For many African migrant churches in Britain, evangelism is both a hard chore and an uphill struggle. The tactics and strategies that worked well in Africa often don’t work effectively in Britain. Distributing tracts on the high street or door-knocking evangelism, no matter how long you do them, don’t seem to grow churches as much as they hoped they would.
The evangelism they’re doing doesn’t seem to help them connect with British people. Consequently, for most of those I have met, figuring out how best to evangelise in Britain is tricky.
But not for one Nigerian congregation in London.
After a few months of prayer and discernment about how to engage in mission in their borough, the congregation decided to ask, “what does the good news sound like to the people around us?” And “how best can we share it with them in a manner that they can understand?”
They decided to experiment with a few ideas; television and social media ministry, after-school clubs, free music lessons, summer barbeques and street parties — all of which yielded some success.
However, they realised that within half-a-mile radius of their church, there were many elderly people living alone at home. The social workers in the congregation explained that many elderly people living alone experience high levels of loneliness. In a missional discernment meeting, the congregation’s pastor asked the members what the good news to such lonely elders could be.
Before long, they agreed that, first and foremost, the good news to such lonely people is the unconditional love and companionship of Jesus – which is, of course, expressed through Christian neighbours being Jesus’ “hands and feet”. Not as a means to gain an audience to preach to, but really taking that companionship in itself as part of God’s mission in their city.
The church stated: “Jesus, for the lonely in our neighbourhood, is a faithful friend that stays by our side forever,” and made a commitment to be that friend to their lonely elderly neighbours.
The congregation sought training from experts in social work, and guidance from their local Council (which provided licences to the church to befriend and support the lonely elderly in the area). Thus, a befriending ministry was born.
After one year, I went back to reflect with them on what had happened and what they had learned about evangelism through this ministry. I saw a very energised congregation who had a lot to celebrate.
They’d made many new friends in the neighbourhood. Most of these new friends had asked about their faith, and quite a few had become Christians through their efforts.
Their church received visitors — mostly non-African — almost every Sunday because of this new thrust of community engagement.
The congregation itself now feels more at home in the community than they ever did be-fore.
The journey they’ve been on has taught the church three things key about evangelism in the UK:
1. Evangelism is still possible.
They’d tried many strategies for many years, with minimal success. Like many African churches in Britain, they’d come to the conclusion that evangelism just doesn’t work in Britain. Many were frustrated that what they knew of as evangelism seemed totally out of context in London.
At the beginning of the journey of missional discernment, they all said: “It’s impossible to do effective evangelism in Britain”. “This country is the hardest mission field on earth,” one of them told me.
When I spoke to them a year into the project, that same person came back to me and said:
“evangelism is possible here… actually it’s fun, as it forces us to learn many new ways of relating – and of course, unlearn many old habits of evangelising.”
2. Evangelism is necessary
A church that doesn’t engage in evangelism is just waiting to close down. Most African churches in Britain know this. In order to survive in Britain, they must face the challenge to evangelise beyond their own African immigrant communities, and to disciple their younger generation (which, in the context of Britain, is also a form of cross-cultural evangelism).
This Nigerian congregation in London found this out for themselves. Once they decided to commit to working with the lonely elderly in their area, they saw their fortunes change. It was like a door into the community was opened for them. All of a sudden, the church got a new lease on life.
Their young people now lead the befriending ministry, and their youth ministry has doubled in size in one year (the pastor suspects this is because the young people now have something to do in the life of the church).
3. The best evangelism is relational
Evangelism in British culture ought to be relational. You cannot evangelise from a distance – those days are gone.
To be able to reach people, we have to relationally move closer to them. All our other strategies will only do well if they complement relational ways of evangelism. The tracts, door-knocking and street preaching must accompany missional living and other ways of relational evangelism.
For this Nigerian congregation, their befriending ministry made relational evangelism possible. By befriending and supporting lonely elders in their community, they built relationships which made organic forms of evangelism possible. This, for them, was the greatest gain.