John Stevens, national director of FIEC, has written a helpful blog post highlighting the gospel inequality in the UK. You can read it here. Though he is heartened by the FIEC presence in deprived communities (c. 50% of FIEC churches in such areas), he doesn’t note the fact that the FIEC still has nearly twice the number of churches in the South as the North (see here). However, he rightly acknowledges that ‘the churches in the poorer communities are generally smaller, so that an analysis of numbers attending would reveal a much greater disparity’.
I am grateful that John sees these figures less as a cause for much back-slapping and high-fiving and, instead, considers it ‘a starting point to pursue our ambition to reach every community with the good news of the Lord Jesus’. The truth is that the Evangelical church remains largely white and middle class. Moreover, it centres on the South. There is a real need to reinforce and resource existing churches in deprived communities as well as plant new churches in such places.
Whilst we may recognise this overarching problem, it does seem wise to ask why our churches lack the diversity that we claim the gospel ought to bring. It is obviously the case that not all churches are going to be broad and diverse in makeup. The little village in which I went to secondary school was overwhelmingly white, British and middle class. In my school of c. 900 pupils in the tiny village of Compton (I am, indeed, straight outta Compton but I feel NWA have severely misrepresented it!) I think there were two people who could be described as BME. There were no ESOL pupils and, whilst some were drawn from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, some is most definitely the operative word.
The point here is that we are not being realistic to expect the church in Wantage, Compton, Hampstead Norris, East Illsley, Uffington and places like these to be richly diverse. The overwhelming makeup of these places is white, British and middle class. To expect them to be choc-a-bloc with BME and working class folk is just unrealistic.
By the same token, places full of working class people and with large numbers of BME folk around should represent the makeup of their area. If the churches in Oldham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and London are full of white middle class people alone, we are doing something seriously wrong. The church rightly ought to reflect the area that it is in.
The question is not why are some churches predominantly white and/or middle class, the question is why are churches in urban poor and overwhelmingly BME areas typically smaller and less well resourced? If the UK church is to reflect the UK population, across Evangelicalism we should expect to see c. 15% BME people and c.70% of people in the church without a degree. Whilst the BME folk are likely to be concentrated in certain areas, we are well short on both these figures.
Some of this explains why the churches in deprived areas are not so well resourced. The movement itself is largely middle class and most have been to university. Our innate tendency to go to where we are most comfortable inevitably plays a part. It is typically quite easy to fill churches in university towns because those who have enjoyed the university experience and spent their time with others in the church just like them are often tempted to stay after graduation. Likewise, as John noted – a problem historically as much as today – is that of affluent social mobility. No sooner as people have the means to do so, they gravitate towards more salubrious areas. This leaves a dearth of believers and churches in the most deprived areas.
Unlike well-heeled, affluent areas, there is little that is naturally going to attract people to deprived communities. We are reliant upon those with a real gospel-heart and missionary spirit being willing to relocate and take the gospel to those who are not necessarily like them. Hard as this may be for us to acknowledge, one of the principal reasons churches in deprived communities are under-resourced is because few are genuinely gospel-hearted or mission-minded enough to go. They would prefer to simply go to where it is comfortable and mix with people like them.
There is much fruit to be had in deprived areas. Having read John James’ book Renewal, I was heartened when his revitalisation was deemed successful due to something like 18 baptisms in 5 years. This was with the help of a core team who had been specially bussed in to help. At Oldham Bethel Church, we have seen around 10 baptism in 3 years and are, in the next month, due to baptise a further four. This was without receiving a single external worker during that time. Those with a missionary-spirit and gospel-heart would surely look at such fruit and consider this a mission-field worth supporting?
The problem for many churches in deprived communities is not that they lack fruit. It is that they lack resources. For example, whilst we are seeing growth at Oldham Bethel Church, we are mainly seeing asylum seekers from Iran converting. If not asylum seekers, those from the most deprived backgrounds on benefits. Such people are never going to be able to substantially support the work of the church financially. Consistently, however, we struggle to raise the funds we need to meet our running costs and we function with a regular £1500 per month deficit. Unless something changes for us soon, we will go bust in the next 3 years.
Ideally, we would resolve this deficit with an influx of workers. We are in desperate need of more people to help in the work. Despite a smallish membership of c.25 members we still regularly run English Classes, Open Airs, Muslim-Christian dialogue evenings, book tables, family services, Christian Explored courses and litter picks to engage the local community. These are regular activities propped up by few people. If workers came in, we could reinforce these works, consider other opportunities we are currently unable to take and (potentially) meet some of our monthly deficit. But, naturally, this requires those with a missionary heart to come.
It is a sad state of affairs that we struggle to get people to come simply out of gospel concern. Perhaps to resolve this problem we need to consider incentivising workers to move to deprived communities in need of more resources. The problem, at heart, is esentially still a problem of the heart. The question for the Evangelical church at large is how do we get our overwhelmingly middle class and white people to move to places full of people not like them? We need to revive the missionary spirit in order to see the urban poor and BME people won for Christ.