The biggest problem facing the British Evangelical church today is, without doubt, our own personal comfort. Far too many of us are happy in our middle-class Christian enclaves, in comfortable areas of the country, going to churches full of people exactly like them. If they are even willing to countenance joining a church plant – and many won’t because it is far more demanding to join a small core team rather than remain a consumer in a larger church – it is nigh on impossible to get them to consider a council estate or deprived community. It is fine to join a plant if it’s with our mates, probably reaching other white middle class that we tend to mix with, with nobody asking us to do anything we’re not especially uncomfortable doing.
As I said here, our idol of comfort has led to another fairly unpleasant moral decision: we are implicitly willing to allow the poor and those in deprived communities to head to Hell because the areas in which they live are don’t quite do anything for us. The stats are not encouraging. Evangelical churches in the South outnumber those in the North by a ratio of 2:1. John Stevens has further noted that if the relative size of churches in more affluent communities compared to those in deprived communities, the sheer number of Christians reflect a bigger problem than the mere number of churches. Beyond this, over 80% of Evangelicals hold a university degree or higher while UK figures suggest somewhere between 60-70% of British citizens have never been to university. This tells us that British Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly middle-class and extremely poor at reaching those in deprived communities.
One of the major problems with this, as John Stevens noted in his book Knowing our Times (see here), is that most fruit is coming among the very richest and very poorest in society. Given the relative numbers of very poor in the UK, we can conclude that most fruit is to be found in the most deprived communities. These are the very communities we are least effective in reaching and, seemingly, to which we are least willing to go. We are foregoing real gospel fruit for the sake of remaining in the middle-class communities from which we are largely drawn and in which we feel most comfortable. If we continue in this vein, it is no over-exaggeration to say – as I have said before – ‘comfortable Christians are killing the church’. The question is, what’s to be done about it?
First, and there is no soft and dressed-up way to say this, a generation of middle-class believers will have to give up their idolatrous worship at the altar of comfort and commit to taking the gospel to the urban poor and deprived communities. We will have to give up our worldly aspirations and, instead, choose to live in areas that the world cannot understand why someone of your means would live there. We will have to send our children to schools where the other pupils come from non-white, non-English speaking background or where they will rub shoulders with those who do not have the loving home environment of a mother and father at home, a house they own or the guarantee of a hot meal to eat each day.
Second, we have to commit to gospel-priorities rather than worldly ones. We can’t simply pat ourselves on the back when we agree to lay aside our worldly ambitions of bigger houses in better areas. There are secular agencies and advocates of the ‘social gospel’ who are willing to forego these things for a greater good. But we aren’t there to simply make ourselves feel better nor to be do-gooders in the community and run some nice social projects. Our purpose in moving must be driven by the gospel. We go because we take the Great Commission seriously; we go because the Lord has a people for himself in deprived communities; we go because we love the Lord and we love the lost and long to see his kingdom built; we go because we recognise that we exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever and the means of doing this is found in obedience to his commands.
Methodism is currently failing in the deprived communities in which it once thrived. As the gospel has been sidelined, people have pressed on simply ‘doing good’. But it soon becomes clear that ‘it’s nice to be nice’ is neither enough to keep us going nor win anybody to Christ. It must be the gospel that drives us deprived communities and it must be the gospel that we hold out as the hope for those we serve. Only the gospel could cause us to move to those places that others want to leave and only the gospel can provide hope for those struggling with addiction, joblessness, family breakdown, health problems, lack of education and the rest. Our being nice will not do one jot to advance the kingdom of God; only holding out the hope of eternal life found in Christ can.
Third, we have to know and live the gospel. I am convinced that the number one reason we cannot get people to move to deprived communities is that we neither properly know nor understand the gospel itself. If we did, we would be far more willing to take up our cross, die to self and find our life in Christ. When comfort is our functional God, any thought of dying to self must go out of the window. After all, it is my comfort.
If we truly understood what Jesus meant when he said, ‘whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’, few of us would have any thought other than a burning desire to take the gospel to those lost in sin, who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ or the good news adequately explained. The reason so few of us go is that we have failed to fully grasp the truth of the gospel, the estate of the lost and we worship a false god; one who promises I can be comfortable and ease myself all the way to Heaven. The truth of this is seen not just in our unwillingness to move to deprived communities but in our general unwillingness even to share the gospel meaningfully in the comfortable middle-class communities that we refuse to leave. Even with our friends and neighbours – the people we remain around because it is comfortable and they are just like us – we still fail to share the gospel. Our god of comfort tells us it is too awkward, too difficult and they might reject us.
If we can’t even share the gospel with the comfortable people we have chosen to live our comfortable lives around, an even bigger question surely needs to be asked: how well have we grasped the gospel? If we are unable, or unwilling, to share the gospel with people just like us, what hope have we got of reaching anybody not like us?
Rico Tice posed a question: when you and your neighbours are stood before the Lord on the last day, what will you say when faced with their lost eternity they turn to you and ask why you never said anything? Will your answer be that it wasn’t culturally appropriate? That it was just too uncomfortable? I want you to imagine that scene with not just one neighbour, but a whole town or borough of people heading for a lost eternity. That was Jonah’s hard-hearted position – he wanted the Lord to destroy Nineveh. The only difference between our implicit view of the poor and his of Nineveh is that they were Jonah’s enemies, giving a reason for his disdain. We make that same contemptuous choice implicitly in our approach to deprived communities, only unlike Jonah, we have no reason to despise the poor.
The only antidote for us, as for Jonah, is the gospel. It is to recognise from what we have been saved. It is to die to ourselves, with Christ, and live in the newness of life he brings. That newness of life must change everything. That includes our aspirations, our desires and, yes, our single-minded pursuit of our own comfort. It is only the gospel that will lead to the salvation of deprived communities and it is only the gospel that can possibly cause us to give up our comfort and go to them. The question remains, how far has the gospel affected your heart?