15 December 2017

Reverse Missionary

raThe BBC had a lovely idea to produce a programme looking at how Christianity was taken from these shores to far flung places by missionaries years ago only to find that these self same places are now sending missionaries back here. The church seems to be flourishing in other places while it appears to be in decline here at home. A television production company was commissioned with the task of bringing successful Christian leaders, who had a homelands missionary link to the UK, to see if they could revive flagging congregations. The upshot of this was the arrival in August of 2011 of a lady from India to the Shankill Road in Belfast.

Kshama Jayaraj and her husband, Thomas, pastor a church in Mumbai (Bombay) called ‘The House of Prayer’, where they seek to spread the gospel through a mixture of dance, music and prayer. This methodology has proved a real hit with the young people. The question was, could she do the same in Belfast? The Shankill Road was chosen because it had been home to Kshama’s inspirational heroine, the missionary Amy Carmichael, who spent 55 years in India helping vulnerable children.

Kshama’s journey to her spiritual roots found her visiting Townsend Street Presbyterian Church near where Amy Carmichael had started her ‘Welcome Hall’ at the age of 22, to help Belfast’s young millworkers known as the Shawlies. The girls felt they could not go to church because they did not have nice hats and clothes to wear, so Amy started a church for them where attire was unimportant. Her slogan was “Come one, come all, come to the Welcome Hall, and come in your working clothes.”

The programme was broadcast in March of this year and made good television, as we watched the gracious but sometimes naive Kshama use her great communication skills and redoubtable charm to try and persuade people in the local area to come to the church. Is a couple of weeks spent interacting with a few locals on the Shankill Road, mission? Not according to her role model Amy Carmichael. When she chose to follow the call of God upon her life she went as a missionary to India and she never returned. This was a TV programme – not mission, but did it have any lasting impact on the church or local community? Did it give any fresh insight or understanding as to why congregations like Townsend Street and many others are dwindling away, while churches like ‘the House of Prayer’ are thriving? To answer this and other such questions I met up with Rev. Jack Lamb, minister of Townsend Street Presbyterian Church, on the Peaceline between the Shankill and the Falls Roads Jack, in my opinion you and the congregation were very brave to let the cameras in. To show the world a once great church, built in the 1870’s to hold 1100 now reduced to about 50 people, and to invite an unknown Indian lady to lead an outreach. How difficult was it to persuade the Church leaders this was a good idea?

“At first the Kirk session members were apprehensive but after due consideration they embraced the project and gave it their full support. By way of context, I think you need to understand first how the Shankill area has changed demographically over the past 50 years or so. It used to be at the heart of industry with many major employers locally, such that young people could leave school on a Friday and start work on a Monday without the need of any qualification beyond that of coming from a Protestant community. People here were hard working and family oriented, going to church was part of who they were and their cultural heritage. Those days are gone, and many struggle to get jobs at all and often their children under-perform at school even compared to the counterparts across the peaceline. Those who do get an education tend to leave the area and often never return and sometimes do not even wish to acknowledge their humble roots, which is sad. There used to be 79,000 people in this area, today there are about 26,000. There are more than 40 churches, mission halls and fellowships in the greater Shankill. All of them used to be vibrant, but today most congregations are elderly with few members younger than 30. So in opening our doors to the world we are only reflecting what is happening in other congregations. Having a visit like this is not an admission of defeat but rather a facing up to the reality of the challenge that this generation presents to the church.”

What was your opinion of Kshama?

“She was absolutely lovely. She had not been to the UK before and the first thing she did when she arrived in London, en route for Belfast, was to phone an old lady who had been a missionary in her village, to thank her for everything she had done and the influence she had been on her life. This, to me, sums up the sort of person she is.”

“She was like the ‘pied piper’, she could talk to anyone of any age and get them to do things that we could never have done. She was also very insightful when engaging with people. One example would be of a typical teenager, about 16 who turned up at the church at her invitation. We would not have known how to deal with him but Kshama asked him to blow up balloons and attach them to the end of the pews. This was genius. He took to it straight away and beavered away feverishly until the task was done. She had enrolled him in the vision and given him a task that he was able to do and he felt really good about himself at being asked to participate. There are lessons there for us all.”

“Interestingly she found the work much more difficult than she expected. She said that normally she has no difficulty going up to anyone and talking to them about Jesus and finds it really easy to engage in fruitful and productive conversations. Here however, she could not get over the lack of concern or interest in the gospel, which saddened her deeply.”

How did the community react to Kshama’s visit and have there been any long term effects?

“That was back last August and people locally are still talking about it. Her visit was very well received, but then people round here are usually very friendly and welcoming of strangers. Kshama was so winsome in her manner and could share her faith so naturally in any situation, that she made an immediate impact wherever she went. However faith is not instant, Christianity is about an ongoing salvation, walking the walk not just talking the talk. Television is perhaps only being representative of our society in wanting instant results, like some sort of make over programme, but we, as church, are here for the long haul. However we have learned real and lasting lessons from the experience. While I have been living and ministering in this community now for 16 years and feel I have some understanding of the needs and concerns of the people, those who visited us as a result of Kshama’s visit made me acutely aware of the huge disconnect that exists between the church and the world.”

“One of the issues we need to face as a church is how to re-engage with ordinary people in the streets around us, many of whom have never been inside a church. We have no concept of what life is like for them, really. Kshama visited one young girl who told her she had everything in life she wanted and had no need of her Jesus. She had a baby, a boyfriend, a flat, benefit money, what more could she want? This came as a real shock to Kshama. The fact that in some families no one works, nor would it pay them to work if they could get a job, is a sad reality. The great thing about our welfare state is no one needs to be in need, but it has left many people without hope or purpose. There is a certain nihilism is the community. When you ask some young people what their dreams are for when they grow up, they don’t have any. The answer is “nothing” and that about sums up their lives, materially satisfied but spiritually empty.”

So what do you see as the legacy from the project?

“We need to become more involved in local community life. To engage with non-church organisations out there, like the Shankill Women’s Centre, and to affirm the work they are doing as good. To congratulate and support them as they seek to heal this broken and divided community. We also need to help provide hope for people who have been let down by life. We have discovered that our community has a high rate of illiteracy and this is something which we, as a church, could help families with practically.”

“Kshama has helped us to realise that it is not enough to just keep on doing what we have always done and expecting a different outcome. We need to look outside for ways to reach out and show the love of Jesus to needy and hurting people. When we see what one person can do in a few short days, it makes us, as a congregation, question our ways. I have asked our folk if they would like to see the church grow and develop, and they certainly would, but some wish to do it without changing traditional services. Many recognise that change is necessary but would prefer us to wait till after they die, which is totally understandable, but by then it may be too late!”