Guest Post: A radical solution to the greatest inequality

This is a guest post by Steve Bell, Pastor at Grace Church, Isle of Wight. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

A few days ago Steve ran a blog post, entitled ‘The greatest inequality is a lack of gospel preaching churches’.  He was picking up on a recent Sky News article about how the pandemic is exasperating the already significant inequalities faced by the poorest communities in our country and noting that most of us tend to respond to articles like this with (as he put it) “an immediate emotional response, followed by some hand-wringing and calls of ‘what can we do?’ before the whole thing is soon forgotten”.

What I found particularly provoking was Steve’s reminder that the greatest inequality in a deprived community is not to do with its material poverty caused by a lack of public provision or investment (serious though that is), but with its gospel poverty caused by the poor provision of bible believing, gospel proclaiming churches. 

So I was delighted to see the article re-posted on an online evangelical discussion group, accompanied by the comment – “A superb article by Stephen Kneale – How can we address this need? – What can we do differently to the past?”

What a great question to discuss and take action on, so that we evangelicals don’t do the same thing with gospel poverty in deprived communities that the rest of society does with the material poverty in those same communities, ie have “an immediate emotional response, followed by some hand-wringing and calls of ‘what can we do?’ before the whole thing is soon forgotten”.  For, it seems to me, that this is exactly the response that we have usually been guilty of!

So in response to the question “How can we address this need?  What can we do differently to the past?”  I would like to repeat here the suggestion I made on the discussion group.  Here it is.

As far as I can tell, most evangelical church planting in the UK is at least partially funded by a fairly small number of either national or regional church networks, some wealthier churches and the associated funds/trusts that they can access. I reckon that there are sufficiently few of these organisations that (post COVID!) you could get senior representatives from all of them together in one room.  My suggestion is that this is done and that they agree together that for the next ten years all the new church plants that they help to finance in the UK will be in the more deprived communities (either urban or rural) that we have previously neglected, and that they will no longer help fund further new church plants in predominately middle class or newly gentrified areas.

Of course this is not to prevent middle class churches planting in more middle-class areas if they want to and can pay for it themselves.  It is simply to recognise that our most deprived communities are also our most gospel deprived communities and that, going forward, we must be intentional about redressing the balance rather than just doing a bit of handwringing and forgetting!

I realise that this is a radical solution that many might feel just couldn’t work.  But I can see some distinct advantages to seriously considering it.

  1. We have a problem with finding church planters who feel able to lead plants in more deprived communities. The language is often used of not feeling ‘called’ to such contexts.  However I think we often use the language of not feeling ‘called’ simply in order to justify remaining within the comfort of our existing (usually white middle class) sub-culture.  If we were to agree to re-allocate much of the centrally available funds in the way I’m suggesting, this could potentially be a much-needed catalyst to accomplish two further much needed changes.  i) Training for ministry that includes much more UK cross-cultural equipping and exposure, and ii) expanding the routes into ministry to make them more accessible for training up more planters and pastors from within working class and deprived communities.  It has been recognised for years that we need a broader pool of planter/pastors than simply white middle class graduates, plus we need our white middle class graduates to have proper exposure and training for planting in the hard places!  However progress in this area has been painfully slow, so agreement to reallocate much of the funding could be a significant catalyst to drive forward changes in training too.
  2. Church planting operates somewhat like the Research and Development Department of the church. In other words new contexts stimulate fresh and creative ways of making disciples, which produce ministry ‘models’ to be picked up by others. (Examples would include the great work done to reach city centre workers through lunchtime talks, or to disciple, train and release graduates through our university ‘hub’ churches).  However, whilst we’ve been able to develop some great models for use in university towns and city centre settings, we have very few models that translate into deprived urban or rural communities.  This leaves prospective planters not only feeling culturally outside their comfort zone, but also with few models of how to proceed or other practitioners to advise them.  This is slowly changing through organisations like 20 Schemes and other pastors and planters working in more deprived settings, but if we are to see ‘hub’ churches resourcing work in deprived communities in the same way that they are in middle class communities, we need to give them much more investment! 
  3. It’s often said that its harder to plant in deprived communities, so we need to think about how to get the best return on our gospel investment. However it could be said in response, that it’s our lack of gospel investment in deprived communities in the past that have resulted in the need for more investment now.  But even if will be harder and slower, it is certainly not because deprived communities are harder to reach with the gospel than middle class ones, indeed the reverse is probably true!  While of course both the less wealthy and the more wealthy are equally in need of the gospel, yet if Jesus suggests anything in this area, (for example in Luke 4:18 or Luke 6:20-26) it is surely that it’s the materially poor and the physically oppressed, (those who have little or nothing in this world), that most keenly sense their need of God and so are most open to responding to Jesus message.  And yet it seems that for too long we have concentrated our efforts and resources on reaching those who may well be the most materially self-sufficient and ‘gospel hardened’ simply because we find them culturally more like us.

So there’s three reasons why it might actually be worth considering such a radical suggestion.  And just imagine what a difference it could make if the handful of networks and trusts that help facilitate much of the church planting in the UK, could collectively agree to redress the imbalance and channel a decade’s worth of future resources into the more deprived communities that are so starved of gospel churches.

Radical? Yes! But what a wonderful way of demonstrating that the Christians with the privilege of financially facilitating so much of UK church planting, are not doing with gospel poverty what the culture around us are doing with material poverty and simply making “an immediate emotional response, followed by some hand-wringing and calls of ‘what can we do?’ before the whole thing is soon forgotten”.