I am delighted more people are talking about church in deprived communities. This is long overdue. But there are still several ways we continue view and treat deprived communities that are not serving the cause of gospel ministry. Here are three of the key ones:
Treating all areas like they’re the same
Deprived areas are not all the same. The idea that a council estate in South London is the same as an ex-mining or mill town in Yorkshire or Lancashire is just nonsense. In fact, not only are different areas of the country notably different, even within the same town there may be distinct differences. Some areas are multiethnic, others are not. Some areas are monocultural while others are very multicultural. There are monoethnic, monocultural white areas and monoethnic, monocultural BME areas too. Even within my deprived town, such things can exist in areas that are right next to each other.
The issues these places face are not all the same either. They will all inevitably have issues, but the nature of those problems will differ. Not all will have knife problems, not all will have high levels of child poverty, not all will have low levels of literacy, not all… well you get the idea.
All too often though, we talk about deprived communities as though they are a monolithic bloc. This means the solutions we propose for trying to reach them can tend to be a bit one-dimensional because we speak about these places as if they are one. Reaching deprived communities will mean adopting a range of different approaches depending on the place we are trying to reach. What works in Speke won’t necessarily work Cheetham Hill which similarly may not work in Clacton-on-Sea.
Making poster boys to signal support
When things become de rigeur there is often a bit of clamour to do something (or, sometimes – if we’re honest – be seen to do something). If something happens to be in vogue, we can often find ourselves a poster boy (or church), fund and support that place and then content ourselves with the fact that we are supporting that ministry. That support is certainly valuable and helpful to that particular church/ministry, but it is essentially only supporting one church or mission organisation doing the thing.
When we talk about the need to reach deprived communities, we very much are talking in the plural. There is a dearth of churches in deprived communities and those that do exist report the same struggles in recruitment and financing. To realistically reach all of our nation for Christ, we are going to have to radically rethink where we send our financial support and where we encourage people to go. To support one church, or one ministry, in a deprived community is definitely a big help to that particular place (and, if you are doing that, please don’t stop!) But that alone isn’t going to help us reach the unreached.
It is not at all uncommon for the high profile, or those who have the right connections, to hoover up the support that exists. Now, there may be questions to ask about why the level of support that exists is such as it is (and I do think we should ask those questions). But it also bears asking, if we funnel all our money to our particular poster boy – and all of our connections follow our lead and do the same – what are we going to do for the guys that nobody has ever heard of?
How will we help those labouring away without Christian connections to support them? How will we support the guy who is setting up a new plant that nobody has heard of because he couldn’t afford to go to a residential seminary and make any connections and doesn’t have any other means of getting them either? It is so tempting to send our funding and other resources to the guy we know and then say that we’re doing our bit. But we need a much more proactive, radical approach to supporting ministry in deprived places if we are going to see them reached with the gospel.
Focusing on plants and not supporting existing ministry
We ought to be aware that there aren’t enough churches in our deprived communities. Plenty of them have no church in their midst and no viable means of getting to one. So, without putting too fine a point on it, we need people to plant churches in deprived communities and, one way or another, they need supporting with resources. But we don’t help deprived communities if, in our laudable desire to support new plants, we fail to resource existing churches.
If we so focus on new plants that we funnel all our support to them, but ignore the existing churches in deprived communities struggling on with minimal resource, what are we really adding to the kingdom? We are simply allowing one ministry to go to the wall whilst setting up another somewhere else. The other place may well need the gospel because nobody has gone to it, but that doesn’t help the place that loses its only gospel witness because nobody thought to support it. On a crass ministry calculator, losing one ministry to start another is not advancing gospel ministry but breaking even.
Whilst we certainly need more churches being planted in deprived communities, we also need existing ministry to be adequately supported too. All too often, existing ministries are not supported because there is an assumption that after 3, 5 or 10 years they really ought to be self-sufficient now. But realistically, in areas where most people that come into contact with the church are on NASS support or Universal Credit, revival could break out and we’d still not be financially stable. It means ministry investment for the long-term, even when the shine of being a new church plant has long worn off and newsletters are only ever telling of the ordinary, plodding work of everyday ministry. We need to resource both existing churches and new plants over the long haul if we are going to see gospel advance in deprived communities.