Helping to create church for those who find most Christian gatherings too slick and professional is not easy. But that was the challenge facing a group of Sheffield Christians when they formed StreetWise, a fresh expression of church for those on the margins of society.
The aim of St Thomas Philadelphia's Restore ministry is to take the power of God's love to the very edges of society and bring people into the heart of God's family. That doesn't mean getting more people to come to conventional church. But it does mean reaching out to the poor and the marginalised of the city including people who are homeless, those with life-controlling addictions, women working on the streets and people who have been in prison. Those involved in this challenging ministry and mission are committed to a holistic approach meeting practical, social, spiritual and emotional needs.
Andy Niblock leads Restore, and along with Danny Wilson, heads up StreetWise, a fresh expression of church which meets in parallel to St Thomas' main Sunday morning service in a room in the Church's training centre. He explained that StreetWise has a high proportion of members with a variety of personal and social needs and also includes those who 'felt uncomfortable' in many church settings. The aim is to create a weekly worship and fellowship gathering for those who may be intimidated by the way church can sometimes feel middle class or is delivered in a professional way. Andy says that services which may give the impression that 'people here have got it altogether' can often be offputting for those whose lives are not really under control.
Around 50 people meet each week, sharing food together before a simple time of worship, in which everyone is encouraged to participate, and many do. Stories are shared of how God has helped during the week, or of friends who have got difficulties or of ways in which addictions are slowly being overcome. It really is fully church for those who attend and those who go along to be with them. There is down to earth support available from the team during the week too, and that is vital.
One man in his thirties is a regular. He describes himself as once being a violent football hooligan. He knew he couldn't change himself but his two and a half years at StreetWise has shown that God can change him. He has learned how to love other people too, for the first time in his life.
Another man lived on the streets and sold the Big Issue, was addicted to heroin and had 'lost his way'. But when he went to StreetWise he says he genuinely found God and God found him. He knows many of his problems stem from a difficult childhood, but has valued the one to one sessions on offer through Restore ministries. Now he believes he has given all that was weighing him down to God and knows there are so many better things in life than those things that once attracted him.
Andy Niblock believes that one of the strengths of StreetWise is the way it combines practical care and support with the truth of the gospel. This holistic approach has been developed over a number of years, as StreetWise was originally set up to simply feed and minister to people living on the streets. But soon members of the Streetwise team realised that there was a real openness to faith issues too and wanted to demonstrate a lifestyle which said 'Jesus can make a difference to you'. And in the case of many who go along each week a real difference is being made, despite the significant challenges in their lives.