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How we unlocked the chance to reach out in lockdown

Throughout the pandemic, City Gates Church in Ilford creatively balanced outreach to its community with caring for its members.

 City Gates Church was determined that its outreach wouldn't suffer during the pandemic.

The Ilford church has long run a wide mix of activities, schemes and events to support and connect with local people.

The challenge, pastor Stephen Derbyshire explains, was to find creative ways to navigate the twists and turns of lockdown to continue this work over the past 18 months.

Looking back over this time, many of its outreach activities have been evangelistic, says Stephen.

Wanting to share the gospel, City Gates Church was one of many to join Elim's national Alpha course during lockdown.

"We had quite a number attend and we did see some people come to faith, so it was a success."

In a similar vein, the church ran small open groups online to help introduce people to church and offer discipleship.

"We don't want to send people to our main groups without getting to know them first, so we run these open groups, some of which are evangelistic, and have had quite a number of non-Christians join them."

Their outreach services also allowed City Gates Church to share the gospel, including some hosted by City Women, the ministry Stephen's wife Julia heads up.

City Gates actively maintained its social outreach and practical support for its community during the pandemic too.

"We have a ministry of feeding people, including the homeless, the needy in church, and people in self-isolation. We made sure we took them meals, delivered food every week and ran meals for the elderly in church."

The church continued its support of the east London branch of addiction charity Teen Challenge, of which Stephen is the chairman, with funding, furniture, accommodation and evangelistic material being just some of the items supplied to help the boys and men the charity supports.

"With Teen Challenge, we continued to go out whenever we could into Ealing, King's Cross and Whitechapel," said Stephen, explaining how they reach out to vulnerable groups, including teenage girls ensnared in prostitution. The church also typically provides meals for more than 5,000 people each year.

Stephen was also thrilled to be able to reopen the church's popular Starbucks-style coffee shop to the local community last month.

Events that connect City Gates Church with local people are another form of outreach Stephen has been glad to restart, and the church lost no time organising some summer fun after lockdown.

"In August we had our Summer Fest. We usually get a couple of hundred people there so we really pulled the stops out, brought outside caterers in along with inflatables and a band. Hundreds of people came along who just wanted to get out."

A Thames Boat Party over the last bank holiday was another popular event for the church.

But while City Gates has been active in outreach, Stephen says he has also been conscious of the need to take equal care and attention over church members.

"We had to make sure the church was healthy too."

While many churches chose to close, City Gates took the opposite tack and kept as fully open as possible throughout the pandemic, with stringent cleaning and social distancing measures in place for safety.

"The government said churches could stay open because they are an essential service, so we did. We always wanted people to have the option to come to church. We just felt there were a lot of hurting and broken people out there in London, or people without any support whatsoever, and we were really concerned about them.

"We continued to get almost our maximum numbers. We held two Sunday services and were able to have about 200 people in each.

"It was amazing because I know there's been reluctance among volunteers in some churches, but we were OK because we kept the church running."

City Gates was mindful to support people who couldn't or preferred not to attend church in person, with a mix of online services to cater for different ages and groups. Regular phone calls were also made to keep in touch with its 1,300 members.

As lockdown restrictions have eased, the church has been helping an increasing number of people to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic via professional Christian counselling.

"Lots of people have lost their confidence and I'm hearing the counsellors are seeing many people with mental health issues too. We've really got to get alongside them, so this is an important service we're trying to provide for our community."

The lifting of restrictions has also created a fantastic opportunity for people to begin inviting their friends to live church again, Stephen says, not least because Zoom fatigue has lessened the popularity of online meetings.

"You can put on lots of outreach events, but it's also just about people inviting friends to church and we've seen people do that."

City Gates happily scrapped registration for attending services the minute it was allowed to do so, and this has made church more open and welcoming.

"One of our members met someone in a refuge and was desperate to invite her to church, but the lady wouldn't come because she had to give her details to register. She felt able to come last Sunday because she didn't have to give her information.

"Last Sunday we were full, and a couple of new people came and introduced themselves afterwards."

While City Gates is maintaining a hybrid mix of online and live events, Stephen is convinced in-person services are the way forward post-Covid.

"The moment restrictions were lifted people wanted to be together, to meet each other in clubs, restaurants, shopping centres, theatres and at football games.

"It's the same with church, being together, feeling the presence of God in worship, encouraging one another, serving one another.

"It's incredibly important for people to be together, whether that's in a main church or satellites. I've no doubt that an in-person gathering remains the main form of building church."

First published in the October 2021 issue of Direction, Elim’s monthly magazine. Subscribe now to get Direction delivered to your home.

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