People aren’t going to Hell because of a lack of training options

There has been a lot of talk about training people in urban context mission for some while now. I had some involvement in these discussions. Hardly a month passes by without someone, somewhere talking about the need for some new training programme.

It bears saying, I think training our people is vitally important. I think this principally happens in and through the local church. Nor do I despise more specialised training from theological seminaries. Our church has just partnered with Union School of Theology to offer their Graduate Diploma (GDip) in Theology. We also belong to the North West Partnership who offer a pre-degree ‘ministry trainee course’, teaching people how to handle the Bible. Both of these things are excellent resources.

Since then, I’ve had discussions with various groups seeking to offer more vocational training. Around 81% of Evangelicals hold degrees and yet c. 70% of the country have never been to university. If we have any hope of raising up indigenous workers for the urban context, we are going to have to think creatively about theologically training those who have never been to university. I have been involved in various discussions about how we can make that happen too. Again, I am all for widening participation in training and making it accessible for people who are not suited for an academic degree and yet would make wonderful pastors, teachers, missionaries and evangelists.

What I am less heartened about is the refrain that we need to think about training without any concern for a much more basic issue. We have churches in deprived communities that are struggling to stay afloat financially and – despite some excellent gospel work going on – simply do not have enough workers to take advantage of the opportunities available. I am growing weary of hearing endless discussions about how the wider Evangelical world can help train our people when, at heart, our immediate need is funding and workers that never seem to arrive.

Like everybody else, I want to see the members of my church well-trained. Also like everybody else, I recognise most of my people are not going to go through a formal training process in a seminary. Theirs is predominantly the sort of training that has served the church over the centuries, the regular diet of preaching, teaching and mission that forms the work of ordinary local churches. Those who may be trained formally have a variety of options available to them already. There are also those who would be helped with a vocational training programme rather than an academic one. But plans are in various pipelines to see these things are a viable option.

The issue is not whether I want good training to be available, it is who am I going to train? It feels like something of a middle class preoccupation with training. I don’t wish to be uncharitable, and I’m sure many don’t think this way, but it sometimes has the whiff of a colonial effort to educate the savages using particular models that we will impose on them. All of this ignores the hulking great elephant in the room. Who, exactly, are we going to train?

The answer to my church’s gaping black hole in the finances and tiny membership – despite seeing regular conversions and baptisms (see previous posts for how this is the case) – is not to offer us yet another radical training option. Our problem isn’t a lack of training. Nor, incidentally, does the pioneer planter on a nearby council estate need a more accessible training college. What we need is people who will fund our work, preferably by committing to it personally in joining us. Send me gospel-hearted people who genuinely care enough about the plight of the lost in deprived communities to bother moving there and then come and ask me how best we might train them.

Unless we tackle the severe under-funding and the lack of gospel workers finding their ways to the most deprived parts of the UK, they will continue to remain either unreached or under-reached. A lack of theological training options really isn’t the issue. The problem, fundamentally, is that people don’t care enough about the large proportion of the country heading to Hell because they’ve never heard the gospel that they bother actually coming and sharing it with them. Offering me a means of training people who aren’t here is a bit like tackling the problem of homelessness by giving them all bank accounts. It’s the kind of thing that will be valuable once they get a home and a job but it does nothing, of itself, to tackle the underlying problem. It is a solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist yet because of a much deeper and more immediately pressing one.

I can’t and won’t judge the motives of any individuals, but it sometimes feels like ‘training’ is offered because it’s simple, easy and doesn’t really cost us much. We’ve got models we can replicate and a means of making our teaching materials readily available. Sending funds and people costs us rather more in the pocket, in practice and in the comfort stakes.

But it’s not for lack of training options that large numbers of people in deprived boroughs like Oldham are going to Hell. It’s because few of us are willing to countenance moving somewhere that isn’t quite our taste, isn’t full of middle class educated people just like us, whose cafe culture isn’t to our liking and whose schools are just not the sort of place we had planned to bring up our children. Either we have bought into a Disneyfied version of eternal judgement or we simply don’t care about the lost enough.

Yes, we all acknowledge there are lost people everywhere. I, like everyone else, recognise that middle class suburbia needs the gospel too. But that is to ignore the fact that most Evangelical churches are in the South by a ratio of 2:1 and most of the larger and better resourced churches tend to be in areas that are wealthier, affluent and/or have a percentage of high educational attainment. What is more, those who press that particular case tend to be those who insist that they have made a sacrifice for the Lord because they either don’t live within striking distance of a London tube stop or have failed to secure a postcode in one of the home counties, making the argument seem a bit hollow. My point here is not that wealthy and affluent areas don’t need the gospel, it is that working class and deprived communities have been comparatively ignored and we need to redress the balance.

That brings us to the crux of the matter. The greatest need of deprived communities in the UK is not extra training, valuable as that may one day be. The greatest need is funding and workers. We need people to leave the comfort of their churches in sought-after, affluent communities – full of other degree-educated people who love to chew the fat about the same things as us – and move ourselves to communities where there is either no church at all or one that is making in-roads for the gospel but is crying out for more workers. Show your commitment to taking the gospel to the urban deprived by sending us your people and then let’s talk about how to train them adequately. Otherwise, we’re putting the cart before the horse and engineering a solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist.

We need people to send to seminary before we need a seminary. We need people to train before we can train them. We need people to move to deprived communities out of gospel concern for the lost before we need to worry ourselves about how they can access theological education. Help us solve the big issue and consider moving and we will help you think through how best we might train them. Deal?