About a month ago, I wrote a piece titled Comfortable Christians are killing the church. I suggested church planting and revitalisation efforts in the UK, both within churches and larger national organisations, were being impeded by the unwillingness of Christians to move to where they might feel uncomfortable. I specifically pointed to places that, in reality, are not all that hard and yet the popular perception of these places mean few are willing to go. This, in turn, has led to a focus on those places that are in vogue where constituent members might be prepared to move. Where once pleasant market towns and villages saw Christians happily planting now, thanks in part to Tim Keller, the place du jour is the city, typically city centres and affluent suburbs. Such trends are leading to the death of the church in places like Middleborough, Rochdale and Oldham because those in relative comfort (and, for the record, these places are not terribly uncomfortable) simply will not deign to go in a spirit of gospel-heartedness or heartfelt care that poor people are dying in their sin.
I stand by my comments in the previous article. I make no bones about it and, if you’ve made it thus far, please don’t read on in the hope that this will turn into some sort of retraction. I firmly believe the church has reproduced the classist political cleavage that led to years of Northern deprivation and condemned people in such areas to a lost eternity for little more than the sake of relative ease. What I did not do in my previous post is flesh out how theological justifications are being used to underpin what is essentially a self-interested approach to church and mission.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for contextualisation. There is little point in waffling on about the original Greek ad nauseam to a group of people who have never set foot in a seminary (that would be true in most churches, most places). It is clearly right, just like Paul, to be ‘all things to all people, that by all means I might save some’. Contextualisation isn’t unimportant.
The problem lies not in the concept of contextualisation itself, but in the lie that unless I am like those I am seeking to reach I won’t be able to reach them. It is the view that only working class can reach working class, Chinese can reach Chinese and intellectual can reach intellectual. Of course, it is obviously true that such people can reach one another perfectly well and can often (though not always) understand cultural mindsets more readily. And let’s not ignore the fact that the apostles still took the gospel to their fellow Jewish people. But, and it’s a big but, they didn’t only reach the Jews as if they had absolutely nothing to say to the Gentile nations around them. Paul, an intellectual Jewish man, went to both educated and uneducated Gentile men and women. Nor did the ex-fishermen only countenance mission to fishermen while the ex-tax collectors focused only on their former colleagues.
In the name of contextualisation, however, church planters and core teams regularly seem to go to the places full of people like them. It’s less a response to Paul’s ‘all things to all people’ and more a case of ‘of course I’m going here because I fit in’. Contextualisation is a case of making the gospel accessible, without diluting its central truths, to those to whom we take it. It is a case of not making the gospel any more offensive than it inherently is by the way we convey it. But if we are already like the people to whom we take the gospel then we are not contextualising, we are just speaking to people already like me who think and act in the way I do. Ironically, this very argument of contextualisation employed to permit us to go to people exactly like us means that we end up avoiding the very thing we claim we want to do, contextualise the gospel.
If the apostles worked this way the gospel wouldn’t ever have reached the Gentiles. Which of the apostles was anything like any of us? Fortunately, the apostles aren’t like us in more ways than one and took the gospel to people, like us, who were specifically not like them.
Again, nothing wrong with the study of mission and thinking through what the Bible says about sharing the gospel and how we are to do it. But just as Orwell suggested some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them, so some justifications for our chosen mission field are so self-serving they require an MTh in missiology to suggest them.
The argument that indigenous people should reach indigenous people is a handy one for those who have an inherent desire to live near their family. It’s interesting how it quickly morphs into something approximating ‘I’m an intellectual so I need to be near intellectuals’ or ‘I’m a professional so I ought to reach professionals’ when we’re not from the area but our desire is to be with people with whom we feel an affinity. It’s also a fairly useful basis for not going anywhere we don’t like the look of, it’s just better for indigenous people from the deprived area to which I don’t want to go to reach their own kind. Never mind that there’s no churches in the area or anyone to train up indigenous people without people moving there – it’s missiologically inappropriate. We justify going wherever we want while retaining a clause to get us out of going anywhere we don’t fancy.
Once again, if the apostles insisted on this way of thinking we’d never get beyond the Jews in Jerusalem. Certainly the Samaritans would never have had a look in. Good to know we’re keeping up the faith once for all delivered to the apostles, only once it got delivered to us too we pull up the drawbridge and only let it down for people with whom I think I might connect.
If you’re still looking for ways to avoid somewhere, we can always pick holes in the church itself. Here the possibilities are endless. If we’re going to a church in need of help, we can decide the teaching is delivered in a way that’s not to my taste or the music isn’t so great, the evangelism isn’t the way I’d do it or I don’t feel I could connect with the people. Find out why the church isn’t perfect, and that’s easy enough because no church is, and use that as the reason you couldn’t possibly go.
If we’re looking to plant a new church, we can look for another church in the locality and decide we don’t want to plant on top of them. It’s very noble (though, we waive that if there’s a church in another area we do want to plant in). Failing that, we can always look to our core team. Of course, I’d go, it’s just our people won’t. As I can’t plant on my own, we’ll have to look somewhere else.
Here’s the thing, I appreciate not everybody is going to come to Oldham, Sunderland or West Bromwich and their ilk, honestly, I do. But can we just have a bit of honesty about the whole thing. Let me make these suggestions:
- Even if you don’t ultimately end up coming to a less desirable place, can we at least consider it honestly? I don’t mean mention its name with no intent of ever going, I mean genuinely consider it as a legitimate option.
- Seriously evaluate your motivations for going. Are you genuinely looking for where you can be useful for the kingdom or are you looking for a means of funding what you’d probably like to do even were you not a believer? Are you setting up a ‘artsy’ church plant in an artsy area because you basically want to indulge your artsy side and have found a means of funding it whilst salving your conscience by selling it as ‘for the Lord’? Or, are you genuinely going in a gospel-centred, servant-hearted endeavour for the good of the kingdom?
- Consider the state of the church where you’re going. Not all ‘hard to reach’ places are bereft of churches and not all affluent or edgy areas are replete (and, vice versa). It makes sense to go and help existing churches, or plant new ones, in areas where you will be used and where advance of the kingdom is likely. That is neither going to be the area choc-a-bloc full of churches nor in churches that are already doing well.
- If you do ultimately decide to stay where you are, or go somewhere reasonably sought after, please don’t dress it up. Can we admit, and be honest, about the reasons we perhaps didn’t end up somewhere harder? It’s not always right to go, and not always self-interested to go somewhere else, but can we perhaps admit that sometimes we just don’t want to do what is uncomfortable.