Solent Gospel Partnership – The problem of comfort in the church

I was asked to speak to the Solent Gospel Partnership. I was given two talks to do on the problem of comfort in the church. Below is the first talk. Tomorrow I will post the second.

Has comfort become our functional god in the Evangelical church? I think it is what drives an awful lot of what goes on in our churches. I’m going to spend this session laying out the problem and offering some Biblical reflection.I’m going to spend the next session looking at potential solutions to the problem and how we can address this issue meaningfully in our churches.

In this session, I want to cover three questions:

  1. Is there really a problem?
  2. Why is there a problem?
  3. Why should we care?

Is there really a problem?

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out I reckon there is. Let me lay out why.

In his book Knowing our Times, John Stevens says -according to the best research available – only about 3% of the UK population are born-again believers associated with a local church. So, even before we get into the nitty-gritty of what the Evangelical church has been doing, Christians are not exactly running rampant. In hard numbers, on 3% of the population, my calculator tells me there is only about 2,000,000 believers in the UK. When we wrap our heads around just how tiny that stat really is, we will get a sense of just how bad the rest of the stats I’m going to give in a second really are.

When we look at the spread of FIEC and Gospel Partnership churches there is a pattern. Tom Bassford – blogger and statistician – has mapped the spread of our churches. 65% of Gospel Partnership churches are in the South, with 35% in the North. The FIEC is similar, 60% of churches in the South and 40% in the North. So, there are nearly twice the number of our churches in the South as the North.

The first objection you get to that is, ‘don’t you need to take account of relative population too?’ The answer is, of course, yes you do. Helpfully, Tom has graphed the number of churches per million people by area. The South East, East of England and South West are ahead of any other area in the country. They have more churches per head by some way.

Then, if we look at the makeup of those churches, we see another pattern. The 2015 Talking Jesus research, commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance, found that 81% of practising Christians have a university degree or higher. While university access has increased in recent years, only around 30% of the UK population holds a university degree.

So, to recap so far, churches in the South outnumber those in the North by a ratio of 2:1. The makeup of those churches is overwhelmingly degree educated whilst the majority of the UK population have never set foot in a university.

But we can also see the stats on where existing churches have been placed. So, leaving aside North and South, what kind of neighbourhoods are our churches in? Tom Bassford says, ‘if you live in an area within the most deprived 10% of the country, it’ll be harder for you to find a congregation linked to the Gospel Partnership as this is where they have the fewest churches (7.8%).’ The FIEC has more churches in deprived communities than that, but the majority of its churches are in top 20% most affluent communities in the country. What is more, John Stevens has said, ‘the churches in the poorer communities are generally smaller, so an analysis of numbers attending would reveal [an even] greater disparity.’

I know that’s a lot of stats, but let me bring together the key points. First, the overwhelming majority of our churches are in the South, with nearly double the number than the North. The vast majority of those are in the South East and London.

Second, there are more churches per head of population in the South than the North, with London and the South East head and shoulder above any other area.

Third, the makeup of our churches is disproportionately university educated. Higher education among Evangelicals is three times higher than in the wider population.

Fourth, fewest of our churches are in deprived communities, with the majority in relatively affluent and aspirant places.

Fifth, our churches in deprived and working class areas tend to be smaller. So, not only are most our churches located in more affluent communities but a disproportionate number of our people are in such churches too.

In short, we are failing to reach working classes, poor people and deprived communities. We are filling our churches with middle class people and planting in middle class areas and then begetting more and more of the same.

Now, let me be clear: middle class people need the gospel too. So, don’t take any of this as me saying we don’t need middle class churches, we don’t need to go to middle class areas or that we don’t want middle class people. We want the gospel to go wherever there are people. The problem is NOT that the middle class are in the church. Sinners being saved is a cause for joy regardless of who they are and where they are from. The problem is that a whole demographic is missing from our churches. We have missed large swathes of the population in favour of another section of the population. That’s the problem.

It is a sheer joy that middle class people are being reached and saved, but it should be a cause of great shame that working class and ethnic minority people are almost entirely invisible and we have few churches in the communities where they live. I’m not here to have a go at middle class people. I’m not saying middle class people don’t need the gospel. I’m here to say working class and BME people need the gospel too and we have basically ignored them as an Evangelical movement.

If we are genuine about our desire to see the gospel go out to all people, we’ve got to ask some hard questions about why certain demographics are hardly represented in our churches. We need to recognise that there is a problem and we need to be honest about why there is a problem. Only then might we be able to find a solution.

Why is there a problem?

Hopefully you’re still with me and recognise there is a problem. But why is it there? Historically, this wasn’t an issue. In his book on 18th Century Methodism, Robert Wearmouth says: ‘The higher classes were barely touched by Methodist influence, but the working men and women were profoundly affected.’ David Bebbington says, in the mid- to late 18th century, working class artisans made up 23% of society but accounted for nearly 60% of Evangelical Nonconformity. Tim Chester notes, during this period, the middle classes were hugely underrepresented in Nonconformist ranks. It is also notable that the second Evangelical Awakening in Britain, The 1904-5 Welsh Revival and the 1921 East Anglian Revival all revolved around the working classes. So, things were not always this way.

But the question remains: why are the working classes underepresented in our churches today when historically they were Evangelical bread and butter? Let me offer 4 possible reasons.

First, in certain circles, there has been an emphasis on reaching the influential. This was a policy among a lot of Evangelical Anglicans. Things like the Bash Camps with its ‘key boys from key schools’ ethos and GLOD, camps specifically for people from Independent Schools, are all part of this. There are also people like Tim Keller who have pushed this idea of reaching the influential to create a kind of ‘tickle-down’ effect in mission.

Second, church-going was viewed by many as a ‘respectable activity.’ Even until recently – and there are still some holdouts on this – there was a ‘Sunday best’ mentality which meant the church felt to many poor people that it’s not for them. Alongside that, those who led and spoke at services were always deemed respectable. Anglican clericalism and its focus (long before Nonconformists) on theological education made it particularly susceptible. But you won’t find many Nonconformist ministers without a degree or formal theological education today. Many don’t speak with regional accents or dress like locals which adds to the sense this place isn’t for the uneducated or poor.

Third, as Tim Chester points out, ‘the gospel often travels along relational line.’ There is a sense in which like begets like. So, I become a believer, I reach my mates who are like me, and they reach their mates who are also a bit like me. Middle class people have networks that tend to be wide and transcend geography, whereas working classes tend to be geographically bound in their relationships. This means the middle classes have wider scope to reach people like them.

Fourth, there is the phenomena of ‘social lift.’ When people become believers and the gospel begins to change them, they develop aspirations and want to move away. When this happens, they move to middle class areas were they then join middle class churches and begin to acclimatise to their middle class surroundings. But it takes them away from the working class community and makes them less likely to reach the people where they came from.

If that is some of how we became a middle class movement, what keeps us that way? One reason that we’ve touched already is, like begets like. We have become middle class and unless we choose to make a concerted effort otherwise, we will remain that way because we’ll reach our friends in the areas we live most easily. Unless we are prepared to up sticks and move to a deprived community, as middle class people who are purposefully going to reach people unlike us, we’re simply not going to reach the poor and deprived.

But that begs another question: if we recognise there’s a problem and we accept like begets like, why don’t we purposefully choose to go to deprived communities to reach the working class and poor? I think there are two basic reasons.

First, we’re scared. Now, I doubt we’re being swayed by the stats on life in deprived places because most of us aren’t looking at them. But we are scared by how we imagine life to be on a council estate or in a rough part of town. Given that most of us don’t live in those places, it’s not born out of experience. It’s born out of snippets of information and an over-active imagination.

I went to present about our work in a very middle class village church. Lovely, godly believers. We told them about our work in a highly Muslim, South Asian bit of town. One man came up to me afterward and said, ‘You’re a brave man.’ Why would he say that? He’s lived in a village all his life, never clapped eyes on a South Asian Muslim in his life, and yet is adamant there is something brave about what I’m doing. The reason is because he’s heard stories in the media about Muslims (usually terrorists or oppressive, dictatorial regimes) and presumes that Glodwick in Oldham is the same as choosing to surround yourself with the Afghan Taliban. It’s not. It’s easy to mock that kind of attitude. We all have a fear of the unknown “other.” If we only ever hear stories demonising people, and never actually interact with them ourselves, we’re going to create images of what those people are like in our minds.

We do it with council estates. Most of us don’t live on estates and hardly ever rub shoulders with those people. When we do, the way they dress and speak – based on our limited knowledge of them – reinforces the picture we concocted in our minds. We create a picture of what life must be like in these places and then terrify ourselves about the thought of living there. The image in our heads is so grim that the idea of moving into that place is as absurd as stick your head in a gas oven.

But second, if we get over the nonsense we dream up in our own heads of what life will be like, we start thinking about all the things we will have to give up. We worry about the kind of house we will live in. We worry about the kind of work we will get. And, the biggest middle class idol of them all, our children – they might have to mix with Asians and poor people in schools OfSTED rate as ‘satisfactory’! I think if we could wish churches into existence without any cost to ourselves at all, we would have one on every estate and deprived community. We’re onboard with it happening, as long as we’re not the ones who have to make it happen.

At the risk of being overly controversial, I don’t think the recent focus on church planting has actually been our friend on this issue at all. I’m all for church planting. I want to see churches planted in deprived communities. So, don’t hear me saying I don’t like planting or want to see plants.

But, the focus on planting has led to an unhealthy desire to plant. Because planting carries kudos, as does being ‘a planter’, people are very quick to plant because planting of itself is deemed good, without planting where there is need. Many big churches have just drawn a line around where existing members live and stuck a church in their midst to serve those people. Because it’s a plant, it’s touted as a great win for the kingdom. But it’s done nothing for the kingdom. In fact, if anything, it’s taken resources away from a potential plant in virgin territory, or where there are no believers, to serve an existing group of Christians in their own special building. That’s not gospel planting, that’s self-serving. I spoke to one minister who planted in a fairly leafy area and asked why they went there rather than a nearby deprived community. He said, ‘realistically we wouldn’t get our people to move there.’ Who’s that plant serving then?

The fact is, we’re just too comfortable. The number one reason we don’t plant in deprived communities, is that we are too comfortable and unwilling to do anything that makes us uncomfortable. We are creatures of comfort. And that idol of comfort has led to another fairly unpleasant moral decision: we are implicitly willing to allow the poor to head to Hell because the areas they live in don’t quite do anything for our life aspirations. We are happy to usher people into a lost eternity because we don’t like their cafes, the housing won’t go up in value for us to invest in or we don’t deem the schools good enough for our children.

Why should we care?

If you’ve made it this far, well done! But why should we even care about this? Maybe we’ve missed some folks and haven’t gone to every community, but so what? We’ve got to go somewhere. Maybe this self-selection is God’s means of taking the gospel where he wants it. Let me offer three reasons why this really matters.

First, we should care because the Lord cares. Consider 2 Pet 3:9: the Lord doesn’t desire ‘that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ So, the Lord wants all people everywhere to repent. The Great Commission calls us to go into all the word and preach the gospel. All reaching repentance, and all the world, necessarily includes deprived communities and the poor.

Not only does the Lord long for the poor to be saved, he has a specific heart for them. Jesus calls the gospel, ‘good news to the poor.’ As we read the gospels, Jesus spends his time with the poor and marginalised saying, ‘blessed are the poor.’ James says that religion that is pure and undefiled involves caring for the poor. Eph 4:28 talks about working, and no longer staling, ‘so that you may have something to share with anyone in need.’ That is service to the poor. The Lord cares for the poor and marginalised. And he cares specifically about their salvation. Do you care about the poor as the Lord does?

Second, we should care because that’s where fruit lies. We all know, anecdotally, just how hard it is to reach the middle classes. This isn’t anything new. Here’s what Jesus says: ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ If nothing else, that should make us question our strategy of continually going after middle class, wealthy people.

Then we have James: ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.’ We can’t over-spiritualise that because he’s quite specific it’s those who are ‘poor in the world’; the materially and influentially poor. We’ve also got Paul: ‘not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong’ That is not a manifesto for reaching the rich, wealthy and influential as a matter of priority, is it?

We’ve already seen how this played out historically. The major revivals and much of British church history has centred on the working classes. But the same is true today. John Stevens, in Knowing our Times, says this: ‘There seems to be greater gospel response at present amongst the very rich, and the very poor… In contrast the most hardened communities to the gospel are those that are white-British, moderately affluent and aspirant. They have little apparent interest in, or need for, the gospel.’ Given the sheer number of people considered ‘very poor’ compared to the ‘very rich’, we are likely to see most gospel fruit among the poorest in society. If you care about gospel advance and seeing disciples of Jesus Christ made, then we need to seriously focus on the poor and deprived – that is where most fruit lies!

Third, and with this I’ll close, it should matter because it speaks to our salvation. If we have made comfort our functional god, then Christ is not our functional saviour. We are worshipping an idol of comfort. If we are saying to ourselves – no matter how we dress it up – that our comfort is more important to us than Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, do we not need to ask serious questions about our standing in Christ?

It’s true, not everybody is called into deprived communities. But can we honestly say that we’re not going because we really don’t believe we’ve been called? If we’re more honest, isn’t it because our comfort is more alluring to us than the promises of Christ. If that is the case, is this not a salvation issue? Are we not worshipping a false god that cannot save?

I’m not saying if you’ve not gone to a deprived community you’re not saved. That would be insane – I don’t think that. What I am saying is if you have a settled conviction that deprived communities need the gospel but you won’t go because because you’re comfortable as you are, and you have no interest in sending others because it’s too much like hard work – what does it say about your love for Christ and his commands?

There is a serious salvation issue we need to grapple with on this question. I don’t think it’s good enough to just say, ‘we’re not called to that.’ Because it can’t be right that nobody is and I struggle to see how we’re obeying Christ by sending nobody.