I had several conversations recently about what our neighbours see about our church. What do they think of us? What do we communicate about the gospel – even if it isn’t the full saving knowledge of Jesus Christ – by how we act in our community?
It has been a point raised a number of times that our little church is probably the most multicultural thing that exists in Oldham. If not Oldham (though we are almost certainly contenders) certainly our area of Glodwick. If you come on a Sunday, you will find people these days from North America, South America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Western and Eastern Africa, West and East Asia. We are only missing people from Oceania and Antarctica for the full bingo card.
But what is interesting is that the local community – who are largely South Asian (with a handful of others around) – don’t come in on a Sunday because, for most of them, what business does a Muslim have coming into a church service on a Sunday morning? They would, of course, be welcome but we are equally not that surprised most of them don’t come to that. So, what do they see if not the multicultural makeup of our little church on a Sunday morning?
Interestingly, they see much the same thing. A Muslim lady was recently talking to one of our members. She commented how most things that happen for the community in our area of Glodwick is very monocultural. It is almost always just South Asians at it. But they had noticed how the things in which they do engage with us – the Food Club, English Classes, Light Party, Homeless Drop In – were always very multicultural. It isn’t just white Brits making use of what we do. Indeed, it is actually very few white Brits because most of them can speak English already and that isn’t the local makeup of our area. But nor is it only South Asians, though we see quite a good number of them too. It is people from South America, South Asia, East Asia, West Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa. That same neighbour commented that we were by far the most multicultural thing in Glodwick. That is what they see.
The area around our church is not always the best either. Our car park became something of a hotspot for people stripping out and dumping old vans for a time. The back of our church – being both secluded and dark – became a hotspot for drug taking. Our own grounds, for various reasons, were beginning to look not a little messy. What, exactly, do people see and what does it convey about our gospel? What does it convey about how we view the local area?
We have taken steps to address these things. We have attempted to clear up the grounds and help clean litter locally. In the process of cleaning the grounds, there was a big tree causing issues for one of our neighbours. We made sure we removed it for them and stopped it being an issue. We are in the process of trying to fence and secure the area around the church. We are trying to create an outside space that we might be able to use to meet when the weather is okay, but that also secures the area for the sake of our neighbours. We have started to install security lighting around the outside of the building for the sake of the neighbours, stopping the area being a draw for social issues. We know these things have been seen by our neighbours because they have specifically thanked us for doing them. They see that we also care about our local area and we want to be good neighbours. We care about the issues facing our area and we care about the issues facing our neighbours.
Another meeting led to one of our members presenting some of what we do locally in the community in front of the Mayor of Manchester no less. But it was amazing that some local Muslim women spoke up about the love and care they had received from Bethel Church over the years. Some talked about recent things, but others spoke about things from many years ago that we wouldn’t have thought all that much about. But what do our neighbours see? A church that wants to welcome them and serve them. They are beginning to say themselves that it is a good thing that Bethel Church is there in the community. Isn’t it wonderful when unbelievers speak well of the church, not because they have watered down their message of hope found exclusively in Jesus Christ, but because that self same gospel they believe has caused them to be a genuine and objective good in the community.
In another recent discussion, we were speaking together about responses during the Covid-19 pandemic. I don’t have any intention of getting into the rights and wrongs of how that was handled or addressed here. I just want to note that the steps we took were, at least in part, an effort to ensure we did not ruin our witness in the local community. As all the mosques in the area – along with all the local businesses – were forced to close, we had to ask what would our neighbours see in our response and how would it impact on the gospel we wanted to share with them? All these years of witness could go up in smoke very quickly if we did not take care to ensure whatever we did honoured Christ and served as a good and godly witness to our neighbours. I’m not suggesting there is a specific right or wrong approach to that question, save to say, we have to think carefully about what our neighbours see for the sake of Christ.
None of these things, on their own, will bring anyone into the kingdom. None of these things are likely to lead anyone to trust in Jesus by themselves. But what they do is open the door to such conversations. They stop people being utterly suspicious of who we are, what we’re doing and why we do it. Many people think, because of these things, we are (at least broadly) a force for good in the local area. Being viewed as an essential good means that the real good of the gospel then gets a hearing. If we want to share the gospel in a community like ours, where we might otherwise be viewed with suspicion, it’s important that we pay some attention to what our neighbours see and what they might be led to think.