I stood at West Wickham train station waiting to meet my friend Michael. Michael and Rebecca used to be the Salvation Army officers in Kingswood where I was a Vicar. They became friends and on one occasions shared Christmas together.
It was so good having other Church leaders who longed not just to keep their congregation happy but to reach out beyond the four walls of Church to meet and become friends with those not in our fellowships and to share Christ with our communities through our deeds and words. Allana and Hope (my wife and Daughter) were blessed by the fantastic work Rebecca did with young families; I worked with Michael on Alpha, blokes and Kingswood Street Pastors.
Sadly for us they left Kingswood to go down the road to Clevedon, a seaside town in Somerset, and did some wonderful things there, but now have been stationed in Catford, a reasonably deprived and multicultural area in London.
He appeared around the corner grinning and gave me a hug and we sat together waiting for the train.
After we had asked after each others families I asked the question that had been playing around my mind: “Catford and Cleavdon are vastly different (understatement!)… how have you settled in? What’s it like working in such different community?”
In many ways it’s a silly question as every community is different and requires us to love and listen, listening to both our community and to God. To relate and create relationships, connecting people, and building with people a different future.
In many ways starting a new role in a new area causes us to ask afresh “what would the Kingdom of God look like here if fully realised? And what is God calling us to do to get closer to this?” Yet also the question is “what is God already doing here, and who is he doing it with, and how can I support and bless the existing mission?”
One of the things I love about Michael and Rebecca is their lack of ego and their willingness to serve where-ever they can.
I remember seeing a job advert that said: “must get out there and smell the sheep”, I giggled a bit not considering myself much of a sheep smeller(!), but it made a valid point that you can’t really understand people and an area from a google search but rather amidst and amongst people.
We got to Catford and went out giving out flyers and to get chatting to locals, this was mission without any sugar coating (well, maybe a bit, we did have sweets to give out) but we were just out there to have conversations and get to know folk, it was no gimmick but the hard graft of being where people are as a presence, making conversations and building relationships.
Michael had his Salvation army uniform on where I was just dressed in shorts and a t shirt, I was a guest in their community as Michael was becoming part of their community, I was just hanging out with him for a day.
One thing I love about the Salvation Army which I find inspiring, especially having just come back from visiting All Hallows Bow and the Bromley by Bow Centre (with very different ideas of mission and blessing the community), is that the Salvation Army are one of the best denominations of Christians for rolling up their sleeves and feeding and clothing the hungry and homeless, providing shelter for those in need and blessing through practical means those around them. Yet, they haven’t forgotten their message of salvation, they proclaim Christ in their words and their actions, indeed many Salvationists are expectant for answers to prayer and to see God at work in people’s lives, including with signs and wonders. I have done lots of training over the years in mission and evangelism and I talk of “words (what we say), works (what we do) and wonders (the supernatural encounters with the living God)”; as a denomination they have a wonderful heritage of all three, and with people like Michael and Rebecca this is an on-going reality.
The Salvation Army manages to both “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” and when we chatted with people in Catford (particularly the older white people) they were initially hostile/dismissive until they saw the Salvation Army logo and then they’d take the flyer and say something like “you guys do great stuff!”
Despite having done a lot of Christian work hanging out seeking to engage with people, I still find that I feel awkward and self-conscious when doing this, but I do realise that sometimes you end up having a conversation, or meeting a person that makes it all worthwhile! Michael ended up having such a conversation with a lady in the street for about half an hour, whilst I was left hanging out trying to chat to people and give out flyers. The area was very diverse. One thing struck me was that when talking to people a number self-identified as Christians, especially those from the black community.
Michael said later that there are many Churches which operate with one predominant ethnic group, but he feels called for the Salvation Army in Catford to be a place of all nationalities and social groupings, he used two phrases which I loved “we don’t want to be multi-racial where lots of races come together but in predominantly white middle class led Corps, instead we want to be inter-racial, where everyone is welcome and the leadership team (and everything) is as diverse as the community it serves. Yet this is a challenge we often want to surround ourselves with “people like us” and other cultures do not do things are way or value what we value, so creating this type of Church will mean that everyone learns to be mutually inconvenienced by one another in love.
I began to think afresh of mission in a vastly different context to a Somerset sea-side town to this London Borough, but then thought of the mission of God -Missio Dei- who is always at work in/through (and also despite) us, and thought that where-ever God sends us he will be providing ‘keys’ and ‘opportunities’ within the life and story of a place, and different contexts may look different to one another (indeed in scripture I find God rarely does the same thing twice) and often his ideas are a bit wacky (would you hit a stone when you needed a drink, or invade a city by processing a choir around the walls?) but despite often flying in the face of conventional wisdom God’s ways work and are fruitful! I began to wonder whether the danger is in working in familiar type of areas we think we know what we are doing, we are professionals, and rely on our own understanding, the books we have read and the conferences we have attended rather than seeking God’s salvation plan for our area, and being obedient even when it appears a bit wacky.
Yet, I long to hear the phrase: “this might be a bit wacky but I think God might be saying” a lot more within our Churches (rather than I have an idea you should do!). Obviously, we need to be careful that when we say this, we are not just putting forward our own idea with a “God says gloss” but rather are sharing a prompt from the missional God who speaks and partners with his people. As I began to think around this I was reminded of two very different evangelistic missions: Peter in Jerusalem at the birth of the Church at Pentecost talking to a largely Jewish audience and Paul speaking to the Greeks in Athens at the altar of the unknown God to Gentiles. I wonder, am I like Peter preaching the best Jewish Gospel to a Gentile audience and then am surprised when they don’t respond. What does the Gospel look like for this community? Part of the Anglican ordination service calls us to “preach the gospel afresh to each generation” but I wonder do we simply “proclaim it again to every generation”.
So, as I ended up eating Bacon Sandwiches back at their home later that day I was struck by the context changes and perhaps we have to lay down previous patterns of work and styles of doing things, but I leave knowing that God will be faithful to Michael and Rebecca in their new context, and that they will be seeking him for his way forward, knowing that they love Jesus and the people he gifted them to serve (and the people they serve have been gifted wonderful leaders to partner with too).
I remember doing the ‘sharing your faith’ module with Michael with the Kingswood Street Pastors he spoke of “double listening” -to God and the community we serve- as we continue to love and pray, relating to who we meet and partner with God to see his Kingdom advance.