Whenever you talk about ministry in deprived places, people get a little bit spooked. Apparently, people tell me it’s alright for “people like you”. I’m not entirely sure what they mean. I’m not sure what special class of believer I am that makes it alright for me but not for others. They don’t often say it in the same way to my friend Stephen – who has planted a church in an similar kind of deprived area in Rochdale – but it seems it is alright for him too. I’m never quite sure what characteristics and traits we have in common – other than we’re believers and we have been willing to come to these places – that means it’s alright for us, but not for anyone else.
Now, I could sit here and say it’s as alright for me as it would be alright for you too. I really don’t think it takes a special class of believers to come to places like Glodwick. If you love Jesus, you know the gospel and you have any concern for the lost at all, you’ve pretty much got everything you need right there. If we’re into setting apart special believers (and, for the record, I am less than thrilled by the hero-worship that goes on in Christian circles of missionaries and preachers God has used mightily), I certainly don’t think you qualify just by coming to Oldham or Rochdale.
But it bears saying that I love Oldham. I was speaking to my wife about this the other day. You will never hear me talking about what a sacrifice we have made for the Lord by being here. It is not a sacrifice. We live in a perfectly pleasant place, with loads to do, it is great for bringing up your kids and it is – albeit not quite as cheap as Preston thanks to our proximity to Manchester – a darn sight cheaper than Oxford or London. There has been zero downside to our being here as far as I am concerned.
In fact, there have been a bunch of upsides. Though I am not native to Oldham, I am from a background where people think like I do. Even though I mainly grew up down south, but had stints in the North and was brought up by Merseyside parents, the differences in how Southern and Northern working class people think and act is not huge. I’m not denying regional variations, but there is more in common than not. There are greater differences between Southern and Northern middle class people, chief amongst which is that the Southern ones know they’re middle class while the Northern ones, by and large, are adamant they aren’t even though they definitely are. But differences abound.
But I genuinely love it. It would be both crass and untrue to pretend that I have made some sort of sacrifice to be here. Frankly, I prefer it to the well heeled places I have lived. And what, realistically, have I given up? We have outstanding schools, fibre optic broadband and 6g wifi, we have trams that will take us into a city centre, we have hills, parks and moors so we can get a fix of countryside (indeed, 25% of the borough is in the peak district national park!) We have shops, cafes and all the normal amenities you would expect a place to have. We have uber and takeways and restaurants – both chain and independent, both cheap-and-cheerful and top quality – what exactly do we not have that anyone might think they would give up? Indeed, we have all these things and we pay less for the privilege of accessing them than most places.
When it boils down to it, the only thing you sacrifice to be here is an innate sense of status. You have to buy in to never being considered to have “made it”. Now, I’ll be honest, I could not care less about that sort of thing. I don’t say that as bully for me, I say it because it means I cannot even say this is a matter of having given anything up. You can’t claim to have sacrificed something you never cared about in the first place! But the only thing you will give up – if it is something of importance to you – is the ability to impress your friends with your postcode. You can, probably, get a bigger or better specced house for the money. But whatever you get, it will still ultimately be in Oldham. People who think that unless you live within spitting distance of a tube stop or under some dreaming spires you are basically a pleb will not be impressed. But I can’t claim to have sacrificed much on that front because I couldn’t care less what such people think – before the Lord on the last day, who cares?!
But I know it is easy for me to look at it and say there is no sacrifice. It is easy because the reality on the ground is stuff I prefer. The reality of living here is that I love it and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love the place and I love the people. I enjoy the multicultural makeup of our church. I love reaching the South Asians and the white working class around us. I love having Africans, Iranians, Europeans, Americans all in the church. I love the town and find loads to like about it. And I appreciate that isn’t true for everyone. Nor do they have to justify their preferences to me. I accept for some it will feel like a sacrifice (even if we have a different idea of what a sacrifice actually is). That is okay.
But I would love us to get away from this idea that only special people come to places like this. It simply isn’t true. My middle-class wife loves it here too. She had no particular affinity for Oldham before we came and some the usual middle class cultural aspirations and expectations. But she loves it too and she is very different to me. There is nothing stopping middle class, ordinary believers from thriving here and being active and helpful in the ministry. Ours is not a mission for the exceptional Christian (which almost none of us think we are), it is an ordinary place, for ordinary people who will thrive if they simply love Jesus and love the lost enough to tell them about him. Perhaps it all seems a bit simple, but there really isn’t much more to it than that. You don’t need to be the SAS, you just need to love the Lord, love the lost and be willing to come.
And it is that you may find me rail against from time to time. Given we are an ordinary town, with ordinary people, and all the mod-cons you would expect anywhere else really (shops, internet, running water, indoor toilets and all that), why are so few willing to even countenance coming? After all, it isn’t really a sacrifice.