This week’s post is part of a series of posts we are covering on discipleship and mission in a variety of contexts. This week we are looking at mission and discipleship in the context of urban/inner city areas. To help us gain insight for this post we interviewed 2 members of St Thomas Church, Philadelphia who have been leading mission on an urban estate for the past 12 years (they have now been living there for around 7 years). The estate is over 95% white, with 30% of Households claiming Income Support. 50% of residents in this community have no qualifications at all, with just 4% having 2 or more ‘A’ levels. *
Their work started with a small kids club, called “STOMP”, and has steadily, and substantially grown into a missional community, as well as many other ministries to the people in their context. In hearing their story, we have lots to learn from these faithful and obedient followers of Jesus.
What are the opportunities in your context?
There are always lots of opportunities because of the level of brokenness in people’s life. People here are desperate for some kind of comfort and solution, some kind of different way. They don’t always want to address or confront what that is, but a lot of people have lost those they love. There’s a lot of mortality, people in prison, living without people they love, losing a child… all this provides a big opportunity to offer God’s comfort and love
The other opportunity is around children. People here tend to have quite a lot of children – there are lots of one parent families with lots of children so people are quite desperate for some kind of help with their children.
Reaching families by providing children’s work and youth places is really valuable because parents often aren’t able to give the level of input that the children are looking for.
There are also lots of opportunities with youth. The police are trying hard to stop them hanging out on the streets and in small gangs, drinking etc and the youth work we’ve been doing in the area is really beneficial – the police really appreciate it and have started funding our work with youth.
What are the challenges?
Walking with people who have so much brokenness is hour-intensive; praying into people’ lives, spending time on one-to one basis and discipling them. So time management is an issue for us; there are just a few of us and many people. Most of us work, and some of us have children. So what we try to do is invite people to be part of our normal routine –for example sharing family meal times. But we also have a lot of outreach throughout the week and that can sometimes stir up things in people’s lives and then they’ll come and knock on the door and so sometimes it can feel a bit manic at the front door.
Another challenge is not to take on peoples burdens. People are keen to put their responsibilities on to us so once we’ve given them some counsel they’ll want advice on the minutia of life. People want us to make decisions for them. We encourage them to take responsibility for their own lives, as we love and walk with them. There isn’t a culture of responsibility amongst the people here. For example we’ve got some garages at the back of our house and occasionally all the kids on the street open up the garages and pull out all their junk around the garage area. Just after the council had cleared it up again, there was stuff dumped there again. One of the neighbours was about to phone the council in the hope that the other neighbours might get charged. So we challenged them to take responsibility by getting the kids together and getting them to clear it up together. And that’s exactly what we did; we built a fire and it was fun. But it’s a long journey to get them to take personal responsibility. The prevailing attitude is “I’ll do something and someone else will clear it up”
Where is God at work?
God is at work in all that we do. We work with toddlers, children, youth, men, women and families and we’re considering going into homes for the elderly. So we see God work across the spectrum.
But I’d say that where God is really at work is amongst youth, and amongst parent and toddler groups. Some of our youth that have been funded to go to Soul survivor or Momentum had incredible experiences of powerful redemption this summer. Two of the youth gave their lives to the Lord. They came from the worst possible background – their dad was arrested for paedophilia against them, and was in prison. They used to come to STOMP (our kids club), and we’d occasionally see them at the front door and then they moved away but then came back into relationship through the youth group. The oldest son had an incredible experience and really felt God at work in his life, and helping him work through forgiveness towards their father.
What’s worked and why?
It’s always been my dream that whole families would come together because when we first started ministering here we saw children becoming Christians but then going back to really chaotic families and all of that good work being a bit unpacked. So we realised we needed to do something that worked with both children and families. Doing parents work alongside STOMP (the kids club) has really worked. We call it STOMP PLUS. The kids get dropped off and parents go to the back room where they’re offered a cup of tea, a chill-out and prayer. We’ve tried various things with the parents like a short alpha course, powerpoints of God loves me, I’ve sinned etc. We’ve also done projects where they’ve contributed something special. For example, we knitted baby blankets for special care babies; bonding over doing something with their hands has been really effective – it opens their hearts up and is a stepping stone to coming into a meal or community.
The other thing that’s been great has been Messy Church which is accessible to everyone –youth, parents, grandparents, toddlers, everybody. It’s powerful because whole families come, rather than just one or two, and it also encourages families to then come to our Missional Community gathering as well.
Has there been anything that hasn’t worked so well?
A few years ago I really wanted to worship with people in the community so I decided to have some worship time in the garden and just invited people to come along. But nobody came – we realised it was too big a jump for people. Worship is such an alien concept to people here. We had a mum who came to our parent and toddler group, talked to us about Jesus, and getting baptized and she really engaged in the word but found it so difficult to engage in worship- it’s often the final piece to come for people. So we just have to think about how to do it differently.
What I observe in you guys is that you’ve essentially stayed true to yourselves. How do you cross the cultural gap, in terms of you being middle class in a very working/benefits class area?
I don’t think we’ve changed massively. Our view is that we accept people as they are and we hope and pray that they accept us as we are. I think they probably look at us and we’re the wierd oddbods of the street but actually we want to look quite wierd oddbods because we want them to see that we’re different. Sometimes we do have very middle class thoughts and attitudes that we can’t deny – it’s part of our upbringing and who we are. And some of those views are biblical. I think it’s about loving people. If you’re genuine and you’re here because you genuinely want to love them, that’s what they see.
People are really accepting of what we wear and who we are. People here prefer us to be forthright and frank – that’s part of working-class culture. Middle-class people don’t like to offend anyone and it’s much more about saying and doing the right thing. I don’t think you have those issues out here. People are really accepting, almost anything goes. They see straight through you, so being authentic is most important.
Give us a recent testimony.
At our parent and toddler group we had one lady referred from Sure Start. She’d just had her child in care and he’s been returned back to her. She became a Christian and got baptized and her son got baptized. We later found out that the foster carer for her son was a Christian and had also been praying for them.
Also with our detached youth work, one of the kids had a bad foot and he said to one of our team “If your God’s real he can heal my foot” and so they prayed for him and his foot was completely healed. We are seeing lots of youth coming to know the Lord and encountering Him.
*(source: click here)