Guest post: What I learnt from ‘the most toxic by-election in history

This is a guest post from Graham Thomson, pastor of Spen Valley Church in Cleckheaton. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

The political circus is finally starting to leave my town. As I write, the day after a narrow victory for Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater in the Batley and Spen by-election, the only sign around Cleckheaton that anything has happened is the ubiquitous campaign posters on all the lampposts.

Oh…and Keir Starmer, making quite a lot of noise, surrounded by reporters (demonstrating extremely dubious social distancing), in the park next to my street this morning.

But apart from that, you’d never know that a ‘toxic by-election campaign’ had been fought in our area for the last few weeks.

You’ve probably seen some of the tensions on the news or social media; Kim Leadbeater being shouted at in the street by a bloke from Birmingham, Labour activists allegedly getting egged and beaten by George Galloway supporters, people getting arrested. A campaign like a warzone.

Except none of that happened in Cleckheaton. In fact, apart from receiving my own weight in leaflets through the letterbox, a couple of knocks on the door, and seeing activists around town occasionally, it’s pretty much passed us by.  I’ve not even seen as much as a hair of any of the sixteen (yes, that’s 16!) candidates, until the camera crews arrived in the park this morning. And it clearly didn’t make too much impression on the majority of people round here, over half of whom decided the options on offer weren’t even worth bothering to turn out to vote for. In the words of one of my neighbours on polling day, ‘It won’t get these bins emptied any quicker will it?!’

And I think her point helpfully illustrates some lessons UK evangelicals could learn from this by-election campaign.

A local church for local people

You see my neighbour, along with lots of other people I spoke to, was just not that bothered about it. They weren’t persuaded that a win for one side or the other would make any difference to their lives. Fierce debates around the future of Palestinian/Israeli conflict, or Kashmir (which were widely reported in the media), are not really issues for folk in this (mainly white British) area of the constituency. But apart from a line or two about proposals to build an Amazon warehouse in Cleckheaton, few of the 100+ campaign leaflets we received made much, if any, mention of our town and it’s issues at all.

And then there were the candidates and their accompanying activists. Apart from Leadbeater, not one of the candidates has ever spent any time living in our area. The fact that Labour’s slogan for the campaign was, ‘Vote Local, Vote Kim’, and their biggest condemnation of the Conservative candidate was that ‘he lives in North Yorkshire’, shows just how much locality matters around here. And the activists who knocked on our door were from Salford and Wales, others met people from Somerset and Kent.

And yet it struck me that so often we as the evangelical church in the UK can be so similar. I’ve been told in countless seminars and books that the key to finding out the issues people are talking about and interested in is to watch Gogglebox or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, rather than…you know, getting to know and talking to them. Or that it doesn’t matter whether you live, work, or socialise in the area you’re trying to reach with the gospel. Or that contextualisation is overrated, just preach the basic gospel. Don’t worry about getting stuck into the local life of the community, just preach and they will come.

Well, the last few weeks has reminded me that the value of people living in, loving, and being invested in their local community should not be underestimated. People who take the time to get to know the people they’re trying to reach, and what makes them tick. People who demonstrate that they want to love and serve their community. People who prove they want to commit to their community, and don’t just disappear to the nicer bits of the country once they’ve done their duty amongst the plebs. People who come alongside their community and, over time, love and serve them and get to know them. That they might share Jesus with people whose trust they earned and whose lives they share.

Come over and help us

I know I’ve already made the point, but the sheer number of accents I’ve heard over the last few weeks has been something of a novelty. Cleckheaton is deepest West Riding Yorkshire. You do hear accents from around the country, and even occasionally the world, but not from the mouths of most people. And so to hear voices from Wales, Manchester, the Home Counties, or Scotland around town was great. But it did raise two thoughts for me.

Firstly, in order to travel in for these few weeks (or even just a day or two) people had to have a decent amount of motivation. They had to believe that the good news they were sharing was important enough for the sacrifice to be worth it. And the ones I spoke to were certainly passionate.

Secondly, as passionate as they were, we also knew this was drive-by passion. They might have been passionate about their good news, but (at least) the vast majority were not passionate about Cleck, or even Batley and Spen. As soon as the campaign was over they’d be back on the motorway and the train, back to their own communities. It’s hard to take people in that situation seriously when they start to talk about the local issues you’re interested in.

And it got me thinking. What if the UK church was as passionate about the proper good news we have to share? What if we were desperate enough for God’s glory and his kingdom that people would travel (and even move) across the country to share it with others? And what if we were desperate enough to commit long-term? What if, after this pandemic, the UK church was desperate to ‘build back better’, to reach ‘left-behind communities’, to commit to local communities and demonstrate the love of Jesus and declare his gospel. Not for five weeks. But for the rest of their lives. What if the next influx of people, desperate to share their good news, into Cleckheaton was not because we’re now a marginal seat? What if it was people desperate to love, serve, and reach our community with the gospel of Jesus? And what if that pattern was repeated in towns just like ours across the needy North of England? That’d be something, right?

Come over and help us, eh…