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Facing Outward

By Richard Dormandy.

Local mission activities are highly contextual. What works in one place may not work in another. This article explores some of the ideas that are working in an urban parish in South London, along with one or two principles. We're not doing too badly at outreach currently, but that doesn't mean we can be complacent. The article ends with some ways in which we could go further.

Love your church

First, as pastor or vicar, you must love your church. You must feel good about it as a body and them as people. You must feel positive that God is doing stuff there in people's lives. If you don't, how will you ever invite someone else to come along? And if you don't feel good, how do expect your congregation to feel? Your mission may continue in obedience to Christ, or in faith that God will do his work, but it will be half-hearted. 

So ask yourself this: "Is my church somewhere I would invite my neighbour along to?" If not, you need to get help! Talk it through with someone you respect over a period of time; seek out strategies for transformation. It's no good objecting that "we preach Christ, not the church." The church is the body of Christ - you might say, "the human face of Christ." People come to Christ mainly by joining a church. A positive self-image is crucial to any mission.

Communicate with your community

We have a parish newsletter that goes door to door to more than half the dwellings in our parish. Five thousand are printed in full colour for £150 twice a year at Harvest and Christmas. A fifth of these are distributed through local primary schools. The newsletter is one double-sided sheet of A4, folded to A5 by the printer. The back has a short letter from me, and details of the church. The front is just a cover with a masthead and logo that stay the same. Page 3 appears to be a load of boxed adverts, but they are actually all church activities that might be of interest to outsiders (youth, toddlers, social club, etc.). Page 2 always has two interviews, each with a photo, with church members.  In the articles, these members simply tell their stories, what they love about Tulse Hill, and why they love Holy Trinity Church. I always try to spread the range of young, older, black/white, families/single.

Repeating this format means that even though the newsletter only appears twice a year (we don't have the resources to do it more often), over the long term it begins to be recognised. We don't include anything that might seem obscure such as prayer meetings or groups that are really only for 'insiders'. However, the newsletter does also has a transformative effect on church members as more and more of them answer the question of what they love about this church - and read others' answers.

At present, after five years, I still deliver a lot of the newsletters myself, even though, gradually more people are taking on rounds. But hey, it's good exercise and it gets me out. I also recognise that I have a precious commodity: the combination of fitness and availability during the day.

Along with the newsletter we use PVC banners. PVC banners are incredibly cheap considering the use you get out of them - £10-15 for 2’x4’ in full colour. We use them to advertise our youth club, toddler group, Alpha course, Christmas Services, and so on. We even used the back of an old one with a hand-drawn design when we realised rather late that we could do with something for Easter. If you have church railings, use banners. If you have a wall and can screw some metal eyes into it, then you have a place you can use.

We built a banner frame out of fence posting. It carries two vertical 2’x4’ banners at 60 degrees to each other so that they face up and down the road. We should have got planning permission because it counts as an additional noticeboard – we still need to regularise this situation, but we will do. We also made a portable banner frame so that, when we go carol singing in Sainsbury's, we can take a second copy of the same Christmas banner that's outside the church.

We don't know how effective our banners are – although we do know there's one neighbour who doesn't like them! But people have come to church, toddler group and Alpha directly as a result of seeing our newsletter.

We also have a wooden frame sandwich board which we put out every time the church is open. It’s a blackboard like the sort you see in pubs with the specials of the day. It cost about £25 new on Ebay, plus the cost of the special pens – about £10 for the pack. Ours simply says, in bright lettering, "Church Open." We know people respond to it on one-off occasions; some have actually joined the church because of it, including one person who was initially an atheist! Apart from bringing people in, the sandwich board is also another factor in turning the church ship itself to face outwards. Our people see it every Sunday. It reminds them, as they enter, that we are there for others.

Make the most of festivals

At harvest, like many churches, we bring in produce for the festival, but how can we best use this? Really, the idea of taking non-perishable goods around to a handful of elderly people is obsolete. People who need food need it regularly, not once a year – and people who don't need it, don't really want to be saddled with tins of cheap soup or chick peas. So we have an on-going larder for that kind of emergency, which can be accessed throughout the year, as well as supporting our local food bank. How shall we then make the most of harvest?

For the past five years we have encouraged church members to bring fresh produce to church - yes: perishable goods! We buy hundreds of strong paper bags online (they are about 5p each), and after the service, children, with adult supervision, stick colour photocopied labels onto each, and fill them with fruit, vegetables, flowers and a copy of our Harvest Newsletter. Then we take them out immediately to pre-designated streets or an estate in the parish and deliver them to people's doors. 

We don't know if the people are in particular need or not - that's not our point. Our point is that we are simply sharing some of God's blessing. At each door, the kids knock or ring the bell and move on. If someone answers, we happily tell them that we're from Holy Trinity and are sharing some of the harvest. We do get the occasional hostile response, which offers a teaching point for the children, but every year I also get positive phone calls or letters. This year, someone signed up for the Alpha Course she saw advertised in the newsletter.

Contextualise Alpha

That brings me to Alpha. A 10-week course with a weekend away is impossible for many churches. We slashed it to six weeks, plus a seventh ‘reunion’ week in the following term, to cover the subject of the Holy Spirit. There's no point being defeated by a resource that's too big to handle: customise it so that it fits. If you're worried that you might be ‘passing off’ something that's a substandard Alpha and taking advantage of a successful brand, just take a leaf out of Delboy's book: be bold first, and run when the cops come! Of course they won't! Is anyone really worried about your customisation? We're all aiming for the same result, so just get on with it.

And so finally to the Parish Mission Weekend. It's okay to have these once every 20 or 50 years, but it's far better to have them regularly! We have a three-yearly cycle: Year 1 – Church Weekend Away; Year 2 – Church Weekend At Home (again, activities for the church fellowship, but without going away); Year 3 – Parish Mission Weekend. So far, we've only had one of these, but over time, the pattern will both provide another on-going outreach opportunity and help mould the church psyche as an outward-facing, mission-focused church.

On the Friday, we had a Church Dinner followed by a big screen viewing of the latest (and last?) Billy Graham film. It was interesting to find, as we invited people, that some hadn't even heard of Billy Graham, but the fact is that he's worth watching because he has been a historical phenomenon. Some people found it hard to invite their friends or neighbours because Billy Graham either seemed old hat or much too right-wing. I must confess to being troubled by this myself, but I had a feeling that it would matter less to those I would invite than it did to me!

As vicar, it was good to share these struggles with the congregation. Rising to the challenge myself put me in a good position to pass the same challenge on to them. "Just gather up the courage to ask your neighbours or colleagues," I said. "Don't pre-determine their response by your own fearful thinking!"

Some people said, "Can't we do something in the weekend for families and kids?" I adamantly refused. "If we put on a family event, I can guarantee you won't have energy left to invite adults to the adult events – and what's more you may use it as an excuse to avoid inviting people!" This response really annoyed one or two people, but, to give credit to them, they took the point and set out to prove me wrong:  they weren't afraid of inviting people along to Billy Graham! It reminds me of Paul’s dictum: ”outdo one another in good works.”

I was quite direct with some of our beloved church family, even though inviting someone to a church event can be the hardest thing to do. Always, I challenged them from an open, honest, and non-spiritualised point of view, citing my own doubts and hesitations. The tide began to turn when the inevitable stories came back: "I asked so-and-so, full of fear and doubt, and guess what? They said "yes".

We got caterers to do the food, so the tickets were £7.50 a head – the minimum they could be so that our people could afford tickets for their guests also. We had members of our youth as waiters, supervised by a couple of adults, which released the maximum number of adults to actually bring along friends. In the end, we had about 80 participants, of whom about 40% were guests. The event wasn't perfect. The caterers were slow in dishing up, and we didn't really think about how we would move from the film to a meaningful discussion, but it was a good effort and a good start.

On the Saturday, we had a concert featuring local Christian singers. We charged £3 entry and had drinks and cakes for sale. This covered some of the other costs of the weekend. Again we encouraged people to bring guests, but we also wanted church members to come without guests in order to build the atmosphere. On the Sunday, we had a preacher from another church (it's generally free if you are Anglican!!). He was excellent but, to be honest, I didn't place much emphasis on telling people to invite their neighbours to this. I think we had done enough inviting for the Friday and Saturday, and for this reason there was absolutely no point in paying for an itinerant evangelist, for example, to preach to what would almost certainly be the converted. 

When planning a parish mission, however big your ‘faith’ is, it's vital to remain in the real world, and not enter some fantasy of spiritualised wishful thinking. The idea was more that if guests enjoyed one of these other events, then we should encourage them to come back. As it turned out, few did, but because we hadn't invested all our eggs in the one basket of a J.John or similar, we weren't lumbered with all the resulting disappointment. You might say “aim low and don’t be disappointed.” I say, “Aim real and build up!” It was, in fact, good to hear an excellent exposition of the gospel with an invitation, so that we have a reference point for future missions. What's more, the same minister is going to be speaking at our Parish Weekend Away next year.

On the Sunday evening there was a youth event with bouncy castles and the Billy Graham film once again. On Monday we returned our 10’x8’ screen to the hire company. It cost £80, which wasn't bad, since we used it on all three days one way or another. The parish mission was a success because it brought some people into a church, but also because it pushed people into actively inviting their neighbours. However, perhaps best of all, we're planning to do it all over again in three years' time.

How could we improve? There are loads of ways. We could become more intentional. We could be more prayerful. We could be better equipped with more individual church members being equipped to share the gospel personally - and able to use that equipment. We could be talking about Jesus himself more naturally with our neighbours in addition to inviting them to church. We could be more passionate in our own spiritual lives and have Christ at the centre of all we do. The point is that we're making progress; we're turning the ship around, which constantly needs doing since the unconscious forces of ‘clubbism’ always try to turn it back; and yes, we're bringing people into the Body of Christ.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Facing Outward by Richard Dormandy, part of Issue 65 of Ministry Today, published in November 2015.

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