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Affinity Council address: resourcing churches in deprived communities

I was asked to speak to a meeting of the Affinity council yesterday. Below is the transcript of what I said.

First, let me thank you for inviting me to speak today. My name is Steve, I am the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church in G. Manchester. I am married to Rachel and have two children, Clement (4) and Aurelie (2). I blog daily at and my articles are frequently picked up by Tim Challies, Evangelical Times and your good selves at Affinity among others.

I’ve had academic articles published in the Evangelical Review of Theology and Politics and have written two books – one available now called Being a Christian about practical first steps for new believers (I’m working on getting it translated into Farsi). Another, with the publishers, on much of what I’m speaking about today. I’ve been asked to talk about church in deprived communities and our need to get resources to move as well as churches planted and revitalised in these areas.

You may, or may not, know that Oldham is officially the most deprived town in England. The Office for National Statistics gave us that dubious honour using the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. Our town has the most areas in the top 10% most deprived in the country. So my qualification, such as I have any, is 5 years serving as pastor of a church in one a deprived ward in the most deprived town in England.

Our church is multicultural, multi-racial, multi-class and functions bi-lingually. We run in English and Farsi and, at last count, had c. 10 different nations represented. Most come from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. We have significant numbers of asylum seekers and jobless benefit class people. Fewer than 5 members have been to university and only about two members are in any form of paid work.

Our area of Glodwick is over 90% Pakistani; the other 10% are mainly Bangladeshi. The largest mosque in the borough is less than 100 yards behind our church building. There are dozens in the locality. Separated by a park, there is an almost exclusively white council estate 5-minute walk from the church building. Racial tensions in the town run high and in 2001 we had major race riots, that centred on our street, with our building fire-bombed. Since then, we’ve had fatal stabbings outside the building and various low-end crime issues. One period involved me making lots of phone calls to various agencies to get stripped out, abandoned vehicles removed from our car park frequently!

Now, before I go on, it bears saying I am not the only person making these noises. Mez McConnell – who is far better known than me and been at this stuff much longer – has been making these points for a while. There are a group of people working in similar areas also making this case. So, I’m not the only person making these points, neither am I the most well-known, but here I am.

I’m also going to apologise up front, some of what I say may offend. I’m not aiming to be offensive but experience tells me this stuff is often not well received.

The brute facts are these: British Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly white and middle class, our churches are centred on more affluent areas of the country and we are extremely poor at reaching the working class and deprived.

The Talking Jesus research conducted by the Evangelical Alliance noted that 81% of Christians hold a degree or higher. This is a problem since c. 70% of the population have never set foot in a university. If we take both the FIEC and Gospel Partnerships, for example, they have almost twice as many churches in the South as the North. Both have the least amount of churches in the most deprived communities. John Stevens – national director of the FIEC – noted that churches in deprived communities tend to be smaller than those in affluent communities so comparison of the membership figures show the problem to be worse again. Tim Chester, in his book Unreached, rightly points out that church-going in the UK is now an almost exclusively Middle-Class affair.

Why is this a problem? First, it is an issue Biblically. Scripture is clear that Jesus’ heart is for the poor. Repeatedly, the Bible talks about the gospel as good news for the poor and contrasts this with comments on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. None of that is to say the wealthy and influential can’t come into the kingdom, nor that we shouldn’t have middle class churches, but the Biblical data repeatedly suggests that most fruit will be found amongst the poor and marginalised.

Second, it is a problem historically. Almost all the major Western revivals – starting with the Great Awakening, taking in the Welsh revivals and East Anglian revival among others – all centred around the working classes.

Third, it’s a problem presently. John Stevens – in his book Knowing our Times – says most fruit is coming among the ultra-rich and ultra-poor. Given the sheer number of ultra-poor compared to ultra-rich, we should expect to see most fruit amongst the poor and in deprived communities.

Most important of all, it is a problem because vast swathes of our country are heading for a lost eternity in Hell because we have failed to reach them en masse and are largely unwilling to go to them and plant churches to reach them. What is more, we’ve focused on the one group of people – the middle classes – who are, at present, the very least likely to come into the kingdom. This has knock-on problems for church growth and the future of the church in general.

So how have we ended up in this situation? There is one essential problem that has several consequences: The main reason we have failed to reach the working classes is because we are more concerned about our own comfort than we are about the lost. Because Evangelicalism is an essentially a white, middle class movement we simply find it easier and more comfortable to reach people like ourselves.

We find university a happy hunting ground, so we have focused a lot of energy on reaching students (to some effect). But we have also bought into middle class aspiration. We prioritise houses in aspirant communities and reject hard places because the schools aren’t good enough or the cafes aren’t to our liking. Because all our middle class peers – the people we’ve already reached – have these same aspirations, we consider these things an entirely reasonable basis to not go to those communities where the gospel isn’t yet known.

We, simultaneously, concoct various excuses in our own minds. We create images of hard places that make it unconscionable for us to go. Most of these views are just figments of our own imagination. But we scare ourselves into not going. Now, I said earlier that we’ve had fatal stabbings and race riots and you’re probably thinking that doesn’t stack up with this idea of false images of daily life. But I want to say couple things.

First, these things happen elsewhere. I spent my teens in a South Oxfordshire village near Wantage. It is an affluent, sought after area. We had as many stabbings there as we’ve had in my time in Oldham. Similarly, nobody seems to worry about the stabbings that go on almost weekly in London because the capital is a sought after place to be. These sorts of things happen in lots of places and we don’t worry ourselves about them. The other thing to say is that these are not symptomatic of daily life. We aren’t having race riots every day, they happened once over 15 years ago. Though we’ve had fatal stabbings, and a few more non-fatal ones, murder is not the norm. But often, when we hear these things about places like Oldham, it confirms in our mind the image we’ve concocted. When we hear such things about Wantage, we presume it’s unusual because it’s a sought after place. But very often, how we imagine things to be is not the same as how things actually are and we draw conclusions about the place based on scant information like this.

We then fashion theological reasons not go. We rely on the ‘indigenous worker’ argument and suggest because we aren’t indigenous it’s inappropriate for us to go. But such arguments wreck pretty much any missionary endeavour. This is doubly bad because, by and large, the only people we have to send are middle class. So, as we keep sending the middle class guys we have to theological colleges, we train people we never intend to send to hard places. We are, essentially, reaching people like us, sending them to colleges set up by people like us, training them like us, then wondering why we are struggling to see working class people in ministry and few churches in deprived communities.

Even if we justify all this with, ‘we’re not all called to go’ reasoning, the problem persists. Most church leaders in deprived communities report a general lack of funding and resourcing from those in a position to help. What we find is a free-market capitalist mindset played out in respect to our church resources. Churches in deprived communities tend to have the least income and the greatest financial needs among their members. Yet funding and support routinely goes to wealthier more affluent churches and those same churches, hoovering up what resources exist, seem reticent to share it with churches in deprived communities. In fact, some actively argue for a trickle-down approach. If we focus on the affluent and influential, eventually the poor will benefit. It is, frankly, cobblers.

We spend tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands on our building extensions and extra staff whilst churches where most of the members aren’t working and the financial needs are greatest cannot afford to sustain a pastor. Though we justify a lack of churches in hard places by insisting our area needs the gospel too and we can’t all go, our attitude is shown up when we consider how we use our financial resources. Little is given to those who dare to go where we won’t. So, just to be as clear as I can on the problem, we have a dearth of churches in deprived communities, few people are willing to go and those who do report the same story: a chronic lack of funds and resources coming from wealthier churches.

The problem is worse still. Even in the affluent towns and areas in which we have largely set up our churches, there are working class people and problems of deprivation. I used to go to middle classchurch in an affluent town. The church often talked about wanting to reach the poorer parts of town. Their solution was to set up a youth group in a local community centre to reach the people in that area. But nobody from the church moved into the area. Hardly anybody was even willing to go to serve in the youth group and there were more than a few people who wouldn’t send their children to that group because they were worried about bad influences on their kids. If that wasn’t bad enough, the church then set up a separate group at the church for church children who didn’t want to go to the group on the estate.

Now, a charitable view of that decision is that the group in the council housing area was evangelistic while the one in the church was for discipling Christian teens. The less naïve view is that people in the church kicked off that there was nothing for their children and when it was suggested they go to the existing youth group they refused to let their children mix with the council estate kids. And yet, that church wonder why nobody from that area came to faith, why none settled in their church and why they continue to only reach middle class people.

All of that is long before we even have a discussion about how the culture of our churches is often middle class and how working class people learn very early on that this is not a place for them. Far too often, if we dare to even attempt to reach the working classes on our doorstep, we most certainly won’t do it by living among them, we will often try to hold them at arms length and make it clear we’re holding our noses while we do it. And that, if we’re being honest, is if we’re even bothered at reaching working class people at all. All too often it doesn’t even enter our minds to bother.

Now the reason we don’t reach the working classes in the areas near where we are already can’t be because we’re too scared to go to the area because we already live there. I do think we won’t live in the working class areas that we aren’t reaching because we’re too scared. But we often don’t even try reach those people from a distance.

The fact is, we’re broadly scared of doing evangelism to the people we’ve decided to live nearby, so the idea that we’d gladly go and do evangelism to people we are basically too scared to live near goes some way to explaining the problem.

Then there’s the fact that it’s all just a bit messy. Despite what we say about the gospel, we find it much easier to reach people whose lives seem broadly together already and who seem to know the rules of how to behave in church. If, by God’s grace, a working class person wanders into church, more often than not it becomes apparent that if they are to stay they have to shed their working class culture and values and assimilate – they have to become middle class. I’ve had people say, with no irony whatsoever, when people become Christians ‘they will become more middle class, won’t they?’

Others presume that because we’re from the same country and speak the same language we have the same culture. The fact is we don’t. I have not seen a single person walking round Oldham dressed like a 55-year old pastor! But step into many of our churches, the uniform is often pleated trousers, an M&S shirt and a dodgy combover. That’s just a little example among a host of others.

We’re so blinkered about our culture that we just assume everything we do is Biblical and anybody who is different must, of necessity, be unbiblical. It’s the same reason we have hardly any working class elders and ministers. We load the biblical criteria for eldership up with a load of middle class cultural expectations. It’s rare now to find ministers who haven’t been through formal seminary. Is that a biblical criterion? It’s certainly one we seem to expect. Do we recognise managing your household well on an estate might not look the same as doing it in a detached house in a leafy suburb?

Let me give you one example of how this plays out. A middle class man and working class man both a hear a sermon and think it boring. The middle class man makes some vaguely positive comment and the working class man wonders why he is lying. The working class man says it was boring and the middle class man thinks he’s rude. This is just one example of how we can talk past each other’s cultures. But when the majority culture is middle class, most people in the church – not least the middle class elders – think the working class man is rude, so who is going to make that guy an elder? He’s too blunt. He’s insensitive. He’s a not careful how he speaks. Never mind that, biblically, he might be entirely qualified for the role. Culturally – according to the dominant middle class culture – he is deemed unfit. When Jesus called the Pharisees ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘serpents’ one gets the sense that many middle class elderships would issue a stern, ‘steady on’ and mark his card as unfit for leadership in their church!

If that is the problem, it bears asking what are we going to do about it? First and foremost, we must recognise there is a problem. It’s not at all uncommon to lay out the brute reality and bare figures for people to simply deny or justify them. Unless and until we are willing to admit that we have neglected the working classes and deprived communities, we will never get a handle on this problem.

Second, if we are going to redress the balance of churches, we are going to have to commit to planting and revitalising churches in deprived communities. At some level, people are going to have to relocate to deprived communities. All too often, we don’t aim to plant in harder places. One minister was planting a church and when I asked why they chose a particular affluent area over other unchurched deprived areas, he said, ‘we couldn’t get our people to move there’. I found that extremely sad and symptomatic of the problem. We simply cannot get our people to move anywhere that feels too uncomfortable.

I think there are various reasons for that. For one, we have lost the sense of taking up our cross. Few of us are willing to meaningfully sacrifice for the sake of Christ and his gospel and we often accommodate that view in our churches. Otherwise, many of our churches have lost the thrill of doing real evangelism. We have so acclimatised to our middle class communities that we often don’t share the gospel with them. Given that so many of us fail to share the gospel in those comfortable middle class communities we live in, what hope have we got of getting people to move to a much harder area for the purposes of sharing a gospel they won’t share where they are?

Third, if we are going to handle this problem, we are going to have to think seriously about our funding structures. Churches in deprived communities need funds that are typically hoovered up by more affluent churches. Those who oversee funding charities and grant-making bodies will need to seriously think about actively choosing to support churches in deprived communities over those who should be more able to raise their own funding.

Similarly, we should consider twinning larger, affluent churches with those in deprived communities. Larger churches should commit to supporting deprived churches financially, prayerfully and with workers. The deprived church can also partner in prayer and send their workers to learn in a different setting. So, for example, a larger church in a middle class community should consider using its missions budget, or creating a new special budget, specifically for the purposes of supporting a church in a deprived community financially.

Most of my church, for example, are either unemployed, retired or asylum seekers. There are only two people working full time, of which I am one and I am a positive drain on our church resources! Factor into that, within our congregation we regularly face calls from people who can’t eat, can’t turn the lights on, can’t pay their gas or electric bill and none of that is a result of being profligate with their money. Just speaking financially, we have great financial needs and vanishingly few people within the membership who have any money to meet them. We are reliant on the support of people from outside to stay afloat.

One church I was at had over 100 members with almost the entire church in fairly comfortable jobs who owned their own homes. There was minimal financial need within the membership and they had a fairly substantial amount of money to use. It would seem to make sense to twin churches like ours a with such churches so that a those with few physical needs and much cash can support churches in deprived community with great need and no cash. I think organisations like the FIEC, Grace Baptist Associations, the Anglican Church, or Gospel Partnerships could easily facilitate a partnering scheme like this. The biggest hurdle to it happening would be the willingness of the wealthier churches.

There is also much work we need to do in terms of workers. If the majority of our churches are saying ‘we couldn’t get our people to move there’, we have to ask serious questions about the health of our churches. We have to face the fact that we are overwhelmingly middle class and white. We cannot rely on raising up indigenous workers until we have sent some people to reach those who could become indigenous workers. We’re going to have to think carefully about how we encourage people to move to where there is need.

One problem, perversely, has become the focus on church planting. I think we see planting as an inherent good and we (rightly) encourage it. But this has led to a desire to be seen to plant rather than planting where there is necessarily most need. So, we feel comfortable sending our workers to a nearby affluent area because we will receive some plaudits for being a church planting church. Instead, we need to save our plaudits for those planting and going to areas of greatest need.

Theologically, much of this has been exacerbated by Tim Keller’s focus on the city. I’m not suggesting everything he has said about that is wrong but many hear a focus on cities and influential people and think backwaters like Middlesbrough and Rochdale can go hang because nobody significant is there and our folk don’t want to go there. Personally, I think goes against the grain of scripture and I think many use it as a justification to go to mainline cities – that are often sought after places to live – to plant churches that will inevitably reach more people of the kind we already have.

The only way to reverse this is for those bodies who have funds and cash to purposefully withhold it from those who go to such places and to be clear to those asking for it exactly why they will not give them funds. I think we must – as a matter of priority – focus our funds on those places where there are currently no churches or a severe dearth of churches (even if we argue our cities could use more). Until such time as we’ve put churches where there are none – or where there aren’t existing churches that could feasibly serve that area – we must stop funding and supporting yet more plants in essentially the same area (or the same kinds of areas). Ultimately, if we plant around where our people currently are, we will continue to only reach the middle classes. If we plant where our people want to go, we’ve essentially got the same problem. Unless we have a concerted effort to send people, resources and churches into deprived communities we simply aren’t going to reach them.

I’m convinced most people are absolutely fine with churches in hard places. If we could have in every deprived neighbourhood without it costing us anything, most people would happily sign up. The issue is ultimately the cost. The fundamental issue we’ve all got to face is that our unwillingness to bear any cost to take the gospel to deprived communities means we are making another implicit moral decision. We are saying towns like Oldham, Rochdale, Middlesbrough, Burnley and places like these can go to Hell because we’d rather have an extension to our building, we find it easier to be with people like us or we just don’t like the schools and cafes. In my view, that attitude isn’t godly, isn’t Christlike and, frankly, isn’t good enough. We need to pray seriously that the Lord would change our hearts on this issue.

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