A true gospel vision must start by welcoming all people from anywhere

I’ve written recently about the problem of comfortable, middle class Christians refusing to move to those areas that are perhaps deemed less salubrious. You can read some of my comments here, here and here. It is a perennial problem that those from more comfortable backgrounds will not move to less desirable areas. It is also a recognised phenomena that church plants in either leafy market towns or edgy city settings find it far easier to win people to their cause. This problem means the church in places such as Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Skelmersdale, Middlesborough and other built-up, working class areas with no feeding university inevitably struggle to recruit workers.

There is a missiological mindset that insists indigenous workers from these towns ought to be raised up to reach their own. There is certainly much to be said for that argument. Long-term, the church in any locality cannot (or, at least, should not) rely upon a steady influx of workers from outside the area to prop up its ministry. Nor should the dearth of working class leaders across all sections of the church be ignored. The simple fact is that we are doing a poor job of training, equipping and raising up working class leaders. In many cases, this is because it is wrongly presumed that British middle class values are the same as the Biblical qualifications for eldership. Aside from this wrongheaded presumption, we then insist on procedures and training schemes to propel individuals into service that – whilst entirely within the comfort zone of middle class academics and professionals – are often utterly alien to working class people. It is then presumed, due to discomfort with such systems, the indigenous working class population are simply not cut out for church leadership. It is a sad state of affairs that does need to be rectified.

What is appealing about this view of raising up indigenous workers is that it at least seeks to address the issue. Professional, middle class Christians have created systems and processes in which they themselves thrive but that simultaneously tend to lock out those who do not fit into the artificial schemes and processes they have created. To actively seek to equip indigenous workers from harder to reach places would go some way to rectifying the anomaly of a church intending to reach the working classes without any leaders drawn from that very group (ditto, by the way, for ethnic minority groups). What is not discussed, however, is that this is a missiological view very often promoted by middle class Christians who wish to avoid going to the harder places. If you live in Oxford and do not wish to go to Oldham, it is a useful argument to have in your arsenal. Of course, I would go, it’s just that indigenous workers and leaders ought to be raised up. So I won’t go and will make room for someone from the area to reach their own people. Inevitably, the argument gets scrapped the minute a vacancy springs up in an area full of people different to you but that happens to have a certain appeal (whatever that appeal may be).

Of course, many working class folk would propagate this same argument. And that is entirely understandable. They simply want a fair crack of the whip. It is not hard to see that those who have been socially disadvantaged, and have had various social and economic systems weighted against them, do not relish the sad reality that the same is often mimicked by the church. The greatest leveller of them all, the gospel, and the place where it ought to be worked out most clearly, the church, seems also to conspire against the disadvantaged to keep them out of any leadership position as well. Is it any wonder that many baulk at the thought of yet another middle class yuppie being bussed in from another area (usually the South East) based on their longstanding connections and networks to lead yet another church in the North? It seems entirely right to me to point out these flaws in the current system. Unless something changes, we will continue to raise up only middle class men who must acclimatise to new areas all while expecting the locals to doff their caps and get on board. It is the same mentality that expected natives during the colonial years to be grateful for the ravaging of land and decimation of their culture.

All of that perhaps goes some way to explaining why working class people can sometimes be reticent to receive those from outside. The problem, of course, is that the way we talk about these issues can often imply a degree of inverse snobbery. That is, the working classes can so adopt a missiology of indigenous workers that it appears to many that non-indigenous people are not welcome at all. It can sound as though, if not occasionally outright stated, that we will raise up our own leaders and reach our own people and we don’t need your help to do it. All quite understandable, and there is indeed a need for us to recognise and support working class leaders, but it rather undercuts the gospel in precisely the same way as the middle class guys who won’t come. By taking this line in a hard way (which sometimes happens), we promulgate the same division that is exacerbated by the existing system.

It has long seemed to me, as I argued here, the view that we need indigenous people to reach their own is a flawed one. What we need is gospel-hearted people to reach lost people (whoever either happen to be). The apostles did not insist on only reaching their own (predominantly Jewish fishermen and tax collectors). Had they done so, the gospel simply wouldn’t have gone out at all. At the same time, we must recognise the range of backgrounds among the apostles. Paul was well educated, others less so. Some were skilled workers, others professionals. Some had jobs that were lauded, others had jobs that were despised. What is most important is that none took the view that we must seek out those who are just like us. None suggested that the gospel would only advance if they setup in places where they were a ‘good fit’. They all went to those who were despised by society and did not seem to have a problem seeking to reach those, or plant churches among those, who were nothing like them.

I do think we need to make a concerted effort in the UK church to raise up leaders from working class communities. We need to make sure we are looking at the biblical criteria for church leadership rather than our cultural expectations of whatever we think makes a good leader. Nonetheless, we also need to shed this idea that only indigenous people can reach those like them. Would I love to see indigenous Oldhammers being raised up to reach their own? Of course. Would I love to make such inroads into the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities that we manage to bring up elders from the Asian community? Absolutely. Would I despise middle class southerners with a gospel heart coming into the area because they see the need? By no means!

Here seems to be a great leveller: the gospel. As gospel vision goes, here’s what I’m after: a church so enraptured with the gospel of Jesus Christ that it welcomes Brits, Asians and any other without prejudice. A church that so understand the gospel that it welcomes working class and middle class alike and is happy to see both raised up to positions of authority. A church that doesn’t care about the accent that comes out of your mouth or whether you born in the North or the South. I want to see a church that puts people into authority not based on its cultural values but based upon biblical character. In short, I want a church that united around the gospel of Jesus Christ, not other social, political or racial concerns. That is the church I’m aiming for and I’m happy to welcome anyone who wants to build the same, whether they’re from Oldham, Oxford or anywhere else.