BY ALI BOULTON, PIONEER MISSION ENABLER AT THE SOUTHERN COUNTIES BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Eight years ago, my family and I were the very first people to move into a new housing estate in Swindon, in response to a call to the diverse community which has since developed there.
As a former teacher I have always loved working with young people and been keen to share the love of Jesus with people outside the church. At a prayer meeting in 2008, I was asked to pray for this yet-tobe -built housing estate. As I bent my head, I had an overwhelming encounter with God, which left me sure that he was calling me to move there to serve and bless the community, and that God would plant a church.
It felt like home from day one. We were joined by a team of six others and started by preparing welcome baskets for people moving into their new homes. This was during the credit crunch, when getting a mortgage was difficult so the social housing filled up first. For most people this new house represented a new start as they moved on from previous life circumstances or unsuitable accommodation. As a family we were able to relate to this in many ways as we were also starting a new life.
One of the biggest surprises has been how people have taken us to their hearts. It’s a myth that people are no longer interested in faith – so many have asked me questions and wanted to know more. It’s been a joy to see what God has done in response, including significant breakthroughs in people’s lives and the emergence of a church for the unchurched. I believe God is wanting to do so much more in estates across the country. For anyone who wants to play a part in this, it’s important to:
1. Move in
It’s crucial to journey with people and live alongside them, rather than do things to or for them. Incarnational living is a deep biblical principle – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For many valid reasons it’s not always possible, but the best way to start is to move in and say “we’re together in this”.
2. Do all you can to bless unconditionally
When I delivered welcome baskets I introduced myself and explained that I was here to serve people of all faiths and none. Some people told me their life stories, and some just said thank you and closed the door, but I deliberately didn’t ask for anything back. We need to do whatever we can to bless the people we live among. For us, this has meant lots of coffee and conversation, hosting parties and pamper nights, applying for funding on behalf of the community and supporting people who are experiencing crises in their lives. One lesson I’ve learned is that often the people you walk alongside the most can feel the most let down when you can’t be all things to them. All you can do is keep loving and not expect anything in return.
3. Lay your agenda down
From the outset I felt it was right to lay down any agenda. Instead, we’ve focused on listening to people and to God, watching to see what the Holy Spirit is doing and joining in. There’s a common misconception that pioneering is about getting a church established as quickly as possible. For the first year, our church was simply a group of people loving and blessing the community. I actually felt God say, “Don’t talk about me.” Instead, as we built connections, people started to ask questions. A growing group of unchurched people wanted to meet on a Sunday morning at our house and, now that we’ve outgrown it, in the community centre.
4. Say no to too much power
This is less likely to happen on an established estate, but if you move in early in a new estate you can quite quickly become a person of power. I have been chair of the local school governors and the community association, and decided to step down from the first role when I took on the second. I’m careful about inviting people to things because some might feel obliged to say yes because I’m the one who asked. Now I just say: “If you ever wanted to come you’d be really welcome.”
5. Enjoy what God is doing
I love seeing people’s lives transformed, watching people who were once isolated making friends and baptising new believers in our garden. There are real challenges in what we’re doing; having an open house, for example, means people turn up at different times of day or night and we have had to learn how to access and partner other agencies who can help and support. But we’re called to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing and be bearers of God’s image in that place – and it’s such a privilege.
The Call in Action: Learn
- To learn more, purchase Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas by Penny Marsh and Ali Boulton from Grove Books.
- If you want to join the National New Housing Hub – a cross-denominational network for those engaging in new housing areas, Ali can be contacted via the Southern Counties Baptist Association.
- Ali recently spoke at a day conference on estate mission hosted by CMS.
Edited by Jo Mitchell, freelance writer