Today we hit the streets. I went to the Westfield in Derby, until I discovered I would need some kind of permit so I left its sanitised confines for the shoppers beyond. We are studying Mission and evangelism methodologies and our lecturers sent us out with surveys to ask people about their experiences of Church, Christianity and Jesus and for their opinions on how we could encourage them to explore the Christian faith
I would say that about 50% of the people I asked for a few minutes of their time were prepared to speak with me.
I find this kind of thing energising, talking to people I do not know, not knowing quite which way it will go. Armed with a smile and a clipboard I am not too far out my comfort-zone really.
I had a good range of responses from people on the street, from those wearing crucifixes with not a clue about the meaning they had, (they just look good!) to those who had living faiths that were very private affairs with no desire to join a worshipping community.
Young people were reluctant to enter churches that lectured at them. They wanted fun, fellowship and relevance.
I met a wonderful man selling balloons, who talked about church but only in the context of a few funerals he had been to but then went on to to talk to me about a drop-in centre that had helped him off the streets and into accommodation and whose cafe he attended, Jake's. on a Friday night for food, fellowship and prayer. He spoke about this as if it was not church, it was something else. Of course this centre is run by The Christian Life Centre in Normanton.
This is all throwing up interesting reflections for me about the gospel as proclamation and social action. It has to be both. Not one at the cost of the other. Jesus was concerned about the entire person, no body/soul dichotomy.
Most people were very encouraged by the fact that I was out on the street asking people questions and their biggest problem with the church appeared to be clergy inside churches and buildings, as they perceive it, who do not mix enough outside with people in the world.
I was left challenged by this again. Ministers also have to build up and disciple those who have faith and yet throw our doors wide open to those seeking, whatever their motivation might be to start with, until God gets hold of them.
Back in the classroom later with our lecturers, we analysed our surveys and reflected on our experiences. We had had very little abuse or hostility. We found that informing people we were future vicars in the Church of England helped people to relax into talking about Jesus and prayer. It is a passport, I guess. At other times we might have to think about how this might hinder people, who have been wounded by the church.
Ironically, the most hostility one of us had received had come from another evangelical Christian who didn't believe in the ordination of women and refused to answer questions about Jesus from a woman. I'm just glad that there were not any witnesses to that exchange!
Some found our denominational difference off-putting, one man believed in Darwin and was not a God-fearing man. I did meet a chaplain however, who was very encouraging, saying that the church needs to be out on the streets like we were, wrestling with people's perceptions of church.
So, I come away, aware that most people are living without Jesus, that for some the very last place they would go looking for him is a church, which is a very sobering thought. I come away thinking that I need to inspect less the content of my sermons for exact turn of phrase and potential heresy and more for how I might make Jesus' message speak into the lives of today's people.
I come away realising I am not entering something easy, by any stretch of the imagination but I also quite revel in the awesome challenge that it is going to be. I enjoyed the fact that young people, particularly, would give me their time and had a level of open-mindedness that was really encouraging. It's all becoming more real and I am realising that life beyond the classroom makes what we absorb inside it, all the more challenging. I need to work out carefully how to make it all relevant without ever feeling I am compromising anything - this is going to need more reflection.