A couple of weeks ago I went to New Word Alive to deliver a couple of seminars on poverty in the UK and reaching the lost on council estates (and schemes). My only previous experience of NWA had been two years prior when a couple of us had gone with a stand to publicise the work of 20schemes. It cost us thousands of pounds for what, we all agreed later, was largely a waste of time. It had been cold and wet in our (off site) caravan and the clientele had been pretty much indifferent to our cause. The only saving grace had been listening to a couple of sermons by Thabiti Anyibwile.
Anyway, I was back, and this time I brought a new Christian with me. It hadn’t been my intention to get him to write about his experience but, as the days went on, I thought it would make for an interesting read. Usually, I would edit any pieces published on here but I am going to leave these comments alone. I will add my own observations on at the end. So, here are the impressions of a 39-year-old new Christian, from a housing scheme, who has never been to a Christian conference in his life. All the views expressed are his own and publication does not necessarily indicate support.
My first impression of Word Alive was that it was aimed at middle class, posh people. Where was the folk from the schemes/estates? Were the guys in charge of word alive aware of this? You could tell just by looking around that this costs money. Money that many people from the schemes just couldn't afford! Don't get me wrong...there's loads of good teachings on the Lord's prayer, Romans, relationships etc & lots for the kids to do but what was the main idea for word alive?
Starting conversations was quite hard. It's like there's a wall needing torn down before we can get a REAL conversation. I understand that as much as I found it hard to communicate with these guys they must've found it just as hard too. But, that's the increasing problem we seem to be facing in the church. The other thing that stood out was when the poor & needy are spoken about, they were called they people or those people. A little bit patronising in my humble opinion.
Walking into the book stall we were stopped & asked if we knew where we were going. (I think that's posh Christian for do you guys really have passes). I'm a new Christian & can find myself believing what people are saying about reading the Bible & interpreting it but I'm starting to realise that we don't all read from the same hymn sheet. Myself & Mez sat down for breakfast this morning & were having a good crack when a couple sat down & joined us. To my relief I soon found out that they felt the same way I did about Word Alive...then we got talking about a service done the night before about the Lord's prayer where it says "your kingdom come". The guy doing the service used a good illustration. He described it like a building being demolished. When they blow the building up from the bottom it takes a second for gravity to kick in & bring the whole thing down so we need to come to Christ before the kingdom comes because once the explosion goes off it will be too late! He did take a while to get to that point but it was still a good illustration.
The couple at the breakfast table didn't agree. They thought it was all too theological & there's no need for preachers because we can read scripture for ourselves (or something like that). As a young Christian I'm now aware of the massive & dangerous gap in the way we all read & understand the Bible!! The gentleman said to me that we should all be able to sit down & read the Bible, then he'll tell me what he thinks it says & vice versa and then we'll come to our own conclusion. When I said to him what if I get it wrong he said that would mean he would be right!! As a baby Christian I could've easily found myself agreeing with him until I was told by Mez to completely ignore what he just said. Mez explained that's why the Lord gifted us with teachers & preachers so we can be pointed to what it's really saying. The whole conversation left me even more confused than before they joined us. It's maybe a sin issue but I found it comforting to see mature Christians just as confused as me.
Something I was sure about was my breakfast was nice as was all the food & anyone who knows me will tell you that's a good compliment coming from the harshest food critic you'll ever meet!! All these guys are brothers & sisters in Christ & we are instructed by the Lord to love each other but until now I didn't realise just how different our worlds really are. These last couple of days has highlighted just how much work is needing done when it comes to the battle on classism!! I've heard people ask what they can do to reach the poor & addicts in the schemes but no one really seems to have an answer or at least an answer they want to hear. Our second seminar was packed out, double what was there in the first one, so there's real interest but just a lack of awareness on how to connect with us guys from the schemes. Their hearts in the right place, so should be interesting when the brain gets there.
As much as Mez's seminar has challenged some people, the Lord has challenged me. As I'm sitting thinking these guys are all up themselves the Lord lets me know that I'm being just as proud as the guys I'm judging!! Got to love how the Lord can convict or challenge us. Just when we think we're being judged He lets us know that we need to get over ourselves. Then He brings a really nice, thoughtful & more importantly not patronising lady called Jodi to our table. She was the Word Alive photographer & was genuinely interested in the work we do with 20schemes. She wanted to thank us for coming & to make sure we had everything we needed. She was really sweet, her dinner actually got cold while talking to us, thats how much she wanted to talk to us. We also got to know a couple from Liverpool. These people love the Lord & thats good enough for me. That's the best bit of common ground a Christian can ask for starting a healthy conversation!
Lesson learned= "stop judging a book by its cover". The Lord showed me that I still have work to do in that area!! Overall it was a good experience to see just how different other Christians behaved & spoke, (albeit strangely). I think inviting guys from housing estates/schemes to speak or even preach would add that something missing from Word Alive! Then again maybe not.
To clarify: the couple at the table were merely expressing their opinions and did not reflect that (I am sure) of the leadership of NWA.
To be fair to Steven, I found the event just as alien as he did! However, as a believer and pastor of almost 20 years I am now somewhat immune to the prevailing culture of the church. There is something about NWA that seems to bring it to the fore though. It must be the sight of all those red trousers and tweed jackets in one place! My own observations and comments:
- The most popular question we got by far was, “How do we close the gap between us and those from council estates?”The answer will not be found at NWA. This is more holiday camp than serious attempt to answer questions like these. Sure, they could drop prices and stick more accessible speakers on the podium, but they are losing money now, never mind if they did that. (We felt so sorry for them that we didn’t charge them our travelling expenses and left hundreds of pounds out of pocket).
- At one point I was accused of inventing ‘this whole class thing’ by a guy dressed in cords, cravat, and a windbreaker (little clue) whose claim he was working class was that he owned an allotment and the guy next to him ‘was always swearing’. There is a huge class problem in our country that is not solved by (1) denying it or (2) suggesting that anybody who brings it up has an attitude problem. Even more worryingly, the problem is exacerbated by the church that perpetuates and models a whole cultural lifestyle.
- Some people seemed up for genuine dialogue, and it was during these conversations that I was both stimulated and challenged. I think there is a real appetite to get to grips with a whole class of society obviously missing from this event (and indicative of the church as a whole in the UK).
- NWA did well with reaching people from other nations and I was impressed by their idea of a ‘just looking’ seminar for unbelievers (although I am not sure of the take up).
- The preaching I heard was good and faithful, if pitched a little too intellectually in places (even though it was described to us as puritanical and reformed by a couple who have, apparently, ‘moved on from that’). I spent most of my time explaining words and concepts to Steven (no bad thing).
- Most, not all, of the leadership were friendly and tried to engage us in conversation during our time at NWA.
- It costs a heck of a lot of money to go and I don’t know if I would pay for the experience (I don’t think we as a family of four could afford it).
- We got an invite to speak at least, which is a start. The numbers in attendance showed there is at least some interest in what we are saying even if we’re relatively unknown in England (and Wales).
- It was good for Steven to be exposed to NWA. It did his soul good and it challenged his view of ‘posh’ people (anybody not from a scheme). It did nothing to alleviate the fear of church being a posh person’s club though.
- It was good for both of us to analyse and discuss our own self-righteousness, pride, and cultural arrogance. We look down on others as much as we feel they look down upon us. Judging somebody because they enunciate all their words and like to wear scarfs indoors is as bad as those judging our ripped jeans and beanies. The point is that we are all sinners and we all have to work hard at loving one another.
- We felt that there was a real interest, particularly from the FIEC boys (Jonathan Stevens & Trevor Archer) in honestly engaging with us. Decent men doing a good job. An example to us of how we should behave toward one another.
- I would say that our experience of the people was, overall, positive.
As 20schemes goes from strength to strength, we will have to watch out for some of the dangers highlighted above. We are running our own mini conference in Scotland in June for a handpicked group of about 40–50 people currently working (or thinking about) working in schemes and/or council estates. We are offering this one for free as we use it to figure out the future and how we go about things without pricing our demographic out of the picture. We are also in talks with others about launching an initiative to help poor pastors around the globe attend solid teaching conferences in their own countries and have affordable access to good teaching material and books.
It seems in the USA they are taking us a bit more seriously. In the UK we still remain a bit of a novelty act out side of Scotland. But we will persevere and keep our options open as we move forward with revitalising and planting gospel churches and seeking to produce good, affordable, and biblical material for our demographic.