Churches in deprived communities don’t exist to salve the conscience of the middle classes

Many of you will have read Bishop of Burnley, Philip North’s, comments on mission to the poor. This High Church Anglican, speaking to a largely charismatic audience at New Wine, saw his comments picked up in the mainstream media. You can read what he said here.

Since then, something of a discussion has ensued among a bunch of Independent Evangelicals. Some wish to pushback on +Philip’s comments, insisting we are doing a grand job of reaching deprived areas. Others accepted the church at large was not doing a fantastic job but sought to suggest their group/denomination/affiliates were bucking the trend. Others (predominantly those working in hard to reach areas) insisted the Bishop of Burnley was largely correct and that Evangelicalism has a class problem, being as it is largely white, middle class and unwilling to go to deprived communities. You can read my initial response here.

It was interesting to see how those in attractive areas and affluent churches both lauded the comments from the Bishop whilst simultaneously arguing that ‘our people’ are doing well on this front. By contrast, those in deprived areas were suggesting that there are not many churches in poorer areas and those that do exist are both underfunded and, very often, ignored by larger churches and organisations. Clearly the perception in well-heeled, middle class churches does not match the reality on the ground for those working in deprived communities.

The thing that irked me the most during these discussions was the sense in which middle class and affluent churches were using those of us in deprived areas to claim their own part in mission to the poor. By being associated to those in deprived areas through affiliations and groupings, it was claimed ‘we’ – by which they mean themselves through our formal associations – were doing great things to reach the urban poor. This claim is made or inferred despite not one of those making it having sent us one penny of financial support nor a single worker (which we would prefer) in order to support or bolster our work. They have neither sent these things directly nor have they indirectly given them to us via their contributions to the larger organisations with whom we are associated.

We are not here to act as your ecclessial equivalent of, ‘I can’t be racist, I’ve got lots of black friends’. You are not reaching the poor or doing anything to advance mission in deprived communities simply by being formally associated through denominations and affiliations to those doing this work. In fact, making such a claim is less credible than the ‘lots of black friends’ line because, a lot of the time, we’ve never met nor had a direct conversation. We don’t even know each other and yet, by our formal association through the same group, you claim a part in a work you’ve done precisely nothing to advance.

In the New Testament, those who actively prayed, gave money, met practical needs and sent workers were considered gospel partners. If you have done none of these things, in what way have you been a gospel partner? If you haven’t done any of these things, what Biblical example can you provide of being considered a fellow worker?

At an organisational level, the same applies. It does not hold water for an organisation to claim it is engaged in mission to the poor simply because some of its member churches happen to be. Take the Church of England as an interesting example. Clearly they have churches in deprived communities. But if many of those areas have become deprived since the churches were built, the organisation does nothing to offer funds or workers to such areas and ordinands (and lay persons) refuse to move to those areas on the grounds of need, in what way is the organisation engaged in ministry to deprived communities? We might say some of their ministers and/or churches happen to be doing that work, but in what way are the organisation supporting this? You can’t claim to be part of the ministry when, if those churches were not there, it would have literally no impact on your day to day working practice, funds or distribution of resources.

The proof that you are engaged to mission to the poor – even if you are not part of a church in a deprived community – is that your prayer meetings are given over to actively praying for those in such areas, your income is significantly reduced because you are giving funds away to those in such comunities and your membership is not as large as it might be because you are sending workers to churches in deprived areas. Whether you are an individual church or a larger organisation, if your finances, human resources and prayer times would bear no discernible difference if all the churches in deprived areas closed down, tell me in what way you are serving in such ministry?

Don’t tell me what a wonderful job we’re all doing of reaching the poor, deprived and ethnic minorities when the stats simply do not bear it out. Don’t tell me you are doing anything to resolve this problem when your church is in an affluent area, full of educated people and your mission partners (such as you have any) are not working in deprived communities. Until your cheque clears, the workers you have sent arrive and your regular emails asking me how you can pray for us are becoming burdensome, you are not involved in the work of reaching deprived communities.

It should be to our shame that, for all our talk of doctrinal purity, it is denominations many of us would write off as ‘liberal’ or ‘compromised’ who have actually gone to such communities. Whatever else we may say about them, they are at least committed to the poor. If the gospel that is peddled in many of our deprived towns is sub-optimal (even false), we must surely bear some responsibility for refusing to go and failing to support those Bible-believing, mission-hearted people that would. You cannot claim to care for the poor if you are happy to see them head to Hell because you would not go and reach them, would not support those who would reach them and do nothing but wring your hands whilst claiming to have done something because you ‘recognise the problem’.

We are not here to salve the consciences of those who will neither come nor support ministry to the poor. We refuse to be patronised and wheeled out as an example of how other churches, and organisations, are burdened by the disgraceful reality that UK Evangelicalism is an almost exclusively middle class affair. A burden they gladly express by their ‘gratefulness’ for us whilst simultaneously doing nothing to support us. We are here because we love the Lord Jesus, we take seriously his commission, we believe the gospel claim is good news for the poor and we long to see his kingdom advanced among those he tells us plainly in scripture will respond. We do not need your hand wringing or your clarity in ‘identifying the issue’, we need your money, your people, your prayer. Until you genuinely engage in these kind of ways, your talk is simply a means of comforting yourself in your lack of action and you remain part of the very problem you claim to want to solve.