Suppose your church wants to do some work in a deprived community or, better still, is going to plant a church there. What kind of people would you want to reach and what ministries would you set up? Maybe a drop-in session for drug addicts? Or a class to help struggling single mums? Possibly a club for impoverished kids? These are likely some of the first ideas we have, and they’re some of the most common (and good) ministries we see on British housing estates.
But the reality is, there are groups of people living in housing estates who themselves are forgotten. They’re the hidden people who don’t get the help offered to others by outside groups. Two groups that come to mind are the elderly and adults with learning disabilities. These people are often neglected not only by the estate as a whole, but also by our churches.
So, what drives our decisions about who we are going to try to reach with our new church plant? I want to highlight three things.
Part of it comes down to our assumptions. We have particular stereotypes about the type of people we will meet when we move onto the estate. Much of this, of course, is driven by the media. However, if we think that everyone on a housing estate wears a tracksuit, we will end up failing to reach the many people who don’t. If we think everyone’s a single parent, then we’ll only ever reach single parents. Or if we think everyone’s a drug addict, then we’ll focus all our energy on them. You get the idea.
In order to build healthy churches in the UK’s housing estates and schemes, we need to leave our preconceived ideas about deprived communities behind and recognise that they are hugely diverse places. Our estate in Middlesbrough, for example, can seem very homogenous at first glance. The vast majority of people here are White British.
But we have huge diversity in age, ability, wealth, education, family structure, aspirations, values, needs, and health. Unfortunately, our assumptions about what housing estates are like mean that we forget that they have a high number of old people and adults with learning disabilities. Assuming that there are only two or three types of people on a housing estate is not only inaccurate, it’s also detrimental to our church’s mission.
Now, as you’re planning your new church plant, you’ll probably come across some statistics about your estate. Let’s say you see that there’s a 50% unemployment rate, teenage pregnancy is high, and it has one of the highest heroin-addiction rates in the country. So you and your team decide you’ll start a jobs club, one of you will teach a relationship/sex education class in the local school, and you’ll also run a support group for addicts.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these ideas. All of them have the potential to be great ways of meeting local people and sharing the gospel with them, whilst meeting real needs at the same time. However, we need to acknowledge that these ministries, as wonderful as they might be, will only begin to scratch the surface of the diverse needs in our communities.
Yes, half of your demographic is unemployed, but what about the other half who are working? They’re not going to attend your jobs club. Equally, there are plenty of people who aren’t pregnant teenagers and lots of people who aren’t addicted to heroin. Statistics can (and should) be a really helpful tool, but we need to be careful not to get drawn in by startling stats.
If, in doing your research, you learn that lots of men in their 20s and 30s are dying from overdoses and suicides, it would be wrong to assume that there are no old people in the area. Again, we should make use of statistics and we should reach those who come up in the figures, but unfortunately our statistics are unlikely to highlight the forgotten groups, such as the elderly and disabled. These are important people groups, who need the gospel, on our estates.
3. The ‘Hidden’
As you get closer to planting your church, you take a walk with the rest of your team around your new estate. You see a group of kids drinking outside the off-license, a homeless man sat begging outside the bookmakers, and a lot of single parents on their way to the primary school. You decide to run a youth group for those kids, and maybe even do some detached youth work. You’re also going to make sure you meet that homeless man and get to know him. One of the mums who’s planting with you is going to make sure she gets to know the mums outside the school.
Again, this is all valuable research and could lead to brilliant ministries, but what about the unseen in our communities? On your walk around the estate, you didn’t see anyone with Down’s Syndrome, nor did you encounter anyone who has dementia. That’s not because they don’t exist, it’s simply that they’re often hidden away in sheltered accommodation.
As churches, we need to consider these people. They need the gospel too. Yes, we must preach Christ to those kids in youth group, to the homeless man outside the bookmakers, to the parents at the school gates, but how are we going to make sure the gospel is being preached in that sheltered accommodation block too?
In our church, we’ve tried to make this a priority (we haven’t got it exactly right by any means). We regularly have elderly people and adults with learning disabilities with us at our Sunday services, and we make great efforts to see these people in their homes throughout the week too. This work is not always easy. We often have difficulty with communication. Some people may be hard to understand, others may be confused (they could tell you the same story several times or even not remember who you are).
For me personally, it would often be easier to have a ministry playing football all day with people just like me. But we see huge blessings as we work through these difficulties. Before Christmas, we ran a carol service in a local care home for adults with learning disabilities. In many respects, it was far from ideal—we had more church members present than residents, the keyboard I was playing didn’t sound great, and the short message I preached was interrupted by people coming in and out and making loud noises (this is something we have to learn to accept as par for the course). But in spite of all that, it was a brilliant afternoon—what a blessing to share the gospel with people who may otherwise never hear it!
We’ve looked at three potential reasons why we don’t tend to work with these ‘hidden people’. However, if I were to be more cynical, I would suggest that a significant factor is that ministry among these people doesn’t tend to benefit our churches very much. On the contrary, if a young family gets saved, then not only are your Sunday numbers boosted for years to come, but it also means more kids at the youth group, more helpers on the rota, and more money in the offering bag. Setting up a ministry with ex-offenders could give your church some really exciting testimonies in a few years’ time. But if that old lady from the care home gets saved, we’re not going to see quite the same tangible results.
As long as our primary concern is numerical growth and the church balance sheet, then we will continue to neglect ministry among the elderly and disabled. But if our main aim is seeing the gospel preached to all, then we will make sure that we minister to these often-hidden people.
Of course, there are benefits to working with old people and those with learning disabilities, just maybe not the kind of results we often search for. While there are plenty more, here are just a few off the top of my head.
1. We will see people get saved! As we preach the gospel, we trust that God will call those whom He has chosen. I may have difficulty communicating with certain people, but I know that God’s Word is powerful enough to speak to their hearts.
2. We will also reach their friends, family, and carers. There’s a who man attends our church who has difficulty communicating. Even a simple conversation is hard work. Despite that, he is our best evangelist! Whenever he attends our services, he always brings along a carer and at least one other resident with him.
3. The way in which we treat some of the most vulnerable people in our community is a powerful witness to the world around us. There’s a lady in her 90s who has recently started attending our church. We always make sure that she is well-looked after, and some of our members visit her during the week. This work has definitely been noticed by the other people who live in her tower block, many of whom seem surprised that we not only pick her up to take her to our church service but also spend time with her throughout the week.
Revelation 7 speaks of “a great multitude . . . from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” (Rev. 7:9) Our churches shouldn’t just be made up of young and middle-aged people. We need old people too. Neither should our churches just be made up of people who are able to live and function independently. We need adults with learning disabilities to be part of our churches as well.
Jesus is building a Church which is hugely diverse—our local churches should be as well. In order to do this, we need to take the gospel not just to every corner of the world, but to every hidden corner of our communities too.