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Taking God to the city streets

24 March 2010

Steve Hollinghurst on the story of visionary workers who are often misunderstood


Street Pastors
Les Isaac with Rosalind Davies David C. Cook
£7.99 (978-1-84291-419-9)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

“DON’T JUDGE a book by its cover” is the advice that stuck with me as I read this book. I have been greatly impressed by what I have heard of Street Pastors; and several Church Army colleagues, involved with local schemes, have given me reason to support others in setting up Street Pastors in their area. As a researcher in Christian mission, I am keen to know more about how Street Pastors operate, and to go deeper in assessing what they actually achieve; and I hoped this book might provide some answers.

But the cover and the opening commendations led me to believe I was going to be disappointed. I gained a quick impression that this was going to be one of those tales of personal Christian triumph which leave you with a nice feeling, and might inspire you, too, but which offer little insight.

I have been a youth worker in some notorious neighbourhoods, and, like many who have done this, have often sought to defend the people and the place I have come to know and love against stereotyping by outsiders. So I was also not en­couraged by the quotes in praise of Street Pastors, which seemed to have a strong slant indicating that this was all about cleaning up inner cities, where everyone was terrified of youths with guns, knives, and drugs.

I knew from my meetings with Street Pastors that this was not at all how they saw themselves, or how they operated, and I feared this book might not help that get across. I am glad to say my first impressions were wrong.

At the centre of this book is the story of how Les Isaac, joined by others, set up the first Street Pastors scheme in his area of London, and how it then spread to other cities and towns. The story is told with honest insight and reflection on the lessons learned, which tell us much about how the Church is perceived by others, and how Christians often see each other.

In addition, the theology that undergirds Street Pastors is made clear, as is the way in which their values and behaviour flow from it.

Finally, there is a great deal of practical information that will be useful to anyone wanting their church to engage more with the local community.

My experience of the book turned out to mirror the experience of Street Pastors themselves. Isaac and his colleagues had a vision that Chris­tians were called to be a positive influence in their community, that they should work together to do this, and that they should work also with local police and government.

What they found was that many churches dismissed them because the Street Pastors were seen as represent­ing ethnic-minority issues, or because the churches wouldn’t work with other churches involved, or because they thought that working with secular authorities would com­promise their Christian faith. Those in local authorities and on the streets feared the Pastors would be insen­sitive preachers who caused trouble rather than alleviated it.

Such impressions, like mine, also proved mistaken. Street Pastors has been a great success because at its heart has been the belief that God loves people, whoever they are and whatever life they lead, and that Christians are called to go out into their communities not to preach at people, or to judge them, but to show God’s love by being with them, and being involved where love is needed most.

If you share that vision, and want to put it into practice, this book is for you. If you are one of those who are wary of Street Pastors, I encourage you to read it.

If you share that vision, and want to put it into practice, this book is for you. If you are one of those who are wary of Street Pastors, I encourage you to read it.

The Revd Steve Hollinghurst is Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army Sheffield Centre.

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