Even when our idolatry rules us, we’re often wrong about the reality keeping us away

I read an article in the last few days about planting in deprived communities. The thrust of the article was about the desire to protect our children and how we can make idols out of our families and avoid going to harder places as a result. The article is really helpful and I think it is important reading for anybody with a family thinking about going to a council estate or deprived town to serve in ministry. You can read it here.

I don’t disagree with anything the article said. I just thought I would speak about a related issue from a different angle. In that article, Mez McConnell was talking about making an idol out of our children and families. Lots of people use them as an excuse not to go into so-called harder places. We have heard all the excuses and comments Mez raised in his article too. It is a real issue and Mez is right to call it out and address it biblically.

But the other side of the coin is that things in deprived communities really aren’t as bad as some people are led to believe. I recall one person who had come to check out our church spent a weekend in tears, seemingly because things were too hard for them. I wasn’t entirely sure what the problem was in reality. Nothing happened. This person stayed in a member’s home, in a decent bed, with their own room, ate meals and came to church stuff that – when you really look at it – isn’t very different from most church things you see anywhere else if I’m being honest. So, I really don’t know what the problem was, but that has only happened once.

Most people just don’t react that way. Usually, people just see us as a church in a place doing stuff. It doesn’t feel especially outlandish and difficult. There is nothing especially amazing about our Sunday services – we read the Bible, sing, pray, take communion – all the kind of things you would do in most other churches. There is nothing fancy about any of our outreach work. We play football, we teach English, we have dialogue evenings with people of other faiths. The only thing that makes it any different to the work of most churches is the people coming in often wear headscarves and don’t always speak our language (which, actually, isn’t that different to other churches in white English-speaking communities, with their hats for ladies and their special church language; and no I don’t mean speaking in tongues!) None of it, though, is wildly difficult.

But what a lot of people mean – and this is what Mez was speaking about in his article – is the wider community. People have views of estate life having never been to one and have a picture in their head of what it must be like to live in a deprived town with a large Muslim population with no understanding of what that is like in reality either. I remember sharing about our work in a church and the first response I got was from a local man who simply said: ‘you’re brave living there’. The impression he had was that Glodwick in Oldham was not much different to downtown Aleppo or Beirut. Suffice to say, it is quite different to those places.

Let’s take the issue of the idolisation of our children. If you move into Oldham – not long ago ‘the most deprived town in England’ (we’ve risen up the ranks a few places since… take that Middlesbrough!) – it turns out there are schools here where you can send your children. Shocker, I know! In fact, one of the best performing schools in Greater Manchester is near the town centre. Admittedly, you pretty much have to be an Anglican – or, at least pretend to be one for 5 years – to get in (good to see they’ve moved beyond the Test Acts), but there it is. If, like a good nonconformist, you refuse to do that, there are a number of other perfectly decent schools too. Your kids will get a credible education if you come here.

Mez is absolutely right that many of us have made an idol out of our children’s education. But it also bears saying, it’s not like they won’t get an education if they come somewhere like this. Reasonable schools that will teach your children, that even have people from them going on to university and everything, exist here. It is, frankly, cretinous not to know this and doesn’t say much for the apparently better education you are sticking around for your kids to get.

Other middle class idols, like housing and amenities, also exist here. That’s right, we do actually live in houses. Made of bricks with a roof and everything! We have running water out of our taps, we can even heat it up! We usually have ‘inside toilets’ these days (maybe more than one, depending on the house). We even get TV signal and can wire broadband up to our house. I know you all thought I powered this blog with a hamster on a treadmill, but my computer just runs off a plug in my house. All those cafes you all can’t cope without, we have them too. I was disgusted when I went into one with a gospel worker, who shall remain nameless, and they dared to order a chai tea latte (eugh!) But they’re soft and from that London, but nevertheless it was a thing the cafe had. Apparently somebody here orders them!

Mez mentioned in his article about the fact that there are sex offenders and drug addicts around in communities like ours. He’s right, those people are around. I’m just surprised that it becomes a thing of concern when – and I’m sure you know this – they exist in middle class communities too!

I wrote an article, not long ago, about the forgotten working classes and hidden poverty in places like the middle class village I mainly grew up in. In that article, I pointed out that opposite my street lived the most significant drug dealer in the county. A car theft ring operated from the same area. In my school, when I went with my pals to buy drugs from people in fields, I never bought any. I’d love to say it is because I was a godly Christian teenager with no interest, but the fact is I had no money. Who was buying them? My middle class mates whose parents gave them the child benefit because they didn’t need it! County lines is making this stuff even more common in otherwise well-heeled areas. I don’t suggest you do it, but you can google sex offenders with the name of the area I grew up in. One report from a few years ago said there were 306 of them in the area at the time. These things exist in the areas we are happy to live in just as they exist in areas to which we don’t want to go. If they are a genuine block on our going to deprived areas, how come they never seem to stop the allure of London and the Home Counties?

The point I am driving at here is that deprived communities – despite the name and the statistics – are often not what people imagine they are. I don’t pretend that the problems we have spoken about don’t exist in communities like ours. I don’t pretend there aren’t issues of community cohesion in places like mine or that the statistics aren’t higher on certain measures than in other communities. But I think what people assume they will have to give up before they come very often doesn’t bear scrutiny and the things they cite as keeping them away exist where they live too.

Sometimes, schools in our areas are better than the ones in middle class communities. There are various reasons for that which I won’t go into now, but it is the reality. Sometimes the fear of what your children might get up to are worse in middle class communities – where there is more money to get into those problems – than in communities like mine. Sometimes the moral values Christians bemoan, which often leads them to worry about ‘government agendas’ and ‘what the schools are teaching’, are much less prevalent in white working class areas and majority BAME schools. Where, exactly, do you think you are most likely to get militancy on moral issues that seem to exercise secular middle class people and students?

That doesn’t mean – as Mez rightly said – many of us haven’t made an idol out of our children and families. It is no more right to keep that idol in place, but come here anyway because it’s not as bad as you feared, than it is to stay away using your idol as an excuse not to come. But it is to say, even if we concede for the sake of argument some of those concerns might be legitimate on paper (and I’m not saying they are), the reality is they’re often not born out in practice anyway.