Fruitful urban ministry over the long-term

Neil Harrison

5.2.2021 | Congregational Life, Global Mission, Mission, Refined

Neil Harrison, PCI’s Mission Development Officer, shares the vision of the denomination’s Urban Mission Network and the reflections of Rev John Coulter of Ballysally congregation, Coleraine, on 25 years of ministry in an estate setting.

PCI’s Urban Mission Network is an initiative to encourage and equip those ministering in a full-time or part-time role in an urban mission context. Primarily this includes inner-city housing areas and housing estates that often experience social deprivation.

Under the auspices of the Council for Mission in Ireland, I am involved in coordinating the network and organising gatherings throughout the year. A virtual gathering took place recently with the Rev John Coulter from Ballysally congregation in Coleraine sharing wisdom and insight. He has been ministering in an urban estate for 25 years and shared on the topic of fruitful urban ministry over the long-term. This blog is a summary of John’s words that will be helpful to anyone serving in a similar context.

Fruitful ministry in concrete ways

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last.” John 15:16

Often we measure fruitfulness in terms of conversions but in an urban context that may not be a helpful measure and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s quite possible to be a fruitful church and a small church at the same time. We are reminded that we are involved in urban ministry because God has chosen us and our role is to produce fruit that will last. Ultimately, that is measured in disciples reflecting the life of Jesus, growing from our ministry.

In agriculture, fruitfulness is not just dependent on the farmer but on the condition of the soil and the weather. Similarly, fruitfulness in urban ministry doesn’t just depend on what we do - growth is affected by the heart and attitude of those we are working with, and ultimately by the sovereign plans and purposes of the Lord. He is the only one who can open the eyes of the blind. Our role is to be faithful in making him known as widely as possible, as we share God’s love and redeeming purposes in Christ. We have a responsibility to bear witness by the things we say and the things we do.

We are called to be hard-working, competent and wise in how we approach our ministry. We can be busy doing lots of things but sometimes this can be can be mis-directed with a lack of creativity or thought. Approaches and methodologies that served us well in PCI over many years are no longer doing so. We must think about why that might be. How might we re-imagine new ways of reaching people with the gospel? Ballysally congregation always had their Sunday school at 10am before the church service and numbers had dwindled to just a few children. It was decided this was not the best time of the week to encourage unreached families to send their children so instead they launched a children’s club on a Thursday evening that grew to between 30-70 children each week.

Blog_InnerCityFruit_Feb2021-(2).jpgReaching men in urban areas is challenging but in Ballysally they have found many gospel opportunities with men by creating environments for them to engage in activities they enjoy, such as five-a-side football, pool and darts. Activities like this have become part of the life of the church, allowing relationships to grow that in time open up questions and gospel conversations.

No matter how creative we are or how hard we work, it is as we remain in Jesus that we bear fruit. Therefore, we need to pray humbly and dependently, and we need to teach and encourage others to pray and create time for this in our ministry.

In considering fruitfulness, we must be conscious that there is much going on under the surface in people’s lives. We must be patient and careful in our judgements and focus upon the things we have control over. Are we making contact and building relationships with people who don’t know Christ? Are we cultivating a fertile environment for people to meet Christ? Are we sharing the gospel sensitively and appropriately? So often we want to harvest before we have sown, tended and allowed for growth. There was a day when we could do that because so many people knew the gospel, but this is not that day, as people are much further from any understanding of the Christian faith.

Better appreciating day to day realities

We need to understand the local context. Research into local statistics on things like deprivation, unemployment, lone parents and educational attainment, will give a helpful picture of needs. The experience of multiple social deprivation, where many of these factors come together in the lives of individuals and families, has a huge impact on identity and self-worth. It impacts the ability to focus in school, in relationships or in work environments. It impacts on the ability to trust people and imagine things could be better.

If we fail to account for this in our witness then we can react in ways that are unhelpful in nurturing relationships such as being too easily shocked or being unsympathetic to their situation. We can then be perceived as those who talk the talk of love, but do not seem to walk the walk of love to the people we are engaging with.

In Luke chapter 7 Jesus was mocked as being a ‘friend of sinners’ which reminds us that he was welcomed by sinners. This should cause us to ask if we are welcomed by sinners? If not why not? Might that be more to do with us than them? Perhaps we need to engage with people in ways that take an interest in their lives while gently sharing the gospel - leaving them with an impression that they would be glad to see us again.

A lack of resources of people and finance can be a problem in urban church life. Small numbers can limit opportunities but also mean individuals are noticed and often move into serving or leadership positions more quickly. Financial resources can be supplemented through denominational funding opportunities and other grants that target social deprivation. Building partnerships with other congregations can also be a welcome avenue of support including finance and summer teams. Beyond that, partnerships with other agencies, community organisations and local schools offer common ground in projects that meet the social needs of the area.

In it for the long haul

Urban congregations often face regular transitions in leadership. There is much benefit from the stability and consistency of a long-term ministry. It takes time to build relationships, earn trust and overcome suspicion. It takes time to train others and really understand and integrate into the context. It takes time to no longer be considered an outsider so that we can function at the heart and life of the community. In those moments of great challenge and difficulty we need to remind ourselves that God says:

‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ Hebrews 13:5

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Corinthians 12:9

So as we press on in urban ministry, not giving up when things get tough, we know that Jesus understands what we are going through and is right there with us.

If you are working in an urban mission context within PCI and would like more information about the Urban Mission Network contact Neil via email:

Neil Harrison is PCI's Mission Development Officer. 

This blog is part of the digital programme series, Refined, to help move our denominational conversation on from what was needed to initially respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, to seeking God’s leading and guiding for this next season of church life together.

Visit the Refined hub here.

Back to Blog