So a contemporary of mine was headed off to Leipzig to plant a church there, at the same time I was off to Dagenham. Because he was going overseas, churches responded enthusiastically to his requests for money and equipment, and to enter into gospel partnership with him for the long term. People assumed, because we were going somewhere in the UK, that that sort of support was unnecessary.
My observation is that churches in the UK think we are ‘Jerusalem’ – in other words, the gospel is going out from us to the ends of the earth. But actually we are the ends of the earth! We are the mission field, the place to which the gospel is going out, every bit as much as it is to Leipzig or Uganda or China.
The mission agency Crosslinks recently produced a pair of world maps. They showed the striking contrast of relative material and spiritual poverty in the world. Although materially wealthy, the UK and Europe are clearly among the darkest and most spiritually bankrupt places on the globe. A recent survey showed there were less Christians per capita in Yorkshire than in Japan!
My point is that we should view the pastor-evangelists in the UK as missionaries every bit as much as those going overseas. And where they’re going into under-resourced situations, there should be no less enthusiasm to respond to requests for money and equipment and long term gospel partnership. Most of the RTU churches we speak to are small in numbers, with members in the lowest income brackets. Gospel mission cannot be sustained there without support. I keep coming across pastors, their families and churches struggling to survive because the sort of support afforded overseas missionaries is simply not in place for them.
What are the chief enemies?
- An unhelpful ‘british’ embarrassment to talk about or ask for money. But we fail to ask because we mistakenly think this is about funding me and my family personally. Whereas it’s actually about investing in vigorous gospel mission right on the front line.
- The prosperity gospel causing us to hesitate. So many pastors have fleeced the sheep instead of feeding the sheep,that we’re afraid our request for money will be misunderstood, that we’re in it for the dosh. But this simply requires us to be transparent, & to have budgets that clearly meet our needs, not provide for our luxuries.
- The isolation of independent churches. For all the benefits of being free from denominationalism, independents have little experience, and an innate suspicion of networking & partnership. We’ve got to get over this and start connecting with churches of means. For generations this is how gospel mission has been funded and resourced overseas.
As a way ahead we need to explore:
- For long term resourcing – how to connect churches and individuals of means with pastors and churches on the estates and housing projects. For example, in Dagenham we have benefitted from long term gospel partnerships with 5 or 6 churches and 10 to 15 individuals, who have enabled us to sustain a team of 4 for over ten years. We have had some additional funding from charitable trusts, but that only lasts for 2 or 3 years at a time. We have close connections with our long term gospel partners, praying for each other, occasionally engaging in mission together, & taking a real interest in each other’s work.
- For short term resourcing – how to sponsor training. Is the way ahead to create an RTU trust fund to which men and women can apply, to see them through courses and residential training? It will take huge start-up donations to establish such an instrument but we believe in a Lord who can do more than we can ask or imagine.
We have several women in church for whom home is really bad news. Over decades, husbands, and sometimes the grown up children, have been very demanding and constantly rude, domineering, aggressive, hurtful. They can’t realistically escape because of poverty, fear, guilt, knowing that Christ would not want them to leave even if they could. Life for these women is miserable and, in practice, they are hostages in their own homes. This includes tight restrictions put on the amount of time they’re ‘allowed out’ at church.
For these hostages, church is like a refuge, and a thin slice of life which is their own. It is one place they can escape to where they are loved and valued, and find some friendship and joy. These are converted women who love Jesus, and love to sing his praises. But they can’t bear the thought of their ‘captors’ joining them, invading their safe and precious space. So they can’t bring themselves to pray for them. And they wont bring them to church because it would be like inviting their persecutors into the refuge. And they’re very reluctant for us to go round to try and build bridges or share the gospel, both for the trouble it will cause them, and because they can’t bear the thought of their captors being saved. The extent of grace is a really hard doctrine for them.
Have you come across this in your setting? How have you handled it?
The following is taken from an article written for an Anglican Handbook for ministers in training to encourage them to consider gospel work in an urban priority area.
Most Anglican ministers are middle class, and our experience of gospel ministry is middle class. So, our formative models of church (how we think church should be), drilled into our minds are largely inappropriate in a working class area. For instance, the middle classes give a much higher priority to manners, time-keeping, planning, paperwork etc. The challenge for us is to do cross cultural ministry – to develop a gospel community not a new middle class in a working class area.
Traits which characterise the local community will inevitably characterise the church gathered to the Lord in that area. Positively, in Dagenham, this has meant for instance refreshingly direct communication – how people feel, they say; what people think, they say – straightaway and to your face. Negatively, in Dagenham, it has made maturing a church very slow and painful – un-social, volatile tempers, filthy language, dependency, endemic underachievement, fear of responsibility and leadership, anti –authority / institution / ‘professionals’, chronic ill health, poor resources (money and abilities) etc etc.
So the difficulties in building and sustaining a local church are not those traditionally presented to the would-be pastor/evangelist. At this point 4 myths need to be blown out of the water.
Myth 1. Urban Priority Areas are too hard and too dangerous!
There are some urban places where this may be true. Dagenham has a reputation. But the truth is most of the population is not dangerous. It is afraid. When we go door-knocking, the fear is on the inside – locks, warning signs, dogs – people are scared to open their doors. But as one policeman put it, ‘there’s more fear of violent crime than actual violent crime.’
So there may be a lot of posturing – tattoos, shaven heads, metal piercing, aggressive language – but it’s largely surface toughness, in response to feeling threatened and traumatised, scared and insecure.
Some features of an urban estate make living there harder. But heaven is not far away, and anyone with a bit of missionary zeal can put up with a bit of hardship until then. And it’s nothing like as hard as Morocco or North India! And it’s no harder than the personal suffering inflicted on many ministers in leafy villages and suburbs, where well trained middle class neighbours and members of the congregation know how to launch a malicious campaign of opposition and really hurt you.
Gospel work is hard wherever you are.
Myth 2. No place for ‘word’ ministry
Our population has a higher than average level of illiteracy. We are always at the bottom of the tables for the three ‘R’s’. This seems like a ‘turn off’ to evangelicals whose core business is word ministry. But our experience has been the opposite. Our members love Bible teaching. More than for anything else, they will come to hear God’s word – to have a text explained which they find hard to read and understand for themselves. The issue is the words the preacher uses and the way in which he communicates them.
So it’s harder work for the gospel/word minister in an urban priority area to prepare teaching in an appropriate form (plain, clear, easy to follow, well illustrated, emotional etc), but nonetheless there’s a huge appetite for the word of God. I love it knowing our congregation feel short-changed if the teaching on Sunday is not a good half hour, yet when I visit some well educated churches I’m told to keep strictly to 20 minutes. The paradox is that we want ministers with the very best brains and teaching skills in urban priority areas because they can express God’s truth with crystal clarity, rather than the ones with mediocre brains and skills (like me!) who get in a muddle.
Myth 3. Social needs take precedence over gospel ministry
Like any urban area, we are confronted with overwhelming and relentless social needs. We were taught at college that it’s necessary to address people’s social needs first before they will listen to the gospel. Our experience has often been the opposite.
For a start, the Council and Social Services have the resources to do a much better job than a struggling church could ever do. But what the church can uniquely provide is the gospel and a gospel community. In our experience, it’s often the gospel that has proved most helpful to people whose lives are in a mess. Either, their situation is beyond much change realistically; but the gospel introduces a love, hope and joy that makes their circumstances bearable. Or it is the gospel that has the power to set things straight. Being sorted out is a product of the gospel not a prerequisite to gospel ministry. Far from social needs taking precedence over gospel ministry, acute social needs heighten the need for what the gospel can uniquely provide.
Myth 4. Urban areas are God-forsaken – the gospel doesn’t work there
John Fuller says, ‘There are no God forsaken places, only church forsaken places.’ When we arrived in Dagenham, within a third of a mile radius were 3,500 crowded houses. The one church serving that population had about 20 discouraged members. It’s not that the rest of the population had heard the gospel and rejected the good news of Christ’s kingdom. The majority had never heard of the local church, let alone the gospel. That seems to be fairly typical of urban priority areas – vast populations surrounding few, tiny, struggling churches. So the issue is one of deployment (teams dedicated to the very long term) and resourcing (no less than the sort of resources invested in pioneer mission abroad).
The gospel remains the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1v16), and especially the lowly things of this world and the despised things (1 Corinthians 1 v 28), but how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10 v 14). There are no God forsaken places, only church forsaken places. Given what appears to be God’s compassion for ‘the poor’, it seems strange that the majority of ministers coming out of training sense a call to anywhere other than the abandoned estates of our towns and cities.’