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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.