In the last two years, two young people have been stabbed and killed on the Surrey Lane Estate. Here is how The Bridge Battersea has been seeking to make a difference:
Seven years ago The Bridge Battersea, a church plant in partnership with London City Mission, launched RISE Academy. The aim was to try and serve the young black boys on the estate where I lived by providing after school tuition, mentoring and building networks of support between families. Many of the young people involved with this scheme have not been directly involved in serious youth violence. A few have. I want to share what I’ve learnt about seeking to make an impact on this issue through the story of RISE.
It would be easy to assume at this point that I think that youth violence is a “black” problem. It isn’t. In fact in recent years, the highest rates of knife crime in the UK have been in Glasgow. So high that the United Nations declared Scotland the most violent country in the developed world. The significance of this is that only 2.4% of the population there is black. This means that the causes of youth violence are not fundamentally about race.
Having said this, serious youth violence seems to disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic background youth in London. In other words, the complex web of factors that cause youth violence anywhere, disproportionately affect ethnic minority groups in London. It is out of this sad reality that RISE was born.
Like all Co-Mission churches, we were keen to love our neighbours the way that our Father in heaven does. In part, that looked like finding ways to show mercy in our community (Matthew 5:43-47). One of the groups most in need of that mercy were our young people. Here’s how that worked out for us:
Our aim was to offer young people an attractive new purpose - to be an ambassador for God (Genesis 1:26-28). Unfortunately, the circumstances, experiences and culture of the boys who were referred to us through schools and youth groups often nudged them in a very different direction. Their life circumstances were sometimes very stable but in other cases explosive. Their experiences were sometimes mostly of the Disney variety - being told “to be true to what they feel.” For others, police cordons were second nature and spoke of troubling tension in their streets. Their cultural influences sometimes included drill music but for others just run of the mill, individualistic, materialistic pop. All of these influences could nudge them to rewrite the story of our lives with God far from the centre. So in our weekly evening meetings, we sought to communicate something of the Bible’s big story - that we were made to love, the way that God loves us.
With this as our aim, it was clear to us that we would not excite the next generation with this vision merely through correction (e.g. the strict code of respect in our meetings or tougher sentencing in the courts). Nor would mere containment do the job (e.g. our programming skills courses that kept them off the streets or more council youth provision that did the same). We knew that we needed to do these things, but that they were never designed to thrill us with new purpose. They needed the story of the Bible.
The tough part was communicating this story well. Often we spoke a vastly different language to the young people we served. So to communicate this vision in language they could understand, in ways that addressed their questions and fears, we needed to know where they are coming from. This wasn’t about wearing the same trainers but about taking the time to listen to them. It’s been crucial. Eating together every week meant that there was really time to do that.
We listened to their music and introduced them to some Christian hip hop artists too. We heard about the places in school and on the estate where they feel scared. Because we heard them, we could then begin to communicate this new vision to them in ways that connect and find practical ways to support them. I wish I could say we were now experts. It is still very much a work in progress.
Living as Ambassadors
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been finding ways of demonstrating that this new vision was a credible alternative. In other words, showing what it actually looks like in daily life. Just like putting on a new school uniform doesn’t instantly transform a child, so being told that you are made in the image of God does not instantly change a child either.
We found that we could engagingly communicate a new purpose during our two hours together during the week, but as soon as they walked out the door they reverted to street psychology. The fact was that some would walk through the doors of their homes and be confronted with scenarios that they found tough to reconcile with the neat and tidy teaching that they’d just heard. Even for those under the influence of Christ, old patterns of behaviour could be difficult to shake. I remember one boy giving his life to Christ on a weekend away, only to be arrested a few days later for armed robbery.
This is not a new problem. Despite being under the influence of Jesus for three years, Peter’s first instinct in the Garden of Gethsemane was to wield a blade inappropriately under pressure (John 18:10-11). To meet violence with violence.
In school, how people behave around you begins to teach you what it means to wear the uniform. In the same way, we tried as a church to show what it means to live as one of God’s children. We set up something called “RISE Sunday” where every term, children and parents would join our normal Sunday service to experience God’s new community. More recently we have replaced this with a termly dinner, where some of our congregation and RISE parents meet and chat more informally, as well as celebrating their children’s work and the work of Christ that they have been hearing about.
We hope ideally to get the after-school element of RISE running on more days during the week too. All of this is about providing space for young people to see this way of life as a credible alternative to the sense of belonging and culture they get elsewhere.
To learn new ways to deal with images sent to their phones to ridicule others in their class. A place where being a man doesn’t simply mean being macho or a woman being a sex symbol. A community where they can be honest and vulnerable without being mocked. A community that embodies a new purpose.
What could this mean for you?
- What are the hopes and fears of young people in your community? Where are the places that they feel fear?
- How could you find out and support them?
- How could you tell stories that show them how a Christian worldview works out at street level?
- What could your Church do to demonstrate to young people that it is a credible alternative community?
WORKING IN PARTNERSHIP
We realised pretty quickly that we couldn’t do this alone. As wonderful as this vision of purpose sounds, it was difficult to put into practice as consistently or coherently as we would like. It was resource intensive. Many young people were not yet professing faith and there were few others their age that they could connect with. There were also few older black Christians who could mentor them. So we enrolled partners from across our town and city.
I visited other churches, within our network and beyond, to recruit mentors. I used my contacts in Westminster to organise tours and audiences with MPs. I collared friends who were teachers and consultants from anywhere I could. We worked with another local youth club to facilitate trips to the country. In other words, we realised that if we were serious about making a difference, then we needed to explore how we could work in partnership with other groups. We needed to harness the resources of the whole city. Perhaps an advantage of being a small church was that our inadequacy was obvious. But whatever our church context, the challenge we face in our city is too big for any one group to transform alone.
What could this mean for you?
- How could you support other churches or local groups in envisioning young people?
- Is there someone you know who could train as an Ascension Trust Schools Pastor?
- Could you arrange work experience or a tour of your place of work to give some young people in London a taste of different opportunities available to them?
LOOKING TO CHRIST'S POWER
Christine Goodall is a surgeon who founded “Medics against violence” in 2008. They campaigned really hard to get the legislation around knife crime changed so people would be more likely to get a mandatory sentence. There was also, at the outset, a lot of stop and search. But ten years later she said: “You can arrest as many people as you like. You can search as many people as you like. You can throw away the key if you want to. It just won’t solve the problem.” It takes something far more powerful. The great thing is that God has given us two powerful weapons to wage war with: prayer and the good news of Jesus Christ.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
Prayer can stop battles and change the outcome of conflict. Asa prayed “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army” (2 Chronicles 14:11). It can certainly feel like we face a vast youth army issued with knives. We have found ourselves sustained by God’s help.
We don’t presume to know the Lord’s will. But we realise that it would be foolish not to trust the promise of Christ that when we pray, he can change history. He can cause the army of young people carrying knives to cease and desist. Our experience is that we pray and plan. Then people emerge to be part of RISE, keep coming back and have been changed. Since we started RISE seven years ago with three kids, two whole families have become part of the church and ten teenagers went along to a Christian summer camp last year. Only one boy, out of the many who have been involved in the scheme, has been caught up in serious youth violence. We are grateful for God’s mercy in response to our prayers.
THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL
It was as the gospel took deeper root in the Apostle Peter’s life, that his attitude to conflict was transformed. He wrote: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23-24)
We often want to talk about purely human solutions: Why don’t the council keep them occupied? Why don’t the police crack down? These are important questions. London youth often believe that carrying a knife makes them safer. In fact they need to know that the opposite is true. The bottom line, however, is that more youth funding, more stop-and-search, tougher sentencing or clearer statistics will never solve the fundamental problem – that the “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). The problem is not merely social, it is spiritual too.
The devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). So he rejoices to see young people lashing out in anger and death rates rising. Since he’s also a liar, it pleases him for Christians to believe the lie that the weapons God gives us are ineffective in the war against knife crime.
Only Christ transforms hearts from war makers to peace makers, because it’s his gospel that “teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12). Only Christ guarantees a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). Only Christ gives us the promise that he will relieve our mourning and comfort us in our sorrow (Revelation 21:4).
What could this mean for you?
- Do you pray as a church pro-actively about the issue of youth violence?
- Are you still convinced that the gospel can change hearts?
- Are you equipping your children, godchildren and church youth to share Christ with their friends?
I have only been able to scratch the surface of our journey these last seven years. Instilling purpose and working in partnership summarise the long term strategies that are widely agreed necessary to stem the tide of serious youth violence. I praise God for the hard-working volunteers who have made it happen. But above all, we’ve learnt to keep looking to Christ for help and hope.
If I were to point you to one resource to understand these issues better, it would be the videos and training available through powerthefight.org.uk