I was alerted to this report from Sky News the other day. It concerns the Eldon Street Estate in Oldham. If you want to see how close to our church building that is, you can look on the map below. The short answer is, a short walk.
There have been a slew of these types of story throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I commented on one related to Burnley here. As I commented there, these issues are not new in our area. They have not been caused by the pandemic, though they have certainly been made worse by it.
As I also previously commented, deprived communities need more than the emotional response of a moment. I suspect those who read this Sky News article responded to it in a similar way to those who read the one on Burnley. There is an immediate emotional response, followed by some hand-wringing and calls of ‘what can we do?’ before the whole thing is soon forgotten. Just like the images of starving African children that were once a mainstay of overseas charity campaigns, we are moved in the moment but increasingly grow desensitised to the images. Before long, they start washing over us and we barely think about them at all. There is enough distance between us and them that it doesn’t need to bother us so much.
But, of course, the greatest inequality for areas like Oldham is not the lack of work. It’s not the poverty or the poor access to dental care. It isn’t the lack of public provision or investment. These things are real and do create real problems, without doubt. What follows in no way diminishes these things. Living without work, on low incomes and without access to all sorts of services others take for granted is no small matter. If you don’t have work, and your expenses have gone up because your children are now home all the time, you may not be able to heat your house or feed your family. That is serious stuff. If you have ever been in the position – whether as a child or an adult – where there is the very real possibility that there is no more food, you might have some idea. But for that to be a long-term, ongoing situation for you is beyond worrying. Along with the mental health epidemic that is raging because of the measures taken due to the pandemic, it surprises nobody with any knowledge of these things that many are, quite literally, dealing with matters of life and death every day.
But despite all of that, the biggest inequality in areas like ours is none of those incredibly serious things. The biggest inequality is the dearth of bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches in our communities. And I don’t say that lightly. Those other issues are not to be diminished at all. They are in the highest order of seriousness. But each of them concern temporal issues. Serious temporal issues, but temporal nonetheless. But the reality of daily life as a matter of survival masks an even bigger issue – eternal matters of life and death. The lack of gospel-preaching churches in our communities is a far greater inequality because it means a lack of access to things that go well beyond this life.
When we distance ourselves from these things, when we grow weary of seeing the images and stories on the ground, when we decide we don’t have to concern ourselves with them, we are making another implicit decision. We are saying that we do not care. Not only that we don’t care about the physical issues, but equally little about the eternal ones. There are people heading to a lost eternity and we need to do better than turn our heads away because we are tired of hearing about it.
In truth, Oldham does better than many other towns for gospel-preaching churches. Including our own, I could think of a handful of others within the borough to whom I would gladly send people. Whilst three or four churches is not nearly enough for our 220,000 residents – nor do their existence tell you anything about the issues we face to remain open as we rely on external support and our difficulty in attracting workers to serve in our ripe harvest field – other northern towns fare even worse. There are whole boroughs without any bible-believing churches in their midst and towns without any gospel witness. There are whole areas of our country full of people who simply do not have access to a bible-believing church that will tell them about their need of Christ; people who are heading to a lost eternity because we haven’t gone to tell them.
It is wonderful that there are areas of our country that are well-served by gospel-preaching churches. I am glad that many people do have access to churches that will preach Christ and meaningfully reach people. This is genuinely a cause of rejoicing. But we need to take seriously the need to reach the unreached. We need to think hard about how we will move our resources – our money and our people – in large numbers to the areas of greatest need.
Let’s not just see another story about northern poverty and turn our heads away. Let’s not just say we’ll pray and then make our saying that the actual and only prayer. Let’s ask ourselves honestly – looking at the people, money and other resources we have as Evangelical churches in the UK – how are we going to establish churches where there are currently none or vanishingly few?