Befriending the community

Derek and Claire* are active members in their church, which is located in an inner-city housing estate in the UK, close to the centre of the city they live in. Over the years, the demographics of the estate have spanned a huge variety of nationalities, with about 70 languages being spoken at the local primary school.   

Our church has always sought to meet and reach out into the community, ever since it was founded in the early 1800s. We are not a comfy church. We’re a small congregation, who are mission-minded, and everyone gets involved. Most of us are retired and we have seen a lot of changes in our local area over the years. 

Retirement has given us the chance to help our church meet a number of needs and opportunities in the local community.  Supporting people seeking to get into employment, teaching English to both parents and children, helping people with legislation and paperwork, schooling problems, and preparing for British citizen tests. We are befriending the community and seeking to support them in helpful ways. 

In order to do this, we’ve had to actually go out to them, so most of our activities are done on neutral ground, in the local community centre or the school. It can be difficult for people of other faiths to walk into a church building. But people know that we are from the church, and our prayer is always that there would be God-given opportunities to be able to speak about Jesus. Quite often, it is they who will raise the topic of faith. We have found that people have been quite open to speak about faith, about prayer, and often they will even ask how things are at the church.  

The difficulty that sometimes arises in conversation is that people’s perception is that this is a Christian country. They say that in this country there’s a lot of corruption and immorality, and so that’s what Christians are like. I think that it comes as a little bit surprising to them when they realise that we are Christians, that we have a love for them and want to befriend them. Then they respect us, they see us as people of true faith. 

Outside the comfort zone

It’s easy to feel fearful stepping out of your comfort zone to reach out and meet someone on their ground. Last year, we ran a ‘community outreach week’, in partnership with AIM, to make contact and build relationships with the community and strengthen those relationships that we already have. One of the particular benefits of having the AIM team with us was that it gave us the confidence to go into places and to talk to people that we’d felt we weren’t able to. That barrier can be difficult to get over, but then you find that actually people are quite friendly and are willing to talk to you. People soon get to know your face, so you are no longer seen as a stranger. Our community outreach week enabled the church to think, ‘actually we can do this’, and we are building on that confidence in communicating with people. As Christians we can go out, we can build friendships and relationships, and as a result of that, share our Christian faith with people. We don’t need to be ‘trained missionaries’ who have been to Bible college, we can do it as a church.  

We saw God work in many ways during our outreach week. One lady, after receiving support for her and her children, where we sat with her and cried with her, then asked for a feedback form. She told us, ‘you’ve made us become a family again’. She was interested to know whether we did anything else like this that she could come to, and one of the team still has ongoing contact with her. 

Right place, right time

There were times when God placed us in the right place at the right time to meet people. On one of our prayer walks around the estate, we got to a point where there was a path I’d never been down before, and I didn’t know where it led to. We stopped and decided to take the unknown path. On the path we met a man. We told him about the outreach week and he opened up to us about problems he had with his son at school. We were able to arrange for his wife, who didn’t speak English, to meet up with a teacher and someone who spoke her language, to talk through some of the problems. These ‘right place at the right time’ moments just kept happening over and over again during the week. Such God given opportunities to engage and talk with people were amazing. People in the community are beginning to trust us, to know that they can call us when they need help. 

To encourage other churches in a similar position, I would say that retirement has given us a whole wealth of opportunities. Not only do we have extra time, but being older can be helpful too. In many of these communities age carries quite a lot of respect and kudos. The older you are, and the more grey hair you’ve got, the more you are respected. I would also encourage people not to be frightened to integrate with the community. Get to know the people who live around you. 

*Names have been changed.

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