One of the pitfalls of living inside the walls of a large Christian facility, surrounded by dedicated Christian brothers and sisters, is the comfort, safety and isolation it affords. It is easy to be consumed with making the things inside the walls run smoothly. The activities of daily life in our Christian bubble can become an end in themselves, and we find ourselves insulated from the “other world” that is just beyond the gate.
This cut-off feeling has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. All the meaningful face-to-face relationships that were cultivated during our first year in the UK have have slipped slowly into the background. Zoom and WhatsApp just don’t cut it. The culture of the neighbourhood we are living in does not function well via the internet. So, to a large extent, we are indeed stuck behind these walls.
We’ve used the time to strategise. How can we engage more with people in our neighbourhood? What new opportunities have arisen during lockdown that could increase connectedness? Are there other gatherings we can organise that will attract people and encourage deeper friendships? As we contemplated these questions, we realised that many of our ideas are attractional: how we can draw people to us. But we need to remember the lessons we learned during our years in cross-cultural ministry.
At the start of our cross-cultural experience, we read dozens of books about mission strategies; we went to conferences that inspire vision and build faith; we studied history, anthropology, culture and language: all important pursuits. However, none of it was meaningful until we started meeting people face-to-face. Only then were cultural barriers broken down, misunderstandings and hesitations overcome, and new friendships formed. We made a point of going outside the gate as much as possible: going to the market, frequenting the same shops, stopping for cups of tea, home visits at times of sickness and loss, attending celebrations and invitations for meals. There is no substitute for face-to-face time with people.
It’s the same strategy that Jesus taught his disciples. When he was sending the twelve out to spread his Kingdom message, he prepped them by saying, “Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave” (Matt 10:11). He repeated this strategy almost word for word to the seventy-two in Luke 10. “Get out among the people,” is basically what Jesus was saying. God’s business is the people business!
Jesus’ strategy can be summed up in three tiny words: “As you go…” (Matt 10:7). No options. No negotiation. “As you go,” is what he said… and there were no arguments from the disciples! Jesus literally dispatched them… he pushed them out the door and into the community. Now, I’m sure they had the same apprehensions you and I have when we’re pushed out of our comfort zones. They would have felt comfortable inside the gate with Jesus—learning from him, watching him perform miracles, organising the crowds, doing whatever he said—just a long as Jesus was the front man. But this time Jesus shoved them out the gate all alone, “like sheep among wolves,” to encounter people on their own.
A few months ago, before this lockdown happened, we were out walking in our area looking for a God-opportunity. We had no plan but had committed our time to Jesus and were praying as we went. We came across a rag-n-bone yard, a very unlikely looking place, and were prompted to go inside. We met the guy in charge, a man with deep emotional needs. He invited us in, we drank tea, and eventually prayed with him. We returned a second time and met the others who lived at the yard: a motley crew, yet very friendly and open. On our third visit we started a Bible study in their little shack.
Another day we were called on to help a neighbour assemble her Ikea bookshelves: not a task anybody relishes but it increased our connectedness! At a later date, we organised a community meal and the same woman came with her children, her grandchildren, her sisters and their families. We ended up with 17 guests from one extended family! Fast forward a few months, and she and Liz walk together every day in the park. Often other ladies spontaneously join them. A walking group has started simply because we pushed ourselves outside the gate and got face-to-face with neighbours.
Jesus challenges us to get out the gate! We are convinced that ninety percent of fruitful ministry happens outside the front gate. Other pressing tasks and important activities will always jostle for attention and we can strategise behind the walls until the cows come home. However, when we follow Jesus’ way and get out among the people, there’s no telling what will happen. His business is the people business.