So it’s a rainy, freezing cold evening in November. The streets are deserted. England are playing on the telly. But you’ve planned a session of detached youth work with another member of your team. You give each other this look just before you head out that says: ‘why are we doing this again?’ Then what? Do you brave the rain, cold and empty streets or head back home and put the kettle on?
Here at Urban Devotion in Birmingham, we’ve spent a big chunk of the last 14 years on the streets, praying for the neighbourhoods we work in and meeting people in their own environments. Whenever we’ve moved into a new community we’ve tried to start by getting to know people in their own space; to build relationships before we build routines. We’ve always tried to start with people, not programmes. That’s meant that we’ve spent a lot of time doing detached youth work.
Before I joined the team, the 10 lovely individuals who started Urban Devotion each committed to spend at least 10 hours per week praying for the neighbourhood. Lots of those hours were spent on the streets in pairs. They were full-timers who weren’t trying to fit that commitment around other work and the results were amazing. We saw a 47% drop in the youth crime rate and lots of great relationships established with young people who had been clashing regularly with local authorities. That first-year experience gave us some strong reasons to stay out there prayer walking and responding to the God-interruptions that come our way, often in the form of people who needed some time or someone to listen. Last year the team clocked up 608 miles on the streets, which we worked out was the distance from Frankfurt to Florence!
We have noticed some changes in that time, though, that have occasionally caused us to question why we should still keep doing it. In 2012 the numbers we were seeing outdoors in our communities suddenly dropped off. The numbers approximately halved in a year and have stayed consistently low ever since. We never figured out what was at the bottom of it but we’ve stopped seeing the same numbers of people out there. It’s a far more regular occurrence for us these days to head out into one of our neighbourhoods and come back having seen nobody. Out of all the discussions we’ve had about whether those trends make detached work a waste of time, here are some of the changes we’ve made…
Call it a prayer walk
In the cold winter months when the streets are extra empty, this simple change of language has helped us to stay in touch with the truth about who the main person really is that we’re going out to find. If the cold weather gives your team a few months of less interrupted time to pray as you pass the homes of people you know and those you haven’t met yet, our experience taught us that certainly wouldn’t be wasted time. As John Wesley used to say,“God does nothing on earth except in answer to prayer”. I don’t know whether you’ll agree with that statement 100% but it’s very hard to make a Biblical case for regular prayer walking around your neighbourhood being a bad idea.
Try treasure hunting
We hot the idea from a church who have been asking God specific questions to get ‘clues’ they can follow. You ask God for a name, a location, a physical description and whatever He might want to say to the person you’re led to. We compare notes and start with anything that seemed the same or similar. Over a period of 18 months, we noted about a 50% accuracy rate that slowly increased over time. Lots of great God conversations happened and we re-connected with people we’d lost track of. 2 people have become Christians so far, one of whom was a guy who initially joined in with us despite not believing in Jesus yet! The exercise helps us refocus us on actively seeking the presence of God and looking specifically to share His love.
Show up somewhere else
Detached work is a great chance to build relationships. In the Church we often invite people to step into our community without stepping into theirs. I’m pretty sure the balance was a little different in the lifestyle Jesus modelled in the Gospels. So we began by asking where people were gathering. That’s led to a variety of things, including a new activity we call ‘tea in the playground’. We’ve found ourselves getting to know lots of mums from Muslim families through it. The school gates are a wonderful place to get to know people, especially if you can offer them a free tea, coffee or homemade lemonade. We’ll now give serious consideration to any idea that might take us into people’s community-building environments.
That led to a variety of things, one of which is a new activity we call ‘tea in the playground’. You might guess how that one works. We’ve found ourselves getting to know lots of mums from Muslim families. Most of these we’d never spoken to before despite being in the community for years. The school gates are a wonderful place to get to know people, especially if you can offer them a free tea, coffee or homemade lemonade. We’ll now give serious consideration to any idea that might take us into people’s community-building environments.
Are you taking to the streets to get to know people in your community? Are you wondering how to do it or are you reconsidering whether it’s worth it? Re-introducing prayer walking, having a go with treasure hunts and showing up in new places have massively helped us in North Birmingham.
Joel Goodlet is a staff member and prayer co-ordinator at Urban Devotion Birmingham.