January 18, 2021

Gospel Churches for the Working Classes: Never Easy. Ever Worth It.

Last year, someone on Twitter called me a ‘Yorkshire exceptionalist’. I don’t think it was a compliment, but (after googling what it meant) I took it as one.

I’ve lived all my life in God’s own county, and I reckon, along with every true Tyke, that there is actually something really special about our home. We quite like the idea that we’re one on our own. We take a perverse pride in being, ‘Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, strong in’t arm, and thick in’t ‘ead’.

But those are just stereotypes, right? And anyway, what have old fashioned stereotypes like that got to do with planting churches and making disciples of Jesus? Perhaps more than you might think.

Stereotypes Can Teach

In September 2017, we planted Spen Valley Church into Cleckheaton, a typical West Yorkshire former mill town. Although the mills are mostly long gone, Cleck has retained its mainly working-class population and values, including its pride in being Yorkshire!

In the three years we’ve been here, we’ve learnt afresh that, when you’re thinking about how to reach your area with the gospel, you dismiss some stereotypes at your peril. And, whilst they might be stereotypes of Yorkshire folk, I reckon they might be spread a bit more widely than us Tykes would like to admit, especially in working-class communities.

So, here are just three of the many lessons we’ve learnt in trying to plant a church here.

1. You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much.

Estimates about how many people in Yorkshire are evangelical believers vary anywhere between 0.4% to as high as 3%. But I reckon that once you get outside the big university towns and cities, you’re looking hard at that lower end. And in small, mainly working-class towns like Cleck, the 0.4% is probably optimistic.

There was a time when Cleck had many thriving churches, mainly planted during the 18th century revivals. But that’s long past, and Cleck has not had a gospel church for decades. There’s just not many Christians about, and the ones with Yorkshire accents are even rarer.

And that means the gospel need here is massive. You literally cannot throw a brick without hitting an unbeliever, who has probably never heard the gospel before. Just about everyone I meet each day is on their way to Hell. And without committed believers moving in here to tell them of Jesus, that’s not going to change.

2. Tell ‘em plain.

One of the guys who planted churches all ‘round the Spen Valley in the 18th century was John Nelson, who once said that, “no preaching will do in Yorkshire except the old sort that comes like thunderclaps upon the conscience.” In other words, just give them the gospel, clear and simple. He was right!

I can honestly say that I’ve never found it so easy to explain the gospel to people as I have here. There’s no dancing around with fancy philosophical arguments: “So you reckon I’m off to hell do you?!”; “What’s the crack with this Jesus fella then?”; and “Your Jesus must be a right mean ________ if he let my little girl die, right?” These are all typical questions I get asked regularly.

It’s not just the gospel need that’s massive here, so is the opportunity. People have never heard the gospel before, and when they see that Christians want to spend time with them and be their mates, those people want to know what makes Christians tick. And they want it clear, straightforward, and honest. In places like Cleck, evangelism doesn’t need Einstein, just clear, honest gospel truth.

3. This is a local church for local people.

Little Britain’s Royston Vasey was set in Marsden, just over the hill from where I grew up, and was actually pretty accurate! If you’re not from round here, you’re an ‘incomer’. My wife and I have lived all our lives within seven miles of Cleck, and yet we’re still seen as outsiders.

Most of our friends have lived here all their lives. They went to school together; their best mate is still that kid they played with as a toddler; they still live just ‘round the corner from their mum, and spend half their life in her house. Family is everything here. Whether that’s biological, or your ‘family’ down the pub, or ‘Auntie Dani’ who’s really just your Mum’s mate.

The point is: people here do community far better than most churches I know. They’ll do anything for family, but they don’t want charity from strangers. And they don’t want to listen to strangers either. And that means that here, when it comes to . . . well, anything, relationships are key.

Any church that reaches Cleck has got to get stuck into people’s lives. We’ve got to build trust. We’ve got to become part of the family. We’ve got to be in the pub, the choir, at the footy, in their houses (all of which has not been easy in recent days!). But when you’ve done your time, when you’re one of the family, there is an open door, an open ear, and possibly, by God’s grace, even an open heart.

But all that takes time. Church planting here needs long-term investment and commitment into people’s lives. It’s long, slow work. I suspect the same is true in working-class communities the world over. But it’s worth it. Because people want to listen. They want to know why their mate is such a nutjob about this Jesus bloke.

Eternity at Stake

Perhaps you’ve heard the classic stereotype of the grumpy old Yorkshire bloke: Ear all, see all, say nowt. Eat all, sup all, pay nowt. And if tha ever does owt for nowt do it for thisen*. Until March, that fella still stood at the bar in Cleck Wetherspoons all day, every day. And he was my friend. He’s now in eternity. And every time I go in, and don’t see his little red hat, it’s a reminder that unless things change, millions of others who’ve spent their earthly lives as citizens of God’s own county will never experience the new, better, eternal Yorkshire. The same goes for millions in working-class communities across the North of England, the UK, and the world.

And that breaks my heart. They need Jesus. How will they hear without a preacher? Come over and help us, eh. . . .

*Hear everything, see everything, say nothing. Eat everything, drink everything, pay nothing. And if you ever do anything for nothing, do it for yourself.

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