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.
In the last blog post on this topic I gave some ideas of the barriers that are often found in planting in deprived places. Given that we’re planning to plant a church in Rochdale, which scores highly in many of the measures of deprivation, you will realise that I don’t think those barriers should stop us! Nor is it a theoretical question for us. So I want to give five good reasons for taking risks and attempting the potentially difficult thing of planting in deprived areas.
The Great Commission
Matthew 28:19-20 seems fairly universal to me when it talks of all nations. And of course when we reach Revelation we find that the redeemed are from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9; 14:6), which in turn accords with a gospel that is for everyone (e.g. Galatians 3:28). The implication is that we should overcome barriers that stop us going to particular areas or types of people, not succumb to them. This alone should be enough to commit us to reaching deprived areas.
When Paul writes in Romans 15:20 that he aims to take the gospel to places that have not heard it before, there is a sense in which he is the answer to his earlier questions in Romans 10:12-15 (although his main focus there is Israel) circling around the reality that faith will only be possible if the message is preached. Although there is something specific to Paul’s calling here, there is also a more general challenge to Christians and the church to seek out those who have not had much or any opportunity to hear the gospel. Given the relatively small number of good churches in more deprived areas in the UK, I don’t think it is unreasonable to describe many deprived areas as relatively unreached. There are many communities within deprived areas for which this is especially true, for example large Muslim communities many of whose members have never had the chance to hear the good news of the the real Jesus. This presents the church and Christians in the UK with a challenge. Will we have Paul’s passion for the gospel to go to new places and people groups?
Good news to the poor
The message of Jesus is presented in the New Testament as good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18; 7:22). Now there is a lot of debate around the question of the priority for the poor, which needn’t detain us too much here. I hope it would at least be enough to say that it would be a strange church and Christian that decided to explicitly not take the good news of Jesus to deprived places and invert the NT by saying it was not good news for the poor. Yet within conservative evangelicalism we have left ourselves uncomfortably open to that charge in the UK. So can we renew our passion to take the gospel to deprived places because it is good news for the poor?
It seems to me that the opportunity is greater at the moment in deprived areas. It is a generalisation to say so, but I think in communities that have less resources to hide sin and its effects there can be more openness to good news that deals with sin and offers real hope. I heard on the news this morning of the disporportionate effects of the pandemic in poor areas, which will come as no surprise, but should be a reminder that those who have been left behind in society face a much bleaker world than many of their middle-class contemporaries. Friends ministering in wealthier areas often speak of a lack of openness to the gospel. In a context where people have a ‘good life’ and the resources to paper over the cracks sin causes, it is hard for them to accept the good news, perhaps harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25)! And yet we continue to throw resources at those areas instead of, perhaps, shaking the dust off our feet and going to the areas where people are open to the message (Mark 6:11). At the very least, can we be excited about resourcing the great opportunities there are in poorer areas to plant churches?
Risk is right
If you read my last church planting blog you’ll have seen that often we fear the risk of planting in deprived areas. As I said, there are undoubtedly real risks involved. As Christians, should we be scared of risk though? I’ve recently been reading John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life which has a really helpful chapter in it entitled “Risk is Right – Better to Lose Your Life Than to Waste It.” He reminds us that because we are not God, and thus finite, risk is woven into our lives, pointing us to James 4:13-15 (surely a passage for our times!). So life is about taking risks and of course we find all kinds of examples in Scripture of people doing that for the Lord (think Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Esther, the Apostles). In contrast, think of the Israelites unwilling to risk and wasting 40 years in the wilderness. Now I know not all risk is right (Piper makes that point too!). But given reasons 1-4, it seems that we should most definitely be taking the risks of planting in deprived areas. In our risk-averse culture that will take some courage. We must expect people to think us foolish. So will you be willing to take that risk and support a risky church plant in a deprived area with your presence or your resources?
I hope these 5 reasons will give you some encouragement to think that we must take the risk and plant in deprived areas. I hope even more that it will encourage you to act upon that and support those seeking to do these kind of plants.