Reaching the unreached
Two Christmas dinners each attended by around eighty South Asian Muslims, with a simple gospel explanation about the coming of Christ into the world. A church with a weekly footfall of 800, less than 300 of those being Sunday attendees, and most, those who have not yet begun to follow Christ. An African believer who has spent fifteen years engaging with the local population on a personal basis in Kings Cross speaks of:
- people giving up substance abuse
- others coming to understand the hurt that casual sex causes and abandoning it
- one time embittered people forgiving friends and relatives
- young people changing their attitude to education so they can contribute to society
- people changed by the gospel, but only because he first spent time befriending them
These are some of the results of churches making a serious long term commitment to reaching the unreached in their local community. At London City Mission (LCM) we have a very simple four part strategy for doing this.
Going to where they are
When I was at Bible College there was an unspoken assumption – at least in my own mind – that all you needed to do to reach an area, was open the doors of the church and preach the gospel powerfully.
Sometimes that is still possible to some extent. My last church was on a busy city road and people were always coming in. But the reality is that for most people in the district around your church, church is like a foreign country – and not one whose exotic qualities persuade them they should make a visit to see what the ‘natives’ get up to. So if we are to fulfil the great commission we must go to them and make disciples.
If instead we wait for them to come to us we simply perpetuate the idea that the church is not for the likes of them, nor interested in them, nor relevant to them. So how might we do this?
- Be a part of the local community – join a local sports club, art’s class, or reading group, shop locally, visit an elderly person’s home, etc.
- Visit door to door, not, in the first place, to try and engineer a gospel conversation but to get to know your district, to find out their needs and concerns.
Let me share a couple of our LCM mantras for door to door visitation:
- ‘listen to what they want to talk about, until they’re ready to listen to what you want to talk about’
- ‘the same person going to the same people regularly to become their friend for Jesus’ sake’
One of our missionaries began visiting 1,000 homes near his church reported three years later that he knew 280 on first name terms, had been invited into homes to pray with people, been able to give them Bibles and even been invited to birthday parties.
What one full-time missionary can do through his daily ministry a team of committed volunteers from a church could equally begin to do. This will only work if it is seen as a long-term strategy, not a short-term fix, but given the alienation of our communities from the church we have got to think in these terms.
Sixty years ago we could assume people knew the basics of the gospel and only needed to be encouraged to respond. Today, most are not only ignorant of Christianity but convinced that it is utterly irrelevant; and some, thanks to the media’s negative press, are deeply suspicious of it.
There are in the minds and hearts of most people today a whole host of barriers to hearing the gospel which will lead them to reject it, without ever really listening to it, unless we take the trouble to first get to know them, listen to them and help them to see the goodness of God and the relevance of the gospel.
A church can provide opportunities to do this by setting up an English class for immigrants and refugees, or an art class for the disabled, or through traditional clubs for youth and children, parents and toddlers groups. Some churches hold divorce, bereavement or other support groups.
One of our missionaries ministering to South Asians holds a men’s discussion group (which replicates the sort of discussions that would have taken place in the village back home) and poetry reading sessions, because of their cultural love of poetry. Such activities are non-threatening. Their aim is not to preach at people but to get to know them and to give them the opportunity to get to know sincere believers, their testimony, their love for one another.
In doing these things we are not laying the gospel aside. Far from it! We are seeking to live out the gospel before people’s eyes and sow gospel seeds that will arouse curiosity and help them see how faith relates to life. Gospel communication is our goal.
Meaningful gospel communication
One gospel conversation may lead to conversion but in most cases today the people we meet will not know enough about Jesus to respond to him straight away, and more than likely their idea of God will be very different from what God has revealed about Himself. For faith to come they need to hear the whole sweep of the gospel, not just a neat formula that summarises the gospel.
This can be done through special classes such as Christianity Explored, or one-to-one reading of a gospel, or through regular attendance at church where they hear the word of God systematically taught. Whatever the means, there needs to be meaningful gospel communication.
We use this term for three reasons:
- It must be the gospel – who Jesus is, why He came, what He has done, how we must respond to Him.
- It must be meaningful, using language (not evangelical jargon) and examples that are intelligent to that person and that bring the gospel into their world.
- It must be communication, a real meeting of minds (in which the person’s own experiences, doubts, misunderstandings and objections are brought out into the open and honestly dealt with). It is not hard sell.
Joining Christ’s Church
This should be the natural consequence of responding to the gospel but it can be extremely difficult for people who are from non-Christian backgrounds. One young man I heard of spent the next six Sundays after his conversion sitting on the door step of the church before he plucked up the courage to enter because he knew that the moment he entered he would be alienating himself from his own community.
When Cornelius joined the church in Acts 10 it was a testimony not just to his conversion but the church’s. Previously they had only admitted the circumcised into their ranks and now they had received an uncircumcised Gentile as a brother in Christ and therefore as a fellow member of God’s household and fellow citizen in God’s kingdom.
Becoming a church that opens its doors/arms to people from a very different background may not require the same degree of radical change, but each church keen to reach the unreached in its local community must think carefully about how it can be true to the gospel, and its own distinctives, yet also be accessible for, and welcoming to, those who are presently alienated from it.
Alan Black is Director of Training at London City Mission.