What do you do when your local network of churches doesn’t seem to reflect the cultural diversity of the area?
In the London Borough of Havering, on the outer edge of London, there is an excellent network of churches and ministries regularly meeting together, called “Across Havering”. When my wife, Mary, and I first went along to a meeting, we were surprised that in the group there were only two black faces! The demographics of Havering had been slowly changing over the previous five years, and had become, noticeably, much more culturally mixed. Personally, we knew of at least six or seven newer, black-led churches, and were sure that there were even more as well. We talked with the leaders and realised that, unintentionally, newer churches, many of which were African-led, had not been spotted and included in the invitation list. So, Mary and I started to do our homework, to discover these churches. We all felt it was about time to extend an invitation!
What we did to extend the Invitation We found some newer churches through the internet, but mainly we spotted them by driving around the area for several Sundays. They were meeting in a variety of venues – sports centres, schools, social clubs, community halls and scout huts, as well as hired space in the buildings of older churches. Their publicity banners usually only came out on the day, so during the week you might never know they were there. Fortunately, there were contact details on most of the banners, so, at last, we had the opportunity to invite them along to the Across Havering meetings. There were over sixty new churches!
Rather than just e-mail people, we tried to telephone, and arrange to see the senior leader. Or we literally just showed up, at the start or close of a worship service. There were some misunderstandings – twice I was greeted suspiciously. “Was I from the local council, or the Border agency? Had there been a complaint about noise or parking issues?” The reaction to our invitation though was, without exception, a genuine appreciation that we had gone to the trouble to contact them, and that we wanted to include them in our network meetings. None of them had been aware that these meetings even existed!
We chose a specific Across Havering date for the invitation, one of the evening gatherings, because we recognised that the majority of the newer church leaders had to work their schedules around other daytime job commitments.
The Night everyone came together On the night, we, personally, collected a couple of leaders from their homes and brought them with us. This was a good move, but we arrived later than we had intended. With shock and surprise, we walked into a meeting, double its number in attendance. People were sat around tables drinking tea and coffee, and a sea of black African faces turned towards us as we entered. I had a mixed feeling of elation and groaning inside me! We were thrilled that they had come, but realised that now the hard work of building relationships was about to begin.
We had failed to suggest to the network co-ordinator of the meeting, that the regulars might need warning of more visitors that night. Imagine our dismay at seeing some leaders sitting in white English huddles, without a thought of engaging with the new people! In a perfect world, we should have sown our vision and got others involved in the inviting process, but, instead, we were their first point of contact, and each one of the new leaders looked up, expecting us to come and sit down next to them! We moved around rapidly, greeting different ones, like the bridal couple at a wedding reception, and then, with a few other more outgoing souls, we sat ourselves down in ones and twos, and began to break the ice. The honeymoon period had begun, and not everyone stayed with the process, beyond even that first event, but doing the homework, and making the invitation has been worth it!
The Impact since the Gathering Some of the newer leaders have now, themselves, hosted the network meetings. Also some good heart changes have gone on amongst us all, and we have learnt a lot together. Building settled relationships with each other has led to joined up thinking, regarding our mission into the borough of Havering. There has been a sharing of wisdom and resources, and a growing sense that we are working together as wider church. For example, an idea for a free community BBQ event in one difficult housing area became an initiative from all the local churches. Leaders were involved who previously wouldn’t have known of one another. The ongoing result has been a definite positive change in the attitudes of local residents. Racist graffiti and vandalism, which had previously been a problem for one church, has now stopped, and instead, its building has become a much-used community hub.
From our experience, we have learnt that it is not good to assume that your leadership network is reaching every church leader in your city or area, but to be diligent in seeking out the newer churches. It could be the specific responsibility of one or two of the leaders, to discover and invite the newer ones, so that the wider church in an area benefits from every one’s input and gifting.
There may be some hard work involved in discovering the whereabouts of the newer church leaders in your area, and extending an invitation into friendship and meeting together, but it is definitely worth the journey! Eph4:16 ‘from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love’