Comfortable Christians are killing the church

Like many church leaders, I would love an influx of workers. Ours is a relatively small church with only a handful of people able to take gospel work forward. And like many church leaders, I am painfully aware that (humanly speaking) the workers simply aren’t going to wander in. That’s not because there aren’t people who could do the work nor because the work isn’t terribly exciting. The reason no one is coming is because geography and perception suggest we’re not a place worth moving to.

The CofE has long noted the struggle to get their Anglican ordinands to move North and it is not an issue confined to their denomination. What is more, of those who are not so ignorant (and, dare I say, lacking in sense) to believe that there is literally nowhere pleasant to live north of Oxford, many will still shun the less salubrious places. So whilst one may move North to Liverpool, it proves considerably harder to get folk to serve in Kirkby and Walton than it is in Aigburth and Mossley Hill. Moving to Manchester may be deemed acceptable, but Didsbury and Chorlton get the people rather than Harpurhey and Cheetham Hill. Birmingham is no problem, but we’d rather go to Moseley and Edgbaston than Longbridge or Sparkhill.

There are typically two types of places in which getting workers is decidedly easier: leafy market town and suburbs; trendy or “up and coming” urban areas. There is a distinct comfort to the former – nice houses, good schools, decent local amenities, etc – and an edgy coolness to the latter , both of which appeal to certain demographics. Whether it’s the lovely family lifestyle afforded by an upmarket town or the faux-edginess of living in a once considered “rough” area which has gentrified over time to give the appearance of coolness within the confines of relative comfort, these are the places gospel workers now settle. A generation ago, the prevalent drift of workers – especially those with families – was toward the leafy market town. More recently, I suspect in no small measure helped by Tim Keller’s focus on cities and urban areas, the gentrified urban area has become the place du jour. Couple this tendency with a mainline University nearby and the potential for a steady stream of workers multiplies further still.

Compare this to those places that are neither upmarket leafy towns, trendy suburbs, edgy urban areas or pretty rural settings. What do we do for the Rochdale, Middlesborough, Salford and West Bromwich’s of the world? My own town of Oldham recently won the ignominious accolade of ‘most deprived town in England‘. Now that by no means tells the whole story of this wonderful town, but it certainly tells a story. And, given how the figures were presented, there are a number of other towns who would beg to vie for that dubious honour. We have no universities on our doorstep offering a steady stream of students, our towns are riddled with unemployment (Oldham’s is double the national average and those who do get professional work e.g. doctors, dentists, teachers have a tendency to live outside the town and travel in) and a national reputation, rightly or wrongly, as a by-word for deprivation and squalor. Hands up who’s coming?

One of the saddest comments I ever read regarding church work was on the 20Schemes blog. In an interview, Ian Williamson explains about his ministry SixtyFiveEight and how he came to plant a church in Middlesborough. I’m quite sure the comment was made with absolutely no malice, not least given subsequent affiliations, but it was horrifying to hear the following stated in such a matter of fact way:

I soon started taking referrals from the police, schools and social services and the work moved from just serving men and boys to also working with mums and girls. We then started seeing people get saved but struggled to find a local church to send people to. I approached Acts29 and the FIEC about 3 years ago about the possibility of them sending a team to plant in Middlesbrough. However, I was told that they would struggle to find people willing to move to a town like Middlesbrough and that maybe I should be the one to establish a church.

And that is just what Ian went on to do with the help of New Life Church, Roehampton. But there it is, stated clearly and plainly by those whose very purpose it is to plant and equip churches: they would struggle to find people willing to move to a town like Middlesborough. Not just Middlesborough, any town like it.

Now, I suspect FIEC and Acts29 were merely stating the reality of the situation. We may criticise that they didn’t put out a call to see what might happen if we like (they may well have done exactly that), but their comment reflects the sad reality. People simply won’t come to towns like Middlesborough, Rochdale and Salford. So what hope of getting them to come to the town now labelled ‘most deprived in England’?

It bears saying that, as a minister in Oldham, my wife and I have made sacrifices to be here. I can say categorically, however, that none of them revolve around the town of Oldham itself. Oldham is, in many ways, a wonderful place to live. The people are warm and friendly, open to talking about the gospel. The needs are great, yes, but that is surely only more opportunity for gospel work. Whilst there is undoubtedly deprivation around, if you have any means at all, your standard of living will be quite high indeed. The town is currently going through some long overdue regeneration. When the council realised that simply extending a tram line was not going to solve all of the town’s ills – in fact, it typically led to people heading down to Manchester more readily and taking money away from the local economy – they realised that something must be done locally. By God’s grace, much of that is now beginning to happen.

With a properly joined up, national approach to gospel work we could see genuine advance for the Kingdom of God. Sadly, all too often, we retreat to where we feel most comfortable. Whether it is our desire is for the urban and trendy or whether we’re after more traditional suburban comforts, such desires will inevitably see the demise of churches in towns like Middlesborough, Rochdale, Salford and Oldham. Such attitudes will see swathes of working class people heading straight for Hell because we deem the schools not quite as good, the cafes not quite to our liking or the parents at the school gate not “my type of people”. Whilst we might appropriate the we aren’t all called to overseas mission line to explain why we personally couldn’t possibly go to such a town – and it has to be said it is quite right we aren’t all called to it – it surely can’t be right that essentially nobody is. And to draw the same comparison, do not most of our churches at least support overseas missionaries through prayer, finance and – in many cases – both short and long term workers? Have not such relationships ever grown into properly commissioned sending relationships?

And what of our church planting decision-making? I know of churches who (rightly) sent members from a main church to plant, or re-plant, various churches in much tougher places. In one case, a reasonably comfortable city centre church sent members to two areas that are notoriously rough. In fact, I was delighted about one particular such example as it is a re-plant of a church I went to as a young boy, some of the members being the same folk as when I was there! Yet other churches elect leafy and fashionable areas of a city despite other local evangelical churches already in the area and there being no gospel witness of any sort in tougher areas of the city. It is justified as “there’s surely room for more in a city of X size”. Whilst that may be true, it is surely preferable to go to where there is no gospel witness first? I can only surmise the decision is driven by the fact that the constituent members simply won’t move anywhere too uncomfortable.

All of this leads to these fairly basic and obvious points, and forgive me for being blunt about them but here is the issue in a nutshell:

  1. Without a concerted and intentional decision to send people, encouraging and actively assisting people to move to “harder to reach places” (if such a thing exists – the indiginous people aren’t harder to reach, it’s the Christian people who are harder to move!), then nobody will go to them.
  2. If nobody will move to these places, and we make no attempt to actively encourage and assist people to do so, we are condemning to Hell swathes of the UK population for the sake of our desire to be with people like us, have schools and housing we deem “good enough” or whatever desire we happen to put at the forefront.
  3. If #2 is ultimately true, then the UK church is replicating the classist political cleavage in respect to the gospel. Not only is this a direct contravention of the words of scripture regarding the poor generally and the nature of the gospel specifically, it is a worse error than class-based politics because we are not discussing the price of bread or the state of housing but the eternal state of men and women’s souls.
  4. If #3 is true, we are ignoring Jesus’ own comments in Mat 19:24 and Luke 4:18 as well as the tenor of Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 1:18-31.
  5. If nobody is willing to come to towns like Middlesborough and Oldham, the church at large is condemning the local body of believers in these places to a slow decline. As a friend of mine so eloquently put it: ‘comfortable Christians are killing the church’.

15 comments

  1. Stephen, in fairness Acts 29 doesn’t send people places, it is a family of networks of church planters….And I believe for the most part our missiology would say tis best to plant where you are from (obviously not so in my case!)…So, the comment from Acts 29 wasn’t an unwillingness of anyone to move there, but the reality that we encourage indigenous church planters and while highlighting areas, we don’t send, the local churches do that. I’m not speaking on behalf of Acts 29 but, I am aware as well that Ian and New Life are now part of the Acts 29 Europe network…and that he has been supported by both Acts 29 and others that you mentioned..Just a note, because I don’t; think its fair if someone read this article and was critical about the network based on the way you framed it.

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    1. Appreciate your comment Kirk. I am aware of Ian’s affiliations (as I mention in the post). Nor was I criticising either FIEC or Acts29 (as I also point out, I suspect they were reflecting the reality of the situation). Nor am I an outsider to either group. I was sent to my current FIEC church (to whom I am affiliated personally as well through the pastors network) by another FIEC & Acts29 church. So I wouldn’t want it to be read as out and out criticism of either organisation. if they feel the cap fits themselves, that is for them but, as I (at least thought) I made clear, they were just stating the reality.

      It is also worth pointing out, I was just quoting Ian Williamson’s own words on it. So I wasn’t putting any particular ‘spin’ on things, just quoting what he had said a year ago.

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  2. But definitely agree with the overall ideas and premise of the post…we need to stop planting 20 churches in city centre while there are 20 schemes, etc that need them more…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Stephen, Hi Kirk.

    I just wanted to comment on what I feel is a very fair/diplomatic and important post which featured some quotes from myself.

    Across the U.K. we are seeing churches dying in many poor, working class/council estate areas, both in rural and urban settings and even though every denomination is seeing this and have highlighted towns like Middlesbrough as being Gospel Priority Areas, very little is being done to see churches supported, planted or revitalised in areas of poverty.

    Kirk you made a statement

    “the comment from Acts 29 wasn’t an unwillingness of anyone to move there”

    Yet that is exactly what was said to me by several key members within both organisations.

    I was told that Middlesbrough was highlighted as an area of gospel need yet, it would be difficult to find a team of people to move to a poor, predominantly working class town.

    The fact is that both organisations and the evangelical church in the U.K. as a whole, is dominated by white, middle class, academic and predominantly southern english (either by birth or now geographically) and this means that it has a missiology that is riddled with blind spots and this impacts (negatively) the gospel getting to those on the margins, be it race, cultural or socially.

    The blind spots and insular focus has seen some great work reaching students and the city centre or suburban professionals yet a massive failure with the poor and disadvantaged.

    It is because of the failures of the wider church in reaching the poor that we have seen the need for organisations like 20schemes, Church in Hard Places, SixtyEightFive and Urban Ministries be developed by indigenous planters and evangelists.

    I have many friends in both organisations and many middle class churches whose support have enabled myself and the church to develop the ministry in Middlesbrough, but the facts are it was after we had planted not when we needed it most, which was in the beginning.

    I am not academic, I am from an unchurched background and I had no connections with anyone in the evangelical circles, so when it came to planting it was a massive struggle, I did it without a team, without financial support and without a clue.The application processes for both the Acts29 and FIEC is designed by academics and professionals and was for me, arduous and distracting from the mission of planting.

    However Acts29 gave me a platform at a national conference in Cardiff to showcase our needs in Middlesbrough and this enabled me to network with like minded planters and other churches in the region that have helped us out financially, the FIEC funded me to train in Urban Mission and have financially supported a couple of interns, I am extremely grateful for the support I have from both organisations.

    I am also encouraged that how that both the FIEC & Acts29 are partnering with churches like ours and seeking to learn from organisations like 20schemes to enable better training and support for indigenous planters and gospel workers.

    We are slowly seeing changes that will see benefits to mission in hard to reach areas and that is exciting but the problem that still remains is that we need help. We need people to join our mission, to move to the town, to work in the town and to socialise and worship in the town.

    And because Middlesbrough is not one of the most desirable places it means that people who join us need to be willing to get uncomfortable and that, I think, was the point of the post.

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  4. Ian,

    Thanks so much for your comments (and clarifications).

    I take no view on whether it is best for indigenous peoples to reach their own or whether it’s perfectly acceptable for ‘outsiders’ to come in. Frankly, in either case, so long as the gospel is clearly taught and is taken to those who need to hear it, I’m not all that bothered. FWIW, I’m of scouse heritage, having spent time there as a child and as a student, was mainly brought up in Oxfordshire, now living in Oldham. I don’t think that means I can’t effectively reach folk where I am now. It’s the gospel that surely matters.

    The point of the post – as you rightly say – was that unless individual Christians and (largely) middle class, professionalised and academised organisations make an active push to get people to move to undesirable areas – and not just those areas that Southerners who have never been presume are rough – people will continually flock to where it is easy and comfortable. There will be a brand of person who moves to a comfortable part of the North and then spins it as a ‘sacrifice for the Lord’ in a ‘tough area’ whilst living in a quite desirable place. But, regardless, it requires intentional moves to send people, and to bring comfortable middle class folk to the places they’re needed, not just where they get the best schools, cafes and clubs for their kids.

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  5. I have recently preached at a housing estate church who had 3 young men training at bible college whilst advertising for a pastor. How crazy is that? The problem isn’t with people coming in from the outside, that’s what I am looking for in Middlesbrough, people to join us in our plant and for others to plant on different estates. The problem is many pastors come in from the outside and rarely identify their future successor, elders and deacons from the local area.

    Our Church model is still very much get the accountant to be be treasurer, business manager to be elder and teacher to do children work. When this is the only option fair enough, but our aims as pastors is to identify local people for biblical roles through discipleship and in house training or risk losing gifted leaders by overlooking them or sending them elsewhere to train.

    In Middlesbrough I would struggle to find local leaders in any denomination from across the town, yet I am aware of a number of gifted pastors from Middlesbrough ministering down south.

    Its not just about the middle class feeling uncomfortable about moving to a tough estate its about the middle class getting uncomfortable about identifying, training and handing over responsibility to tough/unorthodox members of the church, as long as they meet the spiritual qualifications its irrelevant what their academic ones are.

    As a church we need to get comfortable with taking risks for the gospel, and that means equipping local people to lead local churches.

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  6. I totally agree with your penultimate paragraph. The middle classes need to get over their aversion to living in certain areas but also need to focus on giving roles to leaders who meet the biblical character criteria, not necessarily a set of middle class virtues or leadership skills that aren’t listed. Again, it is an issue that has long been noted. I know of a few ministers, and I have heard this myself, who have heard folk say things like ‘when they join the church, they’ll become more middle class won’t they’ (or words to that effect). It is a shocking indictment of the way the church thinks much of the time.

    I guess my only point in the comment was that we need all of this. People being raised up to serve in ‘less desirable’ areas from without and within. We need support for churches in hard areas, both in terms of finance and workers. They need to be drawn from across the spectrum so that our churches can genuinely reflect the gospel where money, race, class and such things do not divide. That’s at least what I want to see in my church: middle class/working class; White/Black/Asian; Educated/Non-educated all together under the same gospel and all serving together, with each of these groups being deemed no more or less able than any other to lead.

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  7. Hi Ian,
    Like I implied, I don’t know the private converstions you had and I don’t speak for Acts 29. I was just keen to make sure people knew that A29 more than willingly is supporting church plants in all sorts of places, even if they aren’t responsible for recruiting or debasing teams – since it’s not a denomination or mission agency. The way you stated it sounds like what I thought. Blessings bro, I’m very encouraged by what God is doing through you. Btw…not many want to move to the parts of Stockport /Greater MCR that we are trying to reach either. 🙂

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    1. I’m confused by the point you’re making?

      You said the way Ian stated it was what you thought, but he (as I understood him) directly contradicted your assertion re Acts29. You seem to be making a defence of A29 being willing to support church plants “in all sorts of places” (which I’m sure is true), but the specific point being made by Ian (if I haven’t misunderstood him), is that they weren’t prepared to give him any help at the point he was looking to plant.

      So, are you just trying to point out that Acts29 have helped in other places so this is, in your view, a one-off occurrence? Or, are you trying to make the point that they never help anyone in the way Ian was looking for? Or, are you suggesting they did, in point of fact, help in Middlesborough in some way?

      Not trying to pick holes – genuine question to understand as I’m a little confused 🙂

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