Mr Burke chose to teach in Oldham. Good on him, I say. Here he is telling us why he decided Oldham was for him.
Here is his opening gambit:
That’s the place I feel most comfortable
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that Mr Burke decided to stick around in Oldham. It is excellent that he thinks this is where he ‘can make the most difference’, an oft unconsidered question. But he principally stuck around because this is where he feels comfortable. Oh, Mr Burke, your advert could have been so good!
What Mr Burke helpfully highlights, however, is how the world thinks about such things. Why should they consider moving anywhere in particular? Essentially, they move to wherever they feel comfortable and feel they can acquire some meaning to what they are doing (‘where I can make a difference’).
The church, by contrast, should neither be driven by personal comfort nor by the need to create subjective meaning. Our meaning is derived objectively from the pursuit of God’s glory, as defined in his Word, and the eternal enjoyment of God. Our personal comfort is, therefore, not paramount in our decision-making process but a right understanding of God’s glory means we should make decisions based upon that which would glorify God most fully. Moreover, a theology of the cross dictates that such decision-making may often feel decidedly uncomfortable, after all taking up one’s cross and following Christ was never meant to be comfortable.
Sadly, all too often, we follow Mr Burke’s three-step decision-making programme. Step one, does this make me feel comfortable? Step two, do I understand all parts and consequences of what I am doing? Step three, does this allow me to subjectively feel good by ascribing my own meaning to whatever I’m doing?
The problem with this mode of thinking, of course, means places like Oldham – presumably the sort of place Mr Burke wants to encourage more teachers just as I wish to encourage more Christian workers – will never receive the help it needs. The reason Oldham struggles for churches and finds it incredibly difficult to draw people to ministry and service in the borough is because too many Christians follow Mr Burke’s three-step decision-making programme whilst entirely shelving the theology of the cross.
Without criticising or going into the whys and wherefores – this is ultimately just an observation – British Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly white and middle class. Following, as many of us do, the Mr Burke programme, how would a call to Oldham (the most deprived town in England) be received?
Step one, does it make me comfortable? A wonderful town, no doubt, but full of working class people who share few of the social mores of middle class people from the South East. What is more, it will take me away from my friends and family. Step two, do I understand all aspects of agreeing to go? Certainly middle class folk from the South are going to take time to understand Northern working class culture. What is more, there are a raft of things that are simply beyond our possible knowledge until such time as we move and try to bed in. Step three, can I ascribe subjective meaning to the move? Probably, but as with all subjective meaning, it is often hollow. If we take such an approach, we can hardly be surprised few are willing to come.
If, however, we are driven by God’s glory and a theology of the cross, things look quite different. What glorifies God more than seeking to honour him by moving to an area out of gospel concern that is under churched yet seeing real and regular fruit for the kingdom? Does the theology of the cross call us to remain where we are because it is comfortable or to take up our cross and do that which is decidedly uncomfortable because it better serves the cause of the gospel and the glory of God? When we are driven by these things, we will make the sort of decisions that were taken by the great missionary heroes of the past. To quote one of them, Jim Elliott, ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’.
Ask yourself honestly, are you rejecting any thought of coming to a place like Oldham because you have followed the Mr Burke school of decision-making? Have we sidelined that which will glorify God in favour of our own comfort? Have we rejected Christ’s call to take up our cross in favour of doing what is easier for ourselves?
Under-churched, deprived towns like Oldham desperately need the gospel. They need people who will commit, not because they ‘have a heart’ for the town or it is full of people like them, but because they love the Lord Jesus, they long to see the lost won for Christ and they recognise the truth that giving up temporal earthly comfort for the sake of the gospel will redound to God’s glory and their eternal joy.
Could you commit to Oldham?
The data begs to differ. Whilst there are, no doubt, churches full of people who are not white and middle class (my church, for example), the data of the church nationwide says most gospel-centred churches are, indeed, white and middle class.
Where you are right, middle class people need the gospel too. You will note, however, that I didn’t (and never have) made the case that they don’t. What I have done in the past (not so much in this article) is make the case that the overwhelming number of gospel churches are in the South and middle class areas are generally better served than working class ones. That is not to say those middle class areas don’t need the gospel, it is to say Evangelicalism has largely favoured one over the other.
More to the point, my argument in this particular article was simply that we are often guided more by what feels comfortable to us than where we can best serve God’s glory. That is an issue that cuts across class and ethnic lines. The question we must ask, however, is why do those places in deprived communities have fewer churches than sought after middle class areas?
I would dispute the idea that Biblical/Reformed churches are an enclave of the white and middle class. So would my brethren in Cranford, Hounslow, Hayes and Feltham. Further, it matters not one little bit what class/race/colour someone is, they need the Gospel of Christ or they go to hell. Where I live and minister is probably more ungodly than most places in the UK, yet it is utterly white and middle class.
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