What sort of person can serve in a deprived community?

There often seems to a sense that unless you have experienced the most appalling upbringing you aren’t cut out to work in a deprived community. Unless you’ve been a drug addict, abused as a child or brought up in severe poverty you won’t cope working in a supposedly hard area, so some seem to think. If I may say so, this sort of thinking is a real mistake.

I, for example, was not brought up on a council estate and had loving Christian parents who taught me the gospel. I was never abused and I’ve never done drugs. The closest I’ve ever come to such things was hanging around with some friends – most of whom were much more middle class and wealthy than my family – who developed a penchant for cannabis. I neither had the money nor inclination to bother trying. The worst I experienced was a bit of school bullying, first over my merseyside drawl as I moved from a Birkenhead school to a South Oxfordshire one and latterly over… well, who knows. I shifted schools again and never had a problem thereafter.

Over and against those things, I’ve never lived in a house owned by me or my parents and schlepped around various rental properties throughout my childhood which has continued even to this very day. I wasn’t sent to prep or independent schools. As a stalwart centre-back, my school football team took great pleasure in taking out our nascent views about middle class privilege upon the private school boys. Nothing pleased us more than flying into tackles against the kids from Josca’s (yes, there really was a prep school that was so posh it happily called itself Josca’s). My family were neither the richest nor the poorest people I knew. We were probably among the less well-off I knew, but my childhood couldn’t exactly be credibly described as deprived. As I’ve said here and here, placing myself has never been entirely easy.

But, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, that is not exactly unique. Indeed, much of that is the experience of the overwhelming majority of working class and lower-middle class people. Most have loving parents who worked hard for them and sought to do the best that they could for their families. Most have not been to private schools and many have lived in houses they have bought that aren’t on council estates. A few have remained in the rental sector, some in council housing, but by no means all (or, dare I say, the majority).

Only a caritcature of deprived communities would lead you to presume every other person has a drug habit and all live the most chaotic lifestyles. Some of those sorts of people are here, for sure, but that just isn’t the experience of most people. There are plenty of busy plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, housing officers, sales people, market traders and all sorts keeping their families in secure homes, who haven’t developed drug habits or alochol dependencies, who are raising their children lovingly. Whilst we live in areas of high unemployment, it is not true that everyone is unemployed and just ‘hanging around’. There is a mix of social and private housing, rented and owned, employed and unemployed and the rest.

All of that is to say, you don’t have to have the most thrilling (humanly speaking) testimony in order to serve in a deprived community. You needn’t have the harshest upbringing or the grimmest past. What you need is a love for Christ, a love for his people and a love for the lost. You need to know and understand the gospel, particularly to the point that you have personally responded to it. You need to love God’s people, his bride – the church – with all its faults and foibles. You need to love the lost, to recognise the reality of Hell and the horror of a lost eternity for those who do not know Christ that moves you to share the gospel with them even when it is difficult. These are the qualifications you need to serve in a deprived community.

I don’t care whether you’ve been to private or state school. Believe it or not, even Oldham has independent schools. Given it’s not a boarding school, so far as I’m aware, somebody local must be sending their kids to Hulme Grammar. I don’t care whether you’ve lived in your family home all your life or you’ve forever moved around rented accommodation. Plenty of people in Oldham live in their own homes across the borough. I don’t care whether your mum or dad is a doctor, teacher or lawyer or happens to be a plumber, electrician or builder. Oldham has people who do all these things and none.

You may worry that your cultural baggage may get in the way of serving. But we all come with cultural baggage. Some of it is class-related, other bits geographically linked, other things still simply as a result of our own peculiar family upbringings. The reality is that unless you are dedicating your life to reaching only the people within your own immediate family, you will have some cultural baggage to bring with you. The issue is not whether you bring baggage (we all do), it is whether you can lay your particular cultural foibles to one side for the sake of the gospel. It is whether you are capable of connecting with people from a different culture. For most of us, it is surely possible to do that. Yes, it may take work, humility and a great deal of cultural learning. But it is possible and therefore doable.

The key qualifications for serving in a deprived community are not a rough upbringing and hard-bitten life. The questions are simply, do you love the Lord, do you love his people and do you love the lost? Are you willing to lay aside your cultural identity in order to take the gospel to another culture? Whether you are the most upper or middle class person in the world or you come from the most deprived background, there is a role for you in taking the gospel to a deprived community. The apostles throughout Acts took the gospel to those people who were just like them as well as those who were nothing like them. The key qualifications for working in a deprived community is knowing the gospel and a desire to make it known. To some degree, the rest can come out in the wash.

For more information about training with Oldham Bethel Church, please visit our training page. If you would like to join us and serve alongside your secular work, please get in touch using the contact form at the top of this blog.