Just a passing thought on revitalisation and urban ministry

As you probably know, the BBC relocated much of its operation up North to Salford Quays. Whilst the move was not without its issues, most notably benefiting the local area but not wider G. Manchester region, it has been a major catalyst for growth and development within Salford. Other studies have suggested a bigger impact in terms of jobs and investment locally. Certainly the building projects and the jobs brought specifically by the relocation itself have been beneficial and an area once in disrepair and full deprivation has received a much needed boost.

I have made the case in the past that Oldham – as England’s most deprived town – could do with a similar relocation of a major institution for revitalisation. Whilst there was some talk of shifting Channel 4, it seems already wealthy cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield are vying for the privilege. I am almost certain Oldham will be discounted due to its location within the G. Manchester region, despite there being two cities (Salford and Manchester) between Oldham and Media City and our town receiving no discernible benefit from its placement in Salford. There has been talk of breaking up Westminster departments and housing them in different areas of the UK. This would certainly be a boon to a town like Oldham.

Nonetheless, I was set to thinking about church revitalisation. If a town can be revived by moving an institution to a deprived area, might the local church be revitalised by moving some of our Christian institutions to needy areas? A quick glance at the HQs of Evangelical fellowships and mission organisations will tell you that not many are located in deprived communities. The FIEC is located in Market Harborough, Leicestershire; GBM in Abingdon, Oxfordshire; SIM in Stowmarket, Suffolk; UFM in Swindon, Wiltshire; EMF in Welwyn, Hertfordshire; I could go on.

Each of these organisations will draw ministers, missionaries and those with a wealth of experience to them. In the towns where these organisations are based exist some of the best resourced churches in respect to personnel (and, often, finances) that you will find anywhere in the country. Imagine the impact of moving these organisations to places in real need of workers, especially those hard areas in need of real pastoral experience.

It has been said before that the typical ‘progression’ (such that we should ever view these things that way) is to start pastoral ministry in a small, unknown church and to end one’s ministry in larger churches. Of course, typically, small churches are small because of the areas they are in or the pastoral problems they present (or both). Larger churches tend to be better resourced with both finances and workers and, in many ways, easier to lead. This ‘progression’ – as has been noted before – is often backward. Younger ministers would find it much easier to ‘cut their teeth’ in a church full of workers who are all (more or less) on the same doctrinal page and experienced ministers would bring a lot to small and struggling churches.

Imagine, on a larger scale, the impact of moving an entire HQ to a much needier area. If the FIEC decided to move its operations to Oldham, several things would happen:

  1. The running costs of FIEC operations would reduce due to the relative local cost of living
  2. A small FIEC church (the only one in the area) would be resourced with a wealth of preachers with pastoral experience and potential elders
  3. Church planting initiatives in the area would become better resourced and an FIEC presence would increase in an under-served town
  4. The problem (which FIEC say they recognise and wish to address) of Evangelicalism being a primarily White, Middle Class concern would place those leading the organisation in the thick of non-white and deprived communities allowing them to understand the issues on the ground rather than just theoretically in principle
  5. It would show other organisations what could be done in similar areas and might spark similar thoughts in other under-served, deprived towns
  6. It would show a measure of intent that, rather than just talking about resourcing deprived communities, would be a practical step in doing so

The fact is that Middle Class, affluent areas do not need such support. For one, as desirable areas, they usually see Christians moving in to the town for work on a regular basis. Second, in such areas, it takes fewer givers to support the church due to the level of income and relative ability of each church member to give. Third, few people have to be convinced to move to Oxfordshire or Suffolk with a ‘missionary heart’ because these places are desirable already.

If the BBC can move its operations to a an area in need of regeneration, why couldn’t Christian organisations consider doing the same? I know that when talk of moving government departments out of London, a decision to be taken by MPs themselves, the response was that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. I would like to believe that truly gospel-hearted, mission-minded organisations and their leadership teams wouldn’t take such a self-interested view.

I know we would all like to live in affluent, well-heeled market towns and villages. But we all also know that if we all do that, we are condemning the poor and disenfranchised to a lost eternity. Here is a suggestion that lets organisational leaders set a solid gospel example, will save them and their organisations money in running costs and will revitalise severely under-resourced churches in areas that these same leaders claim they want to see the church growing. Well, it’s only a suggestion, but I’m struggling to see any downsides.

Hands up who’s coming?

13 comments

  1. I like it. As I pointed out to one organanisation, your outlook on the mission we face will be shaped by your day to day experience. A couple of comments
    1. There are a few Christian orgs within 20 mins of us and I’m not sure they have a discernable affect in local church health
    2. It won’t work if people simply commute in. Nor if they look to the local church to provide a safe home and fulfil their needs
    3. Your point re Oldham and G Manchester is valid. A move to G Birmingham is one thing but huge diff to specifically locate to Sandwell Walsall West Brom or Alum Rock

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    1. Re #2 and #3, absolutely agree. No point moving to G. Manchester and then living in Didsbury and all heading off to already well-stocked South Manchester churches. This was the same issue when BBC moved to Salford. They insisted it would benefit all of G. Manchester, it didn’t even benefit all of Salford! It has been valuable for Salford Quays but nowhere else really.

      Re #1, it all depends doesn’t it. For example, the church I grew up in was where GBM had their HQ. For a long time, the Grace Baptist church in Abingdon was continually stocked with a steady stream of currently serving Radio missionaries working in Abingdon (but regularly sending programmes overseas and going out there to serve) as well as ex-pastors who had come to work in Radio ministry. Those same workers now spread between that same church, a revitalised work in a village further South (a re-plant from the church in Abingdon) and one in Oxford. These workers going into local churches will be a boon to those churches themselves. Even if all the workers at an organisation go to different places, their feeding into other local churches is valuable – especially if they are purposefully seeking out those churches in need of workers rather than all feeding into already affluent and well-resourced places.

      I suspect the organisations 20 mins away from you are having no discernible effect in Bearwood because 20 mins away in a city the size of Birmingham, for many, may as well be the other side of the world! Had they chosen to locate their offices next door to your church, I suspect you might have noticed some impact (even if it just amounted to one or two choosing to join in membership). At heart, it is this joining in membership of local churches in the nearby area that I am seeing as the main benefit – particularly when it is experienced ex-missionaries and pastors moving in.

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      1. Re orgs within 20 mins key = “within” so some closer and I’m speaking about the 20 min radius not just us. In fact we have had the occasional members. I suspect it depends on a. Part b of point 2 – what is their commitment to and expectation of a local church and what is the orgs own approach to the local church and mission like

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      2. But having even one or two members is making *some* impact, even if minimal (I’d be made up with one or two members, especially if they were ex-pastors or missionaries!)

        You are quite right though, their commitment to local church (like with any member) will affect a lot.

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  2. That’s a very relevant and thought provoking post, Stephen, thanks. It’s interesting that, in the main, society encourages us to aspire upwards. More money, a larger home in a more affluent area etc. It’s quite a thing when Jesus turns your heart upside down and directs your aspirations downwards, into poorer, more deprived communities instead. I’m not sure how to answer that call myself at the moment, but it’s there all the same. The secular business I work for tends to occupy larger, city centre locations. I can only imagine the look on some of my colleagues faces if, instead of a proposed move to a large, nearby city centre, we decided to shift the office into a poor suburb! OK, most of them aren’t Christians, so a slightly flawed example, but I bet you’d get the same response in large Christian organisations too.

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    1. Richard,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Clearly in the secular world there is much pushback on this. Look at the number of BBC presenters who refused to leave London when they moved to Salford. Channel 4 are kicking against the prospect of being moved (and are being forced to consider it). Likewise, government departments all agree in principle with moving but nobody actually wants to do it themselves. But one would expect such things in the secular world.

      Interestingly, Aldi have their HQ on an industrial estate in Middleton. They have obviously done this because it is far more cost effective than setting up offices in central Manchester. So some have done it.

      From a Christian point of view, perhaps speaking into your circumstances particularly, I guess there’s nothing stopping people working in large city centre organisations from choosing to live in deprived communities and commute in. For example, Oldham is 30 minutes away on a regular tram in Manchester City Centre. In fact, my wife works at a school in Rusholme in Manchester which is a 40 minute commute away from where we live in Oldham. If folk wished to do this, there is nothing stopping them really. Lots of people commute to city centre jobs, they just do so from plush parts of the region. The commute from Oldham to Manchester is no longer or harder than from Altrincham.

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  3. My practical suggestion is that you need is a Northern Urban Training Centre.
    1) Offer “Pioneer” apprenticeships for working class youngsters wanting to get into ministry (I’d be happy to help you raise funds and you could borrow the training syllabus from LCM)
    2) Gather trainers: beg Sam Ward (Eden), Terry Durose (BACM), Adrian Reynolds (FIEC), Interserve, North West Partnership, OMF,…
    3) Persuade Northwest Partnership and Others to send all their people to train at the Bolton Hub to help it reach critical mass
    4) Persuade Union to accept your 2 year Pioneer Foundation course as basic entry for the Union Graduate diploma
    5) Create a Union learning hub with urban teachers who can contextualise theology and also teach new urban modules.

    The big advantage of this is that you will not only add a few additional static posts to local churches (trainers), but you will be creating a pipeline of many better equipped students, including some from working class backgrounds who can serve in urban settings without disappearing to leafy southern colleges.

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  4. Hi Graham and Stephen , can we talk this through together. See if we can do similar in the Midlands. In effect we have done this informally one at a time starting with a guy called Hannes who did 2 years with us prior to going to WEST as was. Now got 1 young man who is with BCM and us and I think there is a feal possiblity of progressing on to the learning community . Building something up as a foundational stage is something I’ve raised with Joel at Union. Anyway, if you both fancy meeting up for a day to talk and pray more, maybe here in the middle??

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    1. I would love to chat this through with you both. I’ll put my hands up now and say I have no idea how to go about this and I can see particular issues in trying to do this in Oldham for the NW given existing provisions.

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  5. Hi Guys. Graham’s encouraged me to jump in. Just to give you a bit of context, I’m the Director of Training and Mentoring at LCM. Would you like to come and visit the LCM Pioneer Scheme some time? You’d be very welcome. We could happily share what we’ve been doing over the past 3 years, give you the chance to see our training and meet some of the Pioneers, We still have much to learn but hopefully also much to model. .

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