Solent Gospel Partnership – Solutions to the problem of comfort

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 second talk. You can view the first talk here.

In the previous session, I tried to lay out the problem of comfort. We looked at where the church has failed to go and who we’ve failed to reach. We considered why that has come about. Then, we had some Biblical reflection on it. In this session, I want to start pressing into some possible solutions to the problem. The basic question I want to ask is this: How are we going to reach the poor and deprived who we have largely overlooked?

I think there are several areas that I want to press into:

  • What can we do as individuals?
  • What can we do as churches?
  • What can we do as training institutions?
  • What can we do as wider gospel partnerships?

What can we do as individuals?

The problem we’re trying to resolve is the lack of representation of working class people in our churches and the lack of churches in deprived communities. Let me suggest three things we can do as individuals.

First, commit to praying for the working classes and deprived communities. In my experience, if we aren’t praying for something to happen, it is almost universally true that we will never get round to doing it off our owns bats. If we really want to see deprived communities reached for Christ, then we need to be praying for deprived communities. If we want see working class people coming to know Christ, then we need to be praying for working class people. If you already know some working class people, why not commit to praying specifically for them to come to Christ? If you know of a deprived area nearby, why don’t you start praying that the Lord would raise up evangelists to reach that area? Long-term, why don’t you pray that the Lord would establish a church in those communities? James says, ‘you don’t have because you don’t ask.’ Maybe if we started asking, we might start getting.

Second, commit to reaching the working classes where you are. I don’t know all your church situations, and I certainly don’t know where you all live, but I am 99% sure somewhere near you will be a deprived neighbourhood. It’s very rare in the UK to have affluent communities with absolutely no working class people, or deprived areas, within spitting distance. On an individual level, we can be looking for whom we will reach with the gospel. Is it possible to go to the places where working class people congregate? Are there people you know whom you could make a priority for evangelism. Even if you only know one working class person living in a less affluent community, if they come to faith, just imagine how much more effective they will be for Christ living where they do. Could you find just one person to prioritise?

Third, give serious thought to moving into a deprived community. Could you go and join an existing, struggling church trying to reach and estate or deprived area? The story I hear over and over again of churches in deprived communities is that they struggle for money and for workers. Nobody wants to move there and nobody gets work there because the places generally have no work. And yet, in my area for example, Manchester is easily commutable. People living in South Manchester could easily move to Oldham, keep their existing job but live in Oldham and serve. Is there an equivalent area near you? Could you keep your job where you are but commit to moving into a deprived community so that you might reach those we are currently overlooking?

What can we do as churches?

First, could you meaningfully partner with an existing church in a deprived place? I don’t know this area so I don’t what there is locally, but nationally, there are plenty of churches in deprived communities. Could you find one of those churches and partner with them. I’ll be frank, I don’t mean sticking them on your noticeboard and having a ‘missions night’ once per year where you maybe get round to praying. Find that church and commit to praying for them.

But also, could you set aside some of your missions budget and send it support a minister in a deprived community? Rather than sending all our money abroad, could we support home mission by helping to fund an existing church in a deprived place? More than that, if we’re meaningfully partnering, could you commit to seeing whether you could send workers. Might be a short-term team (which could become longer term sending) or might be sending a worker. Without putting too fine a point on it, most churches need money and people to function. Could you partner with an existing church and provide either of those?

Second, if you are in any way bothered about planting, could you determine now to plant in a deprived community when you are able? I’ve already highlighted the problem of planting. Far too many don’t look at where there is need, they just look where their people are already or where they’re willing to move. Could you buck that trend and put a church where there is none in the midst of a council estate or a deprived part of town? All too often the conversation about where to plant isn’t an honest one. But could you identify a needy area now, begin praying for it now, and then determine – when you are in a position to plant – that it will be a plant into that community?

Third, if you’re nowhere near being able to plant, might you be in a position to make your next staff addition an evangelist with a focus on reaching local deprived areas? You might not have the ability to plant a church now but sending an evangelist to live in a deprived community and reach out locally may just plant the seeds of what might grow into a credible church plant. The benefit of that would be that you avoid much of the nonsense of church planting whereby we shift existing believers to a new place, make little impact and grow only by transfer. An evangelist employed as an evangelist to reach that area, with no more brief than to reach local with the gospel, would be a bottom up way of potentially planting a church in the future. Could you hire an evangelist with such a remit?

Fourth, if you can’t plant nor afford a staff member, could you club together to appoint an evangelist with another church? If our gospel partnerships really are meaningful, could you identify a needy area and, between you, appoint an evangelist with a remit to reach the neediest people? Again, that might lead to a church being planted in time.

Those are all things that you might do to expand gospel ministry. But here are some things to think about in terms of what you’re doing now as a church:

Have you thought about what your service communicates to any working class people who may wander in? If you’re all sat there in your chinos and buttoned-down shirts, you may not quite buy ‘Sunday best’ mentality, but have you thought how it looks to outsiders? In terms of the music you sing – I don’t know whether you’re cranking out Sankey’s Sacred Songs & Solos or some Matt Redman/Tim Hughes malarkey – but is it music that will in any way connect with your community? Do you expect people to come in, know how to behave in church, think of all sorts of ways you feel they ought to behave without questioning whether a lot of that is culturally bound (particularly bound to middle class cultural ideals)? Are you sure you are pushing Biblical values and not making cultural values into Biblical ones? There are too many examples to list here but I wrote an article I can point you to for a theological journal that helps start us off thinking about this.

Second thing you can do is make sure that those ‘up front’ are not always those from your background (such as you have anybody else). If everyone at the front is white, middle-class and in a tie, quite a few folks will assume ‘up front’ isn’t for them. How much involvement does your service allow for those from different backgrounds? Even just having open prayer, where anyone can pray, gives a different voice and a sense that other people are welcome and involved.

Third, what about in terms of your leadership? Do you have any working class people on your leadership teams? If not, why not? Could it be – and this is an honest question – that you have filtered the Biblical criteria for eldership through cultural filters and are looking for people who are an essentially middle class example of those qualifications rather than a Biblical one? Do you have a tendency to overlook people who might be qualified because they don’t look like you or the existing leaders that you’ve got in place? Maybe take another look at that guy who seems a bit rough around the edges.

What can we do as training institutions?

Now, I don’t know if anybody here runs a training college or is involved in such things, but even if that’s not you, don’t switch off – this will still be relevant. We do have a problem in our training institutions.

We, as a church, linked up with a theological college to deliver one of their courses. One of the criteria for the course was a prior degree. Guess how many people in our community have a degree that would allow them access onto that course? Correct – pretty much none. Then if you look at different training institutions, most are offering BTh and MTh courses all of which are centred around academic criteria set by universities. Now, consider for a second you are a brickie or a spark and you want to go into theological education. You left school at 16, what are you going to do? Most of our training institutions offer nothing for you.

What about the Gospel Partnership training courses? Aren’t they a good start? Even the chairman of one of those partnerships has said to me, his church is also in a deprived area, there is no training option for people from our communities. Look at the NW Partnership course as an example, it’s typically full of young graduates. Not many without some level of formal education can tap into it. What is more, on these course, the mode of learning is badly set up for pastoral ministry. An awful lot of what goes on, the mode of learning, is academic. Some of that I suspect stems from our desire to be taken seriously and thus accredited.

The problem is, of course, pastoral ministry isn’t an academic exercise; it is vocational. I have academic degrees in theology but they didn’t do a lot to set me up for a job in pastoral ministry – they helped me write essays and parrot back stuff I read in some theology books. The way we have set up most of our training is to lock out those without formal education or academic inclination. We are essentially saying non-graduates aren’t cut out to be pastors – which might come as news to Jesus and the apostles!

So, what are we going to do? And here’s where it’s relevant to us as church leaders First, unless a good number of church leaders tell the theological colleges that their model is broken, nothing is going to change. One thing you can do is speak to college principals and ask whether they would consider creating some training that is more suitable.

Second, the way things are set up, we are only likely to ever send middle class people to college, training them academically so that they are trained to reach more middle class people. None of that training sets them up for work in deprived places. If that’s the case, if we can fairly well guarantee that those who go to college will pastor in affluent communities, something about the way we have setup our colleges is broken. That means, if we want to reach working class and deprived areas, we are going to have to think very seriously about whether we send people to theological colleges as they are currently constituted.

Third thing we can do – think carefully about who you’re sending and why. What are you hoping they will come out of college able to do? Think carefully, if I send this person to Bible college, will they come out equipped to reach deprived communities and are they a good fit to reach working class people? If the answer to that is no, then might we want to think about sending them?

Fourth, if there were suitable training options, are there working class people you would send to college? Are we overlooking those guys because we don’t want to send them or because we think training is inappropriate?

What can we do as wider gospel partnerships?

How can gospel partnerships help with this issue? Whether it’s the Solent Partnership, other regional gospel partnerships, or any other affiliation – what can we do to resolve this? Let me suggest a few things.

First, we can raise awareness of these things at our meetings. One of the big problems for church in deprived communities is that they labour away in relative obscurity – most people have never heard of my tin pot church in an area they have never been to. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak here but maybe there are local guys labouring in a rough bit of Portsmouth or whatever who you could give a platform. More widely, you can raise awareness of the need for churches to be planted in hard areas. Maybe make it a specific focus of your mission planning.

Second, gospel partnerships are well placed to divert resources where they’re needed. I’ll talk about the NW Partnership because it’s the one I’m most intimately acquainted with. But one thing they can do is to help wealthier churches to divert their missions budgets to needy areas. If all of the churches in your partnership are assumed to be thriving and solvent, why would anybody think to divert any of their giving to those churches? Gospel Partnerships can help divert resources where they are most needed.

In an even more direct way, Gospel Partnerships are well placed to set up mission funds specifically with a remit to supporting churches in deprived communities. FIEC have a training fund and a church planting fund. There’s absolutely nothing stopping them having a church in deprived communities fund where they actively seek donations and divvy out resources to those planting, revitalising or just pressing on in the kind of area where converts will never have the finances to give.

For most of my time in my church, we had hardly any people, those converting were asylum seekers with no money, and our church functioned with a £1500 per month deficit. Each year we were £18,000 poorer than when we started. Middle class models of getting a bit of transfer and reaching people who will eventually give don’t work in our area. The people we reach have no jobs or money and everybody transfers out of our areas, not into them. We’re still not solvent and are never likely to be. We need people to support us long-term so that we can be about gospel ministry rather than heads buried under a pile of funding applications. Gospel Partnerships could help by pooling money into a fund that would at least take away the constant burden of fundraising, which takes minister away from actual gospel work, just so they can keep their church afloat.

But that’s just money – Gospel Partnerships are also well placed to send people. FIEC have their Hub Conference for people looking into ministry. NW Partnership have their ministry trainee scheme. Most of the people on those things come from well-resourced churches and end up serving well-resourced churches. Gospel Partnerships have a unique opportunity to divert people towards churches in deprived communities.

We have a model for ministry that says, churches set up jobs and those after a ministry role apply for it. That’s great if you have money and support, but we’ve had to do this backwards. Off the back of the Hub Conference one couple were sent to check us out. They decided they wanted to serve with us. So we, and they, went about trying to get funding for them to simply come, with no specific role at all. Gospel Partnerships could help with this. They can divert people through training schemes to churches in most need of people.

The large city centre church in a university town might be able to have 10 apprentices. But maybe instead of that, send one of two to that struggling church that could really use an extra pair of hands. The Gospel Partnerships could set up a scheme that places those looking for ministry roles into deprived churches for a couple of weeks and then commits to funding them in such a role should they choose to go into ministry in that place.

There are some ideas as to how we as individuals, churches, training institutions and Gospel Partnerships might be able to see churches in deprived communities and working class people reached and resourced for gospel work.