Whilst many churches may agree that they could benefit from being more strategic in their involvement in cross-cultural mission there would be little consensus on how they ought to go about forming a strategy or what it might look like. St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London has taken the bold step of identifying four areas of the world on which to focus their mission sending and support as a church. We spoke to Rob Scott, the Mission Partners Coordinator at St Helen’s about how they came to make this decision and the impact that it has had on the life and ministry of the church.
When considering a mission focus for the church, it can be hard to know where to start. Could you tell us something about how you began the process?
It’s been a long journey. About twenty years ago some parts of St Helen’s were destroyed by the IRA, and as part of the rebuilding work we also took the opportunity to re-examine all areas of church life. Johnny Juckes was appointed to lead this under the Rector. He had overseas experience, and he noticed that with regard to our mission partners it was almost the case of taking anyone and sending them anywhere – without any real thought. He felt it would be worthwhile appointing someone to invest in this full time and do it well.
Angus Crichton was asked to put together the strategy we now have – a threefold strategy to understand who God is, what our world is like, and what we are like as a church. The church’s mission is to be a part of bringing people into God’s kingdom – we have the overall Biblical mandate for this, but no blueprint in how to do it. So what is the world like now? It’s not like it was for William Carey. It might not be appropriate to send missionaries to Kenya or even to Somalia anymore. It might be more appropriate to help support Kenyan believers to reach the Somali people. So, part of our approach was to find national partners for a genuine partnership where we equip and help one another.
We also feel it’s much better to understand an area and its needs well rather than sending people ‘everywhere’. And, like many large London churches we have a high turnover of people – it might take 10 years for a mission partner to be trained and fully functioning, by which time many of the people they know in the church have left. So we have tried to focus on different geographical areas as a whole church, and then introduce the congregation to the mission partners as part of this bigger picture.
Angus spent a couple of years doing some very thoughtful research – talking to different mission agencies and different national believers. As a result we decided it was no longer appropriate to support a number of our mission partners. This needed to be handled maturely and sensitively on all sides, with an appropriate transition period.
So, which parts of the world did you decide to focus on?
We focus on a country in East Asia, French-speaking Europe, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Our link with East Asia is a great example of us ‘catching up’ with what God is doing. About 10 years ago one church member got to know a PhD student from that country, and started a Bible study in English together, and the work has blossomed from that.
We decided to focus on French-speaking Europe for a number of reasons. Being part of the European Union gives great opportunity for people to easily move their jobs to a different location, especially as many of our London companies have offices in France and Belgium. We recognised that France and Belgium are actually spiritually needier than parts of Africa, and are right ‘on our doorstep’. Because many of us in the UK know at least a little French, language learning doesn’t seem such a huge barrier. And we had the help of one mission partner who was already in France who helped us to understand the Francophone context better. So as a result we encourage people in our congregation to consider going with their businesses to work in an office in Brussels or Paris and to join churches there.
In terms of our links with South Asia, we have so many Bangladeshis here in London that we decided to get involved. This allows our church members to get experience in ministry amongst Bangladeshis here in London – and is great for equipping those considering going out longer term to Bangladesh.
We already had long-standing ties with Nigeria and South Africa, so we decided to build on these.
Can you give us an example of how your local ministry fits with your global focus?
Our links with Bangladeshis and Bangladesh is a good example. We didn’t sit down with a blank sheet of paper, rather God moved us by bringing different things together. Some of our church members live in Tower Hamlets where there are 80,000+ Bangladeshis according to the 2011 census – mostly Sylheti people from Northeast Bangladesh. In the late '90s an American missionary couple who joined St Helen’s set up various toddler groups amongst Bangladeshi families. A few years down the line some of these families were asking for help with homework for their children, so we asked for volunteers. Relationships developed from this, and a growing desire to think about how to be more involved. Over this period we have helped over 150 families.
Also, we now have half a dozen members of St Helen’s who work part time or full time at their ‘normal’ jobs, but during the rest of their week are meeting Sylheti people. My wife and I have just come back from 18 months in Northeast Bangladesh, where 95% of the Bangladeshis in the UK come from. We are thinking about starting a church amongst them in due course (recognising that other churches in Tower Hamlets are also reaching out).
Our interest in the country in East Asia has grown over time – from the initial contact with one student, more students started bringing others along to the Bible study. We discovered that it is relatively straightforward to explain the gospel in English and for people to become Christians, but it was much harder to disciple them well. Once two or three Bible study groups were running we asked a British couple who had experience serving in that country to be involved in leading these groups, discipling those who became Christians, and to see where it went. From this started a Mandarin-speaking house church in 2005 (meeting on a Sunday afternoon). We’re careful to talk about it as a linguistic congregation rather than an ethnic congregation to convey that the reason for it is to overcome any difficulties in understanding English. It is largely set up to make it more like it would be back home and so equip and prepare new believers to go back to East Asia. However, we try to ensure that each member of the Mandarin congregation also goes to one other of our Sunday services so that they feel connected with the wider body of believers at St Helen’s. We then started thinking about how we can serve the church in that country, so we now support in prayer a couple of nationals and we pray for the local church there. We’ve also been involved in the Bridge - a fellowship for returnees to help them integrate into the local church, something they tend to find very difficult on returning home.
What impact has this more focussed approach had on you as a church?
In terms of people who present themselves to us wanting to go overseas as missionaries, we talk it through with them and try and gauge how best their desire to go fits with our strategy. If it doesn’t fit, we say graciously that we can’t send them, but try to point them in other directions for support (for instance, maybe one of our church plants will take them on). We have a ‘9:38’ evening (from Matthew 9:38) once a year and we really encourage people during this evening to think about whether they have the gifts and godliness to be Bible teachers for the future. In the past we have had a cross-cultural track for this. We also give exposure from the front of church when we have mission partners back on home assignment or just back for the weekend (if they are in France or Belgium). These folks encourage others to come and join them, come and see what they are doing, come and visit for the weekend, come and move your job. However, we do need to be better at approaching people, at directly encouraging people to go, at saying “Why not go to France?”, “Why not go to Nigeria?”, at laying hands on people and sending them out.
However “strategic” we are or aren’t, I’m not sure we can claim much credit for it. We’ve slowly caught up with God and have been grateful for his wisdom in pushing us forward.