My friend, Jim Sayers, posted a provocative thought on Twitter the other day. Here it is:
Visited four lovely village halls today in S Oxon and West Berks. How wonderful it would be if each of them had a gospel church planted in them in the next 10 years. This is a big area of need, and influence. The movers and shakers live in these villages.
— Jim Sayers (@JDSayersMish) April 21, 2018
Having spent my late childhood and early teens in a South Oxfordshire village and being an alumnus of a tiny, no-mark state school in a West Berkshire village, my interest was piqued.
As an alumnus of The Downs School, I spent most of my post-university interviews trying to explain that I hadn’t been in special education; it’s on the Berkshire Downs. The only noted alumnus from my school is Theo Walcott. Interestingly, the only notable celebrity from my small village is Martin Keown, a graduate of the Grove Challengers academy. Apparently we did an average to good line in Arsenal footballers.
Now, I do think rural ministry has been badly ignored. There are large areas of the country that are rural and in need of more churches. Norfolk would be one area that immediately comes to mind. Large chunks of the North East would also fall into that category. There are other places too.
At the same time, I am not sold on the idea that every little village needs a local church. For one, there are fewer people in rural areas than in urban conurbations. That’s not to say they don’t need the gospel; just to say that they will need fewer churches to do it. Also, most people in these areas are used to travelling quite some distance. What is local in the country would be considered the other side of the world in the city. Most people living in small villages are used to jumping in the car and travelling miles for school, work, shops and most things except the local pub and post office.
I asked Jim which villages he had visited. Here was his answer:
Letcombe Bassett, West Hundred, Hampstead Norreys and Hermitage. As English as they come. No idea what the church scene is in these places
— Jim Sayers (@JDSayersMish) April 22, 2018
West Hendred (I’m pretty sure that’s where Jim meant) is easy striking distance of Wantage and Hanney in which there are churches people could attend. Ditto Letcombe Bassett (and, incidentally, all the other Letcombes nearby). These guys don’t necessarily need a tiny church in their midst, little villages like East Challow often have one already that they can’t sustain. What they need to do is pool their resources and, as they do with every other area of their life – just as do all their neighbours – jump in the car and throw their lot in with a few other small villages churches to create one credible congregation.
That is just my view of rural ministry. It is important and we should be trying to reach rural communities but I don’t think we should be importing large town or city models and trying to replicate them. I think building a joint congregation of believers between several local villages is the way to go.
But the thing that really irked me in Jim’s tweet was his focus on ‘movers and shakers’. Given that very few actual influential people live in these villages, I presume we are just talking about those people who have managed to make a lot of money for themselves and buy property in these extortionately priced areas. It does rather feel like we are using ‘movers and shakers’ as a by-word for rich here. It is absurd to presume that just because somebody is in a high-paid job, or they have done well for themselves, that they are influential. It is odious to presume that we should target such people simply because they are rich and influential.
I didn’t do a great job of disguising the fact that I was dischuffed at the suggestion:
I object to the term. I object to focusing on ‘movers and shakers’ and/or ‘influencers’. I object to the vast resources that go to reaching these groups at the expense of the far larger and less well reached urban poor. I hated it when Keller pushed it and I still hate it now
— Stephen Kneale (@steve_kneale) April 23, 2018
As I have mentioned here, and elsewhere, the greatest gospel fruit in this country is coming among the very poorest in society. Now, such people undoubtedly exist in the Home Counties too. Don’t be fooled by the stables and day at the races images or the thoughts of Eton and Henley Regatta, some severe poverty exists in these communities and it is so easily forgotten and hidden because of where it happens to be. But it is not so widespread and it is clearly not our main emphasis when we want to focus on ‘movers and shakers’.
If we are focusing on such wealthy and affluent ‘movers and shakers’, we will be pouring vast resources into reaching one of the least likely, and smallest, socio-economic groups to come into the kingdom. Whilst the kingdom is about much more than a mere return on investment, we do have to ask what we are doing when we ignore the ripest harvest in favour of a more expensive, harder and less fruitful one?
Most significantly, this approach strikes me as entirely unbiblical. Didn’t Jesus say it was easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than it was to enter the kingdom of Heaven? That’s not to say the rich don’t need the gospel; it is just to say it seems the Lord himself expected fewer of them to respond positively to it. Didn’t Paul say to the Corinthian church that not many of them were wise, noble or influential? Didn’t Paul see that as specifically the sort of means God would typically use to express his power and glory? Wasn’t exactly the same said of the apostles at Pentecost? Didn’t Jesus say the gospel was specifically good news to the poor? Didn’t James make a fairly lengthy point about preferring the rich and wealthy to the poor and needy? All of this strikes me as reason to believe – though the Lord has and will save some influential, wise, noble, rich people – these will not be the people amongst whom we will find the greatest harvest. That point appears to be borne out in more general statistics about those coming to faith.
Why, then, would we continue to propagate this lie? Why would we continue to focus on the wealthy and influential? Why would we put such vast resources into reaching those who are least likely to convert whilst ignoring those who are most open to responding to Christ? You can read my best stab at answering that particular question here.