Guest post: What are the problems of planting in a deprived community

This is a guest post by Stephen Watkinson, who is shortly going to join Oldham Bethel Church as a planter with a view to establishing a new church in Rochdale. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

We’re planning to plant a church in Rochdale, which is a high scorer on most of the measures of deprivation. One question that follows from that is: why plant in deprived places? Probably no-one would actually ask that as it seems a bit insensitive, but in reckoning things up, I think lots of Christians and churches would plump for something safer and less risky first. So let’s start by being honest about some of the problems of planting in deprived areas.

  1. The lack of finance. Probably the number one reason for not planting in deprived areas is the lack of finance. Many church plants from large middle-class churches or in middle-class communities can be very quickly self-funding. In fact, I remember listening to a church planting expert who told us that the way forward was to collect 10 good men around us who would be able to finance our work. That isn’t going to work in Rochdale and so churches, let alone church plants, are always going to be more perilous and are commonly going to need a lot of outside support (which may drop off especially in a post-coronavirus recession for example).
  2. The lack of people. The other aspect of resources is people. In deprived areas, how are you going to get enough people with enough know-how to make a church work. Where will those middle-class gifts come from! And let’s be honest, it’s going to be hard to get people to move into the area and help, so you’ll be on your own. While this barrier includes a mixture of both rather patronising assumptions about people in deprived areas and about what a church needs, there is truth that in planting a church it helps if people will move to help you. Experience suggests Christians aren’t always so keen to move into deprived areas (even if that’s disappointing) and that does make it harder to form a planting team.
  3. The lack of glamour. There are some deprived church planting works that have managed to create a bit of a platform and a bit of glamour, but even that can be around a kind of macho, “if you want to be involved in real tough ministry, come and work here…” Mostly, it’s tougher to build the buzz around deprived places. It’s easier with more dynamic city centre work or where you can start with something more pre-formed that you can grow from where you may see faster results (at least you may perceive those). Christian ministry is slow work in most places and that is true in deprived places, but it’s hard to get the platform for less glamourous slow stuff and so hard to get something going and then keep it going.
  4. The lack of success stories. There are success stories, of course. There are people doing great work and some of them get some air time. But because as a movement, conservative evangelicals have largely worked within more middle-class, student and city-centre areas, most of our planting has naturally been into those areas. That’s where we’ve seen most success and that’s where most of our models are. That means that to some extent, we don’t have the models and the methods for planting in deprived areas in quite the same way and that gives us an understandable fear that we don’t know what we’re doing and thus we are likely to fail.
  5. The lack of large local planting churches. The majority of our successful plants have involved taking a large team from a large local church. But many deprived areas are a long way, either physically or psychologically, from those kind of churches. That means that there’s a large barrier to those churches getting involved in plants in deprived areas and it increases that perception of risk.

Now all of these are pragmatic things and all of them have plenty of honourable exceptions. I think they’re just the things that we would naturally begin to think about as barriers and risks to planting in deprived areas (and yes probably other areas such as rural communities would face some similar risks).

I think these reasons explain (at least in part) why church plants in more deprived areas seem to happen less frequently. I also think there is some reality to all of these problems – they are barrier and they do have an impact. However, in my next blog about church planting I want to write about why we must plant in deprived areas, even if we think the risks make it much more difficult.