One of the challenges of urban ministry is the mobility of people coming into and then leaving a community. It means that someone may turn up and be around for a couple of weeks, couple of months or couple of years.
I want to note two things about our own specific context before going on.
1. Different urban contexts can vary considerably. Urban mobility probably best describes some inner city contexts whilst Council Estates may have a greater sense of stability with the same families living in an area for generations (bringing its own challenges and opportunities). Our church community crosses over a number of very different types of urban context.
2. In terms of numbers, our average attendance is around about 130-140 and that is based on about 170-180 regular attendees. This means that on one level we are perhaps a little insulated from the worst affects of the ups and downs of church attendance that come with migration. However, because we chose in 2012 to multiply into different congregations, there is actually quite a serious impact of change because each congregation is relatively small so that fluctuations are noticeable. Additionally, that is an extremely fragile 170-80. Church membership is closer to the mid 60s. We are aware that things could/ can change dramatically and quickly.
Now some further reflections.
1. As hinted above, urban migration can result in very significant fluctuations in attendance. This means that there is the challenge on resources when suddenly you see growth in attendance. This is often not 1 or 2 individuals at a time but a few families. Now, this ia a great and joyful part of church life especially when people come and they are hungry for God’s Word. A great thing about urban mobility is that when people are coming and going it is easier for newcomers to join in, there is less sense of having to break into the life of the group. However it does not come without its challenges, when you are used to running a small Sunday School, providing occassional pastoral counsel, etc then the first challenge is ” How will we cope?” because the harvest field labourers are so few. When you have a sudden influx, it is so easy to take pride in it and think you have cracked the secret of urban Gospel ministry. So our prayer is always to see more people joining us but there are two challenges. First of all, are our hearts prepared for this and secondly are we equipped and resourced?
2. Then there’s the other side of the coin. As quickly as people come, they can go again. They may move voluntarily to find better housing, work etc. Sometimes their move is involuntary. The landlord gives them notice, the Home Office move them out and they find themselves living miles away. Some will even attempt to keep the connection with the church that loved and welcomed them but that isn’t always sustainable over time. This is hard because
– When the church gathers, it feels the fluctuation. A gathering of 55-60 dropping to 40-50 has a big impact.
– The move often comes at the very point where you feel that things are starting to happen. You’ve built a relation ship, trust has been earned, discipleship is happening.
I want to suggest a couple of practical helps here. First of all, I don’t think that it is always helpful to see someone moved on immediately to a another church. Urban churches can have a very localised view of their ” parish”. Partly, that’ s a healthy reaction to large ” attractional” churches pulling people in from a distance. However, if our mindset is that as soon as someone is more than a 15 minute walk away that they’ve got to change churches then we may remove the one source of stability they have in their life. They may never get the chance to settle somewhere and be discipled. Secondly, there are plenty of occasions where coming back to the same church isn’t possible. This is where we need to be working better together. Do we know good churches to recommend people to? Will there be a proper pastoral “handover”? Or will they be just left to their own devices?
However, the biggest challenge is back to our own hearts. We find it hard when people leave. It hits us emotionally. We can often react out of fear and frustration. We can be tempted to hold onto people. We may also be discouraged when the move doesn’t come with a transfer to a healthy church which we find ourselves in agreement with or a church plant/ revitalisation that might benefit from new people who have been discipled a little coming in. Is my trust in God to complete the work he started? Does that help me to be open handed and willing to let people go, not to cling onto them? Am I able to give them loving advice but allow them to make their own decisions.
3. There is still a core, stable group in the church. One of the challenges is how they are affected by the instability and movement that seems to be happening around them. At its worst this can lead to resentment” Why does so much time and energy go into people who don’t even stay around. This can lead to suspicion and even fatigue in response to the growth spurts. It may lead to barriers going up and it becoming harder for new people to join in. “Why should we let them get involved in our group/ ministry when they will be gone in 6 months?” It’s important to keep encouraging one another and to keep coming back to our purpose, when we remember why we are here and that Christ has called us into his mission this is a great help.
Why am I writing this?
1. I want to encourage those of us who are in urban ministry to keep going through the ups and downs. How do we do this? We can only do it through finding our identity, joy and satisfaction in Christ and his gospel.
2. I want to help readers who are not in an urban context understand something of the challenges, joys and frustrations of urban ministry. That way you might be able to hear better some of the frustration expressed by your brothers and sisters. This is not easy ministry, it often feels lonely and Gospel workers often struggle with exhaustion and even depression risking burnout. Knowing these things might better enable you to stand with us, pray with us, even partner with us.
3. I want to keep encouraging people to consider getting involved in urban mission. The harvest plenty but the labourers are few and we are continuing to pray for labourers to join us in the harvest field, we want you to hear that call with your eyes open to the challenge so that you can count the cost but we also want you to know that obedience to Christ’s call is worth it. He will equip and sustain you. There is the joy of future grace to look forward to which motivates us and spurs us on.
Have a look at our ActBC pages to see how you can get involved in urban ministry.