The Question Not Being Asked

A taster from Paul Keeble’s new book ‘Mission With‘.

If all Christians are actually living – or working – where God has ‘placed’ them, given the proportion in the inner city, that would seem to be a massive contradiction to God’s ‘preference’ for the poor. Can we speak of God ‘placing’ His people without any consideration of what factors were included or omitted in the decision to live or work in a particular location? If not, this would seem to imply that in every case where a job or promotion is offered or a house in a certain street comes on to the market it is down to the leading and blessing of God, who has guided the Christian to that place. Given that Christians are predominantly located in suburban areas, this is in fact saying that the calling of God is subject to and governed by human ambition and aspiration.

Sine puts it quite bluntly:

“Many of the popular Christian teachings on discipleship are extremely narrow. They tend to limit the call to follow Jesus Christ to one small spiritual compartment of life. In all the other compartments they unquestioningly let the culture call the shots. For example, in spite of all the popular Christian teaching about Jesus’ lordship, it’s commonly understood what comes first. Our careers come first. Getting our house in the suburbs comes first. Our upscale lifestyles come first. Then, with whatever time, energy, or resources are left, we can follow Christ.”

This is a long way from what Kraybill sees as the action of the kingdom of God – presented by Jesus as a ‘new order breaking in on old ways, old values, old assumptions’. It ‘shatters the assumptions which govern our lives’ so that we can no longer ‘assume that things are right just because “that’s the way they are”’.

Rather than ‘placed’, Gittins actually uses the term ‘displacement’:

“Those who are appropriately disturbed by the God of righteousness inevitably find their lives reoriented, redirected, and decentred: what we may call displaced. The life of a true disciple is no longer centred on self but on God. Disciples’ lives are a continual process of displacement because they are always trying to remain faithful to the movement of God’s grace and the inspiration of God’s Spirit.”

Vincent considers discipleship ‘the only true Christianity’, in which following Jesus ‘in his mission to people at the bottom of so-called society’ is integral. For those of us who come from a relatively privileged background, openness to such a ‘journey downward’ should be a mark of discipleship. This would involve considering a call to sacrifice some or all of the potential our background, education and social connections give us to aspire to in terms of finance, status or career, to move towards those who do not have such advantages. Not primarily so that we can bestow some sort of hand-up, but in order to be with God’s preferred ones and to gain real insight into the structures of sin and injustice that benefit us and disadvantage them, dynamics which work against the shalom of God.

The question not being asked

A constricting of discipleship teaching to exclude the ‘where’ of Christian service explains why there is not only a flow away from the inner city, but also little more than a trickle in the other direction. As an issue not addressed by most local churches, then it is perhaps not so much a question of disobedience as of not getting as far as being a part of the average Christian’s thinking. What is the modern equivalent of ‘they left their nets and followed him’? Even if it was decided that the answer to this question was that this was a sort of extreme discipleship just for a special elite, beginning with the original disciples and Paul and continuing today with rare heroes who become missionaries, the evidence seems to show that, for the most part, the question is not even being asked.

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C of E “dying very quickly” on urban estates

“The church on our outer estates is dying and is dying very quickly. The conclusion is an obvious one. We are all leaders of a church that has taken a preferential option for the rich.”

“The battle for the Christian soul of this nation will not be won and lost in Kensington or Cobham or Harrogate. It’s out on the estates where life is hard and where church life is fading fast.”

These comments were made by the Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, as part of a report on evangelism at the recent General Synod of the Church of England.

He also pointed out that the Church’s claim to have a presence in every community was not true. “The church is not present in every community and the places where we are least present are the poorest — the outer estates of our towns and cities.”

In the last five years church attendance on estates, already half of the national average, has fallen 8.3%, compared to 2.3% nationally. Yet national spending on ministry is £7.90 per head of population, rising to £23.88 in rural areas, but on the estates it is just £5.09.

This decline has been common knowledge amongst Urban Mission practitioners for many years. It is good that the C of E is showing some concern at the top (it has long been there at parish level), and there will be a day conference on March 1st in York to discuss what the Evangelism Task Group has made a “priority”. It’s something, but is it too little, too late?

The bishop’s comments were featured in The Times. The evangelism report can be downloaded here (section on estates: p15).

Good news for the poor?

As a P.S. to the last blog, the above is the title of an article in the EA’s Idea magazine about their survey on poverty (more here). Interesting stuff and stats with encouraging percentages of evangelicals and their churches active with poverty-related projects. However, near the end is this telling quote from one of the survey’s respondents: “Most Christians seem to move into the nicest area they can afford to get away from anti-social behaviour and working class people. Then they come to church and talk about wanting to reach everyone.” What about our urban presence? How much of our ministry is “doing for” (episodic, from a distance, reaching down), and how much is “being with” (incarnational, from beside, reaching across)?

Paul Keeble

Go, and be evangelised…

As Christians, especially evangelicals (clue in the name), we are very keen to tell our stories, to have people listen to what we have to say. This article on the Sojourners website by Cindy Brandt, turns this desire on its head and reminds us that in many instances – if not all – we need to be people who listen. Why? Because everyone wants to be heard, to know that someone is interested in them and isn’t waiting for them to take a breath so they can jump in with their story. Then maybe we earn the right to be heard. I think this is why urban mission is about patience, humility and relationship, receiving at least as much as giving, and therefore long-term: taking as long as it takes.

Here are a couple of excerpts, but please read the full article – it is not anti-the Great Commission.

“The biggest problem I have with evangelizing is that you enter into a relationship with a prescribed intention, and that stands in the way of listening well. You can’t listen well when you are carrying an agenda. You can’t listen well when you are searching for what is broken in your conversation partner, in order to introduce the solution.

“On the other hand, if you are wanting to be evangelized, you learn to listen deeper, because you are trying to uncover truth. You search for the beauty in your neighbor to find points of connection — you are seeking to be saved by them. You become the student, longing to learn from, instead of preach at. You voluntarily place yourself in the inferior position of need and find that your own vulnerability compels others to shed their masks. Your courage to admit uncertainty disarms, until all that is left is raw honesty and frailty of our common human condition.

“We earn our right to speak into other people’s lives when we have logged enough hours listening to their truths, and been willing to be changed by their beauty. We compel people to join our cause and believe in our God when we thread the Great Commandment into the Great Commission: love your neighbor as yourself. In these days of constant social media noise and soul crushing amounts of information feed — there is no greater love than disciplined, focused, listening. People are hungering to be heard, understood, and connected. Our stories are waiting to be heard. Listen to other people’s stories as if your salvation depended on it, because I think it might. Therefore go, and be evangelized.”

Paul Keeble

Who cares about the working classes?

Quite often when I attend Christian conferences and leaders’ meetings I will automatically do a quick scan for urban practitioners or ministers of urban churches who I know to see how urban issues are being represented. What I also note is the representation of ethnic minorities, women and younger delegates. What cannot easily be noticed is representation of those from the working classes and those who recognise that heritage as their cultural identity. Some do come from that background but had to go through such cultural transformation to engage in Christian ministry that their roots are not easily detectable.

Years ago I took a fellow Church Elder along to a Leaders Day organised by a group of ‘New Church’ leaders. There was not a dog collar in sight but as he scanned the room he asked me, ‘Is this their uniform?’ What he had noticed was the ‘smart casual’ lighter coloured clothes of a large group of middle-class ‘House Church’ leaders. This Elder was a working class man who held a significant role in his industry’s trade union. He had come to faith within the past decade and had grown in that faith and demonstrated spiritual maturity and wisdom. What troubled me as much as his evident discomfort was his apparent disappointment, possibly that there were no others like him. If the difference stopped at the clothes people wore this would not be such an issue, but there were more aspects to this than that.

Observations like these suggest that unless the Church in England recognises that the working classes are predominantly absent from the Church, that it is a significant problem and they need to address the issue of working class cultural exclusion, people of working class culture will never become more than an unidentifiably negligible element of the Church. 

Derek Purnell (from the introduction to the book “Speaking the Unspeakable”. Email to find out more.)

Going South

A recent report in the Church Times showed that C of E clergy are at least twice as likely to apply for vacant posts in the South East as in the North.  The report was picked up by the Independent under the title “Go spread the word of the Lord? Only down South, say choosy Church of England clergy” (with some interesting comments at the end!). I wonder how much more this is the case when inner-city or overspill estates tare taken into account? One startling comparison mentioned was between an estate parish in Hartlepool that took two and a half years to fill, and a rich area in Paddington which had over 120 applications.

Before any other denominations get ideas, a 2011 study of Methodist ministers showed 6% living in the bottom fifth of most deprived postcodes. (Michael Hirst, “Location, Location, Location,” Methodist Recorder, 10/5/2012, 8). Many denominations are simply largely absent in the inner-city.

Yes, in deciding where to live there are important considerations to be made and costs to be counted – family welfare probably coming top – but isn’t the theory here that as Christians the call of God on our lives is number one? And that is where as well as, in fact often before, what. If God has actually ‘placed’ his people in their locations, as some claim, then that doesn’t say much for his “bias for the poor”. Maybe it is time to come clean and admit that for most of us most of the time, in practice, we choose comfort and convenience over call, and our leaders are only partly to blame, as we are very willing to follow their example. We fail God in all sorts of ways, and he still loves us and is prepared to work with what we manage to offer him. That said, Suburban Drift, Redemption and Lift/Leave, the assumption of aspirational middle-class values, call it what you will, continues unchallenged in our churches.

Paul Keeble