Daniel and Grace Howson
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I am 50 years old and was born in France from missionary parents. I became a Christian when I was ten, then a year later we moved back to England and my Dad became a pastor of an Evangelical Church in Suffolk. After leaving school, I spent two years in London at Hackney Technical College learning the trade of Horology (Clock making). I then set up my own business back in Suffolk, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
God clearly called me to The Faith Mission Bible College in 1986. On completing the two year course I stayed with The Faith Mission doing evangelistic work. I married Grace in 1989 and we have three children: Miriam (21) studying nursing at York University, Simeon (19) studying Mechanical Engineering at Bath University, and Lois (15) doing GCSE’s at school.
2. Tell us about the area you work in.
Working with The Faith Mission we have moved around quite a bit; south of Scotland (Lanarkshire) 1988-1990; Devon 1990-1994; Omagh (Northern Ireland) 1994-1999; then the East Midlands up to the present. Our main thrust of ministry has been to assist local churches in evangelism. We have also overseen a growing Youth camp ministry. Over the past ten years we have developed a former farm into a Christian Retreat Centre used by many groups from a wide area (harbycentre.co.uk). We have seen God work in wonderful ways and it has been a privilege to play a small part in His bigger plan.
3. Tell us a little about how you got involved in ministry in this area.
For a number of years, Grace and I have been concerned about areas around us that have no church or gospel witness. Church planting is the obvious answer to this so we began to study and pray about whether this was something the Lord was leading us into. The Faith Mission has never church planted, but as we shared our vision we were given the green light! Our hearts have been drawn to the Earlesfield Estate in south west Grantham, twenty minutes from where we live. This is a council estate of around 1700 homes. We spent a long time researching the estate – history, demographics, needs etc. – then began working on the estate in September 2009. We began by visiting interested Christians and most of the church leaders in the Grantham area.
4. Tell us a little about some of the difficulties of ministry.
The greatest difficulty we face is the disadvantage of not living on the estate. Having bought a house on the estate with the intention of moving there we have not sensed God’s peace about moving but are, more and more, realizing that having the Centre only twenty minutes away could be a great asset to bring needy people off the estate to help them work through deep issues. Our summer camps could also be used to help the children and youth of the estate. In fact, some have shown a real interest and we expect a number to come this summer.
The culture on the estate is something that we are learning and the physical, social and particularly spiritual needs are things we have struggled with; especially with our privileged background and upbringing. The last two years have been a very steep learning curve!
5. Tell us a little about some of the blessings of your ministry.
Building relationships and earning the right to speak to individuals about Christ has been an amazing blessing. Openness and friendliness on the estate has also been a blessing. Most of the residents have never heard the gospel, never considered God or heard about Jesus. We know it is going to take a long time and we are committed to the long term! God has given us a deep love for the estate.
6. Do you have a team or do you work alone? Why?
Grace and I see our work so far on the estate as foundational with the knowledge that we now need to seek a team to join us. We are definitely praying for another couple to join us in the work. A number of teams have helped us on occasions when we have been able to put together a more intense programme of outreach. These teams have been great in pushing the project forward and keeping the momentum going. We have, at the moment, a ministry apprentice placed with us and he has brought fresh vision and thinking to the project.
There are five Christians who live on the estate and although three of these are elderly they pray for us regularly and are an encouragement to us. Like so many of these needy estates, most of the Christians have moved out to more comfortable and less challenging surroundings!!
7. Do you have a plan or strategy for reaching out with Christ?
Our work on the estate could be described in two words: – people work. For the last two years we have visited the residents in their homes. Using a very simple questionnaire we have sought to get to know people as individuals. If we can get people to talk then we find they will also listen. Our questionnaire consists of four simple questions that reveal our concern for the estate.
Question 1: ‘What do you like about living on the estate?’
Many answer this question in the negative as we try to prompt them to talk.
Question 2: ‘What do you think are the greatest needs on the estate?’
This is the question they all want to answer! We get buckets full of negative information. The more they talk, the less likely they are to close the door on us as we progress to the next questions!! All the time we are gaining useful information about the estate and about the individuals: – Their social habits, networks of relationships, neighbours, needs etc.
Before we ask question 3, we prepare them by saying we would really like an honest answer and want to know their personal point of view.
Question 3: ‘Do you think a church on the estate could help meet some of the needs?’
The answers often reveal their understanding of church and we try to explain that the church we would like to start would be ‘community’, a place where we can meet and do things together to help improve the estate. Our explanation of the vision we have for a church on the estate usually captures their imagination and is received positively. We then tell them the next question is a little more personal, but we would love to know if they have any opinion.
Question 4: ‘Who do you think Jesus was?’
The answer to this question reveals their spiritual knowledge (or lack of it). ‘A spaceman, a magician, he never existed, a con-man etc…’ Only a handful of individuals have said the Son of God and of these few most have just repeated what they have heard. The vast majority admit that they do not know who Jesus was. The answer we get to this question gives us the opportunity to talk about Jesus and begin to sow interest in their minds.
It is not unusual to spend 30 minutes at a door and if we feel the person is interested we may offer them a Bible. Depending on how that first contact is received we may leave it a few weeks before calling back to see them again. We now have about 25 people we call on from time to time and are building relationships with.
We have fixed a number of vandalised fences on the estate which has given us great acceptance. We also redecorated the inside of the community centre which was a great exercise in public relations!! The number one need on the estate, as revealed by the questionnaire, has been stated over and over again: ‘There is nothing for the kids to do.’ During the team visits we have had a number of kids clubs and these have been well received. We intend starting a regular club when we have our core team in place.
Obviously our aim is to start a church on the estate, but longer term we sense we will need to offer some kind of debt counselling/education and relationship counselling/management. We are also going to have to think about how we get people into work and weaned off the benefit system.
8. How do you do discipleship?
At the moment we do not have anyone to disciple, but when we do it will be done one-to-one or in small groups; applying scripture to everyday lives. Perhaps we will use the ‘Stranger on the Road’ material.
9. What are the best resources you have come across?
A very helpful book to give us understanding of the council estate culture is ‘Urban Harvest’ by Roy Joslin. ‘Total Church’ by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester has also been very helpful. ‘Planting Churches –Changing Communities’ by David Stroud has also been a great resource for ideas. Tim Keller’s (Redeemer Presbyterian, New York) church planting manual, website and blogs are very informative and helpful. ‘Reaching the unreached.org.uk’ is full of useful posts. I have networked with a number of church planters in similar situations in England, and found this stimulating and encouraging.
We started a prayer partnership scheme and have now around 160 individuals and churches praying for us regularly. These not only give encouragement as people pray, but often we receive emails and advice which is timely and useful.
10. How important is training leaders for this work?
Having a ministry apprentice working with us at present has confirmed the need for hands on training in this type of evangelistic work. It is also crucial for the future of the church plant to train local leaders so that responsibility can be delegated to them. I would like to pass on some of what I have learned in this church planting context to help others. The warmth and interest from people who hear of what God is doing on the Earlesfield has been a source of great encouragement to us and we trust a catalyst for them to get involved in their own housing estates and neighbourhoods.