Jennie Pollock
No more 20-questions

My friend Jenn is a missionary with London City Mission. She serves at the Webber Street Day Centre in Waterloo, providing food, clothing, hot showers (when we’re not in lockdown) and ministry to homeless men and women in the area.

Recently Jenn shared in an article for the London City Mission magazine how our well-meaning attempts to welcome people into church can actually make it harder for people who are experiencing difficulty in life.

She explains:

A moment that really stood out as significant to me was during a church service in which we were all asked to turn a person next to us to introduce ourselves. I chatted for a little while with the woman next to me. She later confided in me: ‘I was dreading this part, thinking I would have to talk about what I do for a living. I am so thankful you didn’t ask that.’ In Britain we are conditioned to ask certain questions as we meet someone new: “Where do you live? What do you do for a living? What is your family situation?”

For someone who is homeless or marginalised, each of those can expose very tender and shameful aspects of their lives. It’s often wise to avoid asking questions altogether. People get asked questions a lot by authority figures – police, outreach workers, courts, government officials – and it immediately establishes a power dynamic.

Questions that feel innocent as they are asked can in fact quickly alienate people whose life situations are difficult. One of the first things we talk about with churches that are wanting to welcome homeless and marginalised people into the church is how to do these introductory conversations.

It is better to avoid the questioning mode in favour of chit-chat. Talk about yourself, the weather, football, what’s going on around you or any piece of trivia until you start to build up a relationship. Little changes like this make all the difference. Personal situations and histories can be a really shameful thing for people. If we establish a caring friendship on neutral topics of conversation, it opens up the space for them to volunteer information about themselves when they feel safe and when they are ready.

This is so helpful, and I know when I’ve been serving at Foodbank I find it really difficult to know how to start conversations with the clients, because none of my normal opening gambits seem appropriate.

So I asked Jenn to give me a worked example to share with you:

      - Hi, I’m Jenn

      - Hi, I’m Jennie

      - Crazy weather today, right? I have a dog and he doesn't care what the weather is. He's still going to want to go to the park later. Glad it's nice and warm in here.

      - Yes.

      - I loved that last song the worship team played. It was so upbeat. I had to really stop myself from dancing.

      - [Nervous smile.]

      - Can I get you a tea or coffee? I’ve heard they have really good coffee here, but I prefer tea.

      - Umm… OK. I’ll have tea.

      - How do you take it?

Jenn says, “Don't underestimate the power of tea and coffee. You can get to know someone very well from chatting about how they take their tea.”

As churches that want to be welcoming places for everyone in our communities, these small but significant changes can make all the difference.

So why not try it this week? Find a friend, take it in turns to be the ‘host’, and see if you can develop a couple of ‘go-to’ topics or phrases to help you get started in talking to anyone any time.


Adapted from an article in Changing London, the Magazine of London City Mission.

London City Mission serves the church in London in sharing the love of God and the good news of Jesus Christ with the least reached communities in London.

The image was taken from this post, and used with permission.