Appreciating how alien church culture is to many people is key to preserving their dignity and respect.
Before Will Thorburn joined London City Mission, he worked in a care home, looking after alcoholic men with early-onset dementia. One of the residents, Billy, liked to put on a bet. But whenever he went to the bookies, he’d end up in the pub next door, and would come back causing problems.
To get around that, Will was tasked with going down to the bookmakers and put his line on for him.
It was a whole new environment, Will says. ‘All I had to do was go up to the counter and present his line, but I was totally out of my depth. The sights and sounds and smells, and the whole concept of the place were completely alien.
‘As you step through the door you enter a different world. The rules are not explained anywhere, yet everyone else seems to know and understand them, and the way you are expected to behave are different to anywhere else.’
This reflects how people may feel coming into a church for the first time, Will says.
There’s all sorts of ways of behaving, customs and codes that you've got to get used to.
‘I’m acclimatised to it, but for many people stepping into church is a totally new culture, and it's not easy for us to remember that.’
When Will first became a Christian, he had no previous experience of church, and he joined a church that was wise enough not to put high expectations on him, and gave him freedom to could ask questions that they’d never expect.
For example, as a huge Star Trek fan, it felt natural to ask his pastor about alien life. The way he answered was spiritual gold, Will says.
First, the pastor did not dismiss the question or shoot him down. Over a cup of coffee, he carefully explained that it was not really a question he could answer, but that whenever he had a question he turned to the Bible. He went on to say that the Bible doesn’t address the issue of life on other planets, but that it speaks of God as the creator and lord of this world.
‘It was a very wise and dignified answer,’ says Will. ‘I reflect on it now as I am in a position to be responding to people’s questions.’
Will’s missionary work is centred around Donnington Evangelical Church in north London, where they put effort into welcoming people from all walks of life and acknowledge that people are different and have different needs.
‘If people don’t understand, or if they disagree, they will sometimes ask a question in the middle of a service, and that’s ok.
They are not treated disrespectfully, and the response is not dismissive.’
Working class people know what life is, says Will. ‘It may be that their experience of life is quite gritty and that affects the way they behave. It’s direct and to the point.
People are not inhibited about saying what they are thinking.
‘I don’t usually respond straight away, because I feel I need to stay closely to what
I have prepared. But I make sure I listen well and promise to address the question later on. Then I make sure I keep that promise.
‘They are still part of God’s plan and purpose. God doesn’t say that only certain people can come to me.
‘It’s partly about respecting a person’s dignity, self-worth and pride. That’s important, because if you can’t respect yourself as made in the image of God, you’ll find it difficult to respect and love God as creator.’