Philip North, mission to the poor and doing anything at all

Last week, the Bishop of Burnley hit the headlines by making some comments about the mission to the poor. His basic argument was that the church has ignored the poor. Particularly of note were his comments on church planting in which he saw the focus having primarily fallen on wealthy areas and those with a high student population. He was particularly critical of the fact that the Lord seemed to have no trouble calling people to Zones 1 & 2 of London, indeed almost anywhere in close proximity to a tube stop, while other less salubrious areas struggled to find ministers.

Dave Williams has helpfully noted:

His comments have provoked conversation -though if my twitter feed is anything to judge by the greatest reaction to a Bishop often associated with the High Church end of the C of E speaking at a charismatic Anglican event, seems to be coming from independent evangelicals. Furthermore, much of the conversation seems to be with those already working in some of our hardest to reach estates and inner cities.

Interestingly, the conversation (such as it appeared on my twitterfeed) seemed to fall into two fairly clear camps. First, were those generally not working in tough areas (that is, leafy market towns and sought-after urban areas such as city centres and well-heeled suburbs) wanting to push back on the Bishops comments. Second, were those generally working in tough areas (council estates, ‘rough’ urban areas, deprived communities, etc) generally agreeing with the Bishop’s assessment whilst decrying the fact that they have been making these comments for years with almost nobody listening.

Broadly speaking, the former group tended to make one (or both) of the following arguments. Either, (a) they denied the Bishop’s claim altogether; or, (b) they accepted the church at large had done little for the poor but insisted their group/denomination bucked the trend and did serve the poor well. The latter was typically advanced on one of two ground: (1) a focus on the fact that some churches exist in deprived communities that this meant the group to which those churches belonged took mission to the poor seriously; and/or, (2) a focus on the fact that wider discussions and noises had been made on the issue therefore the group/organisation/local churches took the problem seriously because they were speaking about the issue.

It is galling when those Reformed Evangelicals, with whom we have common cause, suddenly prick up their ears when a High Church Anglican makes a noise about the poor whilst (seemingly) failing to heed the voices within their own affiliations saying the selfsame thing. It is also especially hard to hear those in well-heeled and sought-after areas of the country suggesting that we are making a good fist of reaching the poor because some churches exist in these areas when – so far as our church goes at least – we’ve neither seen penny one nor a single worker make their way to our church. It is difficult to see how we are doing a good job of reaching deprived communities when, in real terms, the help is minimal to non-existent.

Not only are such comments from those in affluent areas frustrating, they fall foul of the fallacy of composition. Even if it is true that certain churches exist in deprived areas that are doing a great job of reaching the poor and have been well resourced by larger groups, the fallacy of composition contends that what is true of a member is not necessarily true of the whole group. We may point to a few well resourced churches in deprived areas (presuming any of them have been well resourced) but can we really say that because a few exist and have had support that we are, therefore, doing a credible job of reaching the poor? That strikes me as a logically questionable claim.

I really value our affiliations and the fellowship we receive through them (honestly, I do). But, if even those with something of a platform such as 20 Schemes are understandably feeling some of this, spare a thought for those of us with no name recognition, contacts or support. I strongly suspect we are not alone in having no outside patrons and little to nothing in the way of practical support. If we are to love one another in deed and truth, I’ll pray for you brother and an occasional speaker to ‘fill a slot’ doesn’t really cut the mustard.

I appreciate that not everybody is called to such areas and I absolutely believe in the need for church in both deprived and affluent, middle class and working class communities. But it is painful to hear those in affluent churches insisting we’re doing alright regarding the poor whilst they won’t come to these areas themselves and aren’t doing anything to help those of us who have.

What value is talking about mission to the poor and pointing at churches like ours so as to associate ourselves with the work without actually joining with us in it? We can talk til we’re blue in the face about mission in deprived areas but unless it translates into meaningful partnerships that involve the sending of money, workers and planters we are kidding ourselves into the belief that we’re doing anything at all.