Although I am intentional and deliberate as I spend time with people in my community, my relationships are real. In other words, people aren’t my pet ‘projects’. If they never become Christians, it won’t change my friendship with them (my prayer-life maybe). I won’t just move on to the next person.
In other words, relationship building must be natural and not contrived. Therefore, we must be honest with people about who we are from the very beginning, rather than months or years down the line when we’re suddenly scrabbling to fit God into our conversations. We must always start as we mean to go on.
In our community, and to be honest I imagine in many cultures, the difficulties arise when there is no natural connection to engage with people. If we don’t understand the cultural nuances, the differences in language and values, then we can hamper or damage our opportunities for witness. If there is no natural connection, then there is no natural hook on which to hang the gospel. If this is the case, then the temptation may be to ‘create’ one or to blunder into conversations thoughtlessly. (I’m the first to put my hands up and say I’ve made a few blunders in my time).
That’s why it’s so important for our women’s workers in to live in the area they serve. This enables them to spend time understanding their community, finding those natural connections, and looking for those bridges to assist them in crossing the cultural gaps.
In the early days at Niddrie Community Church, I tried everything I could think of to find ways to engage with women. I organised loads of different classes, activities, and tried little initiatives. They all flopped disastrously. They didn’t do anything to help me engage better and, in fact, they hindered some of my relationships with people. I had to quickly adjust and begin to ask some searching questions, both of myself and the people I was trying to engage. Here are a few good questions to ask:
1. What is the local culture like?
As a cultural insider, I understand schemes, but I still came with preconceived ideas about what Niddrie needed and what would work. Initially, almost none of them worked. However, years later, after I had lots of established contacts, some of these ideas turned into great ministry opportunities. I had the right instincts initially. All I needed was a greater understanding of the local culture in order to turn my good ideas into culturally relevant ones.
One really influential community in Niddrie that impacts our culture, and indeed our church, is the travelling community. They have a long, established history in the area, and I have a real burden for the women. I want to see them saved and discipled. I know that for a ‘gorger girl’ like me (non-traveller) it would be extremely unwise, even dangerous, just to walk onto their site and assume that I know exactly what they need.
In my interactions with the few girlies I do know from the travelling community, I’ve been very mindful of the differences in our culture and worldview. Therefore, I’ve purposefully spent a lot of my time in observation, looking for cultural connectors with the gospel. All of us, particularly women who live outwith schemes, need to reassess our own cultural blind spots and worldviews. This is crucial as we begin to engage with women who may look like us and speak the same language but who, in actuality, are completely different to us in so many ways.
2. Where are my natural connectors?
As Christians, we often overcomplicate evangelism. All that’s required is discovering what’s going on in our area and plugging ourselves in with gospel intent.
3. What type of relationships do we want with the community?
The type of relationships we want will be a factor in the way we engage. This is huge for a number of reasons. Consider the following types of relationships that tend to exist within our communities:
Service Providers. Setting up a mercy ministry or getting involved in a para-church ministry in a needy area may seem a perfect plan, on the surface, to engage with people with whom we don’t naturally connect. The problem(s) come when we begin to think of people as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’. We start to inadvertently think of gospel witness as either ‘work’ or, more common now, ‘unprofessional’ due to policy and funding restraints. Barriers can be built that establish dividing nuances in the relationship(s) we have with ‘these people’ we are serving. It’s never a relationship of equals from the start. If we start our relationship with people as service providers then, no matter how hard we try, it will be very difficult to change the dynamic once it’s been established.
Key Worker. In my context, as a church worker, it’s really easy to be seen as just another key worker in the lives of those we are trying to help/reach/serve. The problem is that in the schemes, people have lots of key workers; there’s one for almost every area of their life. They don’t need one more in a long line. We need to build relationships with people on different lines if it is going to aid natural evangelism and discipleship. We need to pause and think about the little things that we do. Consider something as simple as going for coffee—when I go for coffee with my friends, we will usually fight over who pays at the till. But if I operate as a sort of ‘key worker’, then I’m always the buyer and the relationship dynamic is not equal. If everything is travelling in one direction in our relationships, then we will find it hard to shift direction onto an equal footing.
Friends. This relationship is the hardest work because true, equal friendship doesn’t fit into an allocated time slot in our schedule. And it shouldn’t. We have to put ourselves out, make an effort, and do ‘real life’ with people. It’s not clinical and can’t be constrained by policies or marred by unprofessionalism. It’s definitely going to be messy at some point. But, the foundation of a good friendship lends itself to natural opportunities to speak the gospel. If we’re honest, most of us prefer clinical, controlled actions that fit into our neat schedules. We don’t like mess.
If we’re struggling to evangelistically engage with women, then we need to ask ourselves what the problem is. What kind of relationships are we currently pursuing with people, particularly those not like us? What foundation are these relationships built upon? Professionalism? Service providers? Key workers? Or deep, messy friendships?
Then we have to actually proclaim the gospel. We have to ask ourselves: Why aren’t I telling the people in my life about Christ? I mean, reality check: they aren’t going to be saved by osmosis. We must boldly proclaim Christ and pray that He saves.