change the way we value people, “regarding no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Rather than seeking out the Oxford educated, rugby playing lawyer as the “man worth watching”, we must be ready to see the working-class fisherman as a potential pastor teacher.
3. Love the outsider
A Samaritan woman set off a revival, so did the Welsh miners. The migrant workers from rural villages took the gospel to the cities of China, and a slave woman told the gospel to Constantine’s mother. God uses the weak things of this world to humble the strong! Lepers and those with mental health problems are not bottomless pits of need, but opportunities for fellowship and Christian love.
4. Re-learn our love of community
In our earnest pursuit of the young, upwardly mobile generation, we have forgotten that many lives remain enmeshed within local geographical communities. Evangelism and friendship will work more naturally when we live, work, and worship among a locality. The work of church revitalisation may seem to be the tortoise compared to the hare of church planting, but there is great value in a congregation with hundreds of years’ worth of goodwill and connections with the local community.
5. Diversify church leadership
Church leadership should reflect the diversity of the area that is being reached. We need ministers, elders, etc from all kinds of backgrounds. This will ensure that the teaching from the front is relevant to the people in the congregation, and it will encourage people to feel welcome when they walk through our doors.
6. Provide relevant training
Routes into training must be found for people from all kinds of backgrounds and we need ministry training that doesn’t automatically rip people from the class, culture, and community that they have grown up in but equips people without gentrifying them.
7. Redefine “sustainable church”
Some congregations that are currently classed as “church” are more like narrow fellowship groups who might benefit from being part of a fuller expression of the body of Christ within a network of congregations. Networks will likely include wealthier and poorer congregations. The network should aim for sustainability rather than expecting every council estate congregation to be self-funding.
8. Partnership is powerful
Too often we have an attitude that if we can’t control a thing, we won’t join it. This unchristian approach will stop any meaningful partnership. We need to repent of the times that we are building our own empires rather than serving the kingdom of God. The best partnerships are based on trust and friendship, and in most cultures friendship is built over food – look how many meals are mentioned in the gospels! It is a powerful witness to the world when they see a Black Pentecostal church and a White Anglican church helping to organise a community food bank together.
9. Get to know your area…
…because cities change rapidly. An area in North London that housed white Londoners 40 years ago has seen Turks and Poles come and go and is now filling up with Bulgarians. Census data, door-knocking, and surveying are some of the ways to get out of the building and get to know local people. Rather than planting a new congregation in an area where the “sending church” already have six young commuters, it is worth getting the maps out to understand where the areas of greatest need really are.
Prayer must be central to any strategic church planning process rather than an afterthought. Before the disciples were sent out at Pentecost they were commissioned to pray and await the work of the Holy Spirit. “Prayer walking” our locality, praying for and with the people we meet, is a wonderful way to get to know the area better and shows our dependence on God for the work of outreach.
Graham Miller, Chief Executive for London City Mission